Above is an image of southeast Tibet, acquired from space with the NASA/JPL Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR). The various colors assigned to the radar frequencies and polarizations are to map the distribution of different rock types. This is done so geologists can study formation and erosion of the Tibetan Plateau. The image was acquired on April 10, 1994, from the space shuttle Endeavour. The area covered is about 90 km miles east of Lhasa. North is toward the upper left.
Once you climb down from space, this is how it looks on the ground. The area you see in this photograph is located in the "blue" area seen in the lower right corner of the NASA/JPL photo.
Among other reasons, I am using these two images to dramatize the two different approaches to geomancy as it was practiced in Tibet. On the one hand, the Tibetans are borrowing a T'ang convention, and superimposing a "view from the stars" on the earth. On the other, they are working with what they encounter at ground level -- the so-called "form school."
There is absolutely no question that the Tibetans were familiar with the practice of studying forms. If you want to see an amusing, illustrated text on the subject, you can visit one by clicking here. Although the method was known from antiquity, it reached full flower around the time of the Qing. In this later stage, it was presented as a strange amalgam of what we might call Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan "land superstitions" having no obvious relationship with the Chinese classical form school. This is rather typical: the form method begins in practicality, flowers in spirituality, hardens into doctrine, and eventually becomes superstition. You could say that about many things in this world.
So, what did Tibetan geomancy look like in full flower? This translation of a passage describing the method of selecting a site for retreat, from the Mani Kabum, the section on the "Six-Fold Cycle of Great Compassion," gives us an example:
"[W]ithin seeking a place are six sections: outer, inner, secret, ultimate, sign, and characteristics. As for the external place, seek a place that is auspicious, agreeable, and where former siddhas have dwelt. In space is an eight-spoked wheel. On the ground is an eight-petaled lotus. Upper mountain is adorned like a white silk curtain. Below is like crossed mudras with two hands crossing the mountains in a pattern where they somewhat overlap. The west is high. The east is low. The north is protecting. The south descends. It has medicinal herbs, and trees, and greenery. It has grain and places nearby you can find food. It has pleasant bird songs. It has been trodden by the feet of siddhas. Local people say it is an auspicious hermitage. Finally, it is joyful and pleasant. Delightful, filled with great blessings, avoided by savages, without defiles of non-human spirits, without harmful obstacles. Seek a place like that."
The reference to a wheel in the sky is a reference to the practice of lying on one's back, and seeing what characteristic is created by the silhouette of the skyline. This is always the first step. The lotus on the ground is simply a reference to the configuration of the surrounding mountains, hills, and so forth.
At first, it might seem that the language about the "north protecting" is at odds with the general injunction given in the tantras:
"If elevated in the north, it either causes death, brings loss of property, or disease."
However, this is where practicality comes into play. In a land where there are fierce north winds, some sort of natural windbreak is desirable. And, of course, as the tantras also state:
"Absolute perfection is hard to find. In brief, [one should thus accept] a well leveled place of fine texture, depressed in the east; a land possessing water resources, and adorned with trees of good qualities; attractive to one's eyes and mind, free from the defects of earth, and harmless in general features."
There may be some justification if we pause, and ask, "If everything is a buddhafield, perfect of itself, why are we making distinctions about directions, attractive conditions and so forth?" That is a fair enough question, and fortunately, it has already been answered to perfection by Longchenpa, in his Ngal-gso skor-gsum, the "Trilogy of Finding Comfort and Ease," where he devotes an entire chapter to discussion of the environment.
"In brief, there are places and houses which at first are quite pleasing,But the more familiar you become with them, they turn out to be unpleasant with few rewards;There are others that at first are frightening and vexatious, but become very pleasing the more familiar you become with them;They offer supreme blessings; rewards are quickly repeated, and there are no obstacles.Apart from these two kinds, all others are neutral and do not offer any benefit or harm.
"Since, depending on the place in which you reside, your mind undergoes a change,And there is either growth or decline in your efforts in what is healthy and wholesome,It has been said that it is of the utmost importance to examine the place or the locality."
There is the ordinary examination of ordinary places -- which is all we have been discussing so far, in Tibetan Geomancy, Tibetan Geomancy: Part Two, Tibetan Geomancy: Part Three -- and, it could be argued, there is also the ordinary appreciation of extraordinary places. Finally, there is the extraordinary appreciation of extraordinary places, and in this the great Vajrayana masters -- who rarely think in terms of common geomancy -- may be said to excel.
In his marvelous study Sacred Ground, based on Jamgon Kongtrul's writings, Ngawang Zangpo quotes from a work known as The Sealed Prophecy of the Spiritual Master's Quintessential Vision:
"Sometimes emanations of all enlightened onesWill appear on the earth, stones, rocks, cliffs, paths, and passagesIn self-arisen manifestations of their body, speech, and mind.Whatever connection one makes with them -- through sight, sound, etc. -- prevents rebirth in miserable existences.Where will these appear? Anywhere: in the cardinal directions, in between, in the center, etc.Such concepts as near or far are irrelevant: they will appear everywhere.Similarly, the time of their appearance is unfixed: they can appear at any time.They aren't limited to any period: they will appear until the wheel of life ends."
This is a very important statement: this is so important to understand. The more one comes to realize the benefits inherent in one's practice, the greater the possibility one will engage self-appearing forms. You do not have to go looking for them. You do not have to assign a place where this can happen, or a time. If you can approach the matter from this perspective, then it could be said that you have already mastered the mundane art of geomancy. What the geomancer expends effort to discern, with greater or lesser degrees of success, you will discern without effort, and perfectly. There are forms, and then there are forms separated from names.
"As for these present appearances of stones and rocks, mountains and forests, trees and plants, and so forth, do not believe them to be anything at all, and do not assert them to be anything at all. Do not deny what appears, and do not assert them to be or not to be. Their appearance is a natural appearance, and their... emptiness is a natural emptiness. Like the identity of space, let their identity be naturally empty, and let their appearance be devoid of a self-nature."--Padmasambhava
Just a few days ago, I was out wandering around in the desert, without any particular destination in mind. From a distance, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a feature on the side of a hill -- some of you might call it a mountain, but mountains aren't that puny -- and it made an impression on me. Perhaps you can see it as well, in the photograph below.
Just to make it easy, I have cropped and enlarged the feature from the above photograph, and color balanced it so you can see very clearly.
Now, what that triangle is doing up there on that hill, where nobody ever goes, is not why the triangle is interesting. Pure triangles like this are somewhat rare in nature, but are not otherwise unheard of in the great scheme of things.
What made the triangle interesting to me was its juxtaposition to the feature you see below. This was just around the bend. It is seventy feet high, and visible from quite a distance.
Seeing both of these features in relation to one another caused me to remember a line from the work just quoted above:
"Self-appearing forms, such as the six syllables, are inconceivable.These and other forms manifest in various waysTo help the world and to spread the Buddha's teaching."
So, thinking thus, I decided to sketch out a few notes on the general topic of geomancy, and publish them here on this blog. It came to me that anything which has the effect of turning your mind in the direction of the Dharma -- anything that causes you to investigate -- is ultimately useful. This is a subject I have touched before, in "When You Look Upon the Land," and "Letters from An Old Magician," and "The Echo In Empty Valley," among others -- this is a theme I have explored many times -- but I wanted to visit it yet again albeit using different language, and a slightly different frame of reference.
So, that wish -- that aspiration to treat something in many different ways, in order to make it accessible to others -- that seemed to me to be the variety inherent in what I was seeing out there in the desert.
A sort of self-projected value that seems to lie at the basis of all geomancy, Tibetan or otherwise.
Well, either that, or something much finer and more continuous.