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The Cosmic Mandala: Celebrating Tibetan Astronomy and Cosmology
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Intro to Tibetan Astro Science
Although heavily influenced by the neighboring traditions of India, Mongolia, and China, Tibetan astro science has unique aspects, among which is its complex relationship with traditional Tibetan medicine.
One result was an annual prediction of auspicious dates for farmers to plant and harvest their crops. Of vital importance was the calculation of the nyadu tagpa, the forecast of the next year’s climate and fortune, based on the position of the full moon of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar (roughly November) in relation to Scorpius and the Pleiades.
- The external universe, its motions and cycles;
- The interactions of the human body and the cosmos (e.g. chakras and energy chanels)
- Meditative practices
Astronomy, astrology, and traditional medicine are intertwined in Tibetan culture. Tibetans often consult with a traditional "astro practitioner" when faced with important events or decisions, such as the birth of a child. As in many other cultures, a horoscope chart is often drawn up.
Aspicious and inauspicious dates are calculated, usually in relation to the phase of the moon and the lunar calendar. Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto are not considered in the Tibetan system because they do not appear in the Kalachakra tantra and are considered too distant to be of any influence.
An important fundamental difference between Western and Tibetan astrological predictions is that in Tibet horoscopes are considered to only be predictions of potential obstacles based on a person's accumulated karma.
One can avert potential harm through the proper actions.
For example, if a child's birth horoscope predicts difficulties for the child, his or her parents might practice purification rituals to prevent these karmic seeds from ripening, such as sparing the life of an animal destined for slaughter, donating money to the poor, or reciting particular prayers.
Otherwise, one will never attain this potential age. In the original Kalachakra system, the maximum lifespan is 108 years, but when these teachings migrated from India to Tibet the number was reduced to 80, because we are currently in a degenerate age when the average lifespan is decreasing.
Since the human body is composed of the same elements as the food it consumes, and disease is commonly thought in Tibetan culture to be caused by an imbalance between these elements, medicines can be created out of these same elements to restore the balance and hence cure the disease.
Traditional Tibetan medicine also takes into consideration past accumulations of bad karma by the ill person, and therefore spiritual and astrological knowledge are combined with medical knowledge when prescribing an antidote for a particular ailment.
Tibetan astronomical terms
hello - tashi dalay
thank you - tu-jay-shay
Aries - lug
ascending node - sgra can
Big Dipper - skara ma chu stod
sun's northern declination - nyi ma byang bgrod
sun's southern declination - nyi ma lho bgrod
sunset - nyi nub
waning moon - nag phyogs; mar ngo
The Kalachakra system is the basis for modern Tibetan astro science, and recognizes ten “planets”: Sun, Moon, the naked eye planets, the moon’s north and south nodes (Rahu or sgra can and Kalagni or dus me), and a comet named Ketu or mjug ring.
The Hindu explanation of eclipses is the demon Rahu attacking the sun or moon, but in the Kalachakra system eclipses are correctly described as an alignment of the sun, moon, and appropriate lunar node.
Eclipses have been successfully predicted for centuries in Tibet.
Also, although many discussions of archaeoastronomy include sweeping statements that all ancient cultures feared eclipses, in the Tibetan tradition they are instead considered to be auspicious occasions. Karma (either positive or negative) accumulated during an eclipse is multiplied millions of times.
The ten planets are as follows:
Tibetan Zodiac and Lunar Houses
The twelve signs are as follows:
Lug - sheep
gLang - bull
Kh'rig - couple
Karta - frog
Sengge - snow lion
Bhumo - girl
Srang - balance
sThig - scorpion
gShu - bow and arrow
Chusrin - dragon-headed fish
Bhumpa - water-bearer
Nya - fish
The Tibetan system differs from the Indian system in normally having 27 constellations rather than 28, and from the Chinese system in having the constellations be relative to the ecliptic rather than the celestial equator.
The twelve "signs" are used for horoscopes, while the lunar houses are used in calculating the calendar. Each lunar mansion is divided into four pieces called a step. Nine steps make up one sign of the zodiac.
1. tha skar (Ashvini) Beta Arietis (Scheratan)
2. bra nye (Bharani) 35 Arietis
3. smin drug (Krittika) Pleiades
4. snar ma (Rohini) Aldebaran
5. mgo (Mrgashira) Lambda Orionis
6. lag (Ardra) Alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse)
7. nab so (Punarvasu) Beta Geminorum (Pollux)
8. rgyal (Pushya) 5 Cancri
9. skag (Ashlesha) Alpha Hydrae (Alphard)
10. mchu (Magha) Alpha Leonis (Regulus)
11. bre (Purva-Phalguni) Delta Leonis (Zosma)
12. dbo (Uttara-Phalguni) Beta Leonis (Denebola)
13. me zhi (Hasta) Delta Corvi
14. nag pa (Chitra) Alpha Virginis (Spica)
15. sa ri (Svati) Alpha Bootis (Arcturus)
16. sa ga (Vishakha) Alpha Librae
17. lha tsham (Anuradha) Delta Scorpii
18. snron (Jyeshtha) Alpha Scorpii (Antares)
19. snrub (Mula) Lambda Scorpii (Schaula)
20. chu stod (Purvashadha) Delta Sagittarii
21. chu smad (Uttarashadha) Sigma Sagittarii
22. gro bzhin (Uttara-Ashadha) Alpha Aquilae (Altair)
23. mon gre (Dhaniastha) Beta Delphini (or Lambda Aquarii)
24. mon gru (Satabhishak) Lambda Aquarii (or Beta Delphini)
25. 'khrum stod (Purvabhadrapada)Alpha Pegasi (or the Great Square)
26. 'khrum smad (Uttarabhadrapada) Gamma Pegasi/Alpha Andromedae (or the Great Square)
27. nam gru (Revati) Zeta Piscium
This unique system plays a central role in Tibetan culture, allowing for the calculation of dates for various ceremonies.
As with all lunar calendars, the 29.5 day synodic cycle creates some obvious difficulties, which have multiple creative solutions.
Both the 29.5 day synodic cycle and the fact that the moon rises at a different time each day lead to differences between these systems (and among Buddhist traditions) as to when a specific lunar day actual begins and ends.
Therefore a particular month might have two 19ths and no 23rd.
In addition, approximately every thirty months a full month is added to keep the calendar aligned with the seasons (in contrast with the Islamic calendar, which is a truly lunar calendar).
As the traditions surrounding Losar are as rich as those of the Chinese New Year, multicultural lesson plans centered on Chinese New Year can be effectively adapted to parallel lessons for Losar, and would teach similar concepts.
Particular days of any given month are given special significance, either for good or bad.
In general, the waxing half of the lunar month is generally considered more auspicious than the waning part of the month.
Therefore it is better to begin projects near the beginning of the month so that they can increase with the waxing of the moon.
It should be noted that the months are signified by numbers, not names.
The difference derives from the fact that when the Tibetan calendar was introduced into Mongolia in the 13th century, adjustments were made in the calendar to align it with the Mongolian months, a change that was adopted in Tibet as well.
The Kalachakra calendar begins in reference to the sun (when the sun is in Aries, which makes the date closer to the Spring equinox).
The twelve animals are:
For example, 1995 was the Wood-pig year and 1996 was the Fire-mouse year. 2009 is the Earth-ox year. It is believed that every 12 years a person will experience a time of greater obstacles. Particular prayers and ceremonies are generally done in order to counteract these obstacles.
Determining the Winter Solstice Tibetan Style
According to the Kalacakravatara, the winter solstice is observational determined through the use of shadows as follows:
- On level ground in the middle of a circle of one cubit diameter, plant a stick in the ground that measures the length from the tip of your thumb to the tip of your middle finger.
The line of the stick's morning shadow gradually shortens from outside the mandala.
That is west. In the afternoon the shadow gradually lengthens from the center of the mandala.
Repeat the process as before, and the mark will indicate east.
Anchoring thread at one of the marks, and beginning directly in front of the other mark, draw a circle with chalk.
Anchor thread at the other mark and do the same, thereby creating the shape of a fish.
In the middle of the two circles, the center of the mouth of the fish is the south, and the center of the tail is the north.
Having ascertained the directions rub out the circles.
Starting from the tenth day before the sun makes its northward journey, make observations at midday.
Since we have access to compasses, we can ascertain north and south much more easily, and therefore duplicate the observation of the midday shadow with students as young as elementary school.
In simple English, draw a circle on the ground and plant a gnomon stick in the center.
Beginning some days before the winter solstice, mark the length of the midday shadow relative to the circle.
Repeat on each sunny day. When the shadow stops lengthening and begins to shorten, you've found the winter solstice.
Note that the opposite experiment can be done at the summer solstice.
Note that this version of determining the winter solstice is easier than measuring the most southward sunrise along the horizon (the method used at Stonehenge, for example), and can be done at an hour when children are more likely to be in school.
This is also a natural cultural extension of the Astronomy with a Stick lesson plans.
Tibetan cosmological models
It is commonly used in meditation practices and as a visual aid in rituals. Mandalas have a circular structure, and most are two dimensional, despite the fact that they commonly depict three-dimensional objects.
The ring fingers represent Mount Meru, while the other 4 pairs of fingers represent the four great continents (NSEW).
- The fundamental ground is scented with incense and strewn with flowers,
Tibetan Cosmology and Modern Science
For example, the Dalai Lama writes that
- if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims (2005: 3).
However, the observed world is also considered to be only "conventional truth" not absolute truth, so one can also question whether or not scientific explanations are also only conventional (albeit rigorously rested, internally consistent, and highly predictive) explanations of reality.
He continues that
- spirituality must be tempered by the insights and discoveries of science. If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is also impoverished, as this mind-set can lead to fundamentalism. this is one of hte reasons I encourage by Buddhist colleagues to undertake the study of science, so that its insights can be integrated into the Buddhist world view (2005: 13)
Therefore the Dalai Lama considers science to be an essential part of monks' education, and since an early age himself was fascinated with the natural world. How has he reconciled science and the ancient cosmological models in his own mind? Read for yourself:
- When I was a child experimenting with the telescope belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, I had a vivid experience of the power of inference based on empirical observation [looking at the moon].... to my surprise, I saw what looked like shadows.
I was so excited that I insisted my two tutors come and peer through the telescope.
They looked puzzled but agreed.... (2005: 31-2)
- (Abhidharma cosmology) gives very exact measurements of the distance from the earth to the moon and sun and the stars, as well as the size of the sun and moon.
These measurements are just crazy (2004: 97)
For example, the Meru-centered cosmology is often compared to the human body, with the spine acting in the role of the central mountain, the four continents symbolizing our arms and legs, and the sun and moon as our eyes.
A more modern analogy might be Carl Sagan's often-quoted mantra "We are star stuff" - the very atoms which make up the human body were created inside the nuclear furnaces of previous generations of stars.
Just as inflationary models seem to predict "eternal inflation" (a continued process of new inflationary 'pocket universes' coming into being and possibly being destroyed later), Tibetan Buddhist cosmologies contain a continued cycle of new universes coming into being and old ones passing away.
Among those are several which are cosmological:
- Are the self and the universe eternal?
- Are the self and the universe transient?
- Are the self and the universe both eternal and transient?
- Are the self and the universe neither eternal nor transient?
- Do the self and the universe have a beginning?
- Do the self and the universe have no beginning?
- Do the self and the universe both eternal and transient?
- Do the self and the universe neither eternal nor transient?
In another view, argued by the important philosopher Nagarjuna, if one pondered these questions, it might reinforce the erroneous notion that things have an intrinsic, self-contained existence, rather than being "empty" (i.e. existing only in dependence on their proper causes and conditions).
Miscellaneous Tibetan Astronomical Folklore and Tradition
Students might find interesting a comparison of the importance of the North Star in the Chinese and Tibetan cultures in addition to the classic lesson on the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” folksong and the Underground Railroad.
The connection between dragons and "falling stars" (meteors) is common in many cultures.