Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tibetan Geomancy

The principal root of astrology,
Is the great golden tortoise.
The tail to the north and the head above.
The right and left sides lie east and west.
The limbs extend to the four quarters
On which lies supreme
The world Jambudvipa and rests.

The practice of what we nowadays generally refer to as feng shui -- rather incorrectly thinking of this as what we otherwise know as geomancy -- came to Tibet by way of King Srong-btsang-sgam-po's Chinese bride, known to the Tibetans as Un-shing Kon-jo. We know precisely when this occurred, as she arrived in Lhasa in 641, the year of the Iron Ox. This is during China's T'ang dynasty, and her father was in fact the second T'ang Emperor. 

One chapter of the Mani Kabum begins with the rather laconic observation, "Queen Kon-jo was skilled in Chinese divination." This seems to be the case. Owing to contemporary writings of both Chinese and Tibetans, we are able to piece together a rather exact picture of Kon-jo's skills and interests. One means of accomplishing this is through notice of the items she thought to take with her when she departed China. Indeed, history records that among gifts of all sorts, and a justly celebrated golden statue of the Buddha at age twelve, Kon-jo took with her three hundred and sixty works on divination.

What sort of works were these, and more to the point, what sort of feng shui did Kon-jo practice? If you try to recover this from English language sources, quite possibly the earliest reference you will find is Sarat Chandra Das, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, in 1881 and 1882. It isn't very helpful, but it is fun. He states, "The earliest written encyclopedia of Astrology is the chief repository of Yeekyin, the first of the Uhu series. The art of divination called Porthan which was brought into Tibet during the reign of the Than dynasty was obtained from this great work." You have to chew on that a little while to understand he refers to the I Ching, and to the T'ang dynasty.

While discussing Kon-jo's skills, the Mani Kabum further explains that, "There are one hundred and eight parts in the [geomantic] examination of behavior and so forth. There are ninety-two in the earth examination." By this and other references, we are able to deduce that the Queen was a skilled practitioner of not one but all methods of divination, geomancy, and feng shui. These methods were based, severally, on notice of the five elements, the trigrams, the directions, and what is generally known as the "form school."

As the years passed, what seemed to stick was a mixture of approaches, all of which are summarized by the catch-all Tibetan term sa-bshad, pronounced "sa shey," and generally translated as "geomancy." You also see this butchered up as "sache," or "sachey," and so forth. Actually, the better way for geomancy is sa-dpyad. If you ask the average Tibetan today about feng shui, they will respond by telling you this is sa-bshad. The modern practitioners -- and by this I mean the practitioners educated in the matter since the 1950s -- no longer take into account Kon-jo's seventh century influence, but state that the art dates from the eighth century. However, the art they commonly describe as sa-bshad is purely that of the form school, as it depends on examining the effect of land forms on views of the sky, and then the shape of land forms themselves. What they call sa-dpyad refers to spirits.
As an aside, there are other methods employed, such as taking into account the movements of the Bhumipati, or sa-bdag ("sadak," or earth spirits -- the sa-dpyad we just mentioned), the placement of objects (nang-bshad), and so forth. We are here concerned with but a single method, unrelated to these. This method appears to be one that accompanied Kon-jo on her journey from China.
So, then, the aspect of geomancy we shall now discuss is not so much a feng shui method of siting -- although it can be -- as it is a method of fate calculation which is used as the basis of various other calculations. We are going to look at this in the form typically encountered by Westerners, and we are going to teach you how to use this method for yourself.

I have selected this particular method to discuss because it is encountered in the various compilations one sees -- Philippe Cornu's book comes to mind, as does Michael Erlewine's book -- and because, for one reason or another, it seems to be the method that causes the most confusion. So, I want to attempt to resolve that confusion by carefully explaining how the method works.

Every year, a person has four favorable and four unfavorable directions. These are with reference to the cardinal directions, north, south, east, and west, and the intermediate directions northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest. Each of these eight directions, in turn, is associated with a particular trigram.

By determining the operative, individual trigram associated with a person's current year, and by noting its relationship to the other trigrams, we can then see what the person's favorable and unfavorable directions will be.

Above is the so-called "cosmic tortoise." I picked this one to show you because it is from an old book by Paul Carus, entitled Chinese Thought, published in 1907. He, in turn, took it from L. Austine Waddell's work of 1895, The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism. When you try to study this subject in English, these are likely to be the earliest references you will find. I'll just note in passing that Waddell also touched the subject of divination in his Lamaism In Sikhim, published in 1894.

You see this "cosmic tortoise" diagram in the center of all Tibetan astrological thangkas, or srid-pa-ho. These are usually sold as "protection mandalas" or "astrological diagrams." If you know how to read them, they are actually complete teaching aids, because they describe the whole of astrology and geomancy as it is commonly practiced.

What I want you to particularly notice is the diagram shows the eight trigrams, and around each trigram you have a diagram in which there are eight boxes, each with one of eight symbols. These symbols are the sun, a vajra, an "eternal knot," a swastika, a triangle, five dots, a phurba, and a body part. The body parts are typically right foot, left foot, penis, right shoulder, left shoulder, right hand, left hand, and head.

Each of these symbols refers to a particular favorable or unfavorable aspect, and each of these aspects refers to a particular direction. As a complete example, Cornu refers to these in the following manner:
  • Sun: Sky medicine
  • Vajra: Life Support
  • Knot of Eternity: Prosperity
  • Swastika: Message of Luck
  • Triangle: Injury
  • Five points: Five Demons
  • Phurba: Life-cutting Demons
  • Body Part: Bodily Punishment
Erlewine uses slightly different language, but the idea is the same. He refers to these symbols in the following manner:
  • Sun: Sky Healer
  • Vajra: Healthy Life
  • Eternal Knot: Generating, Glorious
  • Swastika: Auspiciousness, Prosperity
  • Triangle: Evil Spirit
  • Five Dots: Five Ghosts
  • Phurba: Devil Cutting
  • Body Part: Body Destroying
So, then, each trigram has eight geomantic houses, if you like to put it that way, and each house has a symbolic quality. In greater detail, these qualities are as follows:
  • gNam-sman: Sky medicine, or sky healer. This direction is the most favorable. It is good for curing illness, medical or surgical procedures, finding doctors, finding medicines, or finding solutions to problems. It is good for resolving obstacles.
  • Srog- 'tsho: Life support, or healthy life. This is the next best direction. The head of the bed should be oriented in this direction during the particular year. You can also go do yoga in this direction, or engage in any activity that increases vitality.
  • dPal-skyed: Prosperity, or wealth generating. This is the third best direction. As indicated, this direction indicates material luck.
  • Phya-lon: Message of luck, or auspiciousness. This is the fourth best direction. A good direction for travel, or various undertakings.
  • gNod-pa: Injury, or harm; evil spirits. This is the lightest of the bad directions. Accidents and wounds occur in this direction.
  • 'Dre-lnga: Five demons, or five ghosts. This is a heavier expression of the bad directions. Demonic influences arise in this direction. People usually display ransom diagrams to deceive the demons. Mirrors can also be used.
  • bDud-bcod: Life cutters, or life-cutting demons. This direction is heavier still, in the sense that it is worse than the previous directions. This is a direction of death. Usually, you put a phurba facing this direction, which is to say you put the point of a phurba facing this direction.
  • Lus-chad: Bodily injury, or corporal punishment. This is considered the worst direction, on the theory that a particular body part will lead one to destruction. I will very gently take notice that the image of a penis is used in one of the houses, so as an example, if you engage in sexual intercourse in that particular direction you will be led to ruin. In some other case, you see the image of a right hand, or a foot, so you get the general idea. There is a dual calculation in this area, where one notices the body part indicated on the chart, and then compares this to the element of one's birth bLa, or "soul force" if you will, versus that of the year.
Now that we understand the favorable and unfavorable directions, it is time to consider how to make the appropriate calculations. We will be calculating which one of the eight trigrams impacts us as individuals in the current year. For convenience, we'll use the chart below:

This seems to be where most people become confused, but it is actually quite simple. I will take an example using the current year, 2011, and a woman born in 1959. Simply take out a calculator,  subtract 1959 from 2011, and then add one. That gives us 53. Now, look at the diagram above, and find the box at "north," labeled "kan." That box is counted as one, and as this is a woman, we go counter-clockwise around the square until we reach 53, which is the box labeled "south," or "li." The trigram "li" is her trigram for the year 2011. If we were doing this for a man, we would begin at "li" and count clockwise around the square. That is the only difference. For women, begin at north and go counter-clockwise. For men, begin at south and go clockwise.

Now, examining the geomantic houses for Li, we see that her lucky directions are north, east, southeast, and east. Her unlucky directions are northeast, west, northwest, and southwest. Just as a further example, her injury direction is northeast, five demons are in the west, life-cutting demons are northwest, and her corporal punishment is southwest. She will want to avoid southwest at all costs.

The complete table for Li is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: North
  • Life Support: East
  • Eternal Knot: Southeast
  • Swastika: South
  • Triangle: Northeast
  • Five Dots: West
  • Phurba: Northwest
  • Body Part: Southwest
The complete table for Kun (Khon) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: Northwest
  • Life Support: Northeast
  • Eternal Knot: West
  • Swastika: Southwest
  • Triangle: East
  • Five Dots: Southeast
  • Phurba: North
  • Body Part: South
The complete table for Dui (Da) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: Northeast
  • Life Support: Northwest
  • Eternal Knot: Southwest
  • Swastika: West
  • Triangle: North
  • Five Dots: South
  • Phurba: East
  • Body Part: Southeast
The complete table for Qian (Khen) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: Southwest
  • Life Support: West
  • Eternal Knot: Northeast
  • Swastika: Northwest
  • Triangle: Southeast
  • Five Dots: East
  • Phurba: South
  • Body Part: North
The complete table for Kan (Kham) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: South
  • Life Support: Southeast
  • Eternal Knot: East
  • Swastika: North
  • Triangle: West
  • Five Dots: Northeast
  • Phurba: Southwest
  • Body Part: Northwest
The complete table for Gen (Kin) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: West
  • Life Support: Southwest
  • Eternal Knot: Northwest
  • Swastika: Northeast
  • Triangle: South
  • Five Dots: North
  • Phurba: Southeast
  • Body Part: East
The complete table for Zhen (Tsin) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: Southeast
  • Life Support: South
  • Eternal Knot: North
  • Swastika: East
  • Triangle: Southwest
  • Five Dots: Northwest
  • Phurba: West
  • Body Part: Northeast
The complete table for Xun (Zon) is now given:
  • Sky Medicine: East
  • Life Support: North
  • Eternal Knot: South
  • Swastika: Southeast
  • Triangle: Northwest
  • Five Dots: Southwest
  • Phurba: Northeast
  • Body Part: West
People often ask, "Well, what if you have to travel north, and north is a bad direction that year?" If travel in a bad direction cannot be avoided -- and most of the time it cannot -- then before beginning one's journey, there are several remedies that may be applied. One can take a few steps in a lucky direction, and rather disingenuously say that one has begun the journey by going in that direction.

On a more practical level, one can bow to the Buddha of the direction in which one is traveling and ask for a safe journey. This approach seems to work best, and there is even an extensive reference available: Chog-Chu Mun-Sel, or Sutra of Dispelling the Darkness of the Ten Directions. You can download this here. You can also maximize your chances by traveling on an auspicious day, or beginning at an auspicious hour. 

Now you have this little note on fortunate and unfortunate directions. Still, I want to tell you that to speak of directions is often an obstacle in itself. If you want to think in terms of directions, you can think of them as being equally fortunate without any further reference to themselves. It is the thinking of "good" and "bad" directions that leads to trouble in the first place.

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5 reader comments:

craigtom said...

can you look at the first one? It perhaps needs revision.


Malcolm said...

Though certainly Wenjo brought some texts of calculation with her, the entirety of modern elemental calculation stems from a treasure cycle revealed in the 11th century by one Khampa Trao based on the work of an 8th century Chinese translator named Duhar Nagpo

Editor said...

Craig, thanks for the notice.

Malcolm, what do you suppose Duhar Nagpo was translating?

As to elemental calculation, that is traced to Yin-Yang Chia, and Tsou Yen maybe somewhere between 350 to 270 BCE, the theory being that Tsou Yen systematized something that had been around for about a century.

Because of the one passing reference to "92" in the Mani Kabum, we know that Kon-jo was operating from the basis of Tsou Yen's works.

Malcolm said...

It is difficult to say what source texts were at Khampa Trao's disposal. He describes his source as the yang 'gyur sron ma i.e. the "retranslated lamp".

Certainly, elemental calculation as presented in Tibetan sources is very different than that presented in Chinese sources. There is no mention of elaborate Dzogchen influenced cosmologies such as the following presented in the great five volume treatise published some years ago in Lhasa:

"When that is applied to the tortoise of the basis, first, out of total nothingness there is the so called "primordially existing or abiding tortoise". And from this arose, or were produced, all the Buddhas of the three times and all the sentient beings of the three realms. The example for that is the void of spacem and since the meaning is the dharmadhātu of Samantabhadra, it exists without any coalescence or separation in any of the three times. No head or tail can be seen here, no limbs are shown here, in terms of time, here it abides without abiding. Without grasping to any extremes -- Buddhas and sentient beings are in that. The dharmakāya, the sambhogakāya, and the nirmanakāya, the emanations of the body, speech, mind, qualities and activities of the Victors, male, female, neuters, moving and resting and so on -- that superior one is called the "abiding tortoise".

Second, the tortoise of formation: the seven water maṇḍalas come from the moist breath of the abiding tortoise and from the mouth of the tortoise formes a green maṇḍala of water. Above that, from the flesh of the tortoise form Meru, the oceans and major and minor continents and the golden firmament. The pores of the tortoise form as grass and trees. That is the description of the tortoise of formation.

The golden tortoise of existence is the tortoise of existence that comes from the meeting of the tortoise of abiding and the tortoise of formation. The head of the tortoise of existence faces south. The rear-end faces north. The four limbs are in the four intermediate directions."

I find it highly unlikely therefore that the later elemental system Khampa's "re-translation" is more than tangentially related to the system introduced by Wenjo, which seems to not have survived.

I have also never come across the elaborate incest story about the eight Parkha in any Chinese source -- not saying it isn't there, just have not seen it.

While I agree Chinese calculation and Tibetan calculation must have some common origin in terms of basic concepts (five phases, eight parkha, magic square of saturn, etc.), the direction that the Tibetans took calculation was sufficiently different to cause scholars such as Thukwan to remark that it must be a native Tibetan innovation. Thukwan was very familiar with Chinese calculation practice and texts since he was fluent in Chinese, Mongolian (his native language) as well as Tibetan.

In any case, I have my doubts about any real continuity between the calculation of Wenjo and modern 'byung rtsi.


Editor said...


It becomes difficult to trace because the various methods may have survived in the Tibetan, whereas they disappeared in the Chinese, so there is no way to check back. You just chase threads of this and that across history; they disappear, reappear, etc.

As to the cosmologies, the boys liked to gild the lily, and as lily gilding is a high art among the Tibetan literati you can find almost anything about anything. I have seen literally hundreds of divination systems through the years, all more or less based on the same underlying principles. You can actually see vestiges of some of the really old ones in the hill tribes in the Golden Triangle, which is sort of fun to consider. Wolfram Eberhard also caught some traces when he did "Local Cultures of South and East China," which is one you might like.

So, while the issue of continuity is problematic, therein lies the fun, because when you start comparing all the various systems you come down to one fundamental question: to what extent, if any, did the Chinese come to India and steal all their systems.

The trail of the turtle doesn't necessarily always lead to China.