Details of Tibetan Astrology: 5 Historical Survey

Historical Development of Astrology in China

Let us now discuss a little about the history of astrology, first in China and how they came to and developed in Tibet. The system of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches combined into a cycle of 60 for counting days is found on Shang Dynasty oracle bones starting from the 16th century BCE. From about the 8th century BCE, the 12 branches were used for numbering years and months. In the Han Dynasty calendar reforms of 104 BCE, the names of the 12 branches were applied to the two-hour astrological periods of the day, and the 60-year cycle of stems and branches to the official count of years. On an unofficial level, however, the years were still referred to simply by the 12 branches, even up to the present.

Although there are claims for its extreme antiquity, the first actual textual formulation of the five elements is with the Grand Norm (洪範, 洪范 Hongfan part of the Book of Documents (書經 书经 Shujing; Classic of History) between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. There the order of the elements is water, fire, wood, metal and earth. By the end of the 3rd century BCE, in a compendium of philosophical views, particularly those associated with the cyclic historical theories of Zou Yan (鄒衍,邹衍, Tsou Yen) and in the classic called Monthly Commands (月令), the present order of wood, fire, earth, metal and water is found. There is no mention of the full relationships of mother-child, enemy-friend, but each is described as producing the next in turn and being overcome by the one after the next. Each element presides over a direction and a season: 

  • Wood over the east and spring
  • Fire over the south and summer
  • Metal over the west and autumn
  • Water over the north and winter
  • Earth over the center and assists all the other elements. 

Correlation with Animal and Element Cycles

By the 1st century CE, the 12 animals became associated with the 12 branches and the 5 elements with the 10 stems, with one element in yang and yin aspect for every two stems. But although the animals might be used as substitutes for the branches, they are not exact equivalences because, as already mentioned, the yin/yang affiliations are different. The branches are alternately yang and yin, starting with yang. As for the animals: 

  • Rat and ox – yin
  • Tiger – yang
  • Hare – yin
  • Dragon, snake, horse and goat – yang
  • Monkey yin but sometimes also yang
  • Cock – yang
  • Dog and pig – yin. 

The counting of element-animal 60-year cycles began in 364 CE, so that the present 27th Chinese cycle began in 1984.

There is much scholarly debate as to whether the Chinese borrowed the animal cycle from its Central Asian neighbors and adapted it to the native system of 12 branches, or the Central Asians borrowed it from the Chinese, since animal names can be translated, whereas the words for the branches and stems are merely phonetic and untranslatable. In any case, the 12 animal cycle is found throughout not only Central, but also Southeast and East Asia. From the end of the 6th century, it is found for the count of years with the Eastern Turks, and within the next centuries it appeared as far west as with the Turkic proto-Bulgarians. It is even found nowadays in parts of the Middle East, such as among the Kurds and in Turkey. 

By the 4th century, the assignment of elements to not only the 10 heavenly stems, but also to each of the 12 earthly branches and 60 stem-branch combinations became standardized. The 10 stems were associated, two each in turn, with first wood, then fire, earth, metal and water. Each of these is the child element of the one before. The 12 branches, with their corresponding animals, were associated with the elements of the months of the seasons as formulated earlier in the Monthly Commands referred to before. 

  • Spring –wood 
  • Summer – fire
  • Autumn – metal
  • Winter – water 
  • The in-between seasons – earth. 

Two months and thus two branches and two animals each were associated with the main four seasons and one of each with each in-between one, although in other contexts, the main seasons are 72 days each and the in-between seasons only 18 days each. 

The sequence begins in mid-winter during the month when the winter solstice occurs. Thus,

  1. 1st branch – winter, water
  2. 2nd – in-between season, earth
  3. 3rd and 4th – spring, wood
  4. 5th – in-between season, earth
  5. 6th and 7th – summer, fire
  6. 8th – in-between season, earth 
  7. 9th and 10th – autumn, metal
  8. 11th – in-between season, earth
  9. 12th – winter, water. 

In the pebble-elements assigned to the 12 animals mentioned before, the life-force elements are precisely this set of elements of the corresponding earthly branches, starting with the rat.

The elements assigned to the 60 stem-branch combinations correspond to the body pebble-elements for each of the 60 animals in the 60-year element-animal cycle. In the Tibetan scheme, they are derived as follows. First, one determines the key-element for each of the animals. These are: 

  • Wood for the first two animals in the Chinese order, rat and bull
  • Water for the next two
  • Iron for the next two. 
  • This sequence of wood, water and iron then repeats, with each for two animals in turn till the end. 

One then checks to see what kind of relation of the key-element the empowering element is, which in this case would refer to the element of the heavenly stem. 

  • If it is the key element’s enemy, the body pebble-element is earth
  • If the friend, fire
  • If the same, iron
  • If the mother, wood
  • If the child, water.

Classical Chinese Systems of Astrology

In the division of classical Chinese astrology known as “four pillars” (四柱,suzhu)or, more popularly, “eight characters” (八字,bazi), the four pillars are the stem-branch combination or “binomial” for the year, month, date and hour of birth. These are made up of the eight characters, namely the characters for the four individual stems and four individual branches. In this type of astrology, these four and eight, as well as the elements associated with each, are analyzed for compatibility and so on, in order to interpret the basic personality and fortune of a person. This system, like that of I Ching astrology, did not actually appear in any Tibetan form, except for some small aspects. 

Early History in Tibet, Mongolia and among the Uighurs

Chinese astro materials came into Tibet before the Indian side. This occurred at the time of King Songtsen gampo, the founder of the great Tibetan Empire. He had among his wives both a Chinese and a Nepali princess, the former of which, Kong-jo, brought with her in 649 CE various Chinese astro, as well as medical texts. Within a couple years, the 12 animal designations for the years was begun. This was practically the exclusive system used in Tibet for the next two centuries. Only in exceptional cases, such as the inscription of the Sino-Tibetan treaty of 821 CE at Lhasa and certain Tibetan inscriptions found in the Dunhuang caves of western Gansu from about the same period, was the 60-year element-animal cycle used, which by then was the custom in China.   

In Mongolia, the 12-animal cycle for years is found in Turkic and Uighur inscriptions starting from the 8th century. Since there were already Eastern Turkic examples of this from the late 6th century, this would undoubtedly be a continuation of that. When the Uighurs fled Mongolia in 840 CE and settled in the Turfan area of East Turkistan and in western Gansu, not far from Dunhuang, both of which then lost their Tibetan domination within a few years, they continued this custom on a popular level. In 1201 CE, Chinggis Khan adopted it from the Uighurs, whom he conquered peacefully, and made it widespread throughout the Mongol Empire. 

The Uighurs also made use of the 60-year element-animal cycle on an official state and Buddhist monastery level, from the time of their move southwestwards in the mid-9th century until at least the end of the 17th century. The version they used, however, was different from that of both Tibet and China. 

In the latter two, the order in which the elements are associated with pairs of years is the standard sequence of wood, fire, earth, iron, water. As was mentioned a short while ago, there are five sets of elements for pebble-calculations associated with each of the 12 animals in their combinations with empowering elements in a 60-year cycle. Of these five, this is the power set. In the classical Chinese system, as was just seen, the cycle of 60 stem-branch combinations is associated with a set of elements different from this, the equivalent of the body-pebble ones. 

In the Uighur manuscripts and documents of this period, the 60-year cycle is specified with a system that seems to be a hybrid of the two. Years are named with combinations of animals and the body set of elements that would more usually appear in conjunction with only the 60 stem-branch pairs. This variant is found in an occasional Tibetan document from Dunhuang during its period of Uighur rule, but is not found elsewhere in the Tibetan tradition. Curiously, it appears also in the Chinese tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

After a period of decline in Tibet in the 9th century, a new wave of Chinese-related astro influence came from the Khotan region of East Turkistan starting in the 10th century. It was amalgamated with what was remembered from the old period material, which had become corrupted. A new definitive system of element calculations was thus made by the Tibetan astrologer named Dharmakara, which now included death, marriage, obstacle and horoscope calculations and geomancy. By the 11th century, the 60-year element-animal cycle was standardly used in Tibet, in its present form and not in the Uighur variation. 

In present-day Tibetan calendars, the royal year number is also given. This is the count of years passed since the ascent of the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tzenpo, in 127 BCE. I do not know when this system of royal years was instituted.

History of the Kalachakra Astro Material in India

The Indian side of the astro materials came into Tibet with the introduction of the Kalachakra Tantra, of which it is part of the first chapter on external cycles of time. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Kalachakra teachings as a whole had been originally given by the Buddha at the Shri Dhanyakataka stupa near present-day Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, South India. They were preserved in the form of the Root Kalachakra Tantra (Dus-‘khor rtsa-rgyud, Skt. Mula Kalachakra Tantra) in Shambhala, a human pure realm to the north, but not quite an actual physical place on this earth. Later in Shambhala, the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra (bsDus-rgyud, Skt. Laghu Kalachakra Tantra) and its commentary Stainless Light (Dri-med ‘od, Skt. Vimalaprabha), were composed. 

It is difficult to know if any of these were in written form, or just transmitted orally. In any case, the Root Kalachakra Tantra, was lost and only the latter two texts were transmitted. They were re-introduced into India by certainly the beginning of the 11th century, perhaps as much as a century earlier, but this is difficult to date. Whether one accepts Shambhala and the traditional historical account or not, in any case this is when the Kalachakra system appeared in written form in India. It was found in the great monastic universities of North India, such as Nalanda, and was spread even to Myanmar. Atisha reported its presence in Java in the early 11th century before he came to Tibet.

In the Stainless Light, mention is made of four Indian astro systems of tenets, including a “Romaka” one, undoubtedly of Greco-Roman origin. The Stainless Light bemoans the fact of these four systems having been corrupted by non-Indic influence. It is difficult to identify what or from where this influence was. The Sanskrit term for non-Indic, “mleccha,” has been used for the Greeks, Arabs, Turks and in general for anyone not speaking Sanskrit. In 1031 CE, the famous Arab astronomer, al-Biruni, visited India and saw the early 6th century compendium of the five most common Indian astro systems, but it is hard to tell if he tampered with them. Among these five is also the “Romaka” or Roman system. As was mentioned earlier, Greek astro influence came to India via the Roman traders from Alexandria to Western India in about the 1st century AD. Perhaps this tampering was due to them. These are historical issues that are very difficult to decide.    

Introduction of the Kalachakra Astro Material to Tibet and Mongolia

In any case, the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra and its commentary Stainless Light were translated from Sanskrit and transmitted to Tibet several times by various translators and masters between the 11th and 13th centuries. It became prominent in the early Sakya and Kagyu traditions, with various further commentaries being written and features from both the Chinese and Indian masters being combined and reworked to derive the distinctive Tibetan astro tradition.

The year 806 CE is cited as the beginning of the Kalachakra calendar reckoning system, which is when Aja, the 11th Holder of the Castes of Shambhala, codified the precis system of mathematics. As was mentioned before, the Kalachakra shares with the Hindu systems the usage of the 60-year Jupiter cycle for the counting of years and refers to it as the “prominent” cycle, after the name of the first of the 60 years. The first year of the first “prominent” 60-year cycle of the Tibetan calendar, which is considered the official date of the introduction of the Kalachakra teachings into Tibet, is the famous predicted number of years found in the Kalachakra literature of “fire-space ocean” after the beginning of the Muslim period in 624 CE, although actually that period began in 622. As was also mentioned before, numbers are specified in terms of code names, referring to common enumerations in pan-Indic literature, and listed in the order of units, tens, hundreds and so on. There are three fires, space is empty like zero, and there are four oceans. Thus “fire space-ocean” is 403 years after 624, or 1027 CE.

When the Kalachakra “prominent” 60-year cycle was correlated with the Chinese 60-year cycle of elements and animals, the year 1027 CE did not correspond to the beginning of a Chinese cycle, which always starts with a wood-male-rat year, but rather with its fourth year. This is why the Tibetan cycles begin with a fire-female-hare year, why in most cases they begin the count of the 12 animals with the hare and why, when a day is divided into 12 periods after the names of the cycle of animals, the first period, dawn, from 5 to 7 A.M. wristwatch-time, is that of the hare. Also, it is in keeping with the Indian system of solar days that a day begins at dawn. The first period of the classical Chinese day, on the other hand, is from 11 P.M. to 1 A.M. and is the period of the rat, the first animal in the Chinese sequence. Thus, as there is a three-year discrepancy, the present Tibetan seventeenth cycle began 1987, whereas the present Chinese 27th cycle began 1984, as was just noted a moment ago.

Although the start of the first “prominent” 60-year cycle was in 1027 CE, it was not until the second half of the 13th century that the Kalachakra calendar became the rule in Tibet. The years, however, were still regularly referred to by their element-animal designation, rather than by their names in the “prominent” cycle. The mathematical calculations for the calendar, however, were from the Kalachakra system.

One of the eminent early Sakya masters and authors on astro studies was Chogyal Pagpa (Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa) in the second half of the 13th century. He was the tutor of the Mongol ruler of China, Khubilai Khan, and the one who is credited, along with his uncle, Sakya Pandita, with bringing Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia. He undoubtedly brought the full Tibetan astro system as well. Furthermore, it was most probably through first his uncle’s, and then his and his successors’ being made the secular rulers of Tibet by the Mongol Khans who, starting with Khubilai, were the emperors of the Yuan Dynasty of China, that the Kalachakra calendar became the official one for Tibet.

Magic-Square Number Cycles

In the classical Chinese system, the nine magic-square numbers became linked with the 60-year element-animal cycle in the second half of the 14th century, during the early Ming Dynasty. The correlation was back-dated to start with the 16th Chinese 60-year cycle, which began in 1324 during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Since it takes 180 years for the sequence of magic-square numbers and element-animals to repeat, the cycles were grouped in threes and given the names upper, middle and lower cycles. Thus the present Chinese twenty-seventh cycle, which began in 1984, is a lower cycle, and the next 180-year period begins with the 28th cycle in 2044.

It is uncertain when the magic-square numbers for the years became linked with the element-animal names in the Tibetan element calculation system, although it may well have been at this same time. As was noted before, the Tibetans start this 180-year period with a wood-male-rat year, the same as do the Chinese. The three 60-year cycles constituting the 180-year periods are called first, second and third. The present Tibetan 17th cycle, then, which began in 1987, is a third cycle and, for the sake of the magic-square number of the year, it is taken to have actually begun in 1984.

In the Bon variant of Tibetan astrology, it is said that the first 180-year period began when the first Bonpo master taught it 3900 years ago from 1984. Therefore, in the Bon system, 1984 is the first year of the 3rd 60-year cycle of the 21st 180-year period. This would place the initial year of the Bon calendar at 1916 BCE.

Astro Lineages in Tibet 

At present there are two major groups of lineages of Tibetan astro studies, the Tsurpu (Tshur-phu) and the Pugpa (Phug-pa). The former is derived from the early 14th century commentaries to the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Kar-ma Rang-‘byung rDo-rje), of Tsurpu Monastery. This system, found exclusively in the Karma Kagyu tradition, originally used the precis system for all its calculations. At present, it uses it for calculating the positions of only the sun and the moon and employs the full tenet system for calculating the positions of the planets.

Derivative from the Tsurpu system is the Chatuhpitha-Kalachakra calculation system. It was started in the late 16th century by Drugchen Pemakarpo ('Brug-chen Padma dkar-po) and is followed by the Drugpa Kagyu tradition and the Bhutanese. For this reason, it is sometimes also referred to as Bhutanese calculations (‘Brug-rtsis). It combines material from both the Kalachakra Tantra and the Chatuhpitha or Four Seat Tantra (gDan-bzhi rgyud). The major difference between this and the Tsurpu system is that the lunar weekday calculated is taken to be the passed date rather than the present one. For instance, if a specific Wednesday is calculated to be the 9th of the month in the Tsurpu system, that 9th is considered in the Bhutanese system to be the passed day and the 10th is taken as the Wednesday. The Drigung Kagyu tradition follows a system that combines the Tsurpu and Pugpa traditions.

The Pugpa system or lineage was started in the 15th century by the three masters with “gyatso” as part of their names: Pugpa Lhundrub Gyatso (Phug-pa Lhun-grub rgya-mtsho), Kedrub Norzang gyatso (mKhas-grub Nor-bzang rgya-mtsho), and Tsangchung Chodrag Gyatso (gTsang-chung Chos-grags rgya-mtsho). Based on the Kalachakra commentaries by the 14th-century Sakya master Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen grub), it emphasizes the full tenet system of mathematical calculations reconstructed from fragments of the Root Kalachakra Tantra. This system is currently followed by the Gelug, Sakya and Nyingma traditions and is the most widespread one. It has been followed by the Kalmyk Mongol group within the Soviet Union. 

The difference between the two major Tibetan systems, the Pugpa and Tsurpu, can be seen in the way in which the lunar calendar is brought into correlation with the solar one, but these are not very major. In the late 17th century text White Aquamarine (Bai-dyur dkar-po) by Desi Sanggye Gyatso (sDe-srid Sang-rgyas rgya-mtsho), the full tenet and precis systems are harmonized, and this is what is still followed today. He used the full tenet system for the calendar and almanac, but included in the almanac the data from the precis system for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. 

One development within the Pugpa system is called the broad Chinese-style calculations (rgya-rtsis), or yellow calculations (gser-rtsis). It was started by Mergan Kachupa (Mer-rgan dKa’-bcu-pa) during the second half of the 17th century. “Mergan” is a Mongolian title meaning “erudite,” and “Kachupa” is a title for a master of either astrology, medicine or the Buddhist teachings and was especially used among the Mongols. Even today, at the Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute, graduates of the medical and astro faculties are awarded the degree “Kachupa.” Mergan Kachupa was the translator for the Fifth Dalai Lama at the time of his visit to China in 1652 at the invitation of the first Manchu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Shunzhi, and from the first word of his title, he was most likely a Mongol. His system was favored by the and popularized under the patronage of the 18th-century Manchu Emperor of China, Qianlong. 

This yellow calculation system uses the basic Kalachakra calendar calculations of the Pugpa tradition, and in this way totally differs in its framework from the actual classical Chinese calendar. But the way in which double-months are added is very similar, though not always equivalent to that used in the Chinese system. Unlike other Tibetan and Indian systems which all have doubled and omitted dates of the lunar month, the calendar from the broad Chinese-style calculations, like the Chinese one, does not have this feature. Months have either 29 or 30 days, numbered consecutively and determined according to several traditions of calculation. The dates for the beginning of each month do not always coincide either with those of the classical Chinese calendar, or with those of the Pugpa system, although often they do. 

In addition, element-animal combinations, magic-square numbers and trigrams are assigned to each date in a manner different from that of the Chinese-derived element or black system. It is equivalent to what is found in the classical Chinese system, with the sequence starting with a wood-rat day, similar to beginning with the first binomial of stem one and branch one. It proceeds according to the usual 60-member cycle, with elements repeating twice in a row. The sequence of magic-square numbers and trigrams for the dates are begun on this wood-rat day, but since there are never 360 days in a year, the 360-member sequence of element, animal, number and trigram begins on a different date each year. 

One lineage of this yellow calculation system is currently used in Inner Mongolia. Another lineage has its data recorded in the Tibetan Pugpa almanac, and is sometimes used for making the “earth-ox” prediction for the general weather patterns for the year. Some differences between these two lineages will be indicated later, for instance in the discussion of doubled months. 

The Khalkha Mongols of Mongolia, the Buryats and undoubtedly in the past the Tuvinians of the Soviet Union follow a variant of the Pugpa tradition known as the New Geden (dGe-ldan gsar-pa) or New Positive lineage. This was started in 1786 CE by a Mongour Mongol master of both astrology and medicine, Sumpa Kenpo Yeshe Paljor (Sum-pa mKhan-po Yes-shes dpal-'byor), known to the Mongolians as Ishbaljor. The Mongours are a Mongolian people living in the Kokonor Lake area of the northeastern Tibetan province of Amdo. This system is based on the 15th century commentaries to the Abridged Kalachakra Tantra written by Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang). Most of the calculations are made following the same rules as those of the Pugpa, and the 60-year cycles are counted the same as well. However, despite the 60-year “prominent” cycle starting with a fire-female-hare year, the starting point for the calculations of a 60-year period is taken as a fire-male-horse year, the 40th year of the cycle, since Shakyamuni Buddha was born in such a year. Because of this difference, the Mongolian calendar works out to be unique.

The Bon system of astrology is called the “pure calculations of the three analyses” (dpyad-gsum dag-rtsis). Although the Bon system is considered by the Bonpos to be the most ancient, pre-dating any of the Buddhist systems, the codification of the system in textual form was done by Kyongtrul Jigme Namkai Dorje (sKyong-sprul 'Jig-med nam-mkha'i rdo-rje), who died around 1953 and was born in the 1880’s. This system has outer, inner, secret and more secret pure calculations. The outer and inner ones correspond to the Pugpa tradition, with only some minor variations and a slightly different way of approaching some of the calculations. The secret and more secret ones have more precise calculations than the outer and inner.