The Context of Astrology within the Buddhist Educational System
Astronomy and astrology are one of the sciences or traditional fields of knowledge (rig-gnas) studied in the Tibetan Buddhist curriculum as formulated at the great monastic universities of India. There are five major and five minor fields of knowledge. The major ones are:
- Art and craftsmanship – religious painting, statue-making out of bronze and clay, construction of powder and three-dimensional mandalas, applique and needle-point portrayals of Buddha-figures, mandalas and so on, and, in Tibet, butter sculpture
- Medicine – including pharmacology
- Languages and grammar – primarily Sanskrit, following the classical texts of Panini, all of which were translated into Tibetan and included in the Tengyur
- Logic – formal debate
- Inner or exceptional self-knowledge – Buddhist philosophy, psychology, meditation and so on.
The five minor subjects are:
- Poetry – how to compose it so that one’s meaning is conveyed clearly, without irrelevancies or contradictions, in logical order, with proper connections, consistent references and in eloquent-sounding words and meter
- Rhetoric and synonyms – the study of the flowery expressions for words used in Sanskrit, and translated into Tibetan, such as “water-born” for both lotus and moon, “twice-born” for bird, teeth and brahmins, and so on, all of which are used in elegant writing
- Prosody and composition – the different meters used in Sanskrit
- Drama and dance – the movements in religious dances with which one portrays the activities in a mandala or world system of a Buddha-figure, such as making offerings
- Astronomy, astrology and mathematics.
Upon mastery of the five minor subjects, one is awarded the title “Pandit,” meaning Erudite Master, and after the five major ones, “Mahapandit,” or Great Erudite Master. In Tibetan, the title “Panchen,” as in Panchen Lama, is a half-translation half-transliteration of “mahapandit,” while the Buryat “Bandido,” as in Bandido Khambo Lama, transliterates “pandit.” Since much of the materials for the study of these topics, or at least their basic principles, derive from and are discussed in the Kalachakra Tantra, the Kalachakra Buddha-figure is always associated with and invoked for inspiration in their study.
The Context of Astrology in Hinduism
It is interesting to contrast how astronomy and astrology has traditionally fit into the Buddhist education system with the place it held in the earlier Hindu Vedic scheme, where the emphasis was more on ritual application. Astronomy and astrology formed one of the six branches of the Vedas. These are:
- Rituals – for performing the Vedic offerings
- Phonetics – how to pronounce correctly the Vedic incantations
- Poetic meters – used in the verses of the Vedas
- Etymology – particularly of obscure Vedic words
- Grammar – particularly of Vedic Sanskrit, which is more ancient than classical Sanskrit
- Astronomy and astrology – in order to know the proper times for making the Vedic offerings.
Just as one can see certain parallels between the Hindu Ayurvedic system of organization and that used in Tibetan medicine, similar parallels and differences can be noted here in the area of astro studies.
The study of astronomy, astrology and mathematics, as one of the five minor subjects of Buddhist monastic education, is known literally in Tibetan as stellar calculations (skar-rtsis). This tradition spread from Tibet and the Himalayan regions of India to Outer and Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva and all the other areas of Tibetan cultural influence in Central Asia and present-day China. It has always been taught in conjunction with Tibetan medicine. All medical students must study to a certain level the astro sciences, although astro students are not required to study medicine.
This topic of knowledge presents the calculations for the ephemeris to give the position of the planets, as well as those for making the calendar and predicting eclipses. It also includes the astrological calculations for personal horoscopes as well as for the information found in the Tibetan yearly almanac concerning what times of day and which days are auspicious or inauspicious for starting various activities such as planting crops.
There are two divisions of this astro material. One is called literally “white” calculations (dkar-rtsis) and the other “black” calculations (nag-rtsis). “White” and “black”, however, are abbreviations for “Indian” and “Chinese” derived calculations because the Tibetan names for India and China were given in terms of the predominant colors of the clothing that the people in those countries traditionally wore. India and China are known, therefore, as the vast lands in which people wear mostly white or black clothing respectively.
As was the case with Tibetan medicine, Tibetan astrology also has materials that are similar to or derived from what is found both in Hindu India and China. And here, as well, they are modified and used in very different ways to constitute the unique Tibetan system. Therefore, although there will be terms and concepts used in common with Hindu and Chinese astrology, they will often have a different interpretation and manner of application.
The Indian-derived material comes primarily from two sources, the Kalachakra (dus-’khor) or Cycles of Time Tantra, which is specifically Buddhist, and the Svarodaya (dbyangs-’char) or Arising from the Vowels Tantra, which has material accepted in common by both the Hindus and Buddhists. When a distinction is made between the two, the general term “stellar calculations” (skar-rtsis) is often used to refer specifically to the Kalachakra-derived material.
Philosophical Context According to Kalachakra
In the Kalachakra Tantra, the Buddha presented a system of external, internal and alternative cycles of time. The external cycles deal with the motion of the planets and the passage of time measured by them in terms of years, months, days and so forth. The internal ones treat the cycles of energies and breaths through the body.
Time, in Buddhism, is defined as the measurement of change. It can be indicated, then, by either how far various bodies, such as the sun, move through the heavens or by how many breaths a person takes. Much in the same way that the vibrations of a quartz crystal are used nowadays in European culture, either could be set as the defining characteristics of a period of time. As a consequence, periods can be set in such a way that they are equivalently defined by either planetary motion or a specific number of breaths. This is the basis for the Kalachakra assertion of the parallel between the macrocosm and microcosm. The alternative cycles involve the various meditative practices of the tantra system involving the Buddha-figure called Kalachakra, used to gain control over or purify oneself from being under the influence of these former two cycles.
The external and internal cycles of time, then, are parallel to each other, and occur due to collective external and individual internal impulses of energy, or karma. In other words, there are certain impulses of energy that drive the planetary and also the human bodily cycles. They can be experienced in either a disturbing or non-disturbing manner since there is a close relation between energy and states of mind. With the Kalachakra practices one works to overcome being under the influence of uncontrollably recurring external and internal situations so that, no longer limited or disturbed by them, one is able to realize one’s fullest potential in order to be able to benefit everyone the best.
Often people are under the influence of their personal horoscope or uncontrollably affected by the changes of the seasons, the weather, the phases of the moon, or where they are in their own life cycle of childhood, adulthood, old age and so on. They are often also under the influence of the cycles of energy within their bodies, for instance the menstrual one or the cycle of puberty through menopause. Such things can cause people great limitations. The Kalachakra system provides a meditational framework within which one can overcome being under the control of these influences, so as to overcome the limitations they cause and thus be able to help others the best. This is the general philosophical framework within which astronomy and astrology are studied in the Tibetan Buddhist system. It is quite different, then, from the Hindu Vedic one, in which they are studied in order to know the exact time for performing the Vedic rituals.
Contrast with the Philosophical Context of Chinese Astrology
In classical Chinese thought, astronomy and astrology were consulted in order to be able to maintain political legitimacy and rule. In Confucian philosophy, the emperor is conceived as the intermediary between heaven and the earth. If the emperor and imperial court and government acted in harmony with the general principles of change in the universe, as marked by the changes in the days and seasons, then all would go well in the empire as they obviously had what was called the “mandate of heaven.” But if they were out of phase, then natural disasters would occur indicating they had lost their political legitimacy. Therefore, in order to maintain harmony and keep political power, it was essential to know the exact times of the seasons and the flow of the universal astrological forces.
Astrology and astronomy, then, were one of the six so-called Chinese occult arts:
- Astrology and astronomy – study of the progress of the planets, constellations, the occurrence of eclipses as portents of misfortune, and so on. It was necessary to monitor these carefully lest one inadvertently lost one’s rule.
- The almanac – so as to be able to arrange the seasons, adjust them with the equinoxes and solstices, and so on. During the Han Dynasty, from the 2nd century BCE to the second CE, for instance, the emperor had to change the location of his court, the color of his robes, his diet and so forth in accordance with the shifting seasons.
- The five elements or agents – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – the cycles of which affects everything.
- Divination – by means of casting milfoil stalks, as interpreted with the I Ching, the Book of Changes, or drilling holes in a tortoise shell, inserting a hot metal rod and interpreting the designs of the resulting cracks. These are the methods for knowing the exact configuration of the yang and yin forces of the universe at any time.
- Other miscellaneous forms of divination.
- The study of forms – the interpretation of physiognomy, specifically the shape of potential government officials’ faces, and geomancy, to arrange buildings and burial places in harmony with natural forces.
Thus, the Chinese philosophical context for astronomy and astrology was also very different from the Tibetan Buddhist one, as formulated with the Kalachakra system. It was political rather than being aimed at overcoming one’s limitations and realizing one’s potentials in order to benefit others the best. Personal horoscopes did not appear in China until around the 8th century, and that was most probably due to Buddhist influence.
The Two Kalachakra Systems of Calculations
It is in connection with the discussion of the external cycles of time, then, that the Kalachakra Tantra presents the laws of motion of the universe and the ephemeris, calendar and almanac calculations. Two systems of mathematical calculation developed, differing primarily in terms of the daily motion constant (rtag-longs) given for the sun, in other words how far the sun moves each day with respect to the stars. From the Root Kalachakra Tantra, compiled from the Buddha’s teachings by King Suchandra of Shambhala, according to tradition in 880 BCE, is derived the “siddhanta” or full tenet system of calculations (grub-rtsis). Although this is the more exact of the two, it was lost, together with the root tantra text, at the time of the founding of the Islamic era, 624 CE according to Buddhist sources, though in fact 622. This full tenet system survived only in fragments cited in later commentaries such as Vimalaprabha or Stainless Light, composed by the Second Holder of the Castes of Shambhala, Pundarika, who ruled 176–76 BCE.
The other is the “karana” or precis system of calculations (byed-rtsis). It comes from the later text, the Abbreviated Kalachakra, composed by the First Holder of the Castes of Shambhala, Manjushri Yashas, who ruled 276–176 BCE. As a precis, it is more condensed and in general less accurate than the full tenet system. It was codified as a system by the 11th Holder of the Castes of Shambhala, Aja, in 806 CE.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, various Tibetan masters reconstructed the full tenet system, and both systems are presently taught. Even when the full tenet system is favored, the precis system is often used for calculating solar and lunar eclipses, since it gives better results. The material presented in the full tenet system is organized in terms of calculating the five planets (gza’-lnga) and the five inclusive calendar features (lnga-bsdus), while in the precis system only the five inclusive calendar features are commonly calculated. These will be discussed in more detail later.
The “Arising from the Vowels” System
The other source of Indian-derived astro material, the Arising from the Vowels Tantra, also known as the Yuddhajaya (g.Yul-rgyal) or Victory in Battles Tantra, is the only Shaivite Hindu tantra (Shaivite means devoted to Shiva) to be translated into Tibetan and included in the Tengyur collection of Indian commentaries. Some material from this tantra is critically discussed and either corrected or discarded as superstition in the Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra itself and its Stainless Light commentary. Further material derived from it is also treated critically in more detail in later Tibetan commentaries to the Kalachakra, such as those by Buton and Kedrub Je.
An example of the “arising from the vowels” system (dbyangs-’char, Skt. svarodaya) is the correlation made between the dates of the lunar month and the vowels of the Sanskrit alphabet. There are five basic families of vowels in Sanskrit, with each family having a short and a long vowel. Each family is correlated respectively with one of the Indian set of five elements:
- a, ā – space
- i, ī – wind
- ṛ, ṝ – fire
- u, ū – water
- ḷ, ḹ – earth
Each of these two can be strengthened from a simple vowel to a diphthong and from there to a semi-vowel:
- a, ha; ā, hā
- e, ya; ai, yā
- ar, ra; ār, rā
- o, va; au, vā
- al, la; āl, lā
Thus, there are 30 vowels in all, and they are correlated, one each, with the thirty dates of a lunar month. The arising earth, water, fire, and wind mandalas from, respectively, the seed syllables lam, vam, ram, and yam derives from this scheme.
This scheme is found in a system of prognostication in which one asks, on a certain date, a question about somebody, for instance about the outcome of his or her sickness or conflict with someone else. One notes the element of the vowel of the date on which the question was asked and also the element of the first vowel of the person’s name. The outcome of the problem can be known by analyzing the relationship between the elements of these two vowels according to a certain scheme. This system is not used nowadays by the Tibetans.
The main feature that derives from the “arising from the vowels” system, however, is the casting of predictive personal horoscopes. In European astrology, the main emphasis in an individual horoscope is to look at the natal situation and from that to analyze and describe the personality. This is not of major interest in the Indian systems, either the Hindu or the Buddhist, although it is treated.
For predictive purposes in European astrology, a progressed chart is made for each year of someone’s life by simply progressing the sun one degree for each year. This amounts to looking at the position of the planets on that number of days after the birth date equivalent to the number of years of age in question. A transit chart is also drawn for the position of the planets actually occurring on the specific day in the future, or at present, for which one is checking. One then compares the natal, progressed and transit charts, specifically noting the angles between the planets of one and those in the others, to see the relation between the basic tendencies, the general trend of the life and the current universal situation and cycles in order to predict what might happen.
In the Indian “arising from the vowels” system common to both Hindu and Buddhist astrology, what is of most interest is to chart the unfolding of a person’s life. This is done in quite a different manner from that just outlined in European astrology. A life’s course of events is calculated and analyzed in terms of periods of time ruled by 9 various planets starting from the time of birth. Each of the heavenly bodies rules sequentially for a specific number of units which varies for each planet in a fixed proportion, the sum of which adds up to 120 units, as follows:
- The sun – 6 units
- The moon – 10
- Mars – 7
- The north node planet – 18
- Jupiter – 16
- Saturn – 19
- Mercury – 17
- The south node planet – 7
- Venus – 20.
The Indian Kalachakra literature contains a similar scheme, but only of 8 periods not 9, which adds up to 108 units and omits a period ruled by the south node planet:
- The sun – 6 units
- The moon – 15
- Mars – 8
- Mercury – 17
- Saturn – 10
- Jupiter – 19
- The north node planet – 12
- Venus – 21.
The life span is calculated from the time of birth and natal moon position, and then divided into periods with these proportions of length, starting with the period ruled by the planet governing the birth constellation of the moon determined in the life span calculation. In the Indian Hindu systems, the maximum lifespan is 120 years, whereas in the Indian Kalachakra textual tradition it is 108. In Tibet, this was reduced to a maximum of 80 years and the scheme from the “arising from the vowels” system was adopted, not the Kalachakra scheme. In the 19th century, the Tibetan master Mipam (Mi-pham ’Jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal rgya-mtsho), revised the maximum life span to 100 years.
For example, suppose someone has a life span of 60 years. This is divided into 120 equal units, which comes to 6 months for each unit. From the natal moon’s position, one calculates which planet will start the ruling sequence. Suppose it is the sun. Since the sun rules for 6 units, the first three years will be ruled by the sun. The next period would be ruled by the moon, which is for 10 units, and so covers the next five years, and so on. There are general interpretations for sun, moon, Mars, etc. periods of a life, modified by the age in life during which it occurs. To interpret just this much is the most general horoscope given. For a more specific interpretation of each of the periods, one must take into consideration the strength of each of their ruling planets in the natal chart.
Furthermore, the period of time ruled by each planet during the life span can be subdivided into 120 smaller periods co-ruled by each of the planets according to the same proportions, starting with the same planet as that which rules the portion being subdivided. This subdivision process can be repeated until very small periods of time during a life span are individually identified and specified by hour, day and rulership. The events during the course of a life can then be predicted quite finely by comparing with the natal chart the ruling, co-ruling, sub-ruling and so forth planets of each of the small periods of time and analyzing the relationships. Nowadays, this is rarely done in a Tibetan horoscope.
Although there is a calculation for people’s life span, one should not think that this is a fatalistic system of predetermination. There is also a calculation of how far one can extend one’s life span if one does many positive, constructive actions and, in fact, for different ways of calculating the life span. A Tibetan horoscope is basically a general prediction of what could happen in a life if one does not do any major positive or negative actions. Much like a European horoscope, it indicates the general potentials with which one is born. But, of course, things can change in accordance with one’s actions and practices, in other words, in accordance with how one uses one’s potentials. Buddhist philosophy emphasizes making the most of one’s good opportunities and restraining from acting out one’s negative impulses and tendencies. Even in a European chart, aspects have a higher and lower significance depending on one’s actions and style of life. This is even more the case in a Tibetan chart.
Contrast with a Hindu Horoscope
As was mentioned, this “arising from the vowels” system has both a classical Hindu and a Buddhist aspect, and these have a number of significant differences. For example, concerning the above method for calculating predictive personal horoscopes, in the most standard Hindu systems the 120-unit proportion of the planets’ rulerships is taken in terms of 120 years rather than a person’s life span. The sequence of planets and the proportions of the periods of time they rule, however, are the same. From the moon’s natal position one calculates where in this 120 period a person’s life cycle begins, and then the periods ruled by each planet are of a standard length for everyone.
If, for instance, the first period in a life is ruled by the sun, this would be for a standard six years. Actually, however, according to the moon’s natal position, the life could start at any point within such a 6-year sun period. The first phase of life, then, would be the amount of this 6-year period left after the birth point. The second phase, that of the moon, however, would be for a fixed 10 years. Each phase can be sub-divided and interpreted as before. By contrast, in the Tibetan Buddhist system, if the first phase of a life is ruled by the sun, it is always a full 6 out of the 120 units of that life span.
In the above examples in which the second phase is that of the moon, in the Hindu horoscope that would be for 10 years and, depending on the time of birth, could cover, for instance, ages 5 up to 15. In the Tibetan horoscope, it would cover 10 out of 120 units of the 60-year lifespan, so only 5 years, from ages 3 up to 8. In a Tibetan horoscope, everyone has periods ruled by each of the nine heavenly bodies, whereas in the Hindu only as many out of the 120-year cycle that fit within the life span.
General Principles of Interpretation
The interpretation of the houses is similar to that of the ancient Greek and Hindu systems, and, although having some shifts in emphasis, differs only slightly from that found in modern European astrology. The areas that each house concerns are as follows:
- 1st house – the body
- 2nd – wealth
- 3rd – siblings and relatives
- 4th – friends
- 5th – children and grandchildren
- 6th – enemies and sickness
- 7th – family and household
- 8th – death
- 9th – religion
- 10th – work
- 11th – gains or where one expands
- 12th – losses or expenditures or, on a higher plane, what will cause one to lose or become liberated from all worldly concerns. It is in this sense that twelfth house comes to represent spiritual matters.
In the Hindu and modern European systems, the 4th house has more emphasis on the home and the 7th on marriage and partnerships.
Also, as with the Hindu systems, the planets are simply placed in their natal signs and houses, with the specific angles between them not being considered in the interpretation. In European astrology, on the other hand, one of the main points noted when making an interpretation is the angles, or aspects between the planets – whether they conjunct, sextile, square, trine or are in opposition to each other. The Tibetan and Hindu systems do consider, however, the general angles between the various signs and houses in which the planets are found, but these relationships vary for each planet involved and are not universal for all planets, signs and houses.
This article and the subsequent ones that follow in this section of the Study Buddhism website derive from a series of lectures I delivered in the Soviet Union many years ago. In March 1990, as part of a teaching and research tour of the Soviet Union and Mongolia, I delivered a series of lectures in Moscow at the Library of Medicine of the Ministry of Health of the U.S.S.R. The lectures were organized and co-sponsored by the Center for Traditional Medicine of the Department of Medical Information (Soyuzmedinform) of the Ministry of Health of the U.S.S.R., under the directorship of Dr. Natalia Lukyanova, and the Central Spiritual Board of Buddhists of the U.S.S.R., under the guidance of its Moscow representative, Tom Rabdanov. The lectures were given in English and translated orally into Russian by Andrey Terentyev. Together with revisions and expansions I later made, they were prepared for publication in Russian, under the title Tibetan Buddhism and Culture in Modern Perspective: A Series of Lectures in the Soviet Union, by Slava Komarovskiy, Elena Shilingovskaya and Andrey Terentyev. They will be published by Soyuzmedinform of the Ministry of Health of the U.S.S.R. The present work is a further expansion and reorganization based on that text.
I wish to express my appreciation and gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Lodi Gyari Rinpoche for their encouragement in this project. I also wish to acknowledge all the help and information I have received during the course of researching this material from Dr. Natalya Lukyanova, Tom Rabdanov, and Andrey Terentyev in Moscow; the late Most Ven. Bandido Khambo Lama J.J. Erdyneev, Ven. Cho Dorji, Ven. Sherab Jamtso, Ven. Bazarsada, Prof. Regbi Pubayev, Dr. Elbert Bazaron and Dr. Viktor Poopyshev in Buryatia; Ven. Gombo Badmaevich Tsybikov and Ven. Jinba Jamtso Tsybenov in Chita; Ven. Tuwang Dorji, Dr. Petr Bitkeev, Dr. Juli Oglaev, Alevtina Ulanova, and Elsa Bakaeva in Kalmykia; Ven. Lama Shinbayol, Dr. Uriy Aranchyn, Dr. Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, Mongush Kenin-Lobsan, and Damdin Kuular in Tuva; Most Ven. Gaadan Gambajov, Ven. Choji Jamtso, Ven. Divasambuu, Ven. Dambajov, Ven. Dr. Mugh Tembrel, Ven. Dr. Natsogdorj, Ven. Nasambogh, Dr. Lubsantseran, Wangchindorj, and L. Terbish in Mongolia; and Ven. Yeshe Lodro Rinpoche, Gyatsho Tshering, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, Dr. Namgyal Qusar, the late Prof. Lodro Gyatso, Prof. Jampa Gyeltsan Dagthon, Tenzin Choegyal and Aleksandar Kocharov in Dharamsala, India. I also wish to thank Ven. Thubten Chodron for her suggestions in simplifying the style and language of the text. Any inadvertent mistakes or confusion left in this work are solely my own responsibility.