Tibetan Astrology: History and Lineages

History of Tibetan Astrology

Chinese astro materials came to Tibet earlier than the Indian-derived material. This occurred in the mid-7th century, at the time of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong-btsan sgam-po), the founder of the great Tibetan Empire. Among his wives were Chinese and Nepali princesses, the former of whom brought with her to Tibet various Chinese astro and medical texts. Within a couple years, the Tibetan court began using the twelve animal designations for the years, though not yet the 60-year cycle. This was practically the exclusive system used in Tibet for the next two centuries.

After a period of general cultural decline 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. The Tibetan master Dharmakara amalgamated it with what he and others remembered from the old period material, which had become corrupt. He formulated a new definitive system of element calculations, which now included death, marriage, obstacle, and horoscope calculations and geomancy. By the 11th century, the Tibetans standardly used the 60-year element-animal cycle.

Present-day Tibetan calendars also give the royal year number. This is the count of years passed since the ascent of the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsenpo (gNya’-khri btsan-po), in 127 BCE.

The Indian side of the astro materials came into Tibet with the introduction of The Kalachakra Tantra. Various translators and masters translated the basic Kalachakra texts from Sanskrit and transmitted them to Tibet several times between the 11th and 13th centuries. They became prominent in the early Sakya and Kagyu traditions, with various further commentaries written and features from both the Chinese and Indian masters combined and reworked to derive the distinctive Tibetan astro tradition.

Kalachakra shares with the Hindu systems the usage of the 60-year Jupiter cycle for the counting of years and refers to the cycle as the rabjung (rab-'byung) or "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 Kalachakra into Tibet, is the famous predicted number of years found in the Kalachakra literature of "fire-space-ocean" (me mkha' rgya-mtsho) after the beginning of the Muslim period in 624 CE, although actually that period began in 622.

Both the Kalachakra and Hindu systems specify numbers by names, referring to common enumerations in pan-Indic literature, and list them 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 did not correspond to the beginning of a Chinese cycle. The Chinese ones always start with a wood-male-rat year, and this was the fourth year of a cycle, fire-female-hare. This is why the Tibetan 60-year cycle begins with the fire-female-hare year and its listing of the sequence of the 12 animals begins with the hare and not with the rat. Thus, as there is a three-year discrepancy, the present Tibetan 17th cycle began 1987, whereas the present Chinese 27th cycle began 1984.

Although the start of the first "prominent" 60-year cycle was in 1027, it was not until the second half of the 13th century that the Kalachakra calendar became the rule in Tibet. Nevertheless, people still regularly referred to the years by their element-animal designations - as they popularly still do today – 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 Phagpa (Chos-rgyal ‘Phags-pa) in the second half of the 13th century. He was the tutor of the Mongol ruler of China, Khubilai (Kublai) Khan, and the spiritual master credited, along with his uncle, Sakya Pandita (Sa-pan Kun-dga’ rgyal-mtshan), with bringing Tibetan Buddhism to Mongolia. As he was a renowned master of the Kalachakra teachings, Chogyal Phagpa undoubtedly brought the full Tibetan astro system as well. Furthermore, it was most probably through first his uncles, and then his being made the secular ruler 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.

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," which corresponded to and were a substitute designation for the Chinese ones, on the occasion of his conquest in 1207 of the Tangut kingdom in the present day regions of eastern Gansu and Inner Mongolia.

When Chinggis' successors introduced the Tibetan calendar to the Mongol Empire in the middle of that same century, they made the Mongolian months the equivalent of Kalachakra months, rather than Chinese ones, which are quite different. They kept the first Mongolian month as the start of the year, however, 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 relative uniformity concerning the beginning of the year throughout the Mongol Empire. Chinese and Tibetan new years, however, do not always coincide. This is because each of these calendar systems has its own mathematical formulas for adding leap-months and for determining the start and length of each month. In Tibet, the Mongolian months were alternatively referred to as Tibetan months, and even today the two designations are used interchangeably.

Lineages of the Tibetan Astrology

At present, there are two major groups of lineages of the Tibetan astro sciences, the Tsurpu (Tshur-phu) and the Pugpa (Phug-pa). The former derives from the early 14th century commentaries to Kalachakra by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Kar-ma Rang-'byung rDo-rje), of Tsurpu Monastery. This line, found exclusively in the Karma Kagyu tradition, uses the precis system of calculations for determining the positions of the sun and the moon and the full tenet system for the planets.

[See: Tibetan Astro Sciences]

Derivative from the Tsurpu system (Tshur-lugs) is the Chatuhpitha-Kalachakra calculation system. Drugchen Pemakarpo ('Brug-chen Padma dkar-po) started it in the late 16th century. Because the Drugpa Kagyu tradition and the Bhutanese follow this system, people sometimes refer to it as "Bhutanese calculations." It combines material from both The Kalachakra and The Chatuhpitha or Four Seat Tantras. The major difference between this and the Tsurpu system is that it takes the calculated lunar weekday to be the passed date rather than the present one. For instance, if a specific Wednesday is calculated to be the ninth of the month in the Tsurpu system, that ninth is considered in the Bhutanese system to be the passed day and the tenth is taken as the Wednesday. The Drikung Kagyu tradition, on the other hand, follows a system that combines the Tsurpu and Pugpa traditions.

The Pugpa system (Phug-lugs) 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 tradition of the 14th century Sakya master Buton (Bu-ston Rin-chen grub), a great commentator on The Kalachakra Tantra, it emphasizes the reconstructed full tenet system of mathematical calculations. In the mid-17th century text, Desi Sanggye Gyatso (sDe-srid Sang-rgyas rgya-mtsho), in White Aquamarine (Bai-dyur dkar-po), amended the tradition by presenting the full tenet and precis systems together. He specified using the full tenet system for the calendar and almanac and also to include in the almanac the data from the precis system to use for calculating eclipses. The Gelug, Sakya, Nyingma, and Shangpa Kagyu traditions follow the Pugpa lineage, as do the Kalmyk Mongols of Russia. Thus, it is the most widespread astro system.

The broad Chinese-style calculations (rgya-rtsis), or yellow calculations (gser-rtsis), developed within both the Pugpa and Tsurpu systems. When the Fifth Dalai Lama (rGyal-dbang lnga-pa chen-po Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho) went to China in 1652 at the invitation of the first Manchu Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, he saw at the imperial palace in Beijing notices and documents drawn in accordance with the traditional Chinese calendar and astrological system. Impressed, he had his translator Mergen Kachupa (Mer-rgan dKa’-bcu-pa) take notes on it. Back in Tibet, Mergen Kachupa compiled thirteen volumes on these broad Chinese-style calculations. These texts were hidden in the Potala palace of the Dalai Lama and have never been used. There is no mention of this yellow system in the above-mentioned text of Desi Sanggye Gyatso, who was the minister of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, Mergen Kachupa is credited with starting this astrological and calendar tradition.

The eighteenth century saw renewed interest among the Tibetans in the Chinese calendar and astrology. This was particularly fostered under the encouragement of the Manchu Emperor of China, Qianlong. From the Tsurpu lineage, the Twelfth Karmapa and, later, the Eighth Tai Situ, visited the Manchu imperial court and commissioned more translations. Within the Pugpa lineage, interest was especially high among the Gelug masters of the northeastern Tibetan province of Amdo, particularly at the Astrology College of Labrang Tashikyil Monastery. They also translated many works. Inner Mongolia follows their lineage.

In the Pugpa school of Central Tibet, an abbreviated version of the yellow system appears in a text by Chagdzo Sungrab (Phyag-mdzod gSung-rab) in the early 19th century. Based on notes from Gen Lodro-gyatso (rGan Blo-gros rgya-mtsho), Professor Tragton (Brag-ston) in the 1980s has compiled the system currently used at the Dharamsala Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute. The Lhasa Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute uses a system recently compiled by Tseten Zhabdrung (Tshe-brtan Zhabs-drung) and Muge Samten (Mu-ge bSam-gtan).

The yellow system uses the basic Kalachakra calendar calculations and in this way totally differs in its framework from the actual classical Chinese calendar. Nevertheless, the way in which it adds double months is very similar, though not always equivalent, to that used in the Chinese system. Unlike other Tibetan and Indian systems, all of which have doubled and omitted dates of the lunar month, the calendar from the broad Chinese-style calculations, like the Chinese one, lacks 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 or Tsurpu systems, although often they do.

There are a number of differences between the Pugpa lineages of Inner Mongolia and Central Tibet, for instance in the manner of adding doubled months. The calendar of Inner Mongolia is arranged according to the yellow system, whereas the data of this system is merely included in the Pugpa almanacs of Central Tibet. The main use of the yellow calculations is for making the "earth-ox" prediction for the weather patterns and general conditions for the year.

The Khalkha Mongols of Mongolia and both the Buryats and Tuvinians of Siberia follow a variant of the Pugpa tradition known as the New Geden or New Positive lineage (dGe-ldan gsar-lugs). This was started in 1786 by Sumpa Kenpo Yeshe Paljor (Sum-pa mKhan-po Ye-shes dpal-'byor), a Mongour Mongol master of both astrology and medicine, from Amdo. This system bases itself on the 15th-century Kalachakra commentaries of Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rJe dGe-legs dpal-bzang). Most of the calculations follow the same rules as those of the Pugpa system, 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. This is because 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 Bonpos consider the Bon system to be the most ancient, predating any of the Buddhist ones, the codification of the system in textual form was done by Kyongtrul Jigme Namkai Dorje (sKyong-sprul 'Jig-med nam-mkha'i rdo-rje) (1880's - 1953). 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. The Bon calendar is exactly the same as the Pugpa one.

The differences among these Tibetan systems appear most clearly in the way in which the lunar calendar correlated with the solar one. To appreciate this, we must discuss the Tibetan calendar itself, which comes primarily from The Kalachakra Tantra.