Contemplating the Five Elements

My sensei has on occasion related aikido techniques to what are commonly known as "the five elements", which are of course earth, water, fire, wind, and in the Japanese version, the "void". It's a fairly common concept, really, that seems to permeate most cultures. To students of Japanese martial arts, probably the most familiar association would be Miyomoto Musashi's renown work, "Book of Five Rings".

In the Japanese tradition, the elements are called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. Or, in Japanese: 地火風水空 (chi ka sui fuu kuu).

Now, I've thought a lot about relating the concept of the five elements to aikido, and frankly, wondered if attempting to do so was merely an exercise of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. After all, isn't the whole idea of the five elements is one of those cool, poetic philosophical constructs that would be ideally suited to martial arts? Something a wise old man in the movies would use to teach the hero, his young new disciple?

But c'mon, does it really apply to everything? Or is it a case of a hammer looking at all problems as nails? Yes and no.

You see, hearing others' explanations of how it related didn't always click with me 100%. Something always seemed just a tad skewed, like ancient scientists bending the math to support their theory that the orbits of the planets around the sun was perfectly circular rather than eliptical.

But as with any aspect of martial arts (or pretty much anything else you'll endeavour to learn in life), you can only coast so far using someone else's sails. At some point, if you hope to progress beyond a certain point, you have to ponder what you've been given all by yourself. You have to spend time on your own looking at it from all sides, trying it, testing it, questioning it, even abandoning it for a while. 

Eventually, you come to your own conclusions, your very own personal understanding. But it's yours, and yours alone. Not your teacher's understanding, not the ancients', not your students'. And that's okay. It's when we and others express our own understanding that we get to the "art" aspect of a martial art.

As another teacher once put it, "In principles, united; in artistry, free." So, all that being said, I thought I'd take some time and jot down my thoughts thus far on the subject of the five elements and how they might relate to aikido—to me. I am by NO means an expert on the subject and some or all of it may change over time; I am not attached by any means. I write it down as if dropping a leaf in a stream.

I'll start by contemplating not earth first, as it is commonly listed, but rather fire.

To be continued...