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In the Bardon system it is pretty clear that the much of the first initiation is the mastery of the four elements: fire, air, water, earth. For the sake of clarity, let’s this a four element system even though it is implicit that mastery of the Akasha as a fifth – or first – element, if you like, is also integral to the process. Although somewhat more veiled than Bardon – according to the symbolism of the system – it would seem likely that four elements mastery must also be an important part of Indian, Tibetan, Japanese and many other initiatic traditions.

And what of the apparently different approach of Chinese and Taoist systems – apparently having evolved entirely differently from four element systems – that contain the notion of five elements, fire, earth, metal, water and wood? How are we to understand the differences, is there a direct correlation or mapping between the two?

My first consideration of these differences started from a viewpoint put forward by Eric Yudelove in his book, The Tao and the Art of Internal Alchemy. Eric is a long time direct student of Mantak Chia and and also a practitioner of the Bardon system. He suggests that the differences can be accounted for by analysis of the different properties of the air element and that we should view metal and wood as two poles, if you like, of air. Air being the mediating element between fire and water, must contain properties from both elements, for example heat or cold, or wetness or dryness. Under this thinking, metal is the dry, cool pole of air, whereas wood is the warm, moist part.

While initially this answer seems to be at least, simple and conceptually satisfying, the theory didn’t seem to fully answer questions about the practical differences (from my own limited view at least) between the basic techniques of the two paradigms. Why for example, is direct accumulation of universal five element energy not a large part of Taoism, in the way that accumulation of universal four element energy is important in Bardon? What would be the Bardon interpretation of the seemingly complex cycles of creation and control?

The answer came to me as in what appears to be one of the few systems that integrates both views: certain schools of the Japanese art of Ninjitsu. Ninjitsu lore holds that the esoteric teachings of the fighting art come from the Himalayan Ninpo Mikkyo tantric teachings. The four (plus Akasha) element philosophy ‘Go Dai‘ is termed the ‘five elemental manifestations‘, whereas the five element philosophy ‘Go Gyo‘ is termed the ‘five elemental transformations‘.

The differentiation between static and dynamic seems key in explaining some of the differences in philosophy. The concept of the Yin-yang symbol at the centre of the Pa-kua symbolises the view that every absolute contains within itself the root of it’s opposite, a transformation that can and will occur over time, as nothing except the absolute or Tao is unchanging. Unbalanced mercy or charity can prevent a individual from learning important lessons necessary for further improvement, for example, whereas oppressive force and dominion and the harsh circumstances these entail can stir the virtues of courage, bravery and hope in opposition.

Under Hermetic philosophy, the alchemistic maxim ‘solve et coagula‘ (dilute and rarify) is a shorthand also for a large part of the Bardon exercises. We condense and encourage higher virtues, while dissolving our vices and baser behaviour. Elemental and universal energies are accumulated in our bodies, while contradictory influences and expelled.

The properties of the 4 elements, heat/cold, brightness/darkness, thickness/thinness, motion/stillness, and so on, are fundamental properties of existence or manifestation, so the four elements are likewise spiritual analogies to that existence. This is confirmed from perspective of Tarot philosophy and from a numerological perspective. The Emperor, the fourth card, sits on a cube, which is the square of four in three dimensions, the symbol of absolute stability and lawfulness in matter. This card is interpreted to symbolise the Key to Hermetic Philosophy, the wisdom of divine lawfulness of existence. Again note the emphasis on universal existence and manifestation.

In my understanding, the five element system, basic practices like the Inner Smile, the Healing sounds and the Microcosmic Orbit draw on the more general universal energies like Heavenly Chi, Earth Chi and Cosmic Chi to add power, but do not attempt to condense universal five element energies (if that were even possible) into the body. Instead, analogies of season, positive and negative emotions, cardinal directions, colour, divine animals and so on are used to shape, gather and purify, even transform, existing personal energy into corresponding primarily primary and secondary internal organs.

As a related concept, Bill Mistele writes in one of his articles about the differences between personal vital force and universal vital force, a distinction which is particularly highlighted within IIH in the step 3 section on healing.

A useful conclusion would be to view the five transformation elements as personal vital force related to five different processes within the human vital body. They may also be related to the five pranas in yogic philosophy, prana, apana, udana, smana and vyana which compose pranamaya, one of the five sheaths or koshas inthe human vital body. I leave further exploration of these ideas to a future post.


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