Before the days of atomic or particle physics, religious and philosophical thinkers wanted to divide reality into its constituent elements. The number and type of these elements or qualities varied from tradition to tradition. In Buddhism there are six elements - earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness. So even here the earth has become just one of many elements from which life is derived, its no longer the source of everything. The Buddhist stupa symbolically represents all these six elements, giving them concrete shape; earth is a cube, water is a sphere or hemisphere, fire is a cone, air is a crescent, space a disc, and consciousness a flame. The stupa is probably the oldest surviving devotional object from early Buddhism. Initially it was a reliquary, a container for actual relics of the historical Buddha, but quite quickly stupas came to symbolically represent the Buddha (with or without relics), and hence to represent the completed Enlightened state.
There is a Buddhist visualisation/reflection practice based on these primary elements,called the Six Element Practice. The purpose of it being to imaginatively breakdown our over-identification of our self with our body. This practice always begins with earth. That is the primary foundation upon which all the other elements are built. You then visualise the qualities of earth in the world, then imaginatively identify and connect with those elements of earth as being present in your own body. Having done this you then imagine these bodily manifestations of aspects of earth returning to the external earth as present in the world. This then continues on through a succession of ever more rarified elements, of water,followed by fire, air, space, till finally we reach consciousness, something extremely tenuous and difficult to grasp imaginatively. By doing this practice you weaken the attachment we have to our Self as a permanent, substantial, and fixed entity. Its a strong practice meant to rock your self conception in its boots. So its not recommended for inexperienced practitioners whose meditation practice is lacking in breadth, depth or integration.
These elements, as represented in the Stupa, can also symbolise the different levels of spiritual attainment. This of necessity always begins with the Earth element. This is the rich and fertile ground from which a desire for spiritual practice emerges and then grows. In order for any plant to flourish, first a seed must be planted directly in the earth. The earth is us, unrefined, suffering, but rich in potential to flourish. Earth is composed of humus, a mix of rotting vegetable matter. Its the stuff of our lives previous to wanting to practice spiritually. It includes all the bits that don’t want to be a Buddhist, as well as those that do. One of the things that the earth can do is use and incorporate all these disparate elements of our psyche. It can integrate them, turn apparently barren and infertile ground into the mulch that eventually can sustain spiritual practice. It’s shape on the stupa is a cube, often coloured bright yellow, but probably was originally a more earthy yellow ochre. A cube is solid, inflexible, difficult to shift, it is experience in and on the ground, a stubborn, crude ,heavy object, that has smooth aspects but also defensive sharp edges and corners. This describes the working ground and psychological state of most Buddhist practitioners, struggling with integrating these intransigent elements of their personality. Yet here is where the foundations are laid for an effective practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom.
On top of the Earthly square in the Stupa, is placed a Watery sphere or hemisphere, white in colour. Water we know flows over, under, or around any obstacle it encounters. If it freezes it becomes ice, hard as rock, as though it really belongs to the earth. If heat is applied through fire, water evaporates as though it really belongs in the air. It’s an extremely adaptable element, responding flexibly, no matter what the circumstances are. Rain falling upon the earth, either rolls off, or is absorbed into it,is stored in underground aquifers and flows into streams. Having become more grounded in our earthly experience, and to some extent integrated it. The result is a certain amount of fluidity emerging into the way we live or respond to life and circumstances. We find it easier to not let things bug us or stick in our minds. We find our minds can more easily let go of things, or allow them to roll off us. It’s as though we’ve become a sphere, to which little sticks. A sphere knows where its own centre of gravity is. Even if pushed, it will restore itself back to a stable balanced position. Having practiced ethics, meditation and wisdom with reasonable effectiveness, we reach a position of flexible stability and poise, on top of, instead of under the thumb of our Earthly experience. We remain able to be fed by and use Earthly energies, but we are no longer so easily floored or disrupted by them. If we are able to dam or contain water, it becomes a source or energy or provide sustenance to quake our thirst whenever its required. Like the colour white, water is pure, without taint or discolouration.
Upon the top of this white sphere representing Water, is a red cone of Fire. Whilst it’s important to learn how to be flexible and respond to earthly circumstances with creativity. It can’t be the only tactic in our spiritual armour. Sometimes things shouldn’t be got around, but need to be cremated in a purposeful fire. The three basic poison’s of the human mind; greed, hatred and delusion, are like noxious chemicals that can’t be accommodated, they need to be burned up. The term Nirvana means ‘to extinguish’. What is really being extinguished is the dominance of greed hatred and delusion in our consciousness. However, if we look closely at the outcome of a fire, it never destroys anything completely, what happens is that whatever it touches is transformed by contact with its flames. What was firewood becomes ash, what was liquid becomes steam, what we thought was a permanent immovable part of our self-identity is proved to be impermanent and transitory. Fire is synonymous with spiritual death, the death of something that previously seemed impervious to change. The cone shape is red, often traditionally constructed in a sequence of ridges that get narrower as you ascend it. Flames are always broader at the base, but the hottest part of it is at the flames blue tip. So as we ascend through the levels of fire, we are working on transforming ever more refined states of greed hatred and delusion. These require a more focused, precise heat to be applied the higher up the flames go.
So far, with these first three elements, we have been dealing with things fully tangible to the senses, or at least readily graspable with the imagination. But with the green crescent of Air, perched on top of Fire, what can be experienced by the senses becomes slightly weakened. Earth we can hold in our hands, water though translucent moistens and dampens everything it comes in touch with, fire brings a warmth and a light, that if we get too close to it, will burn us. But air, though it is everywhere and covers everything on and over the Earth. It can never be seen, only felt when its a cool breeze, or by its effect upon the water by making waves, or by fanning the flames of a fire, or by moving our hand through it, or via the simple sensations of breathing when we inhale air. Our sensory experience of air is subtler, and likewise in the aftermath of all that burning off by fire, the level on which we find ourselves practicing is harder to objectively grasp. Air cannot in essence be seen directly, only the effects of Air can be felt. Like in particle physics, the presence of some fundamental aspect of our being is discerned by what is not objectively observable, but by the effect it has upon things that we know exist surrounding it. The crescent is reminiscent of the moon, either just appearing into or disappearing from view. It is green, because its the central thing upon which every living thing depends upon for survival.
Likewise as we move upwards to the silver disc of Space, things are increasingly tenuous and less susceptible to sensory interpretation. We inhabit a space with our bodies that because we are in space, we obviously cannot see it. Air parts around us as we walk to accommodate the space that we occupy. We can only observe with our eyes the amount of space discernible in our present surroundings, Physical space then is a movable, temporary, exchangeable commodity. Space is what we inhabit, but its not a fully measurable phenomenon. A silver disc is convex, like space it mirrors back at us all the visible world reflected in its polished surface. Space is as discernible by what is absent as much as by what is present. In fact whether things are present or absent in space is an irrelevant distinction with regard to the existence or not of space. Space exists regardless of whether it is or is not occupied. Space may be occupied, but it is never eradicated or reified by that occupation. A mirror perfectly reflects whatever it is placed in front of it, whether it is earth, water, fire or the air as sky. A mirror disappears and is absorbed by whatever it reflects, with only a barely discernible circular boundary edge to indicate that it is present. Even making a distinction between the mirror and what it reflects is an illusion. Space turns out to be an illusory reflection of the self. The self is defined by the space it occupies. It’s the mirror is itself, it is the thing that it does i.e. it reflects back, and is the substance of what is being reflected.
Such contemplations on Air followed by those on Space, prepare us for a greater metaphysical challenge, to reflect on the element of Consciousness. That small golden flame perched precariously on the top of the silver disc of Space. Imagine it as similar to tracking down the elusive presence of the Higgs-Boson in the Hadron Collider. There is something quintessentially baffling about a consciousness reflecting upon the nature of its own Consciousness. Like a telescope trying to observe in the detail of its own telescopic nature. We get entangled in Consciousness not as it is, but through its manifestations. Through its outcomes of self-awareness,self-expression and self-direction. Electricity is pure energy that has to be manifested through something in order to drive machines or light bulbs. Consciousness similarly needs to be embodied in human form. When you see a dead body of someone you knew, the prevailing impression is of a lifeless form, whatever once animated it has left.
Contemplating on the nature of Space started to dissolve the distinction between what was Self and what was Other. The contemplation of Consciousness starts with a puzzle - where exactly is consciousness? Is it in our body,where is it located in our experience? Otherwise how can we give it back, and to what do we give it back anyway ? How come something we can possess, such as a consciousness can be so hard to pin down? Can we in fact possess consciousness, or is it just on loan? The flame of consciousness, though golden, is small, its really hard to see. It’s like a tiny pilot light that we know must never be allowed to go out, but inevitably does. When consciousness is extinguished, what then? To what does it, or we, then return? Is human life just a brief spark of flame in the dark?
All these six elements, however rarefied, are understood through the exegesis of the Earth. Without the earth’s ability to hold us and bring us back to it, all this spiritual mountain climbing would leave us gasping for oxygen in altitudes for which we are not suited. Likewise spiritual methods or practices for which we are not prepared or ready, instead of Enlightening us, would turn us into gibbering lunatics.
There is a zen phrase concerning the relationship between the truth and a practice to discover the truth. It’s contained in an answer given by the Sixth Zen Patriarch Hui Neng to a disciples question:-,
"Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger,right?"
The brightness of the moon is alluring, it’s undoubtedly always been an object of veneration and desire for humans. Yet its silvery beauty was also held to be dangerous. Staring too long at the moon would turn you into a lunatic. Enlightenment, is like the Moon, alluring distant and desirable.Yet the longing for it, whilst not driving you mad, can delude you. The words of the Buddha’s Dharma may point us in the right direction, but they are not the truth as an earthed and lived experience. You have to gaze beyond the teachings, beyond the finger, perhaps even beyond the image of the moon itself. There is a tendency over time for spiritual practices, methods and metaphors, to be taken too literally. Our minds become misled by our imaginations. Maybe from a fully earthed level of experience you should just stare at the moon in wonder and aspire, or stand at the base of a Stupa looking upwards without straining your neck muscles.
“Do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon”