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When traveling around Japan, there are a number of different statuary that will quickly become familiar: the komainu (lion dogs) that stand at either side of a Shinto shrine entrance; the numerous orange torii gates; and, of course, there is the Buddha in his many forms.

The godai is the five elements; the gorintou is the three-dimensional representation of that concept. It can be best described as a stack of geometric forms,like a totem pole or a particularly elegant child’s stack of blocks. A cube forms the base, with a sphere on top of that, then a pyramid, then a crescent, like a new moon lying on its side, and at the top, a form reminiscent of a lotus flower..

The godai isn’t so ubiquitous, or perhaps striking, but once you know it, you may notice it more often. The word godai combines the kanji for five (go) and great (dai), the name for one of the fundamental concepts in Japanese culture: the five elements. Based on concepts that came to China from India, the godai are universal: Earth, water, fire, wind and void. Each element is said to represent a certain tendency in the world, whether it be in physics, in spirituality or even just in personality. Together they are said to explain the nature of things, of action, of societies, and of people.

In Japanese cosmology, one by one, beginning with the most basic, they are:

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Chi (earth): Represented by the square, chi (not to be confused with ki, the essential energy of the cosmos) is the fundamental element, the base upon which all else rests. It is the element that engages all five human senses. Earth is basic matter, often represented by (and in) stone, which is not sentient, doesn’t move of its own accord, and has no great motivating energy. Chi is acted-upon only. It is inanimate. In terms of personality, it is similarly inert: Stubbornness, yes, but also stability, and heft, and gravity: Chi is basic, fundamental, even dumb; but as a quality, it is also dependable, sure, solid. It is a good base on which build the godai.

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Sui (water): Represented by a circle, or sphere, sui sits upon the solid base of chi, but look at the difference! Instead of stable and unmoving, sui is ready to move at the slightest movement, a ball ready to roll – or, perhaps, to bounce. Sui flows, representing the formless things of the world, including the emotions: ever changing, ebbing and flowing, like blood, like the tides. Where chi is earth, sui is water, but it is also plants, which grow from the combination of earth and water, reaching for light, expanding and twisting, but forever anchored.

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Ka (fire): A flame-like pyramid represents fire, sitting upon the sphere of sui, pointing upward, the motivating energy that lifts, that animates, and that ultimately destroys. Animals, including humans, are ka, are fire, are creativity, are life itself. The way in which the body burns food for fuel, the way that sunlight animates the combination of chi and sui to make plants, the heat that combustion produces…all are expressions of ka. Motivation, intention, desire, drive, passion…these are all ka.

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Fu (wind): Atop the triangle/pyramid of ka sits the crescent-shaped fu, representing wind, emblematic of things that move, that have freedom, that fly through the air. Fu is the mind in action, thoughts flying about, our mental agility and freedom to create anything out of nothing. Air is invisible, it can’t be touched or smelled or even heard…until it connects with one of the other elements. Then everything happens: fires blaze, water fall as rain, dust moves across the face of the planet. Fu isn’t just air: fu is air in motion. Fu is motivation, growth, change, all forms of movement. Fu is freedom, it is breath, the breath of life, of compassion – even, perhaps, of wisdom. Fu is spirit.

Ku (void): The fifth element sits atop even fu’s crescent, a shape that seems to combine the circle of water with the rising energy of fire, but is most recognizable as that central Buddhist icon, the lotus flower, which holds the jewel of enlightenment in its center. Despite that all-importance, ku represents not everything, but nothing: the void. Ku is emptiness, ku is…not. Ku can be translated as sky, as heaven…but at its core, ku is the absence, the hole at the center of who we think we are, the womb from whence we came, knowing nothing, having nothing; ku is the death that looms before us.

And yet, this fifth element is also our spirit, our knowing beyond thoughts, the mystery we glimpse from time to time as we cycle through the other elements. Ku is the source of our creativity, the source of the creativity of the world.

And thus, the godai, the great five, expresses the very structure not just of physical reality, but of our very personalities – as well as the structure of the Universe as well.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON