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The Cosmic Mandala: Celebrating Tibetan Astronomy and Cosmology

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Intro to Tibetan Astro Science


Tibetan “astro science” (as it is called) combines aspects of astronomical calculations and observations (such as calendars) with astrology, similar to other ancient traditions.

In the Tibetan tradition, the former is termed skar-rtsis, and the latter byung-rtsis.

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.

Practitioners developed almanacs through detailed mathematical computations which combined astronomical and astrological aspects.

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.

An important basis for skar-rtsis is the Sri Kalachakra Tantra, a text first translated into Sanskrit in 1027 AD. The text is divided into three chapters, focusing on:

  1. The external universe, its motions and cycles;
  2. The interactions of the human body and the cosmos (e.g. chakras and energy chanels)
  3. Meditative practices

The Kalachakra cosmological model will be discussed in another section.

The connection between astronomy and astrology in Tibetan culture

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.

Otherwise, as the 15th century sage Kaydrubjey noted, a dog and a person born at the same time in the same place would share the same exact fate.

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.

Nothing is written in stone, and all potential events can be averted, otherwise enlightenment would be impossible.

One of the predictions made by natal horoscopes is a person's potential lifespan. In order to attain one's potential lifespan, one must engage in ethical practices and accumulate positive karma.

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

Aquarius - bum pa

Aries - lug

ascending node - sgra can

astrologer - skar mkhan

Big Dipper - skara ma chu stod

Cancer - sbal pa

Capricornus - chu srin

constellation - rgyu skar can

crescent moon - zla tse sa

descending node - mjug ring

eclipse - gzas zin

full moon - dkyil 'khor gang; nya gang; zla ba nya ba

Gemini - 'khrig pa

Jupiter - phur bu

Leo - seng ge

Libra - srang

lunar day - tshe zhag

Mars - ku dza; mig dmar

Mercury - lhag pa; gza' lhag

meteor - dkar mda'; skar mda'

moon - zla ba

new moon - gnam gang


new moon - stong

North Star - rkang steng bu

Pisces - nya

Pleiades - smin drug

Pole Star - skar ma brtan pa

Sagittarius - gzhu

Saturn - 'khyog 'gro; spen pa

Scorpius - sdig pa

star - skar

starlight - skar 'od

summer solstice - dbyar nyi ldog

Sun - nyi ma

sun dogs ("mock suns") - na 'ja'

sunrise - nyi 'char; nyi shar

sun's northern declination - nyi ma byang bgrod

sun's southern declination - nyi ma lho bgrod

sunset - nyi nub

Taurus - glang

Venus - dkar po; pa sangs; ba wa sangs

Virgo - bu mo

waning moon - nag phyogs; mar ngo

[[waxing moon}} - dkar po-i phyogs; yar ngo

winter solstice - dgung nyi ldog

Tibetan "planets"


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.

Chinese astronomical systems do not include the nodes or the comet, and the classical Indian systems do not recognize the comet (although the name Ketu is used for the southern lunar node).

Rahu and Ketu are described as the head and tail of a sky-blue dragon. Due to their color, they are only visible during an eclipse.

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.

It is interesting to note that in some early scriptural texts the planets are pictured as spherical bodies suspended in space.

The ten planets are as follows:

    Sun nyi ma

    Moon zla ba

    Mars mig dmar

    Mercury lhag pa

    Jupiter phur bu

    Venus pa sangs

    Saturn spen pa

    Rahu sgra can

    Kalagni dus me

    Ketu mjug ring

See also

Astro Department (1995) Tibetan Astronomy and Astrology - a Brief Introduction. Dharamsala, India: Tibetan Medical and Astro Institute.

Dalai Lama (2005) The Universe in a Single Atom. NY: Morgan Road Books.

Gyatso, Khendrup Norsang (2004) Ornament of Stainless Light: An Exposition of the Kalachakra Tantra. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Tibetan Zodiac and Lunar Houses


Tibetan astro-science recognizes the twelve classical zodiacal constellations or lagna, with most representing similar animals and figures to the Greco-roman zodiac.

Three interesting exceptions are Cancer, which is seen as a frog, Leo, which is a mythological snow lion, and Capricornus, which is a dragon-headed fish.

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

More important than the constellations of the zodiac are the lunar houses or mansions, which are calculated by the stars seen rising before the sun at different dates within the lunar month.

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.

This is due to the importance placed on the north celestial pole as the seat of the emperor in Chinese astronomy. When 28 houses are used, one of the 27 is divided into two.

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.

The Sanskrit names of the 27 houses are found in primary text Ornament of Stainless Light.

The below list with both Tibetan and Sanskrit names is adapted from that source and (with minimal astronomical corrections)

Twenty-Seven Lunar Constellations (rgyu skar nyer bdun)

Tibetan sakya ganesha.jpg

    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

Tibetan Lunar Calendar

Nowhere is the importance placed on the moon more evident in Tibetan astro science than in the lunar calendar.

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.

Therefore, the Hindu, Tibetan, and Chinese lunar calendars are not synonymous, and offer unique opportunities for students to compare and contrast these systems.

In Buddhist and Hindu systems, the full moon must fall on the 15th day of any month, and the new moon on the 30th.

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.

The Tibetan calendar uses skip days (tsi chad-pa) and doubled days (tsi lhag-pa) to reconcile the differences between the solar and lunar cycles.

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).

The rules for calculating the Tibetan calendar are complex, and passed down from master to student.

One result is that Losar, Tibetan New Year, and Chinese New Year do not always correspond, but can differ by an entire lunar month.

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.

For example, the 8th day of each lunar month is considered an auspicious day for making offerings to the female buddha Tara.

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.

The most important date of the Tibetan year is Saga Dawa, the anniversary of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and passing away. This falls on the 15th day of the 4th month.

It should be noted that the months are signified by numbers, not names.

A second calendar is used in Tibetan rituals, the Kalachakra calendar, whose New Year falls at the beginning of the third month.

Therefore if Losar is in February, the Kalachakra New Year is in April.

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).

Similar to the Chinese calendar, each year is assigned to a particular animal and element.

With twelve animals and five elements, there is a natural 60 year cycle called a Rab-byung that results.

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

Samsara Tibet.jpg

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.

When it reaches the edge of the mandala, at that time and in that place, make the mark of the crowfoot [an X].

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.

When the shadow begins to move inside from outside the northern edge of the original circle, that is the day the sun changes to its northward journey. [Ornament of Stainless Light, pg 127]

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

Cosmic mandalas

A mandala is a symbolic representation of part or all of the universe.

For example, it can represent the home of a specific meditational deity.

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.

They can be painted on cloth (e.g. a thangka), wood, or constructed out of sand.

There are at least three different cosmological mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism.

"Cosmic mandala"

1)"Cosmic mandala", which shows the intricate dance of the sun, moon, and other planets around Mount Meru (the axis of the geocentric universe).

In this view you are looking down on Mount Meru (a bird's eye view) from such a height that you cannot see any detail in the world below.

2) The Kalachakra mandala, which represents the 3-D palace of the Kalachakra deities

Kalachakra mandala

3) The hand gesture (mudra) used in the mandala offering is a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Hand gesture (mudra) used in the mandala offering

The ring fingers represent Mount Meru, while the other 4 pairs of fingers represent the four great continents (NSEW).

The following prayer is usually recited as part of the offering:

The fundamental ground is scented with incense and strewn with flowers,
Adorned with Mt. Meru, the four continents, the sun and the moon.
I imagine this as a buddhaland and offer it.
May all sentient beings enjoy this pure realm.

Tibetan Cosmology and Modern Science

Tibetan Buddhism is based on a tradition of logical analysis expounded by the great Indian logicians Dignaga (5th century) and Dharmakirti (7th century).

An often-repeated quote from the Buddha advises one to test the truth of an idea or a statement as a goldsmith tests the purity of gold - through reasoned examination and direct experimentation.

Any concept or idea (or even historical religious text) which is found to be illogical or directly contradicts observations of the natural world must be discarded (or regarded as strictly symbolic).

Therefore there is no conflict between science and religion in this tradition - scientific observations always trump historical documents in terms of explanations of the observed world.

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.

I argued that the presence of shadows on the moon was proof that the moon was lit by the sun's light in the same way as the earth.

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.

The problem is, these measurements are wrong from the modern scientific point of view.

For example, the sun is only bigger than the moon by a tiny fraction, and they are the same distance from the earth.

These measurements are just crazy (2004: 97)

My own view is that Buddhism must abandon many aspects of the Abhidharma cosmology (2005: 80).

It may seem to be contradictory to continue to teach a cosmology that is known to be scientifically wrong.

However, it must be understood that there may be symbolic reasons to continue to teach a philosophy or model, such as its use as a meditational guide.

Alexander Berzin explains that the Abhidharma and Kalachakra cosmologies are "valid for a different purpose, and in neither case is that purpose navigating a space ship" (1997:41).

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.

Meditating on these models of the universe allows one to contemplate the connection between our bodies and the greater universe.

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.

Setting aside philosophical considerations, the basic tenets of Tibetan cosmologies, especially the Kalachakra system, have a number of interesting parallels to modern science.

For example, time is considered to be relative and not an absolute quantity.

As described in the section on Cosmological models, the traditional Tibetan universe is cyclical and has something akin to "Big Bangs" and "Big Crunches".

In some modern cosmological models, the universe arises from quantum fluctuations of the vacuum.

The Dalai Lama has expressed interest in the parallels between the space particles of the Kalachakra cosmology and the quantum vacuum of modern cosmology.

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.

Finally, the Pali and Indian Buddhist literature list a number of questions which Buddha did not directly answer.

Among those are several which are cosmological:

Reasons for his refusal are varied. Some state that since the answers to these questions do not lead to enlightenment, they were irrelevant.

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

In ancient Tibet, farmers and nomads passed down their knowledge of the motions of the heavens through oral traditions, as there was no written language.

Proper planting times and weather predictions were done by noting the position of the moon relative to Scorpio and the Pleiades.

Nomads in northern Tibet still hold the belief that rkang sten bu, “the Stable Star of the North”, will protect lost animals overnight and allow for their easy location in the morning .

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.

Astronomical objects such as the sun, moon, and stars are used metaphorically in numerous Buddhist texts, such as the illusion of a moon's reflection in water.

Folktales suitable for children also parallel these references. For example, in "The Monkeys and the Moon," the reflection of the moon seen in a well plays a central role in the tale .

In "A Beautiful Shining Star," a magician takes a boy on a journey into the sky to see dragons and pick a star from the sky.

The connection between dragons and "falling stars" (meteors) is common in many cultures.