Eastern Elemental Correspondences

Eastern cosmologies share some major themes with western cosmologies, but there are significant differences. Thus, the elements and elemental magic as a whole are approached in a different manner. Eastern correspondences for each element are shown below. Feel free to modify them to your liking or substitute your own. The oldest source, when available, is cited. These are not exhaustive tables. Some correspondences (such as cakras [San. wheels]) have been omitted due to wide variation in systems and traditions. Comments, criticisms, corrections, questions, and suggestions may be submitted via the Contact page.


Hindu and Buddhist Elemental Correspondences

One of the earliest views of the Hindu elements appears in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad1-3, which discusses the attributes of three elements (earth, water, and fire). These three elements reflect the guṇas [San. qualities] of the Bhagavad Gītā4,5, whose attributes are largely consistent with the elemental attributes presented in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad1-3. The Hindu elements are also mentioned in the Yogatattva Upaniṣad6, Darśana Upaniṣad7, and other texts.

In Buddhism, the four “great elements” described in the Pāli Canon8,9 are earth, water, fire, and wind, which manifest as solidity, fluidity, heat (energy), and movement, respectively. The fifth element of space (sometimes translated as “void”) emphasizes the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā [San. void or emptiness]. A sixth element (consciousness) is also sometimes mentioned in Buddhist literature8,10, and is discussed extensively in esoteric Buddhism11,12. The Buddha families are also linked to the elements via the tantras13-16. Note that  elemental and other correspondences may vary among tantras, as the development of Buddhism over the centuries involved the development of diverse doctrines and practices. Tibetan Buddhist correspondences12,17 are emphasized in the table below. Note that other traditions with alternative (and equally valid) correspondence schemes exist.

Element Earth Water Fire Air (Wind) Akasha (Hindu) or Space (Buddhist)
Sanskrit [San.] पृथिवी [pṛthivī] or भूमि [bhūmi] आपस् [āpas] अग्नि [agni] or अनल [anala] वायु [vāyu] आकाश [ākāśa, sky or clear space] or शून्यता [śūnyatā, void or emptiness]
Tibetan [Tib.] ས་ [Wyl. sa] ཆུ་ [Wyl. chu] མེ་ [Wyl. me] རླུང་ [Wyl. rlung] ནམ་མཁའ་ [Wyl. nam mkha’, sky or space] or སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་ [Wyl. stong pa nyid, emptiness]
Ouranian Barbaric NOBO THALDOMA ASHARA DIJOW (ATIPJOROF) XACOJ [atmosphere] or PINGAL [void]
Hinduism
Color1 black white red N/A N/A
Body parts2 feces, flesh, mind urine, blood, prāṇa [San. breath] bone, marrow, speech N/A N/A
Food3 other food water ghee, butter, oil N/A N/A
गुण [San. guṇa]4 तमस् [tamas, ignorance] सत्त्व [sattva, goodness] रजस् [rajas, passion] N/A N/A
वर्ण [San. varṇa] (via guṇas)5 वैश्य [vaiśya], शूद्र [śūdra] ब्राह्मण [brāhmaṇa] क्षत्रिय [kṣatriya] N/A N/A
तत्त्व [San. tattva]6 पृथिवी [pṛthivī] – yellow square आपस् [āpas] – white crescenta अग्नि [agni] – red triangle वायु [vāyu] – black hexagonb आकाश [ākāśa] – smoky circlec
Body region6 feet to knees knees to anusd anus to heartd heart to middle of eyebrowsd middle of eyebrows to top of headd
Body region deity [San.]6 ब्राह्म [brāhma] नारायण [nārāyaṇa]e रुद्र [rudra] ईश्वर [īśvara] सदाशिव [sadāśiva]
Seed letter [San.]6 ल [la] व [va] र [ra] य [ya] ह [ha]
Buddhism
Shape17 square circle triangle semicircle drop
Color12 yellow whitef red green bluef
Cardinal direction12 south east west north N/A (center)
Buddha [San.]12 Ratnasambhava, Tib. རིན་ཆེན་འབྱུང་གནས་ [Wyl. rin chen ‘byung gnas] अक्षोभ्य​​ [akṣobhya], Tib. མི་བསྐྱོད་པ་ [Wyl. mi bskyod pa]g अमिताभ​​ ​[amitābha], Tib. སྣང་བ་མཐའ་ཡས་ [Wyl. snang ba mtha’ yas] अमोघसिद्धि [amoghasiddhi], Tib. དོན་ཡོད་གྲུབ་པ་ [Wyl. don yod grub pa] वैरोचन​ [vairocana], Tib. རྣམ་པར་སྣང་མཛད་ [Wyl. rnam par snang mdzad]g
Consort [San.]12 मामकी [māmakī], Tib. མ་མ་ཀི་ [Wyl. ma ma ki] बुद्धलोचना [buddhalocanā], Tib. སངས་རྒྱས་སྤྱན་ [Wyl. sangs rgyas spyan] पाण्डरावसिनी [pāṇḍarāvasinī], Tib. གོས་དཀར་མོ་ [Wyl. gos dkar mo] समयतारा [samayatārā], Tib. དམ་ཚིག་སྒྲོལ་མ་ [Wyl. dam tshig sgrol ma] धात्विश्वरी [dhātviśvarī], Tib. དབྱིངས་ཕྱུག་མ་ [Wyl. dbyings phyug ma]
Attending bodhisattvas (male) [San.]12 आकाशगर्भ​ [ākāśagarbha], Tib. ནམ་མཁའི་སྙིང་པོ་ [Wyl. nam mkha’i snying po]

and

समतभद्र​​ [samatabhadra], Tib. ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་ [Wyl. kun tu bzang po]

क्षितिगर्भ​ [kṣitigarbha], Tib. ས་ཡི་སྙིང་པོ་ [Wyl. sa yi snying po]

and

मैत्रेय​ [maitreya], Tib. བྱམས་པ་ [Wyl. byams pa]

अवलोकितेश्वर​ [avalokiteśvara], Tib. སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་ [Wyl. spyan ras gzigs]

and

मञ्जुश्री [mañjuśrī], Tib. འཇམ་དཔལ་དབྱངས་ [Wyl. ‘jam dpal dbyangs]

वज्रपाणि [vajrapāṇi], Tib. ཕྱག་ན་རྡོ་རྗེ་ [Wyl. phyag na rdo rje]

and

सर्वनिवरणविष्कम्भिन् [sarvanivaraṇaviṣkambhin], Tib. སྒྲིབ་པ་རྣམ་སེལ་གྱི་སྤྲུལ་པ་ [Wyl. sgrib pa rnam sel gyi sprul pa]

none
Attending bodhisattvas (female) [San.]12 माला [mālā], Tib. ཕྲེང་བ་མ་ [Wyl. phreng ba ma]

and

धूप​ [dhūpa], Tib. བདུག་སྤོས་མ་ [Wyl. bdug spos ma]

लास्या [lāsyā], Tib. སྒེག་མོ་མ་ [Wyl. sgeg mo ma]

and

पुष्प​ [puṣpa], Tib. མེ་ཏོག་མ་ [Wyl. me tog ma]

गीता [gītā], Tib. གླུ་མ་ [Wyl. glu ma]

and

आलोक [āloka], Tib. སྣང་གསལ་མ་ [Wyl. snang gsal ma]

गन्ध [gandha], Tib. དྲི་ཆབ་མ་ [Wyl. dri chab ma]

and

नृत्य [nṛtya], Tib. གར་མ་ [Wyl. gar ma]

none
स्कन्ध [San. skandha, aggregate]12 वेदना [vedanā, sensation], Tib. ཚོར་བ་ [Wyl. tshor ba] रूप [rūpa, form], Tib. གཟུགས་ [Wyl. gzugs] संज्ञा [saṃjñā, conception], Tib. འདུ་ཤེས་ [Wyl. ‘du dhes] संस्कार [saṃskāra, emotion], Tib. འདུ་བྱེད་ [Wyl. ‘du byed] विज्ञान [vijñāna, cognition], Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་ [Wyl. rnam par shes pa]
Buddha clan [San.]12 ratna [jewel] वज्र​ [vajra] पद्म [padma, lotus] कर्म [karma, action] बुद्ध [buddha]
Throne12 horse elephant peacock eagle lion
Implement12 jewel vajra lotus viśvavajra (double vajra) eight-spoked wheel
Poison12 pride hate lust envy delusion
Wisdom12 equalizing mirror discriminating all-accomplishing reality perfection
Pure land [San.]12 श्रीमत् [śrīmat], Tib. དཔལ་དང་ལྡན་པ་ [Wyl. dpal dang ldan pa] अभिरति [abhirati], Tib. མངོན་པར་དགའ་བ་ [Wyl. mngon par dga’ ba] सुखावती [sukhāvatī], Tib. བདེ་བ་ཅན་ [Wyl. bde ba can] Prakuta (also called Karmasampat) All-Pervading Drop
Realm of rebirth12 human hells ghost [San. preta] titan [San. ásura] god [San. deva]
Gem12 gold diamond ruby emerald sapphire
Seed syllable17 TRAṂ HŪṂ HRĪḤ ĀḤ OṂ
मुद्रा [San. mudrā]17 varada [giving] bhūsparśa [earth-touching] samādhi [meditation] abhaya [fearlessness] dharmacakra [wheel-turning]

aIn western esoteric traditions18, silver.

bIn western esoteric traditions18, a blue circle.

cIn western esoteric traditions, a black18 or dark purple19 egg.

dThe Darśana Upaniṣad7 lists slightly different body regions (hips instead of anus, middle of eyelids instead of middle of eyebrows).

eThe Darśana Upaniṣad7 lists Viṣṇu.

fIn some traditions, blue and white are swapped17.

gIn some traditions, the Buddhas of water and space are swapped17.

References

1Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6.4.1-7

2Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6.5.1-4

3Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6.6.1-5

4discussed in Devi, R. (2012). Radhanath Phukan’s treatment of Sāṁkhya philosophy: A study (Doctoral dissertation). Gauhati University, India.

5Bhagavad Gītā, 17.1-28, 18.1-78

6Yogatattva Upaniṣad, 83(b)-101(b)

7Darśana Upaniṣad, 6

8Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28)

9Dhātuvibhanga Sutta: The Exposition of the Elements (MN 140)

10Dhātu Sutta: Properties (SN 25.9)

11Hakeda, Y. S. (Trans.). (1972). Kūkai: Major Works, Translated, with an Account of His Life and a Study of his Thought. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

12Thurman, R. A. F. (Trans.). (1994). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. Composed by P. Sambhava, discovered by K. Lingpa, translated by R. A. F. Thurman. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

13Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra

14Vajraśekhara Tantra

15Guhyasamāja Tantra

16Hevajra Tantra

17Beer, R. (2003). The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Chicago, IL: Serindia Publications.

18Crowley, A. (1999). 777 Revised. In 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley. Edited by I. Regardie. York Beach, ME: Weiser Books.

19Bardon, F. (2001). Initiation into Hermetics. Salt Lake City, UT: Merkur Publishing.

Suggested Reading

Hinduism

Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6

Yogatattva Upaniṣad, 83(b)-101(b)

Buddhism

Dhātuvibhanga Sutta: The Exposition of the Elements. In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, 4th ed. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta: The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28). In The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, 4th ed. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Thurman, R. A. F. (Trans.). (1994). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between. Composed by P. Sambhava, discovered by K. Lingpa, translated by R. A. F. Thurman. New York, NY: Bantam Books.


Chinese Wǔxíng [Five Phase] Correspondences

The wǔxíng are “phases” or “agents” that represent five different movements or tendencies of energy. Their history cannot be traced as closely as the western elements, but it is clear they emerged some time during the Warring States Period1 and were well established by the time of the Hàn Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) before the import of Buddhism into China2. Zōu Yǎn provides the earliest known account of the wǔxíng in the 3rd Century BCE. Though the original texts are lost, they are discussed in the Shǐjì [Chi. Records of the Grand Historian] of Hàn Dynasty historian Sīmǎ Qiān.

Both Daoism and Confucian thought became popular during this time, and classics like the Dàodéjīng [Chi. Book of the Way and Virtue] and Shūjīng [Book of Documents] indicate the Chinese were already “thinking in fives.” The Shūjīng describes the five phases in Hóng Fàn3:

Wu-xing: 1. water, 2. fire, 3. wood, 4. metal, 5. earth.

Water [is of the quality] that is soaking and descending.

Fire [is of the quality] that is blazing and rising.

Wood [is of the quality] that allows curving and aligning.

Metal [is of the quality] that allows moulding and solidifying.

Earth [is of the quality] that allows farming and harvest. (p. 200)

The correlative power of the wǔxíng permitted successful integration with other systems, leading to its eventual dominance in early China1.

There appears to be no mention of wǔxíng in a medical context before the Qín Dynasty (221 BCE – 207 BCE)4. The earliest known mention in ancient medical texts is in the Huángdì Nèijīng [Chi. Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor], finalized in the 1st Century BCE. The first part of the work is the Sù Wèn [Basic Questions], which discusses the theoretical basis for Chinese medicine and diagnostic methods. The second part of the work is the Língshūjīng [Spiritual Pivot], which discusses acupuncture in great detail.

Phase Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Chinese (Mandarin) [Chi.] 木 [] 火 [huǒ] 土 [] 金 [jīn] 水 [shuǐ]
Ouranian Barbaric unknowna ASHARA NOBO JAMAQAD THALDOMA
General
Color1 greenb red yellow white blackb
Cardinal direction1 east south N/A (center) west north
Season1 spring summer midsummer autumn winter
Time of day1 morning afternoon N/A evening night
Quarter guardian5 azure dragon vermillion bird N/Ac white tiger black tortoise
Zodiac signs5 tiger, rabbit snake, horse dragon, sheep, dog, ox monkey, rooster boar, rat
Animal types1 scaly feathered nakedd hairy shelled
Sense5 sight speech taste smell hearing
Human finger5 index middle thumb ring little
Weather1 windy hot humid dry cold
Work1 birth, sprouting growth, blooming flourishing punishing, severity death, closing up
Yīn/Yáng state6 lesser yáng greater yáng balance lesser yīn greater yīn
Public officials1 public works agriculture palace revenues military prisons
Ordinance1 nourishing, caring giving, rewarding generosity, kindness punishing, chastising funerals, execution
Xiāngshēng [Chi. mutual generation] cycle1 wood (as fuel) produces fire fire produces earth (as ash) earth produces metal (from mining) metal (on its surface) produces water (as dew) water produces wood (by feeding plants)
Xiāngkè [Chi. mutual conquest] cycle1 wood (as a plow) conquers earth fire conquers metal (by melting it) earth (as a dam) conquers water metal (as an axe) conquers wood (by chopping it) water conquers fire (by extinguishing it)
Medical
Yīn organ6 liver hearte spleen lungs kidneys
Yáng organ6 gall bladder small intestinef stomach large intestine bladder
Sense organ1 eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Tissue1 sinewsg vessels muscles skin bones
Taste1 sour bitter sweet acrid/pungent salty
Smell6 rancid burnt fragrant rotten putrid
Emotion1 anger joy thinking worry fear
Sound6 shouting laughing singing lamenting groaning

aA word for this phase has not been divined yet.

bThe character describing wood [Chi. 靑; qīng] means blue or green, but is often interpreted as green1,5. Also, I have seen some practitioners assign green to wood and blue to water. Perhaps this is due to Buddhist influence.

cSometimes humans are placed in the center, surrounded by the four guardians.

dHumans are “naked” animals.

eThe pericardium is another yīn organ associated with fire.

fThe “Triple Burner” is another yáng organ associated with fire. It is an invisible organ spread across the chest and abdominal region, and regulates and water flow.

gSinews are tendons and ligaments.

References

1discussed in Wang, A. (2000). Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

2discussed in Demerath, N. J., III (2003). Crossing the Gods: Worldly Religions and Worldly Politics. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

3quoted in Chen, C-Y. (1996). Early Chinese Work in Natural Science: A Reexamination of the Physics of Motion, Acoustics, Astronomy and Scientific Thoughts. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

4Yuqun, L. (2011). Traditional Chinese Medicine. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

5Wen, B. (2016). The Tao of Craft: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

6Maciocia, G. (2015). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text, 3rd ed. Publisher: Elsevier.

Suggested Reading

Maciocia, G. (2015). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text, 3rd ed. Publisher: Elsevier.

Wang, A. (2000). Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Wen, B. (2016). The Tao of Craft: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Last updated: September 28, 2018.