The Tibetan way to Astrology

We establish ourselves mainly through the power of the set of causes and conditions and essential elements of practice: the image of the divine body, the sign of the divine mind, the recitations, purities, the calendar, astrology

padmasambhava – the necklace of visions [1]
Padmasambhava – Guru Rimpoche

Italian version

In a certainly not compassionate way, the Tibetan diaspora actualises Buddhism’s “genetic” predisposition to spread beyond its borders. From India, the land of choice of Buddha Sakyamuni, the doctrine of the Enlightened One came to occupy a leading role, if not to integrate with local cultures, throughout Southeast Asia, up to the extreme offshoots of the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen.

But it is in Tibet that we are witnessing a correct creative synthesis between the indigenous traditions, originating in the ancient kingdom of Shang-Shung, the Buddhist scriptures imported by Indian masters starting from the seventh century of our era, Chinese Ch’an and the teachings related to the medicine and astrology of these countries. The meeting was of such unitary importance as to generate an unparalleled vision of Buddhism, deeply integrated into the pre-existing Tibetan fabric. The Ways of Tantra (Transformation) and Atiyoga (Self-Liberation) are the expressions of the most authentic Buddhist religiosity born of this union. In this context, Tibetan astrology is far from secondary, along with medicine.

To Tibetan and Buddhist teachings, external, objective vision originates from emanating the light of consciousness that orders phenomena according to collective and individual models. Due to the clouds of ignorance, the human being does not adequately experience the unitary nature of this manifestation. Astrology, animated by Tibetan religiosity, acts as a catalyst element trying to reintegrate the individual’s inner core with the external vision to mend the web of existential continuity whose laceration is the cause of physical and psychic suffering. The essential nature revealing itself to the inquiring soul is a hierogamy between Heaven and Earth, between what is above and below, between the observer and the phenomenon. The difference is that traditional Tibetan teachings’ oral and written transmission has remained uninterrupted for thousands of years, a wealth of knowledge that humanity cannot ignore.

The close integration between astrology and the different aspects, cultural and otherwise, of Tibetan life appears contradictory to the investigation of a pragmatic mind. It is difficult for us to imagine a doctor who uses astrology for diagnostic purposes and at the same time prescribes pills and mantras for a quick rebalancing of energies. Yet the multiform layer of meaning of astrological symbols is the thread that binds phenomena without a causal relationship, and that makes an organic attitude imbued with profound respect for life. That does not mean denying the possibility of an autonomous application of astrology as a forecasting method. But even in this case, we must not forget that the aim is not to dominate one’s destiny but to harmonise with it. For better or for worse, the knowledge of our potential destinies must not propitiate escape routes or easy illusions, but only make us live fully, as wonderfully expressed by a poet who unfortunately remained anonymous: “because yesterday is only a dream, tomorrow only a vision. But every day, lived perfectly, laughs at every sadness”.

This text is the result of a reworking of my report on Tibetan Astrology of the Elements for a conference edited by CIDA (Italian Centre of Astrology) as well as of a series of my articles that appeared in some publications. Its realisation would not have been possible without the inspiration of Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche. His Tibetan Astrology teachings given in a seminar held in Rome in 1978 are the cornerstone of this work.

A brief history

Tibetan astrology is divided into two major branches of ‘byung rtsis and skar rtsis. The first is mainly based on Chinese astrology and bon, the indigenous Tibetan tradition; the second is Indian and Buddhist extraction. While the latter uses the configurations of stars and planets and is therefore necessary in compiling the calendar, ‘byung rtsis is concerned with the combination of the Elements as they appear at birth and their relationship to the Elements of a specific present or future moment.

Many authors rightly consider Tibetan astrology as a system of synthesis, relegating to the background, perhaps due to the lack of specific historical comparisons, the role of the spirituality of the Tibetan people in the affirmation of a profoundly original cosmogonic and astrological system. The tradition of the Shang-Shung kingdom, many centuries before both the first Tibetan kingdom and the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet, however, gave a very particular character to Buddhism as well as to the astrological teachings imported from China and India. Indeed, some traits of ‘byung rtsis astrology are clearly pre-Buddhist in inspiration.

Tibetan scholars attest to an astrological system since the first Tibetan king, gNya khTri bstan po, in the 2nd century BC. However, the astrological tradition is traced back to gShen rab mi bo, whose role in bon is compared to that of the Buddha in Buddhism. gShen rab mi bo was born five centuries before Christ in western Tibet near Mount Kailash, the sacred mountain of the Tibetans.

In 641 AD, the Chinese princess Kung-je married the then king of Tibet Srong btzang sgam po, bringing the dowry of Jung chi, a treatise on astrology dating back to the 9th century BC. This system was called nag rtsis, “black astrology” because Chinese dignitaries and scholars wore mainly black. It put over the pre-existing Bon astrology, and over time, the system became known as ‘byung rtsis.

Astrology experienced its most notable development in the eighth century of our era, along with the flourishing of the Dharma and medicine teachings. Scholars translated many Tibetan texts from Sanskrit, favouring general doctrinal advancement.

Astrology of the Elements

The term ‘byung rtsis designates the combination or calculation (rtsis) of the Elements (‘byung); in the Tibetan language, the latter word precisely indicates the Element, while the condition or characteristic of the Element concerning the individual is defined by the word khams. The Elements are the fundamental or subtle constituents that produce the diversity of causes and conditions through their combination. The five Elements used in this astrological system are integrated with the cycle of the twelve animals, the same ones used in Chinese astrology, giving rise to a cycle of 60 years. A magic square of nine numbers (sMe-ba) and the set of eight trigrams of Chinese origin (barka) complete the picture of the predictive tools. The animal-element combination of the year, month, day and hour of birth and the Element associated from time to time with particular interpretative characters provides a picture compared with the combinations of the present moment or the future date to derive forecasts on the trend of individual attributes. The apparent linearity of the method hides many other details, even of a certain complexity, which we will focus on in the following chapters. But in summary, we can safely say that in ‘byung rtsis astrology, the Elements, together with their combinations, are the keystone of the whole system.

The ability to predict, known as skag rtsis, is accompanied by a synastry to verify marital compatibility, family progress and the possibility of having children, how they will grow up, etc. This system is known as pad rtsis, “marriage calculation.” Other fields of application of ‘byung rtsis techniques are medicine and death. In reality, the calculations of death aim to decide the appropriate time for the funeral to establish the influence of the deceased on surviving relatives. Some schools consider the elements and combinations present at death as determining the transmigration process.

Byung rtsis astrology observes a prescribing system that goes far beyond its predictive or diagnostic use. When the astrologer notices an imbalance between birth and year combinations, he does not hesitate to recommend an antidote to counterbalance or prevent negative influences. That can consist of rituals such as the Cidan (children’s day), in which gifts are offered to children; honouring monks, saving the lives of animals from slaughter, alleviating the state of the poor, and building bridges for the benefit of the needy. In the most severe cases, when a person’s life is in danger, a ritual known as gto is used, which consists of modelling a doll, a fetish of the person, and giving it to negative spirits to appease them. There are many specific rituals, each suited to particular circumstances.

Astrology of Constellations

The skar rtsis astrology (calculation of the constellations) finds application in the calendar compilation. Still, it is a cosmological system of considerable breadth and complexity, which also lends itself to predictive use. In the context of this work, we will limit ourselves to delineating its origins and salient features, such as the use of four elements instead of the five of the ‘byung rtsis astrology and the interactions with the Tibetan calendar. However, it is a less popular and more minor well-known system than the previous one.

At the origin of skar rtsis astrology is the Kalachakra Tantra, one of the highest expressions of Buddhist doctrine. The text was first translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan in 1027 AD and is organised into three chapters. The first, called the Outer Kalachakra, is mainly concerned with the Buddhist cosmogonic system, astronomy, the movements of the stars and planets. The second chapter, the Inner Kalachakra, focuses on studying the chakras, the energy points of the body, the energy channels and the effects of the stars and planets on these subtle elements of the organism. The concluding chapter or Alternative Kalachakra focuses on meditation, yogic and empowerment techniques, initiation, and visualising deities (yidam).

The Outer Kalachakra explains in detail, almost in scientific terms, the genesis of astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and planetary motion, so much so that even today, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute of Dharamshala annually publishes the Tibetan Calendar according to this system. From an astrological point of view, the concept of Kalachakra shares Indian teachings. It considers the twelve houses, the five planets of our classical astrology, the two luminaries and the fictitious points corresponding to the axis of the lunar Nodes, in Sanskrit Ketu and Rahu, as well as the 28 constellations or lunar mansions.

In addition to personal divination, the skar rtsis system is used with the calendar to establish favourable times and places for sowing or determine the weather conditions or the fate of entire villages and regions. For this last calculation, the astrologer considers, for example, the relationship between the Moon and the constellation of the Pleiades (Tib. SMen-du’s) during the 15th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan year.