Six Great Elements

Posted on 29. Nov, 2011 by in Blog

The exoteric Dharma teaches the essential body of the universe – known as dharmakaya, suchness, dharmata, buddha-nature, truth-reality etc. – cannot be conceived by the limited human mind. It’s thus treated as an abstraction, in terms of what it is not, while not relating how the nature of truth relates to the phenomenal world, our world of experience. Mahayana movement spawned two main systems of thought dealing with this problem, namely Madhyamika and Yogacara. Esoteric extensions of these two were expressed in the two fundamental esoteric sutras (according to Shingon, these two are Mahavairocana sutra and Vajrashekhara sutra). Secret Mantra unites the two as complementary approaches within a symbolic framework, affirming the active presence of buddha-nature in the world by relating the Dharmakaya to individual things and beings.

Such symbolic framework evolved from early concepts of physical matter, that is fundamental elements, such as earth or fire, as constituents of all manifest reality. Prior to Buddhism, such elements were thought to exist objectively, independent of perceiving awareness, and Indian philosophy considered earth, water, fire, and wind as permanent components of physical reality. Early Buddhism borrowed this concept of elements as basis of all physicality, and they were counted as four, or five with the inclusion of space. Some early texts refer to six elements, with the addition of consciousness, to account for mind and spirit. In the esoteric view, such approach is too literal. Various Buddhist schools gave increasingly philosophical interpretations to the elements, thus e.g. fire represented heat, wind motion, and later fire came to represent maturing, wind growing etc. Such attributes were further related to senses, objects of senses, physical organs etc.

In Yogacara thought, elements in their concrete sense signified the sense experience of consciousness, namely hardness, coldness, warmth etc. Physical forms were no longer objective “things,” but transformations of perceiving consciousness, and attention was focused on the nature of consciousness itself. Madhyamika school held that all things are void of permanent self-nature, while existing as ever-changing complexes of interdependent causes and conditions, coming into existence and passing away. Such void nature permeated all things, and was thus related to universal truth. A further void teaching said that the universal void actually concealed within itself a mysterious absolute reality, referred to as buddha-wisdom.

In the general exoteric view, elements are the transient, imperfect, phenomenal realm. But using the elements in new ways as descriptions of consciousness or of void-wisdom, Mahayana opened the way to a positive view of universal truth. While Yogacara and Madhyamika treated awakened mind and wisdom in terms of void elements, the evolving esoteric teaching equated buddha-mind and buddha-wisdom with elements. Thus, the same elements in the Secret Mantra represent the mysterious Dharmakaya that transcends both phenomenal world and individual mind while present in both.

Each of the five esoteric elements was seen to be endowed with the dimension of consciousness. Forms of matter partook of the highest reality or buddha-nature. Matter and mind were understood as two indissoluble aspects of total reality, thus every activity in universe could embody the secret of awakened mind. As master Kukai wrote in the Meaning of Becoming Buddha in This Body,

In the various exoteric teachings, the elements are considered to be non-sentient, but the esoteric teaching explains that they are the Buddha’s secret all-pervading body. These […] elements are not apart from consciousness, and though mind and form may be said to differ, their nature is the same. Form is mind and mind is form without obstruction or limitation.

Elements became embodiments of the mysterious, absolute Dharmakaya, the perfect truth that is more than either real or unreal, mind or matter, universal or particular alone. The totality of the elements form the body of Buddha – and the very same elements form the bodies of every single living being and object. Kukai explained that the material components of reality, manifested as symbolic language, express the true nature of the Dharmakaya. What appears as visible forms, audible sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations, are the “language” of the Dharmakaya’s teaching.

So, for example, Vajrashekara sutra teaches that the universal buddha-mind, personified in the deity Mahavairocana Buddha, manifests as Vajrasattva. This esoteric bodhisattva (synonymous with the exoteric Samantabhadra) represents an awakened individual being, and is associated with consciousness, the sixth element, and voiced as Hum. On the other hand, Mahavairocana sutra explains the mysterious, universal reality from five perspectives, each with a polysemic syllable to express, so that reality is

  • A – primordial-unborn,
  • Va – apart from explanation,
  • Ra – genuinely undefiled,
  • Ha – free from dependence on causes and conditions, and
  • Kha – unbounded, unobstructed void.

These five attributes are actually identified with five esoteric elements, so that the earth element and syllable A symbolized the primordial-unborn and undying nature of Dharmakaya, while the space element and syllable Kha symbolized its interpenetrating nature etc. To “symbolize” here means to instantiate, signify, and denote.

The esoteric elements thus took on a different level of meaning as symbols not bound to any phenomenal interpretation, referring to one essential reality, and their contents not limited in any way. In the True Meaning of Voiced Syllable, master Kukai wrote:

The exoteric five elements are as commonly explained. The esoteric five symbolic elements are the five syllables, the five Buddhas, and the entire oceanic assembly of deities.

The associations of elements, syllables, colors, and shapes were further expanded, in a way characteristic of the esoteric approach, to form an interrelated framework of symbolic functions, deities, sections of mandalas, and so on. Employing this symbolic framework, the Secret Mantra system affirms that what we refer to as “suchness” or “truth-reality” is, in actuality, none other than the universe in macrocosmic sense, and our own being in microcosmic sense. While the sixth element of consciousness is manifested in the five elements, and the five elements are experienced and known as consciousness, the universal and particular are mutually informed and reflected.

In the Secret Mantra the universe is described as a continuously active, compassionate open-being that contains all beings as indivisible aspects of itself. From the perspective of Secret Mantra, the void is cosmic potentiality, perfect in its freedom and not obstructed in any way, while from yet another viewpoint it is all-penetrating wisdom or awakening. Thus the universal self is constantly evolving toward complete self-knowledge in all its parts. This symbolic system provided the basis for the possibility of becoming Buddha within one’s lifetime. As master Kukai wrote in the Meaning of Becoming Buddha in This Body,

The six symbolic elements interpenetrate without obstruction and are in eternal yoga.

They are not apart from any of the four mandalas [i. e. forms of existence].

Through practice of three-secrets empowerment, they are made manifest immediately:

The universal web is what we call this body.

Although Kukai was the first to state this doctrine in Japan, his formulation was based on earlier texts such as Bodhicitta shastra, an esoteric treatise, and Shakumakaen-ron, a commentary on the seminal ‘Awakening of Faith’ (skt. Mahayanashraddhotpada). Kukai further elaborated the doctrine of the universal body of six great elements, describing it in terms of (1) universal function, or the activity of universe; (2) universal aspect, or the expression of universe; and (3) universal body, or the essence of universe. By ritual practice using symbolic representations of inseparable aspects of the awakened universe, the Secret Mantra practitioner aims to experience universal reality in himself and so realize buddhahood. Thus every element of esoteric ritual practice – mantras, mudras, images, implements, mandalas – is meant to be used as an embodiment of universal reality.

Universal function means all workings and movements, encompassed in the universal three secrets. When the three actions of the practitioner unite with the universal three secrets, both are energized in the process, called mutual empowerment, equivalent to grace in exoteric frameworks, which makes their union real. Through mutual empowerment, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic reveal their mutual identity.

Universal form refers to the differentiated aspects of totality, i.e. all phenomena, explained in terms of four universal mandalas. All phenomena in the universe, arising from the six elements, take their form in the Maha Mandala (existence of all beings and things in the universe), Samaya Mandala (their essential form), Dharma Mandala (their expression), and Karma Mandala (their activity). In short, the human bodymind is equal to Mahavairocana, the personification of awakened universe. Matter and mind interpenetrate without obstruction, neither existing without the other. The Buddha and the unenlightened individual, composed of the same substance, are as inseparable as moon and moonlight.

Notes from Taiko Yamasaki’s “Shingon – Japanese Esoteric Buddhism”

No comments.

Leave a Reply