Sunday, February 08, 2009

Interrogating Tibetan Turtles

Over at, which is one of my two favorite sites on the entire net, there is erudite discussion of Tibetan astrology and divination. This comes direct to us from the keyboard of the Honorable Sam Van Schaik (hereinafter HSVS), who is certainly one of the finest scholars working in the field of Dunhuang manuscripts, and a man with keen appreciation of Jigme Lingpa's sense of humor.

Now, in his post, HSVS generously invites others to join in the fray but like everything else, it isn't that simple.

Any study of Sino-Tibetan astrology must begin with the present moment. According to the Phugpa system, today is:
13: Sat. lag. Earth-Water; 7 Feb 2009
'khon 'dzin, rigs can, Monkey, dwa 7
0;41,0 5;11,3 21;10,4 26;21,7 9;11,42
Solar: Water-Sheep. Nu 2
According to the Tsurphu system today is:
13: Sat. lag. Earth-Water; 7 Feb 2009
rnam sel, rigs can, Monkey, zin 1
0;44,10 5;30,22 21;32,32 0;2,55
Solar: Water-Sheep. Nu
However, according to the Celestials, today is a (kuei-stem wei-branch, water-earth) Wood Sheep day not, according to the Wan Nien Li, a Water Sheep as the Tibetans believe, noted above.

Therein lies the first difficulty. Since the matters under discussion on HSVS's site appear to predicate upon the birth and decay of Chinese elements (although not exclusively so), we'll have to discover whether today is Wood or Water.

Ordinarily, if one wishes to understand Tibetan black astrology, i.e. that originating with Chinese practice, one would begin with study of the Chinese primary sources. This is often difficult because of frequent lacunae in the literature. However, from the extant sources we are able to date the beginning of the system reflected in early Tibetan practice to around 13 C.E.

Writing in the T'ang, which is about when Chinese methods of calculation are believed to have reached Tibet, the author Lu Ts'ai credits origins to the Han (c. 202 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.). This is the period during which Buddhism was introduced to China, so what we could be seeing is the Chinese interpretation of Indian methods that eventually come to flower in Wang Mang, but I want to note that these practices are more identified with northern China than western China, and the most celebrated practitioners are Daoist, not Buddhist.

All of the books on fate calculation before T'ang are seemingly lost, with the exception of Hsiao Chi's Wu-hsing Ta-i, but from references and excerpts in other works we are able to deduce that such methods had reached a highly developed and most complicated stage well before the T'ang. By the T'ang, we have numerous examples of Buddhist diviners and astrologers, so it seems likely it is their interpretations that reach Tibet and we are fortunate that some excellent Chinese sources from the period are still available to us.

In any event, it is believed that the elements go through individual periods of growth and decline, expressed (in Chinese practice) as production order, destruction order, control order, and dissolution order. Each element is associated with a season, and each season is divided into two parts: the primary element, and the earth element, the latter governing the last 18 days of each season. Thus, the first reason why (to answer HSVS's unspoken question) there are eight divisions of the sky, is that wood associates with months 1 - 3, and the last 18 days with earth; fire associates with months 4 - 6, and the last 18 days with earth; metal associates with months 7 - 9, and the last 18 days with earth; water associates with months 10 - 12, and the last 18 days with earth, i.e. four seasons each having two divisions.

The second reason why is that two of the ten stems are associated with each of the four directions (and two with the center), and the stems are said to exist in harmony according to their yin or yang natures. Further, there are relations between the branches, said to be either harmonies, collisions, or injuries. The branches relate to the stems and the elements in fixed fashion, with the exception that two of the stems relate to earth whereas four of the branches are earth.

Each day in the calendar has a stem, a branch, and an overarching (or "containing") element. Each day exists within a month, and each month within a season. If one sets out for a Journey to the West (and doesn't have a helpful Monkey), one will therefore examine the relationship between the elements governing (1) direction, (2) season --- can't be setting off for the mountains in the dead of winter -- (3) month, (4) day, and (5) hour, if you are really, really, really obsessive compulsive, because each of these has a stem-branch, and each stem has elements and each branch has elements.

Oh, what the heck... lets stay home.

Now, according to high Tibetan practice, each of the directions is associated with the Sadak (sa-bdag), and since there are some 1,000 Sadak, things get messier. The Sadak are said to arise from the turtle's vapor (rdul-gyi rlangs-pa), and each one of the principal ones arise from different parts of the turtle, i.e. head, heart, right arm, left arm, etc., etc., etc. The 'Byung-ba rin-chen kun-'dus is the standard reference on the subject, and goes into such matters in what can only minimally be described as exhaustive detail.

Not only are the directions associated with various Sadak, but the year, month, day and hour each have their own denizens. Thus, in this Ox year, while it may be said that the South and West offer particular charms, this has to be evaluated in terms of the month, day, and hour. To make it worse, the Sadak are running around in different directions: some clockwise, some counterclockwise, and this varies according to month, day, or hour.

And all of this, of course, has to be related to you... to your own year, month, day, and hour... your internal, external, and subtle elements.

So, to answer HSVS's other question -- why the turtle? Well, because the Sadak come from the turtle and they present various obstacles or avenues in each of the directions. When you examine the precise, individual characteristics of each of the involved Sadak, and you factor in the elements involved, then you begin to see where such things as sky gates and sky junctions come from.

Now, we could really get down to cases about this, because there is a great deal more to the story. I have been fooling around with this stuff since 1956, which is when my S'hai Amala first dragged me to the neighborhood temple to pimp my joss and get my eight characters read, but speaking personally, if I were you, I'd just always ask a corvid.

You don't have to coax it out of a corvid. They'll tell you straight, and things are so much easier that way.

The turtles, on the other hand, take a little sweating.

[Note: Then again, it could all be a Tibetan funhouse mirror reflecting a Chinese funhouse mirror reflecting the Indian funhouse mirror of Vastu Shastra; again based upon five elements (although in this case they are earth, water, air, fire, and space), and eight directions plus the center, corresponding to nine planets, i.e. the Vaastu Purusha Mandala.]

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