Spirituality Information

The 5 Elemental Codes: Seeing Your World Through the Eyes of Universal Understanding (Part 1)


This article is the 1st part of an open response to a question that I encountered online a few years ago in one of the many Martial Arts Ninjutsu forums. The question (paraphrased) was:

"What are the 5-elements (earth, wind, water, wood and metal) about that I have seen mentioned in books on ninjutsu?"

As is so often the case when dealing with multiple personality types, egos, and the need for instructors to justify their positions and philosophies, the question went unanswered. What followed for several days was a sidebar discussion about the "rightness" or "wrongness" of a particular teaching model. In short, the poor student's question went unanswered.

What follows began as a brief attempt to help the student resolve his dilemma and, eventually, turned into a three-part series.The metaphysical lore of the East is, quite logically, intertwined with the arts associated with the Shadow Warriors of Japan. Often, the influences are obvious, as in the use of the Shinto ceremony of respect and acknowledgment used to open and close classes; others, like the 5-element classification systems are not as apparent.

Many of the books on ninjutsu, as well as the over-abundance of "New Age" tomes on the market, written by less-than-knowledgeable individuals, make reference to a system of classifying all that exists in the universe. This system of 5 Elements is actually 2 systems; each used to describe a different process. Unfortunately, the information is often offered in one of three ways. They are:

  • 1. Light-heartedly, in an erroneous comparison with something else with a similar name

  • 2. Incorrectly listed, as with this student's listing, combining the two into one

  • 3. Juxtapositioning the symbolic meanings

The first system, dealt with in this article, is known as the Godai or "Five Great Elemental Manifestations." The elemental codes, in ascending order are...

...chi "earth"...

    ...sui "water"...

      ...ka (or hi) "fire"...

        ...fu "wind", and...

          ...ku the "void"

This is a system based on, and leading up to, the rokku-dai "Six Great Elements" as used in esoteric Buddhist study.

The elements of the Godai are often, quite erroneously, confused with the elements that make up the Periodic Table used in the study of chemistry in Western science. I even remember a time when I was in school and one of my science teachers, who was covering the base elements at the time, laughed quite condescendingly about how the people of the Orient believe that there are only "Five" elements and, naming the above, pointed out the "real" 81 (at the time).

In fact, the Godai elements are not meant to be used in such a detailed and destructive way as the ones of Western science. "Things" are not broken down so far that they become indistinguishable from their real form. The 5-Element code is actually a means of cataloging and grouping like concepts, aspects, strategies, energies, etc. In fact...

...the Western system can actually be reorganized and classified using the Godai system.

The Elements as Classifications of "Groups"

The five elements of the Godai, their symbolic representation, their appearance in the human being, and their use, by some instructors, in the teaching of the ninja's arts are:

Chi "Earth" - represents the firm, hard objects that appear in existence. Rocks are probably the best symbol of the earth element in nature in that they are incapable of change, movement or growth, without the help of the other elements.

In the human being, the "earth" element shows up in the body as the bones, muscles, and other tissues. In the mind, it is confidence; and emotionally it is a desire to have things remain as they are; a resistance to change. When under the influence of this chi or earth mode or 'mood,' we are aware of our own physicality and sureness of action.

As a means of self-protection, which is based, as are all of the strategies of the ninja's art of operating with natural laws, on the student's emotional level or mood when the attack starts. "Earth," as a code for Enlightened Self-Defense action, represents our desire to hold our ground and 'crush' the assailant's attack with our strength. We are calm and unbothered by their threats and we firmly resolve to stop them in their tracks.

Sui "Water" - represents elements in a 'flowing' or adaptable state. Aside from the common identification with natural water sources, plants are a good example of the "water" element in that they are, while incapable of movement, capable of adapting to their environment (i.e. turning their leaves toward the direct sun, growing their root systems in the direction of the most nutrient rich soil, etc.)

In our bodies, the 'water' element represents the blood and other fluids necessary for life. Mentally, this code represents the ability to adapt to and change our strategy, or way of doing things, if change is needed and what we are currently doing is not working. At our core, it is our emotionalism and ability to 'go with the flow.'

In the self-protection strategies of the ninja's armed and unarmed combat arts, the 'water' element identifies both our defensive adaptation to the enemy's attack and our ability to 'flow' with their actions. The feeling of being overwhelmed by their force or technique causes us to want to back up and create more space and time between ourselves and our assailant, as we attempt to cover and protect our targets from their attacking limbs.

Ka The "Fire" - as a code, this symbol represents those elements in a combustible, or energy-releasing state. It also symbolizes force and direction. Animals are a good example of the 'fire' element in that they are capable of movement and direction, though limited by primitive 'programming' or instinct.

In our bodies, this element is represented by our metabolism and body heat. Mentally, it is our directness, commitment and desire to be better than we are. Internally, from our heart come the qualities of will or intention, motivation and competitiveness as well as an outgoing or domineering spirit.

As a defensive strategy, 'fire' represents our committed spirit directed against our opponent as we take the fight to them. In reality, there is no such thing as a 'fire' technique per se - just as there are no water, earth, etc. techniques. There is only our energy level or emotional mood that causes us to move-in against the attacker.

Fu "Wind" - is the symbolic representation for elements in a gaseous state. Freedom-of-movement and an expanding nature are the keys here. Again, apart from the naturally identifiable 'things' alluded to by it, the 'wind' element is best symbolized by human beings. Human beings, in their lower or most common states of development, are capable of movement, direction and have intellect; the trait necessary for development, growth and overcoming the limiting tendencies of programming and the primitive instinct from our 'animal' nature.

In our body, the 'wind' element is our respiration and the processing of oxygen and other gasses between cells. Mentally, it is our intellectual capabilities and our ability to be 'open-minded.' Emotionally, we are carefree and not influenced by stress.

As a basis for self-defense, this element shows in our desire to evade, and stay just beyond, his reach. We naturally want to avoid any conflicts or, at least, a direct confrontation. Our strategy is reflected in our turning and evasive movements that allow us to flank him and smother his assault attempt if necessary.

Ku The "Void" - is the code for the sub-atomic or 'creative' foundation of all that is. Actually, the term "void" is probably a bad translation when compared to the definition of what this element represents. The English language word "de-void," as in the absence of any pre-determined shape or character, is much closer to defining the nature of this element.

Human beings in a higher conscious state are the representatives of this element, just as the sub-atomic material that forms the atoms that group into the molecules that form all other material things in the universe are the base example from nature.

In our bodies, the 'void' element is our ability to think and communicate with others. Mentally and emotionally it represents our creative nature, as well as our personal means of self-expression as we identify with and operate in the world around us.

As a self-protection method, the 'void' represents several tactics. They are:

  • 1. Our communicating with the attacker in an attempt to diffuse the situation before it becomes physical.

  • 2. The creative and spontaneous flow between the lower elements as we adapt to and alter our techniques as our emotional state changes from moment to moment. We literally 'make-up' the technique as we go.

  • 3. Our ability to 'let go' of any pre-set techniques or mental chatter about "what we will do if hex," and clear our mind so that we can see and pick up the sense impressions and feelings that will tell us what he is doing or preparing to do to us.

  • 4. The application of Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho or the strategy of altering the attacker's perception of truth and falsehood. Our ability to make the attacker think we are doing one thing when in fact we are doing the opposite is key here.

The Elements as a Guide for Learning Self-Protection

The Godai elements, as codes for action in a self-protection situation, serve as a guide for the student, not in learning set techniques or kata as such, but in relating to their emotional moods and responses, and their influence over the student's mental and physical options.

It must be remembered that, as human beings we have a 'natural' way of learning effectively and efficiently. A physical, hands-on approach, coupled and followed by theory leads to an emotional feeling about that which we have learned. This feeling could be good (we like it), bad (we dislike it) or neutral (we neither like it or dislike it.) Unfortunately, we deal with stress (read: fights) in just the opposite way.

First we experience an emotional response about the situation, encounter, environment, etc. Based on whether we are attracted or repelled, etc., we form a mental strategy based on what we know and what we think we can do, and finally we go into action. Though taking several sentences to describe, the actual impulse to response time takes only a fraction of a second.

Beginning students, more often than not, do not understand the defensive strategies implied in the techniques being learned, let alone have an awareness of their emotional state at any given point. The Godai then, is a model that can be used as an expedient - as an example of the Enlightened trait known as "skillful means" - to help explain the modes in which we operate, their prompters, and the possibilities available based on what the body is, and is not, capable of when under the influence of each emotional state.

In part 2 of this series, we will examine the Gogyo 5-Elemental Transformations as a guide for learning the ninja's survival, escape and evasion methods, and in gaining an understanding of the advanced strategies which can make the ninja warrior seem like a wizard and reader of people's minds.

1995, 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Jeffrey M. Miller is the chief instructor of Warrior Concepts International in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. He has been training in the martial and meditative arts for two-thirds of his life, with the last 21 years attempting to capture the "essence" of ninpo-taijutsu, under the guidance of Soke Masaaki Hatsumi, 34th grandmaster of the Togakure-Ryu and 8 other ancient martial lineages. In addition to teaching self-defense and personal development, Mr. Miller is a firearms instructor and wilderness survival tactician and conducts seasonal seminars on the topics. He is the author of the free e-Course "Foundations of Self-Defense Mastery" and the powerful "Danger Prevention Tactics" video. He can be reached via the academy website at http://www.warrior-concepts-online.com.


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