Details of Tibetan Astrology: 3 Animal-Signs and Elements

Overview of the Chinese-Derived Material

Let us now turn to the Chinese-derived, or black calculations, which are also called element calculations (‘byung-rtsis). It adds a few more features to the Tibetan calendar, such as correlations with animal and element cycles, like the year of the iron-horse. It also provides further sets of variables to examine for both analyzing the personality as well as for making general predictive personal horoscopes, which then must be integrated with the horoscope information derived from the white calculation system. 

This system contains calculations for five major areas: 

  • Yearly progressions – to see what will happen during each year of a life. 
  • Illnesses (nad-rtsis) – determining if they were caused by harmful spirits and, if so, what type of spirit and which rituals to perform to appease them, and also predicting how long the illnesses will last. 
  • The dead (dur-rtsis) – based on when death occurs, calculations are made for what time and in which direction to remove the corpse from where it has been laid in state and take it to its burial or cremation. Classical Chinese astrology always emphasizes and interprets the direction in which various activities begin, not only funerals, but also journeys, where visitors come from and so on. This is found in Tibetan astrology as well, and the directions will vary from month to month. The actual time of the cremation or funeral is not calculated. The type of ceremonies to perform for the dead are also determined in this system, particularly if harmful spirits were involved with the death. 
  • Obstacles (keg-rtsis) – when they will occur in the calendar in general and during a specific person’s life. 
  • Marriage (bag-rtsis) – particularly the harmony between the perspective couples. Element calculations, then, are used primarily for astrological purposes. 

As was the case with the Indian-derived side, there are many features that this Chinese-derived system share in common with the classical Chinese astro schools. But the way they are developed and used by the Tibetans has many differences. 

The 60-Year Cycle of Animals and Elements

In the element calculation system, the calendar is correlated to cycles of 60 years, with each year ruled successively by one of 12 animals. In the classical Chinese order of listing them, they are, in terms of the animals used in the Tibetan system: 

  • Rat
  • Bull
  • Tiger
  • A type of large hare (yos)
  • Dragon
  • Snake
  • Horse
  • Sheep
  • Monkey
  • Bird
  • Dog 
  • Pig. 

In the Tibetan system, however, the sequence begins with the 4th of these, the hare, the reason for which shall be discussed shortly. Thus, the place in the sequence at which the 60-year cycle begins is different. Actually, for years, days and hours, the Tibetans begin the sequence with the hare, but for months, with the tiger. It is a bit complicated. 

In the various cultures that have adapted this 12-animal sequence, there is some variance in terms of the animals used:

  • The Mongolian variant of the Tibetan system – cow instead of bull; hen instead of bird 
  • Chinese – ox instead of bull; mostly goat instead of sheep; cock or rooster instead of bird
  • Vietnamese – cat instead of hare 
  • Turkic – fish instead of dragon; boar instead of pig; like the Mongolian, cow instead of bull; like the Chinese, cock instead of bird. 

This list of 12 animals is intertwined with an empowering element for the year, which is one of the classical Chinese set of five:

  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Earth
  • Iron
  • Water. 

According to the Chinese worldview, these 5 are agents or active principles that affect the material substance of the world, rather than being the actual material constituents of the universe as are the Greek and Indian elements. 

In the Chinese language, metal is listed instead of iron. Since the Chinese word “metal” is also the common word for gold, the Uighurs of East Turkistan, translating from Chinese, used the term “gold” in their listing of the five elements. When the Uighurs occasionally substituted the term “iron,” for instance in the 14th century, this is undoubtedly from Tibetan influence. In Tibetan, the word for iron is used in the two-word compound meaning metal in general, but the word by itself only means iron. The Mongolian equivalent also means iron. 

Each element rules two years in a row, the first being a male and the second a female year. Thus, it takes 60 years for a specific combination to repeat, such as the wood-male-rat year, for instance, the first in the classical Chinese listing, or the fire-female-hare year, the first in the Tibetan.

In the Mongolian variant of the Tibetan system, when the name of the year is sometimes given in Mongolian, the color of the empowering element is used rather than the name of the element itself. 

  • Wood – blue
  • Fire – red
  • Earth – yellow
  • Iron – white 
  • Water – black. 

These color assignments are slightly different from the Tibetan ones used in other contexts, for which wood is green and water can be either black or blue. Also, instead of calling the two years empowered by an element the male and female years, in Mongolian the first of the two is assigned the simple adjective form of the color and the second a derivative form of the adjective, like blue rat, bluish cow, red tiger, reddish hare, and so on. When the Mongols write in Tibetan, however, they use the Tibetan style of nomenclature.

Comparison with the Chinese Stems and Branches

The Tibetan astro system does not employ the classical Chinese system of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches, which the Chinese correlate with the 60-year cycle and emphasize far greater in their calendar and astrology. The 10 stems and 12 branches each proceed one at a time in sequence to form pairs, thus: 

  • Stem 1 branch 1
  • Stem 2 branch 2, up to 
  • Stem 10 branch 10, then 
  • Stem 1 branch 11
  • Stem 2 branch 12
  • Stem 3 branch 1, and so on. 

The Mayans had a similar scheme intertwining 13 numbers and 20 names for enumerating the days.

The stems are alternately yang and yin, and later they were correlated with the 5 Chinese elements in the order mentioned just a moment ago, with each consecutive yang and yin pair being linked with one element, starting with wood. This conforms with the Tibetan years being in pairs, male and female, for each element in turn. Furthermore, the 12 branches are also alternately yang and yin. For both series, the odd numbers are yang and the even yin. 

When these stems and branches are combined into a 60-year cycle, it works out that yang stems always pair with yang branches and yin with yin. This also corroborates the assignment of male and female years in the Tibetan system. The yang and yin affiliations of the 12 branches, however, do not match those of the 12 animals in the classical Chinese system, and thus a complete equivalence between the two series of 12 cannot be made.

In classical Chinese astrology, the stems and branches are used in combination with each other for years, months, days and hours, whereas the 12 animals are used only with the year and hour and, in combination with one of the 5 elements, only for the year, and then, only sometimes. In the Tibetan system of Chinese-derived material, on the other hand, the animal cycle is used for years, months, lunar weekdays and hours, and always in combination with an element. One should keep in mind that “hour” here means a two-hour astrological period of the day.

Gesar Divination

The only place where the stems and branches are found directly used in Tibet is in the system of prognostication called Gesar divination. This is actually the popular Chinese system found in Buddhist temples throughout all Chinese cultural areas of Asia. 60 sticks, each having one of the stem and branch combinations, are placed in a container and rotated until one falls out. One then asks a priest to interpret from it the answer to one’s question. Among the Chinese, this form of divination has been far more popular than that of the I Ching

In China, this system of prognostication was associated with Guan Yu (關羽, 关羽), also known as Guan Di (關帝,关帝), a 2nd century CE general made famous in the novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He was deified by the Chinese and widely worshipped during the Ming Dynasty, particularly in the 16th century. The Manchus proclaimed him as their War God and the protecting deity for their Qing Dynasty which, starting in the mid-17th century, ruled China, Mongolia and, later, East Turkistan, and claimed to exercise influence over Tibet, although that was minimal. 

Under the Manchu Kangxi Emperor, in the early 18th century, Guan Yu was identified with Gesar of Ling, the hero of the great Gesar epic of the Tibetans, Mongols and Buddhist Uighurs. This was part of the Manchu policy of trying to win the favor of these three peoples by courting their customs and beliefs and adapting them to Chinese ones in order to neutralize their nationalism and make them all of one culture, mainly Chinese. The Manchus built many Gesar Temples, sometimes called Chinese Temples, in Lhasa, Urga (that is, modern-day Ulaan Baatar), Amdo, Inner Mongolia and the Sino-Mongolian-Tibetan borderlands, in all of which this Gesar divination was subsequently practiced.

Thus, the Chinese system of 10 stems and 12 branches never actually became part of the Tibetan astro system, nor was it integrated with other Chinese-derived materials. The mainstay remained the 12 animals and 5 elements. For divination, the Tibetans have always preferred their own Buddhist systems involving either three dice or the beads of a rosary. Tibetan divination is done in the tantric meditational context of visualization of oneself as a Buddha-figure and invoking another special Buddha-figure, most often Palden Lhamo or Tara. It can only be practiced after having completed the formal meditational retreat on that figure with the recitation of hundreds of thousands of mantras.

Mother, Child, Enemy, Friend Relations of the Five Elements

The five elements have four sets of relations with one another: specific ones will be either the mother, child, enemy or friend of specific others. 

  • In the sequence wood, fire, earth, iron, water, the child of each element is the one immediately following it. The child of water is wood, and so the sequence should be conceived as a circle. 
  • The mother of each element is the one preceding it, for instance the mother of fire is wood. 
  • The friend of each is the one after the next, for instance the friend of wood is earth.
  • The enemy of each is the one before the preceding element, so the enemy of fire is water. 

These relations are used extensively in the Chinese-derived astro calculations, as well as in the Chinese-derived material for medical astrology found in the Tibetan medical system. An example in the astro system will be seen shortly with the calculation for the yearly progression of a person’s natal element. In the medical system, there is a seasonal influence on the pulse. Each season is correlated with one of the five Chinese elements, as are the vital and hollow organs and their pulses. As a consequence of this, in medical astrology predictions about the general course of the future during a particular season can be made by interpreting the pulses of the various organs in terms of their ruling elements being the mother, child, enemy or friend of the element ruling that season. 

In classical Chinese medicine, as a consequence of the organs being correlated with the elements, then if a disease arises in an organ of one element, it is likely to give rise to complications in the organs that are of its child element. Likewise, medicines that strengthen an organ of one element will have a beneficial effect on the organs of its child element as well. This principle is not asserted in Tibetan medicine.

These four relations are also involved, with each element correlated to a different color string, in the calculations for the weaving of special web-like constructions used to house meditational figures and also to ward off obstacles, both in the Tibetan Buddhist and Bon systems. In the latter, space-harmonizing webs (nam-mkha’) are similarly woven to balance the various elements of one’s natal chart.

Progressed Element-Animal Combinations

In addition to a natal combination of animal and element for one’s year of birth, a progressed combination is also derived for each year of age, but calculated in a different way for males and females. In fact, most of the Chinese-derived calculations are done differently for men and for women. 

  • For all males, the tiger is taken as the progressed animal for age one. This is like the sequence of months beginning with tiger, which shall be explained a bit later. Each successive year is assigned the next animal in ascending order, so after tiger, then hare, dragon, snake and so on. 
  • For all females, age one is monkey, which is the 7th animal ahead, in other words the opposite to the tiger. Each successive year is ruled by the next animal in reverse order, so next comes sheep, horse, snake and so forth. 

Thus, everyone of the same gender has the same progressed animal for the same year of age. 

The progressed empowering element, however, is derived from the natal one and thus is different depending on the year of birth. 

  • For males, the child element of the natal one is for ages one and two, then its child for ages three and four, etc. 
  • For females, the mother element of the natal one is for age one, then its mother for ages two and three, its mother for four and five, and so on. 

Each natal combination has an interpretation, and the progressed one is analyzed in relation to the natal one to predict how that particular year of age will be.

The Concept of Age

It should be noted that one’s age, in both the Tibetan and Chinese systems, refers to the number of calendar-years during which one has been alive, regardless of how short that period of time might be in any particular year. In both systems, on a popular level the calendar year from which age is reckoned begins at the Tibetan or Chinese New Year, which roughly corresponds to sometime in February, although the two New Years hardly ever coincide. This will be discussed later. For precise astrological purposes, however, age is reckoned from the start of the eleventh Tibetan month in the Tibetan Chinese-derived element system and from the winter solstice in the classical Chinese system itself. These two points are also roughly together, but again hardly ever coincide with each other. Tibetan age, then, is not an equivalent concept to the European idea of age, which counts the number of full years passed since one’s birth. 

This Tibetan system may perhaps be more easily understood by considering an example in terms of the European calendar. I was born December 10, 1944. When I was born, I was one year of age, because I was alive during 1944. It makes no difference that I was alive for only three weeks during that year, but still I was alive for some period during 1944. When January 1, 1945 arrived, I was two, because now I was also alive during a second year, 1945. This is the concept of age in the Tibetan system, and this is the reason why everyone becomes one year older at Tibetan New Year and Tibetans in general do not celebrate or count birthdays in the European manner.

Pebble-Elements and Calculations

Each of the 12 animals in its various combinations within a 60-year cycle has a set of 5 associated elements used for what is called pebble-calculations (rdel). There are: 

  • Life-force (srog)
  • Body (lus)
  • Power or capacity (dbang)
  • Valley-of-fortune (klung
  • Life-spirit (bla) elements. 

The first four are also found in classical Chinese astrology, where power is referred to as wealth. Life-spirit or the organizing principle in life is more of a Tibetan concept, found in Bon as well, and which in connection with Tibetan medicine concerns one form of mental disease. 

In Tibetan, “valley-of-fortune” is also called “horse of the valley-of-fortune” (klung-rta) and “wind-horse” (rlung-rta). In Chinese, this is called “post-horse,” a fresh horse found waiting at a post-stage for the post-carrier to continue his journey, and which thus signifies good fortune for travel and success. In Tibetan, the words “valley-of-fortune,” “wind,” and the Old Tibetan “post-stage” are homonyms, and therefore became interchangeable. This is the reason why pictures of horses are often printed on Tibetan prayer-flags, and the flags themselves are often called “wind-horse.” The custom of prayer-flags is a common feature found in Central Asian shamanic cultures and Bon.

As for the use of the five pebble-elements in Tibetan astrology, one calculates the natal ones for the animal of one’s birth year (lo-rtags) and also the five for a particular transiting year, such as the present one. In the astro lineages followed in Tibet itself, this is calculated the same for males and females, while in the Tibetan lineage followed in Mongolia, it is different for the two sexes. One then notes what kind of relation of the natal pebble-element the transit element is. Each of the four types of relation – mother, child, enemy and friend – as well as their being the same, is then correlated to a specific combination of one to three variegated pebbles, white or black, represented in writing by circles and crosses respectively. 

Based on the analysis of these combinations, one can tell 

  • From the life-force pebble-elements about possible danger to the life that year
  • From the body ones about health and physical harm
  • From the power ones about success, such as in business
  • From the valley-of-fortune ones about general fortune and travel
  • From the life-spirit ones about the well-being and stability of one’s basic organizing principle of life. 

If there are difficult relations during that year, religious ceremonies or pujas are recommended to counteract these disharmonies.

Weekdays and Constellations Associated with the 12 Animal Signs

Each of the 12 animals also has associated with it three weekdays:

  • A life-force (srog-bza’
  • Life-principle (bla-gza’
  • Deadly one (gshed-bza’

Also associated with each are six lunar constellations:

  • A life-force (srog-skar)
  • Life-principle (bla-skar)
  • Power (dbang-skar)
  • Obstacle (skeg-skar)
  • Harm (btub-skar
  • Deadly one (gshed-skar). 

By checking in the almanac the lunar weekday and the moon’s constellation, derived according to the Kalachakra system and explained a little later, and comparing them with the sets of weekdays and constellations associated with the animal of an individual’s year of birth, one determines which types of actions are auspiciously undertaken or not on that date. 

This is an aspect of medical astrology and is especially consulted by Tibetan physicians when determining the best day for special medical treatment for a patient, such as moxabustion or gold needle acupuncture. The decision is based primarily on the weekday. Life-force and life-spirit ones would be chosen, and deadly ones avoided.

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