Details of Tibetan Astrology 6: New Year and Seasons

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Mongolian or Tibetan Months and New Year      

Chinggis Khan, the grandfather of Khubilai Khan, had already adopted from the Uighurs, at the beginning of the 13th century, the 12-animal count for years and made it standard for his empire. According to one account, Chinggis Khan is the one who introduced the term “Mongolian months” (hor-zla), which corresponded to and were a substitute designation for the Chinese ones, on the occasion of his conquest in 1207 CE of the Tangut kingdom known as Kharakhota in Mongolian, Minyag (Mi-nyag) in Tibetan and Xixia in Chinese, in the general region of western Gansu and western present-day Inner Mongolia. 

When the Tibetan calendar was introduced to the Mongol Empire in the middle of that same century, the first Mongolian month was kept as the start of the year, in keeping with the Chinese custom, even though it is two months earlier than the first Kalachakra month. This was adapted in Tibet as well, so that there was uniformity concerning the beginning of the year throughout the Mongol Empire. In Tibet, the Mongolian months were alternatively referred to as Tibetan months (bod-zla), and even today the two designations are used interchangeably. 

The first Kalachakra month, then, corresponds to the third Mongolian month, so that at present even though the Tibetan new year begins on the first Mongolian month and is called the beginning of the new “prominent” year, the actual starting point used in the calendar calculations is not until two months later. Chinese and Tibetan New Years, however, still do not always coincide. This is because each of these calendar systems has its own mathematical formula for adding leap-months (zla-zhol), and determining the start and length of each month, which will be discussed a little later.

The Mongolian months are called by their numbers, first month, second and so on, as are the Chinese months. The Kalachakra months, on the other hand, are named, like their Hindu counterparts, after the lunar constellation in which the full moon occurs. The first Kalachakra month, then, is called Spica, or literally the “Black One” (nag-pa), “Chaitra” in Sanskrit, the name of a constellation near Libra at the opposition to Aries. The name of the month as the Black One has nothing to do, then, with inauspiciousness.

Comparison of Kalachakra and Various Hindu New Years 

Most of the Indian Hindu calendars also begin with Chaitra, both the Hindu religious calendars, which are solar-lunar, and the Indian civil calendars, which are purely solar. Chaitra is the month, then, during which the sun conjuncts the cusp of Aries. Although the Indian Hindu systems of astrology originally used a fixed star zodiac, they switched to using a precession of the equinox factor to convert to the more physically accurate European system. In the modern Indian calendars, therefore, both religious and civil, Chaitra and the new year begin during the month in which the sun conjuncts the cusp of Aries according to the sidereal zodiac position of Aries. In the sidereal zodiac, the cusp of Aries is taken as the sun’s position at the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere.

In the North Indian religious systems following the Suryasiddhanta or Sun System of Tenets, the month begins with the first day after the full moon, with the month being named after the moon’s constellation position on that full moon day on the last day of the previous month. In South Indian systems, it begins with the first day after the new moon. In the modern North Indian Hindu calendar, then, Chaitra and the new year begin the day after the full moon directly before the vernal equinox. More research needs to be done to see if the current South Indian Hindu calendar follows suit and begins Chaitra with the day after the new moon directly before the vernal equinox. In the modern Shaka calendar, Chaitra begins at the vernal equinox itself, while in the Vikrami eight days earlier. 

The Kalachakra year begins with Chaitra reckoned according to the fixed star zodiac. This is the month, then, during which the sun actually conjuncts the cusp of the constellation Aries as observed in the sky, which is the point where the first of the 27 lunar constellations occurs. Undoubtedly before the Moghul period and the change in the Hindu astro systems, the Hindu and Buddhist Chaitras roughly coincided. The North Indian Hindu Chaitra would start the day after the full moon before the sun entered the fixed-star Aries, while the Kalachakra one starts the day after the new moon before this day.

Nowadays, then, due to the precession of the equinox, the Indian new year, according to its various religious and civil calendars, and thus Chaitra, are at least a month or more before the Kalachakra Chaitra and new year.

Kalachakra, as well as Mongolian and Chinese months, then, all start from the first date after the new moon. This is in accordance with the South Indian tradition, since Kalachakra was first taught near present-day Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, South India. This was on the full moon of Chaitra.

Comparison of Tibetan and Chinese New Years

In order to understand why the Chinese, and consequently the Mongolian and Tibetan New Years begin two months prior to the Kalachakra one, usually at the new moon in February, we must review the concept of the five Chinese seasons associated with the five elements. As was mentioned, this system was formulated in the 3rd century BCE in China and has its influence in Tibetan medicine in terms of seasonal pulses. 

Spring is wood, summer fire, autumn metal, winter water and the four in-between seasons earth. Each of the four major seasons is 72 days in length, while the in-between seasons are 18 days each. The equinoxes and solstices occur at the very middle of the major seasons. In some contexts, the four major seasons are constituted of two months each, associated with their actual elements, and then one in-between month associated with earth. But, either way, the build-up to each of the four seasons begins at the beginning of the month prior to the one in which the equinox or solstice occurs. The new year begins with the build-up toward spring, which would be two new moons before the vernal equinox, and this works out to approximately sometime in February. This varies due to the addition of leap-months. Since the classical Chinese and Tibetan rules for adding doubled months and determining the length of the months is different, then, as noted already, the Chinese and Tibetan New Years mostly do not exactly coincide.

Chinese-Derived Astrological New Year 

For the Chinese-derived element calculations done in the Tibetan system and used for astrological purposes, however, the year of a particular combination of element and animal starts at the 11th Mongolian month, which is the 9th Kalachakra month, and thus four months prior to the start of the “prominent” year with which it is associated. This is the month starting closest to the winter solstice, which is likewise when the European year begins. The assignment in this tradition of the sequence of magic-square numbers and trigrams for the dates is also begun on the first day of the 11th Mongolian month. 

This is all in keeping with the classical Chinese system which, although not linking the months with the 12 animals, but rather with the 12 earthly branches, begins the sequence with the 11th month as the first month for astrological calculations, though not the official first month of the year. An indication of this was seen before with the classical Chinese assignment of the 9 magic-square numbers to the dates, in which the ascending sequence is started from the date having square-number one that falls directly prior to the winter solstice. Also, it was seen in the Chinese way of counting age, with each person becoming one year older at the winter solstice. But whereas when making the correlations the Chinese assign the 11th month as branch number one, the Tibetan system, using animals, does not assign it the Tibetan first animal, the hare, nor the Chinese first one, the rat, but rather the one before the hare, namely the tiger, which is the twelfth in the Tibetan sequence and the third in the Chinese.

Chinese Seasons According to Shao Yung

The reason why the classical Chinese astro system and, through its influence, the Tibetan one as well, start with the 11th month for astrological purposes is because of the mid-11th century I Ching theories of the Chinese master Shao Yong (邵雍, Shao Yung) concerning the year beginning with the re-emergence of yang forces and his presentation of the seasons. He is the one credited with codifying I Ching astrology. In his system, the 12 months are correlated with 12 of the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. Yang lines of a hexagram are unbroken and represent heat; yin are broken and represent cold. There are four seasons, and each has three months: the prelude, middle and finale. They represent the gradual build-up to that season, rather than its unfolding, which is the European way of considering the seasons. This I Ching presentation of the seasons, then, is different from that of Zou Yan’s five seasons correlated with the five elements. 

The finale build-up month of winter is when all the lines of the hexagram are yin, broken, which corresponds to the culmination of that month, the winter solstice, when the sun has gone its furthest south in the sky in the northern hemisphere. That culmination may take place either at the end of the finale build-up month or the beginning of the next build-up month, depending on when the new moon occurs in relation to the winter solstice. After that, as the sun begins to move northwards, it goes through the prelude, middle and finale build-up months of spring. The corresponding hexagrams have a yang line entering in the bottom place, then two and then three of them, so that the hexagram of the finale month of spring has three yang lines on the bottom and three yin on the top. This corresponds to the vernal equinox that culminates the finale month of spring.

The other three seasons can be understood in a similar fashion. The three summer months begin with further yang lines entering the hexagram. At the finale month of summer, they are all yang or unbroken lines, which represents the full build-up to the culmination point, the summer solstice, when the sun has reached its northernmost limit. As the sun begins to go back south, the three months of autumn begin with one yin line entering the bottom place of the hexagram. The finale one with three yin topped by three yang lines represents the culmination with the autumnal equinox when the ecliptic or pathway of the sun is again midway in the belt of the zodiac and thus crossing the stellar equator. The winter three months then begin, culminating with six yin lines in its hexagram and the solstice as before. 

This sequence, then, begins with the prelude month of spring, which corresponds to the Chinese and consequently to the Mongolian and Tibetan 11th month. This is assigned as the first astrological month and the animal name tiger. In the Tibetan system, along with the animal name of each month is given its corresponding month within the Chinese seasons, for instance prelude month of spring and so on, according to the above scheme. Hexagrams, however, are neither referred to nor ever used.

It can be noted that in the classical Chinese I Ching astro system, the same 12 hexagrams are assigned to the 12 two-hour periods of the day. The yang lines again are light and the yin dark. Sunset and sunrise, which culminate the periods ending 5 P.M. and 5 A.M., are half-light half-dark, while midnight and midday, which culminate the periods ending 11 P.M. and 11 A.M., are all dark or all light. Midnight and midday, then, are seen as the times when the sun reaches its extreme limit of climbing in the sky or descending, parallel to the view of the solstices being the extremes of the sun’s southern and northern motions. Therefore, as with the correlation with the 12 months, the day begins with the period 11 P.M. to 1 A.M. when the first light or yang line enters the hexagram that had been all dark or yin lines. Also, as in the case of the 12 months, this is assigned the first of the 12 branches. 

In the Tibetan system, as mentioned before, the first period of the day is 5 A.M. to 7 A.M. and is the period of the hare. That makes the period 11 P.M. to 1 A.M. the rat, which as the first animal in the Chinese sequence corresponds to the first earthly branch.

If this 12 hexagram correlation is the explanation for why perhaps the Chinese-derived calculations begin with the 11th Mongolian month for astrological purposes, there is still the issue of why this month is assigned as the month of the tiger, the 12th in the Tibetan and third in the Chinese sequence, rather than as the month of the rat to parallel the classical Chinese assignment to it of the first earthly branch, or as the month of the hare to parallel the Tibetan assignment of animals to the 12 time periods of the day. My personal hypothesis is that this might be an influence from the five elements-five seasons reckoning system from the Monthly Commands that was mentioned before. 

It will be recalled that in that system, the month having the equinox or solstice is in the middle of the season, and each season starts with the prior month. The month with the winter solstice is correlated with the rat and the first earthly branch, while that with the vernal equinox with the hare and the fourth branch. Spring, then, begins with the month prior to that of the hare, namely the month of the tiger. Since the year always seems to begin with the build-up or prelude to spring, then perhaps this is why the month in which the winter solstice occurs, and which is the prelude month to spring according to Shao Yong’s formulation, is assigned the tiger in the Tibetan tradition. But this is sheer speculation. The tiger, however, is the starting point, for instance, for determining the progressed animal sign for each year of age for males in the Tibetan element calculation system, as was mentioned before. 

Kalachakra Seasons

In addition, along with each Mongolian month is given its corresponding Kalachakra season month, three for each season: prelude, middle and finale. An animal name is assigned to each Kalachakra season months, but without an associated hexagram. The animal names are assigned as they are in the list of Chinese season months and thus the prelude build-up month of spring is tiger. However, the way in which prelude, middle and finale of each season is reckoned in the Kalachakra system is different from that used in the Chinese system. In the Kalachakra season system, the correspondence is a little more similar to the European concepts of the seasons. The month culminating with the winter solstice is the prelude month of winter, that culminating with the vernal equinox is the prelude month of spring, and so on. As before, culminating means that the solstice or equinox either comes at the end of this month or right after it, at the beginning of the next. 

Thus, the first Mongolian month (equivalent to the 11th Kalachakra month) is nowadays the Kalachakra prelude month of spring (tiger), which is fitting to be the first month of the year, and the Chinese finale month of spring (dragon); while the 11th Mongolian month is the Kalachakra middle month of winter and the Chinese prelude one of spring. As noted before, the first Kalachakra month, although containing the cusp of Aries, no longer contains the vernal equinox, due to its precession, and so now is the Kalachakra finale month of spring. Nevertheless, an alternative name for it is the “spring month” (dpyid-zla).

Comparison of the Chinese Stem-Branch and Tibetan Element-Animal Assignments

In the classical Chinese system, the sequence of 60 stem and branch combinations or “binomials” is used for all four so-called pillars, the year, month, date and two-hour period of someone’s birth. Originally, however, the months and two-hour periods were counted only with the 12 branches. As has already been explained, the Chinese count of years begins with the first binomial, equivalent to the wood-rat year, whereas the Tibetan count begins with the fire-hare year, equivalent to the fourth binomial. Both systems then count the rest of the 60-year cycle in parallel sequences.

The count of months in the Chinese system begins with the 11th month. If the first yearly binomial of stem one and branch one begins at the first Chinese month of, for instance, 1984 CE, the first monthly binomial, equivalent to wood-rat, would be two months before that. The 60 monthly binomials proceed from there in their usual sequence and cover five years. Thus, the binomial for the first Chinese month of 1984 would be stem three branch three.  

In the element or black calculation system used in the Tibetan calendar, for instance in the Pugpa tradition, the count of months also begins with the 11th month. The animal assignment, however, for this 11th month, as has also already been explained, is the tiger, the 12th in the Tibetan sequence of animals and the equivalent of the third in the Chinese sequence of branches. The element for the first pair of months, namely the 11th and 12th Mongolian months, is the child of the element of the year. This is equivalent to the third stem. The element for each subsequent pair of months for the rest of the year is the child of the element for the preceding pair, which is the usual sequence. This works out to generate the usual 60-member cycle. 

This first 11th month of the Tibetan cycle, then, which is a fire-tiger month, is equivalent to being counted with the binomial stem three branch three, which would be the binomial for the first Chinese month of the new year, two months after the Chinese sequence for counting the months begins. In other words, if the 11th month is the start of the astrological year and the first month the start of the calendar year, the Chinese system assigns the first binomial to the former and the third to the latter, whereas the Tibetan assigns the element-animal combination equivalent to the third binomial to the month starting the astrological year rather than the calendar year. This is a further explanation why the Tibetan system assigns the animal tiger to the 11th Mongolian month. In both the Tibetan and Chinese systems, added intercalary months have the same element-animal or stem-branch binomial as the preceding month that they are the double of. 

Although the 60-year cycle in the Chinese system has a well-noted starting point, that is not the case with the 60-day cycle. Chinese months, as noted before, have either thirty or twenty-nine days, the former known as greater and the latter as lesser months. Unlike Indian Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist calendars, there are neither doubled, nor omitted dates, and the year never has 360 days. Thus, sequences of 60 days counted by the 60 stem-branch combinations can start at any date in a year. 

In the Tibetan element calculation tradition, each month has a sequence of thirty element-animal combinations, regardless of how many days there are in the month. Thus, omitted dates are assigned a combination that is then skipped, while the combination for the first of a pair of doubled dates is either repeated for the second of the pair, or the second of the pair is simply not assigned a combination. Thus, every year has six cycles of 60 dates. The dates of the second of a pair of doubled months have the same element-animal combinations as those of the first of the pair but adjusted for the variation in the doubled and omitted dates.   

The sequence of the 60-day cycle begins with the 11th Mongolian month, namely the tiger month, each year. The first date is the tiger, and the animals follow the usual sequence. The element of the first date of the month is the child of the element of that month, and each subsequent date is assigned the element that is the child of the preceding date. Thus, unlike the count of Tibetan years and months, and the sequence of the equivalent Chinese system of ten stems, the elements for the Tibetan dates do not repeat in pairs. Nevertheless, this still generates a 60-member cycle, with it taking 60 dates or two months for the first date in the sequence, earth-tiger, to repeat.

The assignment of the nine magic-square numbers and eight trigrams to the dates in the Tibetan element calculation system also starts with the first date of the 11th Mongolian month. It follows the same rules for omitted and doubled dates and for doubled months as does the assignment of element-animal combinations. As was mentioned before, the number sequence begins with one and proceeds in ascending order, and the trigram sequence begins with “li” and proceeds in clockwise order. Every year, therefore, has six cycles of element-animal combinations, forty cycles of magic-square numbers and 45 cycles of trigrams. Thus, after 360 dates the same combination of element, animal, magic-square number and trigram repeats. I have not encountered the association of magic-square numbers or trigrams with the dates in the classical Chinese system, but further research needs to be done.

In the classical Chinese system, the two-hour periods begin with the one having midnight at its center, namely from 11 PM to 1 AM. This is assigned the first binomial of stem one branch one, equivalent to wood-rat, and the 60 double-hour sequence proceeds in the usual order, repeating after every five days. 

According to the Tibetan element calculation system, the first double-hour period is that of the hare, with dawn at its center, namely from 5 AM to 7 AM. The hare is the equivalent of the third branch, so that the branch with midnight at its center would be the rat, the equivalent of the first branch, the same as in the Chinese system. The assignment of the elements to the hours, however, is like that for the Tibetan months and thus completely different from the Chinese manner. The element for the first period, that of the hare, is the child of the element of the day. The element for each double-hour period following that is the child of the element of the preceding period. Thus, again, the elements do not repeat two by two, but still generate a 60-member cycle.

Thus, it can be seen that the Tibetan element-animal assignments for years, months, dates and hours in the element or black calculation system are very different from the classical Chinese assignments of binomial stem and branch combinations. Although the Tibetan system may be reminiscent of the Chinese, yet on closer examination there are significant differences.