The origins of Tibetan astrology

First part of a weekend seminar, 21-22 February, 1998 by

Prof. Thubten Puntsok

at Merigar, Arcidosso (GR), Italy

Prof. Thubten Puntsok

You can find his biography on this site, as well as information about the Course on Tibetan Medicine that the Doctor is giving nowadays at the Shang Shung Institute.

For further information on Tibetan Astrology, it is recommended to also visit the astrology site of the Tibetan Government in exile..

The following article was published in "The Mirror", the newspaper of the International Dzogchen Community, issue no. 44. I want to thank Prof. Puntsok and the editor of The Mirror for their kind permission to publish the article on this site.


Elemental Astrology or Jungtsi is the oldest field of knowledge originating in Tibet. It mainly uses three kinds of symbols: the 8 parka or trigrams, the 9 mewa or numbers and the 12 animal signs. The various combinations of these three symbols with the five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, is the framework for astrological calculations. The parka are the oldest astrological symbols, while the mewa, the numbers and the animal signs are based on the trigrams.

The parkha or trigrams symbolise the cycle of increase and diminution that rules life both in the external world and within the body once a particular realm and its inhabitants has come into being. This cycle is determined and moves on the basis of the combination of the elements so that when the elements are harmonious there is increase, when they are not in harmony diminution, culminating in disintegration, begins. The origin of the trigrams or parka is linked to the ancient culture of the Bon, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. Nowadays, astrological calculations based on the parka are common practice in all the new schools of Tibetan Buddhism, such as the Gelug, the Sakya and the Kagyu as well as in the ancient Nyingma school. Modifying their terminology to suit the Buddhist frame of thought and language, these schools also adopted many rituals of the pre-Buddhist Bon culture - for example the rituals of the gtos, the mdos , the yas and the glud as well as the ritual of the sang (during which juniper and other fragrant herbs are burned for different purposes, including the propitiation of local deities).

But despite such wide and conscious appropriation from the Bon culture, there was a time in Tibetan history when the culture and the followers of Bon were widely persecuted by the Buddhists mainly for political reasons. Since most of the Tibetans were fond of Bon rituals and often took recourse to them, the newly introduced Buddhist culture had no choice but to assimilate them in some way. In this process of assimilation, unwilling to acknowledge the Bon origin of elemental astrology and other rites, they considered the elements of astrology and rites resembling those found in the Indian culture to have been imported from India, while those resembling the Chinese culture to have been imported from China.

However, many astrological and ritual features were unique to Tibet and were not found in either China or India. For this reason they acknowledged them to have originated from or been systematized by a historical figure called Kong tse phrul gyi rgyal po whom the Buddhists, later on, considered to be a manifestation of Manjusri, the boddhisattva who represents wisdom. Since Kong tse phrul gyi rgyal po was born 600 years before the Buddha, it was difficult for them to call him a Buddhist, so they did not say that he was a Buddhist nor admitted he was a Bonpo. During the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries some Tibetan scholars began to claim that the parka came from China. In the 18th century lcang skya rol pa'i rdo rje , and the Mongolian scholar Thu'u bkvan cho kyi nyi ma and other scholars, mistakenly identified Kong tse phrul gyi rgyal po with Confucius, saying that they were one and the same person. However, many reasons prove beyond any shade of doubt that Kong tse phrul gyi rgyal po and Confucius were two different people. ( This topic was more fully discussed during Prof. Thubten Phuntsog's conference at Merigar on January 17th 1998.)

In my opinion when we research the ancient origins of a particular type of knowledge, it is hard to speak of it exclusively in terms of knowledge belonging only to a particular group of people. Astrology in particular is a very ancient discipline which is common to many groups of peoples. For example in most parts of the world, people refer to the days of the week, Sunday, Monday etc., with the names of the planets. Of course different languages uses different words for the planets, but they clearly refer to the same thing; for example, in English we say "Sunday", in Tibetan, Za nyi ma, or 'the sun day or planet'.

In elemental astrology the days are also associated with the elemental properties, for example Sunday with Fire, Monday with Water, Tuesday with Fire, Wednesday with Water, Thursday with Wood, Friday with Metal and Saturday with Earth. Before the people of Tibet had a written language they indicated the days of the week with symbols. For example in Tibet Sunday was symbolised by a drawing of a sun, Monday by the moon, Tuesday by an eye, Wednesday by a hand, Thursday by a wooden purba or three bladed wooden dagger, Friday by a sword or trident and Saturday by a penis.

Now let us see how the Bon texts explain the origin of the parka by means of a mythological tale which represents the process of the formation of the world in eight stages:

  1. the stage in which the pure part of the elements manifested as space;
  2. the stage in which the impure part of the elements manifested as earth;
  3. the stage in which the mountain arose to connect space and earth;
  4. the stage in which the wind through the stoney valleys of the mountain arose;
  5. the stage in which fire was produced by the movement of the wind;
  6. the stage in which the meeting of wind and fire brought about the rain;
  7. the stage in which wood or the tree arose, based on the interaction of wind, fire, water and earth.

This process as well as the outer world is symbolised by the drawing of a golden turtle, whose head represents the direction south.

1. The pure essence of the elements emerged from the mouth of the turtle as vapour and transformed into the 'old father of existence' (Sipa yab rgen ), the first and most ancient trigram, Khen, symbol of the sky. He is described as a old man with white hair, dressed in yellow silk, riding a dog and holding a crystal wand in his hand.

2. The impure aspects of the elements emerged as the dung of the turtle and fell and became 'old mother of existence', (Sipe yum rge ma) Khon, the second trigram that symbolises the earth. She is represented as an old lady with white hair the colour of a conch-shell, with a hundred wrinkles on her face, dressed in white silk, holding a hoe in her right hand and a wooden stick in her left and riding a sheep.

3. The old father and mother of existence married and from their union came the eldest son, the third trigram, Ghin, who symbolises the mountain connecting sky and earth. The eldest son is represented by a figure resembling a monk, holding a sacred book in his hands and riding a rose-coloured ox.

4. Then the wind blowing through the stony mountain valleys gave rise to the fourth trigram called Zon. This trigram is symbolised by the eldest daughter represented as a young woman dressed in yellow silk, riding a dzo, and holding in her hands a balloon-like round bag made of skin.

5. The action of the wind produced the fire element symbolised by the trigram Li which is represented by the youngest daughter of the old father and mother of existence. She is rosy in colour, with a horse's head, dressed in red silk, holding a ladle full of blood in her right hand and a torch in her left.

6. From the encounter of air and fire arose the sixth trigram called Kham which is symbolised by the grandson of the old father and mother and represented as a black-coloured man, with long hair, dressed in black, holding a leather ball full of water in his hand and riding a black pig.

7. Then from the interaction of the fire and wind arose the rain which fell thus originating the trigram Zin symbolised by the tree. The trigram Zin is represented by the grand-daughter who is greenish in colour, dressed in green silk, riding a green donkey, with her hands crossed on her chest and holding a plant.

8. Through the function of the element fire which melted the earth, its pure essence, metal (gold, silver, copper, etc.), manifests, associated with the trigram Da. The trigram Da is the youngest son of the old father and the old mother and he is represented by a young warrior wearing a helmet and armour, holding a sword and a lance in his hands and riding a goat.

Therefore making a brief summary - the first trigram, Khen, is the father, Khon is the mother, Ghin is the elder son, Zon is the elder daughter, Li is the younger daughter, Da is the younger son, Kham is the grand-son and Zin is the grand-daughter.

 

According to the tale, the trigrams Kham and Zin came about in this way. The elder son, Ghin wishing to find a bride, circled Mount Meru, the 'axis mundis' three times in a clockwise direction; Zon, with the same wish circled the ocean three times in a counter clockwise direction. The two of them met in the midst of a vortex of wind in the country called srin po gdudg pa can gyi yul, which means 'the country inhabited by wild cannibals', in a place called ye le dgung sngon or 'primordial sky'. In the midst of the vortex they did not recognise each other and engaged in an incestuous relationship. From their union was born a son, the trigram Kham, and a daughter, the trigram Zin.

This incestuous relationship was a tragedy that caused a disturbance among various classes of non-humans, in particular between the Devas and the Nagas, who became drunk with mental confusion (because existence had been defiled by the incestuous relationship) and coupled between themselves thus giving birth to the Eight Classes of demons and gods. Following this the beings of the six classes of existence were born, the hell beings etc., and illnesses and suffering arose among these classes.

This suffering which struck the inhabitants of the world came to the attention of the old father, the trigram Khen, who called out asking what was happening. A reply came from the sky saying that what was happening was the result of an incestuous rapport of the elder son with his sister and that it would be beneficial if the family did not remain together but split up to reside in the eight directions. Li, the younger daughter, with the wish to reconciliate the family, approached the old father, Khen, apologising for the misunderstanding between the two trigrams, Ghin and Zon. which had caused the suffering troubling the world. The old father, however, misunderstood her words, got angry and the problems within the family did not come to an end so the members of the family took up residence in the eight directions. Each one took his or her property to their direction and these belongings (including rocks, pieces of wood and so forth) were the very substances that, later on, became used in the rites to pacify the damage caused by an unfavourable combination of the elements or of the trigrams.

Finally the old mother, who was born in the earth sheep year, died at the age of 226 in the wood dragon year. She was buried in the earth the following year, that of the wood snake. At that time there was no funerary ritual to appease the Eight Classes and to balance the elements of the family, and, as a consequence, the old father who was born in the earth dog year and lived for 253 years, died the following year, the metal pig year. In a similar fashion, as the result of the lack of proper funerary rites, Zin, Zon and Kham suddenly died. After that Da, Li and Ghin discussed the matter and created the rite to appease the Eight Classes of demons and gods and to balance the elements within the family. As a result of this the world enjoyed peace and prosperity for many eons.

Following this period of prosperity, the world began to decline and all its inhabitants experienced an augmentation of mental affliction. At that time the Sage Yod po appeared who recounted the legend of the origin of the Parkha and became the first Tibetan to explain astrological calculations.

After many centuries in a period in which no form of writing existed, the teacher of astrology named Sa bdag nag po started to indicate the parkha, the mewa, and the animals with white and black pebbles.

After many centuries, the prince Shi kha then tse born (2551 BC.) in the year of the metal rabbit, established the rules of governing using astrological calculations. In 1957 BC in the wood monkey year, the astrology master Sa bdag rlung rgyal was born, who taught the sage nGnon po. On the basis of the instruction of his teacher, the latter elaborated a way of astrological calculation using the combination of the twelve animal signs with the five elements. He associated colours with the five elements: green for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal and black for water and then associated these elements to the parkha and animal signs by way of different dots of colour.

In 1557 BC. in the year of wood mouse, another master of astrology, Ze'u kong 'phrul chung was born. He applied the mother-son-friend-enemy relationship to the field of medicine for the first time. In the wood mouse year in 1197 BC., a famous astrologer, Kongtse sphrul gyi rgyal po, was born. On the basis of his astrological knowledge and on the request of four of his most intelligent students he composed 357 treatises on the rituals of the gto, mdos, yas and the gljud, which have the function of balancing the elements and pacifying the disturbances caused by the Eight Classes of spirits and gods.

In 417 BC. in the wood mouse year, Nyatri Tsenpo, the first Tibetan king, was born. When he became king of Tibet, the so-called 'community of astrological practitioners' developed and propagated astrology widely. At that time, on the basis of the observations of the southerly and northerly movement of the sun, the observation of the stars and the migration of birds, the rain, clouds, wind and snow, the community prepared the solar calendar of 360 days mainly for the sake of the farmers and nomads.

There are many details regarding the development of the elements, how disturbances manifested and how substances were used to pacify the imbalance of the elements but we would need a week simply to explain them. This is a mythological story not a real one, nonetheless its symbols could be considered to be an invaluable field of research. This information concerning the mythological origin of the trigrams as well as the mewa or numbers can only be found in the Bon texts; one does not find similar explanation in the astrological treatises of China or other countries. In fact, when Chinese astrological experts are asked about the origin of the parka or trigrams they do not have a very clear explanation and sometimes refer to a particular race of people called Yi who lived on the border between China and who were originally Tibetans with customs and beliefs closely linked to the Bon culture.

Translated by Elio Guarisco