Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tibetan Geomancy: Part Three

In our first articles on this subject, Tibetan Geomancy, and Tibetan Geomancy: Part Two, we have been exploring rudimentary themes. In the instant post, we are going to explore these themes in a bit more depth, by taking comparative notice of Chinese and Indian geomancy. Once again, "geomancy" is an uncomfortable word as applied in either case, but we use it for the sake of handiness, albeit incorrectly. We are going to begin with a quick look at what the Chinese call wu hsing, the Indians call  panchabhuta, and everybody else calls the "five elements."

I suppose the threshold question is, who got what from where?

I doubt we can answer that question by opening books. The hermeneutical hunt for India's first Chinese visitor, or China's first Indian visitor, depends upon deciphering archaic allusions in Indian texts, Chinese texts, and those of the Greeks and Romans. Until we get the lexicology well in hand we will be crossing this part of history the way a small boy crosses a creek, by hopping from stone to stone. I mention this simply because we cannot claim to know whether -- as it is applied to geomancy, and strictly in that sense only -- the Chinese dragged five element theory back from India, or the Indians dragged it home from China. We can suspect the Chinese received it from India, and chances are we can make a convincing argument, but we cannot be absolutely certain. 

In part, this is because India's five elements and China's five elements are rather different from one another. The Indian panchabhuta are earth, water, air, fire, and space. The Chinese wu hsing are wood, fire, earth, metal, water. They are not only different in a component sense, but as we shall see, they are regarded differently.

Wu hsing theory seems to arise in China somewhere between 350 BCE and 270 BCE, during the lifetime of the scholar Tsou Yen. You can get some argument about that, pushing the date back to before 400 BCE, but the later dates are substantially established. Of Tsou Yen, the great Cambridge historian Joseph Needham writes:
"If he was not the sole originator of Five-Element theory, he systematized and stabilised ideas on the subject which had been floating about, especially in the eastern seaboard States of Chhi and Yen, for not more than a century at most before his time."
So, what did Tsou Yen understand as wu hsing? The character wu is simple: it is the cardinal number five. The character hsing demands elaboration. In antiquity, hsing was a pictograph representing a cross-roads or confluence of courses. It is a radial character which at its root has come to mean motility: to do, to act, to walk, to travel. It can also be taken to mean process, conduct, behavior, or way, which definitions should be enough to sketch the sort of thoughts and images Chinese philosophers have grouped behind this radial.

Taking its pictographic sense together with the common denominator of its usage over many centuries, I have always translated hsing as "course" when used in the context here discussed. Thus, for me, the wu hsing are the "five courses."

For the rest of the world, "five elements" is the preferred translation, to be taken in either one of two ways. "Elements," as in elemental or fundamental, and having an active sense, or "elements" as on passive substances, the latter idea being a product of component symbolisms. Use of the term "five elements" is so pervasive one can hardly expect to root it out. One occasionally also sees "five agents," "five forces," "five processes," "five qualities," or "five properties," which are just variations on the same theme. There is also an earlier concept, the wu cai, or five materials upon which all human existence depends, and some have suggested this is the origin of the wu hsing.

No matter how we translate the term, what we are really talking about are five basic categories or taxonomic indica under which mutually dependent phenomena having related characteristics can be classed, each evolving to the next in cyclic order.

Before delving into the issue of order, I want to stop and take notice of the panchabhuta, or the pancha mahabhutas. "Pancha" simply means five. The Sanskrit word "bhuta" can have several meanings, but the root meanings are truth, reality, natures, that which anything consists of, i.e. elemental, or that which is self-evident. So, in the sense of the mahabhutas, "great" or "gross" bhutas, we are seeing five self-evident natures that all things consist of.

The mahabhutas are recognized in the Vedic age. Just exactly where, I cannot say, because I simply have not studied the matter. They obviously predate the wu hsing, which fall in the Maurya Empire according to Indian reckoning, by a considerable margin. Almost certainly, the concept arises from the Vedic nature deities.

What the early Chinese know as feng shui, the Indians approach as vastushastra, or the science of vastu. This is said to have originated with the Sthapatya Veda, which is a part of Atharva Veda. This would date it to somewhere around the  classical Mantra period of Vedic Sanskrit, at the end of second millennium BCE. The term itself could be translated as the "science of abiding," or the "science of dwellings," and actually forms the basis of architecture. The idea is quite probably intertwined with the concept of "lord architect of the world" Viśvákarma, and the relations between his five children. Later, it comes to be associated with Brahma, and a number of other gods. It really does not have anything to do with "geomancy" at all -- neither does feng shui for that matter -- but, since the late twentieth century, that is a word we have connected with the practice.


In the initial stages, vastu is concerned with the effect of light on man-made structures: with the efficient use of sunlight. However, at a very early date in its development -- and again, I do not know exactly when: although certainly prior to Buddhism -- it comes to be founded on the fundamental concept of balance -- or properly speaking, harmony -- between structures and the mahabhutas. I should probably mention that this is with narrow reference to construction. Classical vastu does not entertain the notion of "improving" structures that already exist.

Earlier, we mentioned order. In Chinese practice, the five elements are believed to relate to one another in particular orders. These orders are origination order, which expresses how the elements arise; mutual production order, which expresses how they act to produce each other; mutual destruction order, which expresses how they act to overcome one another; controlling order, which expresses how they interact with each other; masking order, which is another expression of interaction, and common, or "modern" order, which is simply a means of listing them.

In Tibetan practice, these orders are expressed as "affinities," so we see concepts like "mother" (in early Sino-Tibetan practice "father") "filial," "friend," and "enemy." All of these various orders are common enough in the literature that I am not eager to reproduce them here. Still, I know my readers well enough to realize you will complain if I do not.

[1] Mutual Production Order
  • Wood produces Fire
  • Fire Produces Earth
  • Earth produces Metal
  • Metal produces Water
  • Water produces Wood
[2] Mutual Destruction Order
  • Wood destroys Earth
  • Earth destroys Water
  • Water destroys Fire
  • Fire destroys Metal
  • Metal destroys Wood
[3] Controlling Order
  • Wood destroys Earth, Metal controls Wood
  • Metal destroys Wood, Fire controls Metal
  • Fire destroys Metal, Water controls Fire
  • Water destroys Fire, Earth controls Water
  • Earth destroys Water, Wood controls Earth
[4] Masking Order
  • Wood destroys Earth, Fire produces Earth and masks
  • Metal destroys Wood, Water produces Wood and mask
  • Fire destroys Metal, Earth produces Metal and masks
  • Water destroys Fire, Wood produces Fire and masks
  • Earth destroys Water, Metal produces Water and masks
So, from these, the Tibetans deduced their systems of water being the mother of wood, wood being the son of water, water being the friend of earth,  earth being the enemy of water, and so forth. How this might come about is interesting. Originally, filial concepts were attached to the trigrams. We had a father, a mother, eldest son, middle son, youngest son, eldest daughter, second daughter, youngest daughter. Those on the father's side are yang, those on the mother's side are yin. So, as applied to the elements, this becomes parent, child, enemy and friend.

[1] Mother
  • Mother of Wood is Water
  • Mother of Water is Metal
  • Mother of Metal is Earth
  • Mother of Earth is Fire
  • Mother of Fire is Wood
[2] Child
  • Child of Wood is Fire
  • Child of Fire is Earth
  • Child of Earth is Metal
  • Child of Metal is Water
  • Child of Water is Wood
[3] Enemy
  • Enemy of Wood is Metal
  • Enemy of Metal is Fire
  • Enemy of Fire is Water
  • Enemy of Water is Earth
  • Enemy of Earth is Wood
[4] Friend
  • Friend of Wood is Earth
  • Friend of Earth is Water
  • Friend of Water is Fire
  • Friend of Fire is Metal
  • Friend of Metal is Wood
The importance of the elements in Chinese practice is with exclusive reference to these orders. The importance of the elements in Indian practice is with reference to appreciation of individual potency. The Chinese believe in movement, whereas the Indians seem to be following set rules. One source gives the following example:
"Energy is primarily considered as emanating from the northeast corner and many site and building characteristics are derived from this. Sites sloping down towards north or east from higher levels of south and west are considered good. Open spaces in site and openings in the building are to be more in the north and east than in the south and the west. No obstacles are to be present in the north and the east. Levels and height of buildings are to be higher in the south and west when compared to the north and east. The southwest corner is to be the highest, followed by southeast, then by northwest and finally by northeast. The triangle formed by joining the southwest, southeast and the northwest corner of the site is attributed to the moon and the triangle formed by joining the northeast, northwest and southeast corner of the site is attributed to the sun. The former are prescribed to be heavier and higher and the latter light and lower. Sites having a longer east-west axis are considered better. The diagonal connecting southwest and northeast is to be longer than the diagonal connecting southeast and northwest. An extended northeast corner is considered beneficial."
These are the exact conditions followed when building Tibetan temples, even to the present day.

In expression of their approach, Indian practitioners developed the Purusha Mandala, which is superimposed on the landscape, and used to orient construction from the ground up.

The "houses" of the Purusha Mandala are fixed. They are represented by a square -- symbolizing the earth -- imposed on the body of a being. The head is always in the northeast. The "being" is said to be  formless spirit who blocked heaven from earth, and had to be subdued by Brahma and the other gods. So, each geomantic house is ruled by a particular god, with Brahma in the center. Thus:
  • North is ruled by Kubera, the lord of wealth.
  • South is ruled by Yama, the lord of death.
  • East is ruled by Indra, the solar deity.
  • West is ruled by Varuna, the lord of water.
  • Northeast is ruled by Shiva.
  • Southeast is ruled by Agni, the deity of fire.
  • Northwest is ruled by Vayu, lord of the winds.
  • Southwest is ruled by Niruthi, lord of ancestors.
  • The center is ruled by Brahma.
Apart from its mythological structure, this mandala is actually the framework for an exquisitely detailed set of mathematical rules, having nothing to with elements, but everything to do with hard measurement.

In parts one and two of our little survey of Tibetan geomancy, we have been discussing Queen Kon-jo. When Wengchen Kon-jo comes to Tibet from China, in 641 CE, her geomantic masterpiece -- or metaphor -- is the siting of Lhasa's central temple, Jokhang.

The story is that Kon-jo determined Tibet's landforms resembled a demoness lying on her back, so various smaller temples and stupas had to be constructed before Jokhang could be successfully completed.

When we examine this approach in contrast with the Purusha Mandala, it certainly becomes suggestive, doesn't it?

Chinese and Indian approaches were tossed into Tibet's cultural grinder, with the eventual result that spirits of the earth were now being dredged up and subdued according to a moving position.

The concept of the grid is coming from India, but the concept of motion is coming from China. Basically, the grid is being laid on a site, and four corners are assigned.


The southeast corner is fire, the southwest corner is the demoness, the northwest corner is wind, and the northeast corner is power. The spirit -- by this time a naga -- is believed to rotate within this square according to the season, and even, as some would have it, according to the year, month, day and hour. The grid is divided into some 8,000 parts, the head of the spirit is aligned, and a "vital point" is established -- usually in the spirit's armpit -- where the first disturbance of the soil is to occur.



It is right about here that we begin to think about the difference between gross and subtle elements, and their lasting -- if not thoroughly troublesome -- metaphor, the relationship between seen and unseen: the relationship between men and spirits.


Of spirits, in Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian practice, one could write an almost endless number of volumes.

At the very least, maybe we will get around to a few paragraphs in a future post.


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4 reader comments:

Malcolm Smith said...

Hi Tenpa:

In terms of the ma bu sgra grogs, mother, son, enemy, friend cycle -- another way in which it has been explained to me is that enemy and friend are in reality grandmother and grandchild.

The grandmother is the "enemy" of the grandchild because the grandchild is controlled by the grandmother. The grandchild is the friend of the grandmother, because the grandmother is served by the grandchild. For example, wood digs up earth and breaks rocks, earth supports wood and provides a place to grow, etc.

In this case, the concept is based on Tibetan filial perceptions rather than Chinese filial perceptions i.e. the grandmother being the most powerful person in a given household.

Jampa Thrinley said...

I'm interested in what ideas you have about the medical application of the 5 Elements in Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian tradition. It isn't geomancy, per se, but it's nearly impossible to separate the Taoist 5 Elements system from it's application in Chinese medicinal systems. For instance, each element has 2-4 "officials," represented by the organs of the human body. There are also the "5 Spirits" associated with the elements. Even without going into the acupuncture meridians, the 5 Elements clearly had a very prominent and practical application for the Chinese. Tibetan medicine, of course, has similar medical applications of the "Tibetan" 5 Elements, but they are concealed within the more accessible 3 humors. Of course, the Vedic 5 Elements are prominent in Ayurvedic medicine, the combinations of which constitute the 3 body types. Perhaps investigating the foundations of these medicinal systems would provide a good deal of knowledge about the origins of Tibetan, Chinese, and Indian geomancy.

Malcolm Smith said...

"Tibetan medicine, of course, has similar medical applications of the "Tibetan" 5 Elements, but they are concealed within the more accessible 3 humors. Of course, the Vedic 5 Elements are prominent in Ayurvedic medicine, the combinations of which constitute the 3 body types."

The five elements you mention here are the pañcadhātu or pañcabhūtani mentioned above by Tenpa.

The pañcadhātu are included in the nyes pa gsum or "three doṣas". In this respect, Tibetan Medicine is completely based on Indian Ayurveda. Some of the apparent differences between Tibetan Medicines treatment of the elements in relation to the three doṣas are based not on Tibetan Innovations, but rather differences between the Caraka system and the Sushruta system. Tibetans inherited ideas from the Sushruta system on occasion without attribution when the later Buddhist systematizerof Ayurveda, Vagbhata, preferred them to ideas in Caraka.

The Tibetans attempted to integrate the Chinese Five Phases system through pulse and urine analysis -- I have a post on this subject here:

http://www.bhaisajya.net/2010/05/role-of-elemental-calculation-byung.html

The Chinese five elements are predominantly important in medicine, calculation, and the various rites of gTo, which derived from Bon and from Chinese folk practice.

They play no importance at all in Buddhist doctrine, which is wholly based in the pan-Indian concept of the pañcadhātu.

The way Modern Ayurveda understands the elements differently from Tibetan Medicine is through the notion that each of the three humors is based on two elements Thus, vata is the space and air elements, pitta is the fire and water elements, and kapha is the water and earth elements, arranged in the progression of Pan-Indian cosmogenesis. Following Sushruta, Tibetan Medicine has a simpler scheme and understands vata (rlung) to be composed of air; pitta (mkhris pa), fire, and kapha (bad kan) as water and earth, again in order of Pan-Indian cosmogenesis. Since these three doṣas (nyes pa) are divided into the same twenty characteristics as the modern Ayurvedic system, there is really no contradiction between these two alternate schemes.

Another difference between the two also stems differences between Sushruta and Caraka. Sushruta holds that bitter is formed from air and water; Caraka holds bitter is formed from space and air. This difference is found between modern Ayurveda and Tibetan Medicine, but the origin of the difference depends on differences in Ayurvedic traditions in India and not from a difference developed in Tibet.

Randy M. said...

Interesting comparison between Tibetan, Indian and Chinese concepts of the five elements. I would be interested in learning more about how the five elements integrate with Tibetan concepts of the body, as compared to Chinese concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I will look further into it myself, but if you have any suggestions, please contact me.