From complete “I don’t know,” called Dao, our experience alternates in a pattern we call Yin-Yang. I have explored these concepts (Dao, Yin-Yang) as a basis for cosmology, cosmology addressing the questions—what is the universe; what is a human being? Cosmology provides a view for our experience, so we can work with it directly rather than conceptually. Delving further into basic cosmology, the Chinese Tradition describes the movement of Qi in a cycle of five phases, sometimes called “elements,” which I would like to explore.
First, I need to address two views central to Western thought, which are antithetical to the Chinese Tradition—theism and materialism. In ancient China, these would have been non-issues. In our culture, however, they are central. In short, Chinese Astrology operates from a non-theistic and non-materialist view. If we operate from a theistic or materialist view of reality, our use of Chinese Astrology actually won’t work.
Theism is central to the cosmology of India and the West. Although broad and diverse, theism is simple. Here, I define theism not only as the belief that God(s)/Goddess(es)/deities exist but as the belief that they are somehow significant. For example, God created the universe as in Genesis. Or, from the countless examples of India, we are penetrated by Śiva (called samāveśa), and our limited being merges with cosmic or divine Being. China heard many forms of theism and said—not interested. In response to the Bible—all deities who live in mountains say they created the universe, and they are all wrathful; why would you get involved with them?
Chinese Astrology is not atheistic; it is non-theistic. In other words, Chinese cosmology recognizes the existence of many, many kinds of beings (64,000 types of ghosts, for example), all falling into six broad categories shared with most Asian traditions—demon, ghost, animal, human, demigod, and god. While beings are not all “equal,” no one is more significant or important than another. There are teachings for ghosts, teachings for gods, teachings for humans, etc. We all move in different rhythms, have different kinds of bodies, and experience the universe quite differently. Deities are just other kinds of beings with a different, more exalted, more ethereal kind of experience. And in terms of a Universal/Primordial Being or Cosmic Consciousness often described in India, Chinese Tradition would say—very clever but “unknowable;” don’t bother. And Dao is certainly not God in the Western sense.
Many wisdom traditions say that we are really God in disguise. Many people want to discover who they truly are, find their passion, expecting to find God and great meaning behind everything, or that they posses great power or purpose. Many seek a big exalted enlightenment experience where everything is revealed, and we get to have a big birthday party—the big enlightenment doughnut in the sky. Liu Ming used to say that if you study Chinese Astrology and come out the other side of fate you should find out your own non-existence rather than the “real you.” The real you is something like space…very disappointing to the ego and not very satisfying to big spiritual appetites. In the study of Chinese Astrology, we are not looking for God’s plan or design, and we are not looking to find our purpose or passion. We are looking to find our ordinary human experience, situated in our actual situation, which is enormous.
Theism is not denied; it is more or less irrelevant to our ordinary human experience. In Chinese Astrology, we aspire to the human spiritual path, not the path of deities. The experience of deities is not given a special place, nor is the idea of one God. Confucius refused to talk about God—you actually had a father; this is significant; don’t make a bearded daddy in the sky. The human spiritual path is about how humans relate to other humans, not to God.
Chinese Tradition begins from the view that ordinary human experience is already complete, already in perfect harmony with the Dao. The only thing preventing this experience is false views about reality, based on our belief in an abiding world and self. We do not need help from God or deities to realize our Original Nature; we need only to be in our actual human experience—already perfect. The human path of spirituality is based on ordinary human life, which consists of ordinary rhythms such as waking, dreaming, and sleeping, eating, digesting, and shitting, inhaling and exhaling, circulating blood, all in relation our human experience of life on Earth.
Chinese Astrology is also non-materialist, which brings us into the discussion of five elements. Element theory in Europe and India is often materialist; when we say Earth Element, people often visualize dirt; this is not the case in China.
While modern physics is slowly offering us a vision of reality that has been know in Asia for thousands of years, we are still a decidedly materialist culture. In other words, we believe in a solid abiding world and that we are solid abiding beings. I might say the proof that I “exist” is that cannot pass my hand through the table. I know that my cat exists because he looks the same as he did yesterday and two weeks ago and so on. We believe in material, in stuff, in things. Since things appear to be stable and consistent, we think they are solid entities, existing from their own side. We entertain the notion that we are compound (made of parts, pieces, components) because we have common sense, but as a culture, we believe that these components are reliable. We searched for, and apparently “found,” the “God Particle.” We examine things in the hope that we will finally find something “undividable” (the meaning to the word atom), whether it be particles or light waves—there must be something that makes up or accounts for everything, some building blocks. This was the impetus for ancient element theory in Europe. Well, the Chinese Tradition, especially Buddhism, says—no. There is no ultimate stuff, and if there were it would be un-findable, ungraspable, and indefinable by concept; this is one meaning of the word emptiness. The fact that everything escapes investigation and description means there is nothing solid or abiding to ultimately find; everything is infinitely dividable. What you’re looking at is what you think you’re looking at. In other words, your world is a projection, a mental construct, the mind crystallizing a display of light and mirrors.
Holding the view of an abiding self and world is actually painful, and nothing will ever be more exhausting than trying to maintain this view, so let it go—that’s Buddhism in a nutshell. Reality is an unimpeded, unbounded, dynamic flux, so as soon as we fixate our view and hold on to stability/permanence, reality begins to grind us down—this is the meaning of the word dukkha in Buddhism. Suffering occurs when our view and reality are misaligned. The ancient meaning of the word dukkha comes from an axel that does not fit properly into its spoke; you can force it, but the wheel rolls funny, and the axle grinds away.
If people actually exist, then they actually die. If there was a creation, there will be annihilation—this is a nightmare. In this moment, we are hurling towards the grave, but there is no real “you” anywhere in this hurling; there is just the hurling, a compound in procession.
Everything is compound PERIOD. And everything is in procession, meaning in a flow/flux. This is what is meant by non-materialist. What we observe is movement, but there is no “thing” moving. What moves is Qi, but Qi is not a “thing;” it is just movement itself, and we describe movement as Yin-Yang, which further differentiates into a cycle of five phases. Two goes to five, making ten. In Astrology, these combinations of two and five are called the Ten Heavenly Stems—Yang Wood, Yin Wood, Yang Fire, Yin Fire, etc.
This view is in direct opposition to theistic creationism and scientific materialism. Our culture tends to fixate in an either or situation in regards to religion/science. You either believe in science or religion or you compromise between the two while secretly believing that one is “real.” When push comes to shove, most of us believe in Scientism; in death we turn to science/western medicine to save us, especially when the machines go “bing!”
We cannot approach Chinese Astrology from this perspective; it won’t work. Yin-Yang and Five Element Cosmology does not involve creation or destruction. We speak of the procession as generating and concluding, but this does not imply a beginning or end. There was no beginning, no first movement, and no big bang that started everything (b/c what came before that?). Things resolve, but resolution is the mother of generation; death is the mother of birth. There is never an end to this continuity. Life is an eternal rhythm that goes—birth-death-birth-death…
In this view, there is nothing outside Yin-Yang and the Five Elements; there is nothing, no one, no creator watching and judging. If you use Chinese Astrology as a replacement view—if you replace God the Father/Jesus with Śiva, or Dao, or Buddha, this is almost as stressful as the view of a permanent soul/self. All you have done is found new language to substantiate ignorance.
In Astrology, we describe our Character and Fate in terms of Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, but in order to make sense of this, we must understand them as basic principles. Remember, these five phases describe the procession of all movement, all change, and all experience...your experience! Wisdom comes from your own living experience. Cosmology is not religious. It is a vocabulary to help us feel into our experience, nothing more. And, again, it is not materialist, meaning Wood Element is not lumber, Fire Element is not flames, Earth Element is not dirt, Metal Element is not gold, and Water Element is not H2O. They are principles describing the cyclical procession of Qi. While they are processional, they can appear simultaneous. They can be big, describing the movement of galaxies, or small, describing the movement of thought. We begin with Wood; we start with start.
Although we start with Wood, we must remember the mother of Wood is Water, meaning when things end and resolve they have nowhere to go, nothing to do except start over again. Wood Element is the starting over part of our experience, the Qi experience of start, made possible by death. Wood Element is the basic fundamental impulse or whim to manifest, generate, grow, and move. But it does not manifest; manifestation does not happen until Earth. Wood is eternal freshness, eternal beginning, naïve and new before everything, before thought. Everything is about to happen; Wood is the potential that never demonstrates itself. You cannot paint freshness and hang it on a wall, nor can you actually see Wood Element. The first two of the Five Element cycle are un-manifest, meaning they do not actually appear. They are the process that must occur before anything can appear. Wood is associated with the juicy, young, fresh, quality of experience. The image of Wood comes from the sapling, the sprouting seed, associated with spring and the color green/turquoise, the color of new life starting again. Even in the oldest tree, there is still something juicy sucking up rain. While we use this imagery to describe Wood Element, the actual experience of Wood is this impulse, this prompting before things manifest. When "spiritual people" talk about the Eternal Now, they are describing a Wood Element experience. Wood is the mother of Fire.
As soon as this prompting, this impulse to manifest moves, this movement generates a kind of friction or heat we call Fire Element. This heat gives manifestation a direction toward appearing. Fire Element is not flames. Fire is still un-manifest. In other words, we do not see heat/fire. What we call fire, i.e. the color of flames, comes from the moisture in wood; heat itself is invisible; it is just temperature. The image of Fire Element, associate with summer and the color red/orange, does come from flame, but this is only an image. Fire Element is the warming/heating up, directional part of our experience. For example, the end (water) of being satiated prompts the beginning of a new cycle (wood), which begins to heat up (fire), generating hunger. As soon as any impulse happens it gains a momentum, a direction; the Now, for example, has a direction; it flows. Fire is the quality of vigor, energy, the impulse of Wood Element getting excited, wanting to manifest and appear. So Fire is the mother of Earth, giving birth to appearance.
The heating, stirring, frictional quality of fire sparks and what “began” as an impulse manifests as appearance. Earth Element is the tendency of Qi to appear and manifest temporarily as form. Earth Element describes the continuity, the stabilizing of Qi in the cycle of change. Earth Element constitutes a great deal of what we consciously experience. Earth and Metal are the qualities of our experience which present a “world.” Looking in front of me, I see a form (earth), which, in and of itself, is non-conceptual. I call it “table,” and the table appears to be solid and exist. The continuity of “table” may last a while, but in a thousand years it will be decayed and gone. The Five Element cycle of change is largely invisible and does not actually produce anything that lasts. It produces temporary appearances; the temporary (however long) aspect being defined by Earth. The table appears to exist for a while, but it will disappear. Just because titanium lasts for a really, really long time (relatively speaking), does not mean it is permanent; titanium is still in a process of movement/change. Earth is heaviness, the experience of continuity and solidity. My body, for example, feels solid and heavy, and so I become attached to its existence. However, I shed me cells every 7-8 years; my body is not the same body I had at 16; nothing about it is stable; I may die tomorrow. The image of Earth Element, associated with the continuity of the seasons and color yellow, comes from the ground, the mountains, from things that appear to endure. Alone, however, Earth Element is mere appearance. As soon, as appearance manifests it immediately begins to transform and change, giving birth to Metal Element. Earth is the mother of Metal.
As soon as appearance stabilizes it begins to become particular, differentiated, and variegated. Nothing is what it appears to be. Metal is the maturation of Earth, appearance crystallizing into “things,” taking on qualities, but always changing in its particularity. The form in front of me is mere form, but as soon as I recognize and distinguish its qualities, I label it “table,” and it becomes a “thing.” I can now describe the table—Metal Element. Metal Element is the particular, conceptual, refined quality of our experience. Associated with fall and the color white/silver, the image of Metal Element comes from alchemy, the refinement of precious metals from raw ore. Practically, Metal Element is refinement, our organs refining and extracting nutrients from food, for example. Together, Earth and Metal constitute most of what we call “stuff,” appearance and conceptual designation. Qi has the tendency to appear as stable stuff, but this stability is merely a momentary aspect in the cycle of Qi. Soon, we forget, we have moments, perhaps when spacing out, when we forget about who we are and where we are going. Metal element is tenuous, strenuous, and refinement cannot be maintained. Our concepts about reality are limited and must fall apart. It is exhausting to maintain appearances, so Metal gives birth to Water, collapsing into oblivion.
The peak of manifestation and appearance has nowhere to go, nothing to do except collapse and fall apart. Water Element is the falling apart aspect of our experience. Water is the “end” of the cycle, so it is also the beginning, the mother of Wood. Water is associated with death, with dissolution. Our experience of life is full of death. We experience so many endings; it is amazing we fear death. Every inhalation ends; every thought passes away; every sensation dissolves. Every night we die when we fall asleep. Water Element is the collapsing of particulars into undifferentiated soup. If things didn’t end, nothing would move; there would be no room for anything new. The constant dissolution of our experience constantly makes way for the impulse of Wood, for newness. Associated with winter and the color blue/black, the image of Water Element is like water itself, describing the flowing, liquid, malleable, interconnected, fluid nature of life. Water Element is the recognizable, dramatic experience of change. Usually, we don’t notice change until things collapse and dissolve. Water Element is therefore associated with drama, with Big Yin. But nothing can end permanently; dissolution naturally generates the impulse to manifest; nature abhors a vacuum. So Water is the mother of Wood, and the cycle begins again.
What I have described here is the “generating” cycle of the Five Phases. Naturally, there is a “concluding” cycle. Water extinguishes Fire, meaning dissolution maintains excitement. Wood eats Earth, meaning freshness lightens the heaviness of the heart. Fire melts Metal, meaning inspiration softens rigid thinking. Earth absorbs Water, meaning continuity and stability upholds the fear of death. And Metal cuts Wood, meaning logic and reason edit naivety.
The wisdom of the Five Elements of Qi is meaningless until we recognize it in our own experience. The Chinese Tradition is relative. It does not come from God; it comes from humans. It must be examined, over and over again. Do not accept it until you examine it. If you can identify part of your experience that does not fall into these five categories then we can add a sixth. Since millions of people have not been able to do so over thousands of years of tradition, and neither have I, I find it comprehensive. Yin-Yang and Five Element cosmology is quite profound. Here, I have only attempted to describe the basic qualities of each as a basis for your own inquiry.
Next, we will delve into Character and break down the “folklore” aspect of Chinese Astrology. I, for example, am a Tiger-Rooster-Horse-Dragon! But what does that mean? Before that, however, I will discuss xiāntao, the Way of Immortals, the lineage this Astrology comes from.
Tiger's Play--the View Teachings of Chinese Astrology
This page is your source for short, pithy articles on the view teachings of Chinese Astrology. Here, I will share everything I have learned about how to follow Astrology as a spiritual path.