Godai (Japanese philosophy)

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Godai (五大, lit. "five – great, large, physical, form") are the five elements in Japanese Buddhist thought of earth (chi), water (sui), fire (ka), wind (fu), and void (ku). The concept is related to Buddhist Mahābhūta and came over China from India.[1][2]

The Japanese Buddhist concept of gogyo, which stems from Chinese wuxing, is distinguishable from godai by the fact that the functional phases of wood and metal within gogyo are replaced by the formative elements of void and the wind (air) in godai.[1] Godai is attributed to esoteric Japanese Buddhism during the eleventh century CE in relation to the idea of gorin (the "five wheels" or the "five rings").[3] Godai and gorin are also seen within the practice of ninjutsu, where these principles became an essential aspect of the esoteric ninja teachings (the ninpo-mikkyo);[4][5] whereas the theory of gogyo moved into the functional theory of traditional Japanese medicine and exoteric Buddhism.

The elements[edit]

The godai is a static or inert philosophical understanding of the traditional Japanese elements and study, similar to the Greek classical elements. The four main elements or building blocks are Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void is non substantial.[6][2]

[In mikkyo it is taught that] All physical aspects of existence originate from a common source and can be classified in of the godai five elemental manifestations of physical. Chi, or the earth, symbolizes solid matter. Sui, the water, symbolizes liquids. Ka, the fire, is the symbol of combustion, or the elements in an energy-releasing state. Fu, the wind, symbolizes gases. Ku, the void, is representative of the formless subatomic energy that is the basis for the structure of all things. This godai symbolism is used to provide a symbolic structure for the teaching of effective physical combat principles in ninjutsu.

As such, these may describe an individual's response to direct confrontation, such as in martial arts associations with physical center, footwork.[4]

  1. Chi: stability/stubbornness; holding ground and using strength and presence (source: strength)
  2. Sui: flexibility/emotionalism; defensive angling and footwork to overextend the attacker before counterattacking (source: power)
  3. Ka: aggression/fear; using high energy attacks defensively (source: energy)
  4. Fu: wisdom/love; evasive, elusive methods that redirect attacks away from their targets (source: resiliency)
  5. Ku: creative/communicative; spontaneous and inventive fighting



Chi (sometimes ji) or tsuchi, meaning "Earth", represents the hard, solid objects of Earth. The most basic example of chi is in a stone. Stones are highly resistant to movement or change, as is anything heavily influenced by chi. In people, the bones, muscles and tissues are represented by chi. Emotionally, chi is predominantly associated with collectiveness, stability, physicality, and gravity. It is a desire to have things remain as they are; a resistance to change. In the mind, it is confidence when under the influence of this chi mode or "mood", we are aware of our own physicality and sureness of action. This is a separate concept from the energy-force, pronounced in Chinese as (also written ch'i) and in Japanese as ki, and written alternatively as 気, 氣, or 气.



Sui or mizu, meaning "Water", represents the fluid, flowing, and the formless things in the world. Outside of the obvious example of rivers and the lake, plants are also categorized under sui, as they adapt to their environment, growing and changing according to the direction of the sun and the changing seasons. Blood and other bodily fluids are represented by sui, as are mental or emotional tendencies towards adaptation and change. Sui can be associated with thought, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism.



Ka or hi, meaning "Fire", represents the energetic, forceful, moving things in the world. Animals, capable of movement and full of forceful energy, are primary examples of ka objects. Bodily, ka represents our metabolism and body heat, and in the mental and emotional realms, it represents drive and passion. Ka can be associated with security, motivation, desire, intention, and an outgoing spirit.



or kaze, meaning "Wind", represents things that grow, expand, and enjoy freedom of movement. Aside from air, smoke and the like, can in some ways be best represented by the human mind. As we grow physically, we learn and expand mentally as well, in terms of our knowledge, our experiences, and our personalities. represents breathing, and the internal processes associated with respiration. Mentally and emotionally, it represents an "open-minded" attitude and carefree feeling. It can be associated with will, elusiveness, evasiveness.

Void (Aether)[edit]


or sora, most often translated as "Void", but also meaning "sky" or "heaven", environment, it represents those things beyond and within our everyday comprehension, particularly those things composed of pure energy before they manifest; the emptiness that the energy is made up of. Bodily, represents spirit, thought and creative energy. It represents the creation of phenomena. It can also be associated with the potential of power, creativity, spontaneity and inventiveness.

is of particular importance as the highest of the elements. In martial arts, particularly in fictional tales where the fighting discipline is blended with magic or the occult, one often invokes the power of the Void to connect to the quintessential creative energy of the world. A warrior properly attuned to the Void can sense their surroundings and act without using the mind, and without using their "physical senses".

Representations of the godai[edit]

Kawase Hasui's "Evening Glow at Yanaka" (1921) showing the five roofs of a pagoda.

The most common representations today of the five elements, outside of martial arts and fictional references, are found in Buddhist architecture.

Many temples in Japan have beautiful goju-no-to, or five storied towers [pagodas]. Five roofs of graceful curves make the towers architectural beauties...of wooden construction built without any nails or bolts. ...Though they are beautiful, they are not erected merely as architectural ornaments for temples. The five stories stand for...godai, or Five Greats in Buddhism. They are the elements in the Universe from which are produced all things. ...Thus the towers symbolize the Universe and everything existing in it.[8]

Japanese gorintōes (go-rin-to, the Japanese word go means 'five', rin means 'ring shape', and to means the 'tower') as seen in Zen gardens and Buddhist temples, represented as a stupa. These have five divisions which represent the five elements, although the five segments can be hard to discern. The bottom-most piece, touching the ground, represents chi; the next section represents sui; ka is represented by the section encasing the lantern's light or flame, while and are represented by the last two sections, top-most and pointing towards the sky. It is composed from bottom to top of a cube, a sphere, a pyramid, a crescent and something resembling a lotus flower, shapes that also have the meaning described above.[2][9]

The stone lanterns, that is very similar to the gorinto, is a stone tower of modest size put on a center line for the approach mainly to the Buddhist temples and cemeteries, but the functional meaning of toro is different from the gorinto, to illuminate the approach to the temple as like lighthouses, for the strict Buddhist ceremony at night.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sairam, T. V. (2008-01-16). The Penguin Dictionary of Alternative Medicine. Penguin UK. p. 273. ISBN 978-93-5118-127-9.
  2. ^ a b c Barton, David Watts (2021-04-27). Japan from Anime to Zen: Quick Takes on Culture, Art, History, Food . . . and More. Stone Bridge Press, Inc. p. 273. ISBN 978-1-61172-945-0.
  3. ^ Veere, Henny van der (2021-07-26). A Study into the Thought of Kōgyō Daishi Kakuban: With a translation of his 'Gorin kuji myo himitsushaku'. BRILL. pp. 133–134. ISBN 978-90-04-48759-8.
  4. ^ a b Hayes, Stephen K. (1981). Warrior Ways of Enlightenment. Black Belt Communications. pp. 26–37. ISBN 978-0-89750-077-7.
  5. ^ Masazumi, Master Natori (2010-08-13). Shoninki: The Secret Teachings of the Ninja: The 17th-Century Manual on the Art of Concealment. Simon and Schuster. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-59477-667-0.
  6. ^ Moore, Meido (2020-10-13). Hidden Zen: Practices for Sudden Awakening and Embodied Realization. Shambhala Publications. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-8348-4313-4.
  7. ^ Hayes, Stephen K. (1981/2003). Warrior Ways of Enlightenment, Vol. 2, p.26. Ohara Publications, Santa Clarita, California. 22nd edition. ISBN 0-89750-077-6
  8. ^ Joya (2017). Japan And Things Japanese, unpaginated. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9781136221866.
  9. ^ Joya (2017-07-12). "Section: Goju no To". Japan And Things Japanese. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-22186-6.

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