Eastern Currents for Western Magicians: Taoism and the Five Elements

“Eastern Currents for Western Magicians: Taoism and the Five Elements”

A Talk I Gave at the 19th Annual Fellowship of Isis Annual Gathering, Chicago,

September 29, 2012, at the Latvian Cultural Center of Chicago


Hello and welcome to this year’s annual Goddess Festival sponsored by the Lyceum of Alexandria. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Katakhánas and I’ve been involved with the Lyceum of Alexandria rather intensively for the past 6 years, though I joined the Fellowship of Isis 4 years prior to that. Earlier this month, on September 9, I became an ordained priestess in the lineage of Lady Loreon Vigné of the Temple of Isis and Le’ema Kathleen Graham of the Lyceum of Isis Serpentarium in California; if you’re curious, I’ve pledged myself to lifelong service of the Goddesses Nebet-Het (Nephthys to the Greeks), Bast-Sekhmet, and Hekate. I’m also a Theosophist, which means I really enjoy comparative religious studies, which is why I wanted to give this talk today.

So, thank you for coming and making the decision to spend your weekend creating conscious spiritual community, honoring the Goddess Nu Kua and learning more about the metaphysical aspects of China’s rich cultural heritage to get us attuned to the energies of this evening’s ritual.

Given that theme, what I’d like to talk about with you for the next 20 or so minutes is the amazing series of ancient Chinese teachings that fall under the religious, philosophical, and magical rubric of what we call Taoism, or “the Understanding of THE WAY and its Virtue” as the underlying force that governs the workings of the Universe.

My agenda is threefold: (1) give an overview of the belief system, discussing its historical context in what’s been called the “Axis Age” of the 6th century Before Common Era, looking at Taoism’s parallels and sharp differences with the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosophers of that time period; (2) outline Taoism’s contrast to Confucianism, and, (3) critical for our purposes, examine Taoism’s tremendous appeal for modern Western Pagans and practitioners of Western magical traditions, given its “Mother Goddess” overtones and the intriguing application of the Chinese notion of the Five Elements or Five Phases, especially when we look at astrology. And given my background in teaching at the college level and my status as a certified tree killer, I’ve naturally got handouts for you, which I’ll distribute during the relevant segments of our discussion. The third handout is my bibliography and list of recommended reading as there are so many wondrous things to read on this fascinating Chinese perspective of Ineffable, Ultimate Reality.

Historical Overview

Taoism’s ultimate origins most likely lie with the most ancient expressions of Chinese nature worship, stretching back millennia. As a documented religion, though, with its sacred texts of the Tao Te Ching and subsequent books, ascribed to the author Lao Tzu and his disciples, Taoism dates back to the 6th century BCE, in that fascinating period of history that has been called “the Axis Age.”

What does that term mean? In that remarkable century, there were so many great thinkers in world history alive at the same time. The Buddha was teaching in India. The ancient Greeks had philosophers, statesmen, and artists asking fundamental questions about the meaningfulness of human life on Earth and the basis of authority for states. In ancient Palestine and Judea, the great prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah, were outlining their ideas of the destined relationship between their people and this curious God named Yahweh and his prescribed Laws. And in China, Kung Fu-Tsu, or Confucius, and Lao Tzu, whose name literally means “Old Master,” were developing worldviews for their people that would have an indelible stamp on the public and private, respectively, character of their people—one whose imprint is certainly felt strongly all the way to the present day.

So it’s fascinating to ponder that all over the world, in that amazingly fertile 6th century BCE, there were so many visionaries alive at the same time who would ultimately make huge impressions on the developments of Eastern and Western thought.

I’d like to spend a moment looking at the similarities and differences Taoism has with the ancient Greek philosophers, partly because I was a philosophy minor in college and I adore aspects of Greek thinking, but also because as Westerners we need to look at the ways that the concept of the Tao, of the Chinese mentality that shaped it, in some ways has parallels with and in other ways is very alien to the way of perceiving reality that we’ve inherited from our Western culture.

The Ancient Chinese versus the Ancient Greeks

  1. In both societies, thinkers were concerned about the relationship of Non-Being (Potentiality) to Being (Actuality). To quote the famous opening verses of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”  The Tao, or the Way, is both the Source and driving force behind everything that exists. It’s ineffable. It has parallels with what Aristotle viewed in his Metaphysics as the “Unmoved Mover” of existence—the Oneness that underlies all phenomena.
  2. In both societies, the human being was viewed as a microcosm of the Universe. As the Greeks inscribed above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Gnothi Sauton.” Know thyself. When you truly do, you will also understand the workings of the Cosmos. And that sentiment is aligned with the Chinese Taoist perspective too.
  3. In both societies, manifested creation was seen as being comprised of building blocks called Elements. The Greeks outlined four as the primal substances of Matter, which, as Pagans, we’re more than familiar with—Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—with a fifth Element or “Quintessence” of “Ether” seen as the medium or Ideal Form from which the worldly Four manifest. The Chinese, as we’ll see, have Five Elements of Wood, Earth, Metal, Fire, and Water, with Water having special prominence as the preferred metaphor for the Tao itself. It’s very nature-based, and Goddessy, as we’ll see.
  4. Here’s where we get into differences: As you may remember from your history classes, ancient Greece was comprised of diverse, autonomous city-states. China, on the other hand, was already on its way to consolidating as an imperial power by the time we get to Lao Tzu and Confucius living in the sixth century. And that has a definite correlation with the nature of the thinkers in those two lands: The Greeks valued disputation in natural philosophy. Contrast that to the Chinese, who, given their imperial unity, placed an emphasis on consensus. Masters and disciples were cohesive—there was none of this Socratic questioning or outright debate on the steps of the gymnasiums in Greece where the philosophers argued amongst themselves, each trying to validate his viewpoint while discrediting someone else. Consensus and uniformity are hallmarks of the Chinese way.
  5. Here’s the number-one example of the clash of cultures: It boils down to discursive thinking versus non-discursive thinking. In the West, we’re very accustomed to binary thinking—clear-cut opposites. A thing cannot be what it is and simultaneously what it is not. Our minds are shaped to think in terms of divisiveness, classification, naming things as EITHER/OR. The Chinese mind as reflected in Taoism couldn’t be more different. It doesn’t think in terms of EITHER/OR because it accommodates a BOTH/AND mentality. Look at the mandala of the famous Yin-Yang symbol.



The two halves are complimentary, and on closer look, they’re not actually as opposite as they appear. The Yin-side is black—it represents the “passive” female qualities of the dark womb of the universe, of unactualized potentiality, negativity, receptivity, winter, darkness, the smooth curvature of the low valley. The Yang-side is white—it represents the “active” male qualities of light of day and heat, of actuality, positivity, summer, expansion, the jagged apex of the mountain. But when we look closely at each half, we see that each has its opposite within it. There can be no Yin that doesn’t have Yang within it, and there can be no Yang without its share of Yin. As these principles balance themselves, the Tao produces and manifests all existence and fuels the visible changes in nature. So the Chinese can teach us something about overcoming dualism while still accepting halves of the opposite, since each half is shown to not be exclusive.

Contrast with Confucianism

So those are the differences, on the whole, between the ancient Greek and ancient Chinese perspectives on the nature of Ultimate Reality and how we can know it. But what about the differences within Chinese thought itself, even within this Axis Age?

As you’ll recall, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism and author of the Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way and Its Virtue, was alive during the same time as Confucius. And the Taoist worldview and the Confucian worldview are thought to be the twin strands of thought that shape the Chinese right down to the present day. As contemporary philosopher Lin Tung Chi has stated, “the Chinese are socially Confucian and individually Taoist.”

Some scholars think that Taoism, which religious scholar Huston Smith dubs “a testament to humanity’s at-home-ness in the Universe,” may have arisen partly as a reaction against Confucianism. With Confucius’ book of teachings known as the Analects and with subsequent treatises written by his followers, we have a very public-oriented worldview that is concerned with social responsibility and maintaining the order of the family, then the state. This order is meant to be a mirror of the order that exists in Heaven. It’s a hierarchical worldview, with an “inferior” partner in a partnership—whether it’s a wife to her husband, a son to his father, the subjects to their emperor, etc.—expected to demonstrate qualities of submissiveness and loyalty, and the “superior” partner in the partnership behaves accordingly, in his turn, by being generous, patient with instruction, and so on. Confucianism presupposes an inherent wickedness in people that has to be straightened out through education in order for social order to function.

Taoism couldn’t be more different. It doesn’t have an outward approach—it’s not societal—but individual. It’s about harmonizing yourself with the Tao, which is seen in the cycles of nature, and we are to emulate nature for its simplicity, harmony, and nonattachment to the cycles of becoming and passing away. And whereas Confucianism places great emphasis on being educated to fulfill your prescribed role in the social order, Taoism has very strong anti-intellectual currents, as those are the trappings of ego that we’re encouraged to shed if we want to live in harmony with All That Is. As Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching teaches us:

 In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.

In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done

Until non-action is achieved.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.

It cannot be ruled by interfering.

The greatest characteristic of living in harmony with the Tao is to cultivate Wu-Wei, which is poorly translated in English as “action through non-action.” Unfortunately, it’s acquired this negative connotation with “passivity”—with doing nothing, but that’s far from what the term means. To quote again from the Tao Te Ching–Chapter 37 this time:

Tao abides in non-action, 

Yet nothing is left undone.

If kings and lords observed this,

The ten thousand things would develop naturally.

If they still desired to act, 

They would return to the simplicity of formless substance.

Without form, there is no desire.

Without desire, there is tranquility. 

And in this way, all things would be at peace.

According to contemporary Taoist Masters Mantak Chia and Tao Huang, the concept of Wu-Wei “refers to action or response that arises spontaneously and effortlessly from a deep sense of nonseparation between oneself and one’s environment. It is not inertia or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Wu-Wei refers to behavior occurring in perfect response to the flow of the Tao” (The Secret Teachings of the Tao Te Ching. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2002, page 120).

Taoism’s Appeal for Western Pagans: The Goddess and the Five Elements

So when attune ourselves, through Wu-Wei, to the harmony underlying All That Is—to the birth, growth, decline, death, and resurgence of life that we see in nature—we see how the interaction of Yin and Yang is expressed through the Five Elements, and it’s to these that I now want to turn.

So we have Wood, Earth, Metal, Water, and Fire. They’re also referred to as the Five Phases, because they’re thought to interact in cycles of creation or destruction. In the Productive Cycle, we have Wood giving rise to Fire, which nourishes Earth, which cultivates Metal, which feeds Water, which, in turn, nourishes Wood. In the Destructive Cycle, we have Wood destroying Earth, which devours Water, which extinguishes Fire, which melts Metal, which, in turn, destroys Wood.

Notice the associations with the cardinal directions that may be different to you. In the Chinese system, for example, Earth is in the Center—not the North. I encourage you to try doing ritual activities on your own with these kinds of correspondences and note how they feel to you, especially if you’re accustomed to doing workings that place Air in the East, Fire in the South, Water in the West, and Earth in the North. In our ritual tonight, we’ll be honoring these Five Elements in their Chinese directions, so pay attention to the correspondences and note how it feels to work with them ritually. As a magical practice, it’s always good to try new things and stretch your preconceived notions—you never know what you might discover!

Anyway, part of why Taoism should appeal to modern Pagans is the strong metaphoric language that associates the Tao with Mother Goddess qualities. As the Tao Te Ching tells us in Chapter Six, the Tao is the “Primal Mother!”

The valley spirit never dies;

It is the woman, primal mother.

Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth. 

It is like a veil barely seen.

Use it; it will never fail.

 And the Element that best represents that nurturing, soft, emptying nature of the Tao is Water. Water is associated with the color black, the Yin energy of receptivity. It flows without force.

This concept of the Five Elements infiltrates so much in Chinese thought, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which Taoism is inextricably intertwined with the I-Ching, folk religion, alchemy, traditional medicine, feng shui, martial arts practices like Kung-Fu, T’ai Chi, and Qi Gong, and best of all, astrology. The handout on the Chinese Zodiac shows how each of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac is either Yin or Yang and what its Natural Element is. But then there is an Annual Element also, which is based on the year of your birth. So, for example, I am an Ox, which is a Yin animal. The Natural Element for Ox is Earth. But since I was born in the year 1973, the element for that year was Water, making me a Water Ox. If you don’t know the Annual Element of your sign, come see me afterwards and we can look in my little but informative book on Chinese Astrology.

The information about the Elements we receive from looking at our astrological makeup can help us with feng shui, too. If your Animal from the Zodiac is a Yang animal, you’ll need to have Yin-oriented features in your environment to promote rest, reflection, and rejuvenation in your home. Key words include soft, dark, wet, cold, down, northward-facing, receptive, round, and curvy. So maybe you’ll want to consider having a cool, dark bedroom with rounded furniture where you play soothing music, for example.

Conversely, Yin animals need Yang-oriented features in their environment to build up energy reserves and promote more activity. Key words include light, dry, hard, warm, southward-facing, upwards, outwards, angular, and straight. So you may want a study in a light-filled, bright room with angular furniture where you play upbeat, invigorating music.

Once you know your Animal’s Natural and Annual Elements, you can use the chart on the bottom of the handout to apply features to your environment or promote characteristics in your personality that you feel you’re lacking. A word of caution: If your animal has a Double Element—meaning that both your Natural and Annual Element are the same (for example, a Double Fire), you need to reduce the buildup by applying features of the Element that can destroy it instead. So look at the handout with the Destructive Cycle of the Elements and tone down the Fire, for example, by placing a fountain in your home or having a darkened meditation area that faces north and uses a round, black meditation cushion. That’s a start!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief excursion into the rich spiritual tradition of Taoism and have discovered many things that you can apply in your own spiritual practices. Again, as Pagans, the message of Taoism is one that is validating for us: follow the cycles of nature, attune to the energies of the Primal Mother, maintain balance, simplicity, and right conduct in our actions by flowing with the natural rhythm of things. I would like to conclude with these wise words for living, as applicable today for the Western magus as they were for Chinese sages thousands of years ago:

Those who know do not talk.

Those who talk do not know.

Keep your mouth closed.

Guard your senses.

Temper your sharpness.

Simplify your problems.

Mask your brightness.

Be at one with the dust of the earth.

This is primal union.

He who has achieved this state

Is unconcerned with friends and enemies,

With good and harm, with honor and disgrace.

This therefore is the highest state of man. (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 56)

Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s