The role of the Elements in Tibetan astrology
Green Tara – The Mother of all Buddhas, ready to descend from her throne to offer protection to those who suffer

Italian version

The presence of the fifth element in Tibetan and Chinese astrology is always a reason for some discomfort – subtle but insistent – for the Western astrologer as if the supernumerary part could undermine the solid foundations of the Quaternary. Suppose we want to have an idea of ​​the meaning that inspires the architecture of the various astrological systems. In that case, it is necessary to remember that: a) any symbolic system is essentially numerical, that is, it can be expressed in its essence thanks to the series of natural numbers; b) different numerical structures, i.e., different ways of organising the relationship between numbers, give cohesion to the various astrological systems; c) an astrological system is organic, that is functional when the underlying numerical architecture presents coherent relationships. Coherence, in this case, is provided by the catalyst function of the fifth element (Earth), which acts as a dynamic factor of change.

Chinese contributions to Tibetan Astrology

When in early antiquity Fu Hsi ruled the world, he looked upward and contemplated the images of the heavens; he looked downward and contemplated the patterns on earth. He contemplated the markings of birds and beasts … He proceeded directly from himself and indirectly from objects. Thus he invented the eight trigrams.

i ching – translation r. wilhelm – princeton 1959, p. 238

This quotation, so similar in spirit to the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, is attributed to Fu Hsi, the mythical first emperor who drew the unbroken and broken lines before the Great Flood. Few and fragmentary legends are handed down about him, worn by time like the wall decorations depicting him in the tombs of the Han, one of the oldest imperial dynasties in China. His birth was miraculous. His mother conceived him after being fertilised by a stick floating on a river; for others, she saw the light in a swamp populated by dragons, and he bore the likeness of it. Tradition has it that he was the creator of the eight trigrams scheme. He obtained them from observing natural phenomena, numbers and the five elements, obtained from an arrangement of spots marked on the back of a theriomorphic animal that combines the celestial and terrestrial virtues: the dragon-horse, which arose from the waters of the Yellow River. With the invention of oracles and writing, this primordial ruler gave man the keys to interpret the world and thus subjugate it. These keys are found in the Ho t’u, or “Map of the Yellow River”.

The Ho t’u map depicts the first ten numbers in the form of white (yang, odd) and black (yin, even) dots.

The number arrangement is distributed in space thanks to the assignment of numerical pairs to each cardinal point. Each pair is made up of an even and odd number; the internal numbers are the first four numbers of the decimal series; the external numbers range from 6 to 9. These four pairs are congruent to 5: adding 5 to the internal numbers of the pairs, we get the external number; from this, we deduce that 5 is considered the number of the change. It reverses the polarity of the numbers to which it is added and allows access to a new order of manifestation expressed by the numbers of the highest series. It is responsible for the central map position, where it is depicted in the form of a cross surrounded by a perimeter that on the north and south sides has a pair of 5s to form 10. Besides being a principle of change for the four pairs of numbers, it comes to change itself. It transforms into 10, the numerical symbol of the change cycle and the return to the origin. The series of ten is representative of the whole number sequence because we can trace all the numbers of the natural series back to the first nine by theosophical addition; 10 is the number of fulfilment as the sum of the first and last number of the series of nine (1 + 9 = 10 = 1 + 0 = 1).

The Ho t’u assigns the order of the first five numbers to the Elements. On the contrary, the numbers above 5 are traditionally associated with the seasons, so it is possible to attest, as in Western astrology, a large number of equivalences and similarities between the regions of space and seasonal symbolism. Each combination of an element, cardinal point, number and season is contrasted by complementary meaning; while Water flows and descends, Fire warms and rises; if Wood is vital and flexible, Metal is inert and once bent, it does not straighten. The qualities of change operate in the bosom of the Earth, the central place that provides the indispensable substrate for the alchemy of yin and yang.

The Elements in Tibetan Astrology

Elements are by far the main factor in ‘byung rtsis astrology. The Five Elements we take into consideration (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water) differ from those used in the philosophical corpus and in purifying practices (Space, Air, Water, Fire, Earth); in the tantric teachings, Space represents the potential for manifestation of the remaining Elements. Skar rtsis astrology, as already mentioned, includes four Elements, the same used in Western astrology. The following table (table 1) highlights the correspondences between the Elements, their functions and the various attributions. We should note that the sound associated with Earth and Metal (the sound of the individual seed syllables) is the same since Metal is considered dense Earth.

Table1 – Elements correspondence

Elements’ attributions

In ‘byung rtsis astrology, the meaning of the Elements is not so much observed as their relationship. However, we provide a brief description useful to define the character and countenance of the individual who is born under the influence of a specific element:

  • Wood: long life, beauty, physical and mental energy, flexibility, instability; the individual of this Element speaks in an irregular, hoarse and trembling voice, like tea which, if placed in a teapot with a blocked spout, cannot come out.
  • Fire: strength, warmth, instinct; the Fire individual speaks in a hissing voice, and the sound of consonants comes out between the teeth.
  • Earth: stability, concreteness; the Earth person compresses or forces the abdomen by breathing.
  • Metal: strength, solid and direct spirit; when they open their mouth, the base of the tongue blocks their throat, so they are forced to exhale through their nose, even when they sleep with their mouth open.
  • Water: softness, fluidity, clairvoyance, sweetness, emotionality; lips tight, or they always look smiling.

Relations between the Five Elements

In ‘byung rtsis astrology, as indeed in Tibetan medicine, the Five Elements are placed in four possible relationships:

  • Mother, Son, Enemies (or uncle), Friends (or nephew).

The order in which the Elements are traditionally presented is that of production (Mother); this is considered the best relationship:

  • Wood is the mother of Fire, Fire is the mother of Earth, Earth is the mother of Metal, Metal is the mother of Water, and Water is the mother of Wood.

The opposite order is that of the Son, a relationship considered neutral:

  • Water is a child of Metal, Metal is a child of Earth, Earth is a child of Fire, Fire is a child of Wood, and Wood is a child of Water.

For the antagonistic relationship of the Enemy, we have that:

  • Metal is the enemy of Wood; Wood is the enemy of Earth; Earth is the enemy of Water; Water is the enemy of Fire; Fire is the enemy of Metal.

Finally, the Elements in a friendly and beneficial relationship:

  • Fire is a friend of Water, Water is a friend of Earth, Earth is a friend of Wood, Wood is a friend of Metal, and Metal is a friend of Fire.

The relationships between Friend and Enemy are formed by skipping from time to time an Element of the Mother’s sequence (for the Friend) and the Son (for the Enemy).

Figure 1 exemplifies these relationships; here, we must read the Elements in the direction of the arrow: the Son of Wood is Fire, the Son of Fire is Earth, etc.

Figure 1 – Relations between Elements

Figure 2 highlights the same type of relationship; the outer and inner circles depict the direction of the Mother and the Son (the Mother of Fire is Wood, the Son of Earth is Metal, etc.). The arrows inside the star inform about the relationship between Friend and Enemy (Fire is a friend of Water, Metal is an enemy of Wood, etc.).

Figure 2 – Relations between Elements

Hand trick

You can perform this type of calculation using the fingers of the left hand (the right is for transcribing the results).

  • Starting from the thumb to the little finger, we associate each finger with an Element according to the order of the Son: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water.
  • Reading the Elements in reverse order (from the little finger to the thumb), we have the relationship of the Mother.
  • We get the Enemy relationship starting from the ring finger and skipping a finger each time (ring finger, thumb, middle finger, little finger, index finger).
  • For the Friend relationship, we start from the index in the reverse order to the previous one: index, little finger, middle finger, thumb, ring finger.