Introduction to Tibetan Astrology
Since the late 1950s, Tibetan Buddhism has spread all over the world. These ancient teachings contain a multitude of methods to benefit sentient beings and alleviate their suffering, but some of these remain relatively unknown, including various systems of divinatory practices such as the divination dice or Tibetan astrology, which aids practitioners in both their secular and spiritual journey towards Enlightenment.
Tibet’s rich cultural history, blending elements of both ancient Indian and Chinese traditions coupled with deep Buddhist lineages of practice has led to very unique systems of understanding the world and advice which seeks to remedy any unfortunate circumstance we may encounter in our lives. This article shares a brief history and understanding of Tibetan astrology, to broaden our views of Buddhist cosmology so that they encompass more than what we may ordinarily think of Buddhist practice.
- Overview of Tibetan Astrology
- Elements of Vedic Astrology
- The Kalachakra Tantra
- Elements of Chinese Astrology
- The Sipa Ho
Overview of Tibetan Astrology
In Tibet, astrologers were usually highly trained lamas or teachers, either ordained or lay. They were relied on heavily within various aspects of life including:
- Determining favourable dates for ceremonies, marriages, launch of construction works, medical treatment, hanging prayer flags, business, and all sorts of both religious and secular activities
- Compiling calendars for religious events and holidays
- Drawing up astrological profiles and determining any rituals necessary to alleviate negative astrological influences and through this, safeguarding the life, health, success and wellbeing of others
- Determining the compatibility of partners through astrological profiles for marriage. In some cases this would even extend to calculating the most beneficial wedding date to ensure success in a certain aspect of the relationship, such as prosperity, progeny, health, etc.
- When to begin medical treatment, including the preparation of certain medicines and also diagnosis of a patient’s condition. In fact, the traditional training system of Tibetan doctors includes astrology as well as Buddhist teachings in addition to standard medical knowledge
- Almanacs for monthly and yearly forecasts for harvests and climate. Farmers would consult astrologers to calculate climatic changes that could affect their crops, and rituals that could avert problems and ensure favourable results.
- Giving advice on funerary rites for the deceased, including when to perform the funeral, how to perform the funeral and what rituals to perform
As mentioned, astrology played an important role in Tibetan culture, from monastic affairs to medicine, from birth to marriage to death and even agriculture. Hence Tibetan astrology is a very broad field of study.
Tibetan astrology developed through an amalgamation of three distinct sources:
- Vedic or Indian astrology (known as Kar-tsi or white astrology)
- Chinese astrology (known as Nag-tsi or black astrology)
- The Kalachakra Tantra
White astrology and black astrology were named as such due to the predominate colour of clothing worn by the inhabitants of India and China respectively. Their origins in these countries resulted in both traditions having unique characteristics. In India, astrology was practiced within the Hindu faith, whereas it was developed among Taoists in China. Combining both of these traditions, and with the addition of the Buddhist Kalachakra Tantra, we get Tibetan astrology. Thus, although Tibetan astrology shares many similarities with the Indian and Chinese traditions, they are combined in such a way as to be both uniquely Tibetan and Buddhist.
Within this unique system, everyone is under the influence of their astrological profiles, uncontrollably affected by periods of their life-cycle: birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death; or change of the seasons, years, weather, phases of the moon, etc. Tibetan astrology therefore, presents various calculations and advice within this general cosmological framework.
Elements of Vedic Astrology
Within Tibetan astrology, there are methods used to create a person’s astrological profile that originate from India: Kar-tsi translated as ‘white astrology’.
- The 12 zodiac signs and houses
- The 36 decans (smaller constellations)
- The 28 nakshatras (lunar mansions or sectors along the lunar ecliptic)
- The lunar nodes Rahu and Ketu
According to Indian tradition, astrology is one of the branches of Vedic knowledge. It is said this knowledge came about when the great Hindu practitioners of the past, known as the maharishis, entered spiritual communication with the divine and received the knowledge of astrological science and then spread it for the benefit of mankind.
Vedic astrological elements have links with ancient Mesopotamian culture. As early as 3000 BCE, there existed a highly civilized culture in the Indus Valley known as Mohenjo-Daro. This Indo-European civilization had regular trade with the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Such regular interactions led to cultural interchange, including the adoption of the Mesopotamian zodiac. In fact, this zodiac is common to ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek systems as well, and therefore although the Indian practice of astrology bears a striking resemblance to various Western astrological systems, it does have many cultural variations.
It was in India that this astrological system was honed with exceptional precision and various original calculation techniques were developed. Indian astrology would have reached Tibet on a number of occasions, due to frequent trading expeditions and the travels of Indian masters to teach Buddhist practices in Tibet. In fact, among the Sutras and Tantras translated during the reign of Dharma King Trisong Detsen, many of them contained strong elements of astrology.
Within Tibetan astrology, the two major sources of Indian materials are the Svarodaya Tantra and the Kalachakra Tantra, which will be discussed later. The Svarodaya Tantra, also known as the “Tantra Arising from the Sound of One’s Own Breath” or the “Tantra that Arises from the Vowels”, is a text accepted by both Buddhist and Hindu practitioners. In its Tibetan form, it is included in the Tangyur, or the commentaries to the Buddha’s teachings. The calculations based on this Tantra are used for predictive astrological profiles. Compared to Western forms of astrology which emphasize only the natal (birth) elements, this form of calculation seeks to chart the unfolding of a person’s life to create a more comprehensive and precise astrological profile.
These calculations chart a person’s life through periods of time ruled by nine heavenly bodies in a sequence. The Tibetan system calculates a person’s astrological profile from natal moon positions, and then divides their lifespan into nine periods. The astrologer then interprets each of these periods in relation to its ruling planet, the natal elements and the age at which these periods occur.
Although these calculations can predict a person’s lifespan, they are not ultimately determinative of a person’s time of death. In fact, within the Tibetan system of calculation, there are four different ways to calculate a person’s lifespan. As a person has many different karmas that could ripen leading to different situations in life, a person also has many possible lifespans. Even so, there are extraordinary methods to lengthen or decrease a person’s lifespan.
For example, in cases where a terminally ill patient does not have the karma to recover from an illness, prayers, rituals, practices or the intercession of a highly attained master can activate the karmic potential to live longer, which would ordinarily not have come to fruition in this lifetime.
Conversely, an external event such as a hurricane or tsunami can trigger negative karma for a shorter life, which ordinarily also may not have come to fruition. However, if we do not have the karmic potentials, even drastic circumstances will not produce an effect. For example, some individuals can survive a hurricane, whereas others cannot.
Astrological profiles with Tibetan systems are therefore general forecasts of what could happen in a person’s life and are not calculations based on pre-destination, determinism or a fixed future. The main purpose behind Tibetan astrology is to calculate potential courses of life that we may experience according to our karma. For these courses to come about, it depends not only on uncontrollable external factors but also our own concerted efforts. Astrological profiles are meant to provide inspiration for us to make the most meaningful use of our precious human life, in order to achieve our spiritual goals towards Enlightenment.
As we have seen, Indian contributions to Tibetan astrology were seminal in its development. However, it was with the introduction of the Kalachakra Tantra that Indian astrology was fully established in its Buddhist form in Tibet.
The Kalachakra Tantra
This system of practice, also known as the ‘Wheel of Time’ Tantra, belongs to the Highest Yoga Tantra classification, through the practice of which one can gain complete Enlightenment. It presents a three-fold system of energetic cycles within the universe:
- External Kalachakra: the cyclic movements of the planets and constellations through the heavens, and divisions of time (years, months, days, etc.) which are used to create calendars. This also includes the study of the elements in the universe and their dynamic relations
- Internal Kalachakra: the cyclic movements of the breath and various life energies within the body. This includes the nature and function of the nadis (subtle energy channels), chakras (energy centres at which the nadis converge), prana (the internal winds that move through the nadis) and bindu (drops of essential energy)
- Secret Kalachakra: the various meditations upon the yidam (mediational deity) called Kalachakra, which are used to gain control over the previous two cycles, and purify them to achieve the state of complete Enlightenment
The external and internal cyclic movements of time occur parallel to each other due to collective external and individual internal energies based on karma. Therefore, there are certain driving energies that connect both the movements of the heavenly bodies and the human bodily cycles. Since these energies and states of mind correspond so closely, we experience cyclic movements as either painful or pleasurable.
It is through the Kalachakra tantric practice that one strives to escape these uncontrollable cyclic movements of energies, also known as cyclic existence or samsara, so that we are no longer afflicted by them, leading to our fullest potential to benefit others.
According to tradition, the Kalachakra system was taught by Buddha Shakyamuni himself at the stupa of Dhanyakataka in South India when he was 80 years old, at the request of King Sucandra (Tibetan: Dawa Sangpo) of Shambhala. The entire system of practice was recorded down in what is known as the Kalachakra Mulatantra, which no longer exists in its full form. King Sucandra, who was himself an emanation of Vajrapani, returned to the Kingdom of Shambhala where he wrote a commentary known as the Kalachakra Tantra.
At a later period, King Manjushri Yashas (Tibetan: Jampel Dakpa), who was the first of the Kaulika Kings of Shambhala, wrote a condensed commentary known as the Sri Kalachakra or Laghutantra, translated as the “Abridged Kalachakra Tantra”. His son, King Pundarika (Tibetan: Pema Karpo) wrote a commentary to this titled the Vimalaprabha or the “Stainless Light”. The Sri Kalachakra and the Vimalaprabha still exist and form the textual basis on which the Kalachakra Tantra is practiced today.
During the 10th Century, an Indian master by the name of Chilupa set out to travel to the Kingdom of Shambhala, where he received the transmission of Kalachakra from an emanation of Manjushri. Returning to India, he taught the practice to his disciples who spread the practice throughout India, Nepal and Kashmir. This lineage eventually passed to the great masters such as Dipamkara Atisha, who introduced the Tantra to Tibet together with many other practices such as Ganapati Ragavajra and who wrote the Bodhipathapradipa, the precursor to Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo.
The influence of this practice on the development of Tibetan astrology cannot be understated. It provided the bridging link in the Tibetan synthesis of Indian and Chinese forms of astrology. The 60-year cycle adopted by the Tibetans is based on the merging of the cycles within the Kalachakra Tantra with that of Chinese astrology.
Elements of Chinese Astrology
Within Tibetan astrology, there are two methods derived from Chinese origins: Nag-tsi translated as ‘black astrology’ and Jung-tsi translated as ‘astrology of elements’.
- Both the 60-year cycle and the 12 animal signs of traditional Chinese astrology
- The system of five elements of the Chinese tradition
- The Mewa or ‘nine magical squares’
- The eight Parkhas which are identical to the ‘ba kua’ or trigrams in the I Ching
Chinese astrology, one of the oldest astrological systems in the world, was first developed by the legendary Emperor Fu Hsi who is credited with inventing trigrams, groups of three lines that have a particular meaning. It is said he did so by first observing the sky and contemplating the stars, after which he turned his gaze upon the earth to see what happened there and how they connected.
In another legend, he chose these symbols as he was inspired by the markings on a ‘longma’ or ‘dragon-horse’ that rose from the depths of the Luo River. The Yellow Emperor, Huang Ti, formalized the ancient Chinese writing system, thereby leading to the codification of all forms of Chinese knowledge including astrology.
Emperor Yao (2324 – 2206 BCE) created a calendar using astrology to connect celestial order with that of human life and started a tradition of employing four court astrologers. These four were tasked with observing the four celestial regions, which ultimately led them to calculate four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) associated with the four directions (East, South, West and North) respectively, after observing the natural environment and human life during these periods.
The Lo Shu or ‘magic square’ is the source from which the Tibetan nine Mewa system developed. The Lo Shu was created by Emperor Yu (2206 – 2197 BCE) when he was inspired by the designs on the shell of a black tortoise emerging from the River Lo. In contrast, the I Ching from which the Tibetan Parkha system is derived was defined by King Wen (1152 – 1056 BCE) when he was imprisoned by the warlord Chou Hsin, and later expounded on by his son, Dan the Duke of Zhou.
There are some major differences in the use of these systems between traditional Chinese methods and Tibetan methods, for example the 60-year cycle. Within Chinese tradition, this cycle begins with the rat animal sign; the Tibetan cycle begins with the hare sign. Similarly the list of animals is intertwined with the theory of the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water. Each element rules two years in a row, the first being male and second female. It therefore takes a complete 60 years to return to the same year in the cycle.
Through historical records, we can see that systems of Chinese astrology were clearly discovered, defined and in use over a millennia before the Common Era. Therefore it is not surprising that these systems would have reached Tibet early on in its history. It is in a biography of Guru Rinpoche called “Padme Thangyik” that we find the account of how Chinese astrology came to be integrated into Tibetan culture. It was King Tride Tsuktsen (705 – 755 CE), also known as Me Agtsom, who adopted Chinese astrology and was known to have protected the Tibetan people through both the practice of astrology and medicine. In fact, when his son and the future Dharma King, Trisong Detsen was born, it was a Chinese astrologer named Birje the Famous who calculated the astrological profile for the child, predicting his great deeds.
One of the major areas in which Tibetan astrology uses Chinese derived systems is the 60-year cycle, made up of both the elements and the 12 animal signs, such as the metal-horse for example. It also provides variable and cyclic information that can be integrated with Kar-tsi calculations to create more accurate astrological profiles.
This integrated system provides astrologers with the ability to calculate five distinct areas:
- Yearly progressions: the ability to calculate what will happen in each year of a person’s life. This is calculated differently for males and females
- Illness: the ability to determine the length of a particular illness and if the illness is caused by harmful spirits, and if so, which rituals will appease them to alleviate the situation
- Funerary rites: when to perform the funeral, how to perform the funeral and what rituals to perform. By using the time of death and the deceased’s astrological profile, the astrologer will advice on the funeral method, such as burial (linked to the earth element), funeral pyre (linked to the element of fire), immersion in a river (linked to the water element) or ‘sky burial’ (linked to the element of air). They will also advice on various rituals to be performed for the deceased, such as ritual recitations, lighting of butterlamps, etc. These are to ensure that the deceased has a fortunate rebirth, that the transition between lives is smooth and any negative effects for the family are alleviated. These sorts of rituals are carried out at the nearest monastery
- Obstacles: the ability to determine when both major and minor obstacles will be encountered in a person’s life and what measures can be taken to remedy the situation such as various religious practices or acts of charity
- Marriage: the ability to calculate the suitability of partnerships, dates for marriage and potential obstacles in the relationship
Within both natal and progression calculations, there exists a difference in counting one’s age compared with the Western method. Within the Tibetan system, one’s age refers to the number of calendar-years during which one has been alive. For example, if a person is born in the 5th month of the year, then he or she is one year old until the Tibetan New Year, at which point the person immediately becomes two years old. Therefore in traditional Tibetan culture, all people become one year older at Tibetan New Year, rather than the Western concept of age, which counts full years passed since the day of birth.
The 12 animal signs in combination with the five elements that exist within the 60-year cycle also include a set of five associated elements for what is termed ‘pebble calculations’. By analysing calculations between natal pebble calculations and any given year, astrologers can also predict the following for that year:
- Life-force calculations: possible dangers to one’s life
- Body calculations: matters relating to health and physical harm
- Power calculations: matters relating to business, endeavors and success
- Fortune calculations: general fortune and travel
- Life-spirit calculations: matters relating to the general wellbeing and stability of the basic organizing principles of life
Again, if there are any negative results, various rituals are recommended to alleviate these obstacles.
Each of the 12 animal signs is also associated with three days of the week:
- A favourable day or a luck-day
- A favourable day for health or life-day
- An unfavourable day or deadly-day
The luck day is an auspicious day for the subject of the reading, the life-day is especially beneficial for matters relating to health, while the deadly-day is considered inauspicious for most activities. These calculations are used particularly in medical astrology for choosing suitable days for treatments.
The Eight Parkha
The set of eight trigrams from the I Ching, which are groups of three lines, broken or unbroken, are called the eight Parkha in Tibetan astrology. There are only eight, unlike their Chinese counterpart which can be arranged into 64 hexagrams.
There is a certain arrangement from which a Parkha is derived in a particular sequence for each year of a person’s age. This calculation is different for males and females, though the progression of the Parkha is the same for every one of the same gender that is the same age. This is known as the person’s progressed Parkha.
Another Parkha of significance is known as the natal Parkha. Since there is no such thing as an annual Parkha, which would entail each calendar-year being associated with one particular Parkha, the natal Parkha is derived from the mother’s progressed Parkha for her age in the year she gave birth to the person. By analysing both the progressed and natal Parkha together, astrologers can create predictive astrological profiles for a person.
In addition to these two Parkhas, Life-force, Body, Power and Fortune Parkhas can be calculated from four types of Mewa numbers calculated from the natal Mewa number. These four Parkhas, coupled with the natal pebble calculations are what is compared to determine relationship or marriage compatibility.
The Nine Mewa
The nine Mewa, also known as the ‘magic-squares’, are a group of nine numbers each in a box, organised in a three-by-three grid. They are arranged in such a manner that when you add the numbers either horizontally, vertically or diagonally, the sum of each line is 15.
Each of these nine numbers correlates to a color which is associated with one of the five elements. The numbers therefore are commonly referred to together with their color and when the Mewa are drawn out, each box color corresponds to the number within it:
- One-White = Metal (The Mirror of Medicine)
- Two-Black = Water (The Mirror of Dreams)
- Three-Blue = Water (The Mirror of Ocean Medicine)
- Four-Green = Wood (The Mirror of Nagas)
- Five-Yellow = Earth (The Mirror of the War God)
- Six-White = Metal (The Mirror of the King)
- Seven-Red = Fire (The Mirror of the Mountain Spirit)
- Eight-White = Metal (The Mirror of the Country God)
- Nine-Red = Fire (The Mirror of Prosperity)
Each of the nine numbers is combined together with the 60-year cycle. This means that every 180 years, the same Mewa correlates to the same element-animal year. The Mewa sequence for this is 1, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, and 2.
From the natal Mewa number derived from the above sequence, a progression of Mewa grids can be calculated for each year of a person’s age; this calculation is again different for both males and females. Each of the natal Mewa numbers have specific interpretations, including general characteristics of a person, descriptions of previous lives together with their influence on this life, probable future lives, specific religious practices or Buddha images to commission in order to improve them and also the possible rebirth that might then occur from these meritorious activities. It is this natal Mewa that is the source of information for past and future lives in Tibetan astrological profiles. Life-force, Body, Power and Fortune Mewas can also be calculated and examined using this method, as is done with the Parkha elements.
The Sipa Ho
One of the most common depictions of protection against negative astrological influences is the Sipa Ho or the Golden Turtle diagram. It is very common to see this diagram in both monastic environments and lay households.
In the home, it is commonly placed over the door to protect against negative influences, harmful spirits and bad luck. The depiction also charts the natural cycles of time such as the seasons and the movements of the planets, and it is associated with the enhancement of both physical and emotional wellbeing and balance.
It is through the symbolic language of Tibetan astrology that this diagram combines various forms of astrological protection, representing the universe and sentient beings within it. While there have been many forms of the Sipa Ho throughout Tibetan history, it was under the reign of the Great 5th Dalai Lama that the masters of astrology of that time standardized the form which is still in use today.
At the top of the depiction are the protective Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, who add their enlightened powers of wisdom, compassion and spiritual power to the depiction’s protective effects.
The central figure of this diagram is the Sipa Ho itself, the Golden Turtle which is said to be an emanation of Manjushri. It is depicted lying on its back surrounded by wisdom fire, which protects against evil spirits and ignorance.
In another legend, it is said that this turtle named Rubal rose from the depths of the Primordial Ocean and was pierced by Manjushri’s arrow of immortality. He rolled over onto his shell exposing his stomach, upon which Manjushri inscribed the calendar of time. Henceforth, Rubal became known as Manjushri’s Turtle.
On the center of the Turtle’s stomach are inscribed the nine Mewa numbers, which form the center of a lotus. In a ring around these are arranged the eight Parkha trigrams, one on each of the lotus’s petals. Circling these, at the outermost level are the 12 animals signs.
On the Turtle’s head are three vajras representing the Three Jewels in Buddhism – the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Its four limbs represent the four cardinal directions, while the sceptres it holds that are tipped with demonic frogs represent the earth element, the most important of the five elements.
Below the Turtle, in a straight line are seven symbols, plus one extra symbol, representing the days of the week, elements, and heavenly bodies used in astrological calculations.
|Symbol||Day of the Week||Element||Planet|
|Bundle of Sticks||Saturday||Earth||Saturn|
*Note: Rahu which is also known as the Shadowy Planet is the Northern Lunar Node. It represents the unknown planet that consumes the sun during an eclipse.
In the top left corner is the Namchu Wangden, also known as the Tenfold Powerful One. It is a monogram created from the 10 seed syllables of the Kalachakra Tantra – A, Ham, Ksha, Ma, La, Wa, Ra, Ya, E and Vam. It represents all three of the Kalachakra cycles – External, Internal and Secret – in a stylized form which combines them into an overall figure. As such, the form directly links the heavenly bodies with the internal bodily chakras of a practitioner. It stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes the Heart Chakra and is surrounded by wisdom fire representing the state of complete Enlightenment.
The Namchu Wangden represents the ability to harmonize with existence and then overcome it altogether by achieving Enlightenment. Within our daily lives, we interact with and absorb various energies in different ways, both positive and negative. This symbol represents the universal elements balancing their energies, creating a harmonious change in our lives.
In the top right corner is a protective talisman which was created by Guru Rinpoche, known as the ‘All-Conquering Mandala’. This is a square, similar to Mewa charts, sitting on a lotus. Prayers to protect from negativity are inscribed on each of the nine inner squares. This talisman is once again surrounded with wisdom fire representing the state of Enlightenment.
In the bottom right corner is an eight-petalled lotus, surrounded by a ring of protective mantras. Similarly, in the center and on each of the petals are inscribed protective prayers and mantras, supplicating the enlightened deities and gods for their protection.
In the bottom left corner is another eight-petalled lotus, this time depicted on the stomach of the Golden Turtle. The centre of the lotus has protective mantras and one of the eight Parkhas are inscribed on each of the petals. This lotus is similarly encircled with mantras and prayers of protection.
Vertically, along the left side of the diagram, are two seals of protection consisting of various Parkha. The topmost is a seal for the 12-year cycle and has a vajra dagger and bhumpa vase beneath it, symbolizing the destruction of ignorance and the ambrosial nectar of immortality respectively. The lower seal is to guard against harmful spirits of the Six Realms and is marked by a flaming triratna jewel, representing the Three Jewels, and the body, speech and mind of enlightened beings.
Vertically, along the right side of the diagram, is the seal of the entire Sipa Ho and includes three more triratna jewels. Different depictions of the Sipa Ho can contain other varying symbols such as the wish-fulfilling tree, the flaming sword of Manjushri, more triratna jewels and even Buddhist swastikas.
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