The Golden Turtle: A Sino-Tibetan divination manuscript


Astrology was, and surely still is, an important part of life in Tibet. As in most other Asian countries, astrology played the vital role of deciding whether to carry out an important activity – a journey, a marriage, a funeral, a battle – and which days were best for embarking on such activities. Tibetan astrology is often said to be a combination of Chinese and Indian astrologies. According to one history, it was the tsenpo Tridé Tsugtsen who introduced Chinese astrology to Tibet in the 8th century. The influence of Indian astrology comes mainly through the Kālacakra tantra I believe, from the 11th century onwards.

There is an old saying, going back to the time of the Tibetan empire, that characterises Tibet’s neighbours according to their special talents (at least in Tibetan eyes):

  • To the south is India, the land of religion
  • To the north is Turkestan, the land of horses, weapons and war
  • To the west is Persia, the land of wealth, jewels and trade
  • To the east is China, the land of divination and astrology

Tibet already had a divination method that had little to do with Chinese astrology, in which dice were used to consult oracle deities – the ancestor of the mo divination still practised today. But the study of the stars and their portents was something the Tibetans encountered, and apparently were impressed with, in their early contact with China.

Now I wouldn’t be venturing into an area of which I know so very little, were it not for an amazing and totally unexplored manuscript from the Dunhuang cave that looks like the earliest Tibetan text on Chinese-style astrology – Or.8210/S.6878. It’s been written on the back of a Chinese sutra, and since it was filed along with the Chinese scrolls, the Tibetan side was ignored. How, I don’t know. It’s full of diagrams and ends with the rather strange tortoise that graces the top of this post. So I will say a little about this manuscript, and hope to learn something from anyone who knows more about the subject and is kind enough to comment.

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s6878_diagram1The first diagram comes under the heading “divining the good and bad dates for beginning a journey.” The first result is this:

When the day falls in the “gate of the sky”, if you go on a long journey, it will be good and auspicious.

If you look in the diagram, the “gate of the sky” (gnam gyi sgo) is one of the eight divisions of the diagram, under which is written “the 1st day, the 9th day, the 10th day, the 17th day and the 25th day.” So the sky is divided into eight parts.

I guess it’s not so difficult to do this astrology after all – just check the day of the month against the diagram, and read the result. There are bad days too:

When the day falls in the “junction of the sky”, wherever you go a great loss will occur – very bad.

The word I translated as “loss” is god ka, which usually means a financial deficit, so I have the feeling that the main purpose for making this astrological calculation is to check on the possible success of a journey for the purpose of trade. That is, travelling merchants (not scarce on the Silk Route) would ask an astrologer (probably a Buddhist monk) to check the best days for embarking on a journey. I say “probably a Buddhist monk” because these astrological diagrams have been written on the back of a Chinese Perfection of Wisdom sutra.

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s6878_diagram2Other diagrams on the scroll contain the twelve animals of the Chinese and Tibetan zodiacs, and underneath is the phrase “If the male and female are joined in this way…” The animal years in the Tibetan calendar always come in male or female form (usually the even-numbered years are the male ones, and the odd-numbered years the female). Note that in the diagram here the animals are divided into pairs. This could be a combination of the animal of the current year with the animal of the day, or of one’s birth year, but I haven’t been able to work this one out yet.

And what of the star animal of this manuscripts – the golden turtle? Well, in early China (I mean the Han dynasty if not earlier) the main methods for divination were to use bones, yarrow sticks and turtle shells. It was the ability of the turtle to live to a great old age that attracted people to it. Turtles from the Yangtse River were thought to have divine powers, and those over a foot long were believed to be a thousand years old. In their age they represented wisdom and – unfortunately for the turtles – longevity, with the inevitable result that they were eaten as a remedy for the problems of old age. Pictured below is the Chinese Pond Turtle, also known as the Golden Turtle.

chinesepondturtleTurtles – which have the lovely name rubel (rus sbal) in Tibetan – also had a cultural significance in Tibet. Have a look at the metaphors and riddles of Padampa Sangyé attached to the redoubtable Tibeto-Logic site here. One asks “who drew the design on the turtle’s back; who was the artist?” Which brings us to the fact that the turtle depicted here appears to be without its shell. In fact it looks suspiciously like the artist had never seen a real turtle.

So, how to do the turtle divination? The instructions are quite straightforward, although you need to know what a lunar day is. You need to count the number of lunar days since the day you lost the thing, going around the points of the turtle, and then take the result from where you end up on the turtle’s body. If you lost the thing within thirty days, start at the head and go round clockwise. If it’s over thirty days, start at the bottom and go round anticlockwise. And if you don’t read Tibetan, here’s a translation of the body parts

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The divination practice (mo) of the golden turtle: for finding things that have escaped or been mislaid.

Whichever lunar day it happens to be, calculate from the first day it was lost to the current lunar day, and the result is found in connection with where this falls on the body part of the turtle. If it was lost within the last thirty days, then count to the right from the head. If it is not within thirty days, then count going round to the left from the tail. Write the good or bad result at the turtle’s tail.

  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the head, it will be found if you look in the vicinity of a laundry washer.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the ears, then even if you come across it on the road while searching for it, it will not be beneficial to get your hands on it.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the arms, you will find it if you look for it on a high mountain, in a ravine, or in the middle of a graveyard.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the armpits, you will find it if you look for it at the goldsmiths, at the watermill, or in the town centre.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the feet, you will find it if you look at the the royal gates, the minister’s place, or the conference site.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the tail, you will find it if you look in the direction of your girlfriend.

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Tibetan text
@//gser gyI ru bal mo ste//bros pa dang/rlag btsal pa’/zla ba gang la bab kyang rung ste//tshes zhag gcig nas bgrangs la stor pa’I/nyi ma ru sbal kyi tshigs gar bab pa dang/sbyar te gdab bo/zla ba sum/cu thub na nI/mgo nas g.yas logsu bgrang/zla ba sum cu myi thub na ni/mjug bas g.yon logsu bskor te bgrango//bzang ngan gyi tsigs ni/ru sbal kyi mjug du bris so//
@//mgo ‘i nyi ma la/stor na btso blag mkhan gyI/ ‘khor du btsal na rnyed//rna ba’I nyi ma la stor na/btsal te lam du phrad kyang /bdag gI lag tu thob la myI phan no//lag pa’I pa’I nyi ma la stor na/rI mthon po dang/grog mo dang/mchad khrod du/btsan (=btsal) na rnyed//mchan khung gI nyi ma la stor na/gser mgar dang/rang tag (=’thag) dang/grong ‘khor du btsal na rnyed//rkang pa’I nyi ma la stor na/rdze (=rje?) sgo dang/zhang lon dang/ tshong dus su btsal na rnyed//mjug ma’I nyi ma la stor na/grog (=grogs?) mo pyogsu btsal na rnyed//

Translator’s notes

  • Two words I am uncertain about here are grong ‘khor, which I have tentatively translated as “town centre”, and rdze sgo, which I have even more tentatively translated as “royal gates” (assuming rdze = rje).
  • The word tshong dus, which I’ve translated as “conference site” is found in the Dunhuang manuscripts referring to several places where royal/governmental conferences were held during the Tibetan empire. Later, it usually means a marketplace.
  • I’ve chosen to read grog mo in the final sentence to grogs mo, changing a ravine to a girlfriend. Since we already had a ravine in an earlier result, it seems redundant here. I like this reading, but it might not be right.

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1.Baumann, Brian. 2008. Buddhist Mathematics According to the Anonymous Manual of Mongolian Astrology and Divination. Leiden: Brill.
2. Cornu, Phillipe. 2002. Tibetan Astrology. Boston: Shambhala.
3. Loewe, Michael. 1994. Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. Ho Peng Yoke. 2003. Chinese Mathematical Astrology. London: Routledge Curzon.

15 thoughts on “The Golden Turtle: A Sino-Tibetan divination manuscript

  1. Hi Early,

    I don’t want to sound like I’m complainint, but I’m sure many of your readers, like myself, are wondering what the Golden Turtle has to do with the Great Perfectedness pf Dzogchen. We’re sure it has something to do with it. Aren’t you?

    And on the other hand, what does it have to do with the Chinese “river chart”? And the turtle depicted in Tibetan paintings with the eight trigrams on his stomach shell?

    And I have the feeling the turtle was drawn naked on purpose, not because the artist didn’t know what the shell-wearing version ought to look like. Of course, as its Tibetan name rubel implies, a turtle is just a frog with an impressive carapace, Isn’t it?


  2. Hello Dan,

    Is that Bonpo Great Perfection? I’m afraid its all Greek (or Zhangzhung) to me. Please expand, if you are inclined to do so. I do suspect there is a link with the later images of the turtle with the eight trigrams on its stomach. And I’m puzzled at the first diagram on this scroll that divides the sky into eight houses, rather than twenty-eight. But as I said, astrology is a new subject for me.

    Rubel (rus sbal) is “bone-frog” isn’t it? Such a good name but a little odd when the turtle’s head and limbs are not very frog-like. But then I once met a small child who called frogs “wood-pigs”.

    Why draw a turtle without a shell? Can a turtle survive without its shell? I don’t like to think it would have to. Could the shell be used for one form of divination and the body for another? As you see, I have many more questions than answers, perhaps even more questions than you!


  3. Dear Early,

    And I still have even more questions to add. Turtles, along with frogs and other reptilians, don’t have visible ears (they have a tympanum covered over by skin that might even look indented in relation to the surrounding areas, but nothing really visible on the outside, no ear-flaps like mammals have. So why is the shell-less turtle labeled with two rna-ba, ‘ears’? (Supposedly this type of hearing organ arrangement, while it doesn’t work so well out in the air for obvious reasons, helps them to hear stuff while they’re under water… Not that I’m a biologist or anything. In high school my lab partner did all the cutting. I just couldn’t bring myself.)

    Oh, Karmay talked about the Gser-gyi Rus-sbal text in his Great Perfection book. It’s both Nyingma and Bön (one of those clear examples of intertextuality, I’d say). A related text is studied by J-L Achard in Le Tantra des Vingt-Deux Perles de l’Esprit de Parfaite Pureté: un exemple d’intertextualité entre les traditions Bon po et rNying ma pa, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie (Winter 2006), pp. 57-104. Just try Googling “gser gyi rus sbal” (with the quote marks) and you’ll find more.

    You might also appreciate this quote from Kong-sprul’s Shes-bya Kun-khyab (Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang edition), vol. 2 [bar-cha], p. 347: rgya nag tu srid pa thams cad la ma hâ gser gyi rus sbal las byung zer ba’i gyim shang gi lugs. This is part of his treatment of ‘religions’ who preach harm or assert eternalism (not a good thing, by the way). It says that your Gyim-shang followers in China like to say that all of existence emerges from a great (Mahâ) Golden Turtle.

    Oh, and turtles’ shells grow together with them. They never need to shed, exactly, or perhaps you could say that they are shedding all the time. But no, they never have to live without shells (although their shells are much softer when they are young).


  4. Oh, and I shouldn’t fail to add these words of Thu’u-bkwan (p. 399 in the 1984 edition of this Grub-mtha’):

    rus sbal gyi rgyab kyi ri mo la brten nas ‘byung rtsis brtsams pa’i lo rgyus ‘di tsam las / rus sbal de thams cad kyi byed pa po yin pa’i gtam rgya’i yi ge dang gtam rgyun tshad ma rnams la ma grags pas / bod kyi nag rtsis pa dag gis lo rgyus de tsam la brten nas ma hâ gser gyi rus sbal zhes rtag pa rang byung gi byed pa po zhig byung ba skad byed pa ni sgro ‘dogs kyi gtam ‘dod rgyal du smras pa’o // des mtshon nas spar kha dang lo skor bcu gnyis kyi byung tshul sogs rdzun gtam mang du smra yang skabs su ma babs pas ma bris so //

    This is part of his discussion of the Chinese religion he calls She’u, not the one he calls Do’u, and not the one called Jing. Thu’u-bkwan (1737-1802), a Tibetanized Mongolian Gelugpa, is quite skeptical about past Tibetan portrayals of these Chinese traditions, and very probably rightly so! We ought to learn more about the history of Tibetan Sinological studies, I think.

  5. The golden turtle picture reminds me of those drawings of elephants and tigers in medieval bestiaries, i.e. a drawing of a turtle by someone who had never seen one, rather than a deliberately naked turtle. But maybe the artist had in mind the recently discovered shell-less proto-turtle.

    I agree with Dan that ears are an odd body part to specifically mark out on a turtle, but armpits also seem a trifle strange to me.

  6. Dear Andrew,

    I agree that it does point to a tradition in which the artists were unfamiliar with real turtles. But is this likely? Dunhuang was in a desert location of course, but the divination tradition represented here surely came from central China? Or should we consider that ru sbal might have indicated some other animal, even a mythological one, in this period?

    Thanks for your page on the Zhang Zhung scripts, by the way, which has been useful to me recently.

  7. Dan,

    In case you did not already know, she’u transcribes Chinese xué 学 “learning, study”, do’u transcribes Chinese dào 道 “The Way”, and jing transcribes Chinese jīng 经 “sutra” — repectively refering to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.

  8. I guess technically speaking we ought to call the armpits the front legpits instead. Still, so passing strange to count the front legpits and not the rear legpits as well.

    There is a Tibetan way of calculating on the hand in sixes in which the ‘gap’ between thumb and forefinger is counted. I forgot how that was supposed to work. Anybody able to refresh my memory? Anyway, I guess that it’s likely to be more or less irrelevant to the problem of deciding how to count on shell-less turtle parts. (Just that it’s an example of counting a ‘gap’ as part of a series of appendages.)

    I think the shell itself has other divination purposes that were considered to be too distracting by the person who wanted to illustrate this particular type of divination. Hence the naked picture.

    And if you’ve ever seen a Tibetan astro-expert at work, they like to use ‘dials’ (sets of larger and smaller paper circles pinned at the middle and turned independently in order to calculate relationships between two or more sets of ‘variables’. I think this might be part of what’s going on in this Dunhuang set of circles, too. Maybe you notice the circles are different sizes…)

    There are people out there who know this stuff like the backs of their hands, but so far they aren’t talking to us.

  9. Thank you for those interesting suggestions. Indeed, the shell could be removed (at least in the illustration) to allow us to concentrate on the body parts of the tortoise. And the independently turned dials do seem to correspond to the calculations here, matching up two animal signs for the result.

    I too hope that some specialists in Chinese or Tibetan astrology and divination might happen to pass this way…

  10. ‘Eight Houses of the Sky’ = Eight Directions / Ba Gua

    The basis of all astrology and feng shui (one in the same subject essentially*) for assigning values to the directions is through the numerology found in the ‘Yellow River Map’ ascribed to Fu Xi;
    1,6 are North, 2,7 are South, 3,8 are East, 4,9 are West, 5,10 are Center.

    and the other fundamental rubric is the ‘Luo River Diagram’ which is said to have been discovered on the back of a turtle by the legendary Emperor Yu of the Xia Dynasty. In this arrangement, we have 9 positions/numbers;

    9 is at the head of the turtle.
    1 is the tail of the turtle.
    3 is on the left side, 7 is on the right side.
    2 and 4 are the shoulders.
    6 and 8 are the feet.
    5 occupies the center.

    These diagrams lay out the foundational material of the movements and relationships of the 5 phases (also known as the 5 ‘elements’). These concepts of directional association, mutual generation (the Yellow River arrangement), and mutual resolution (the Luo River diagram), are what form the elementary knowledge of the way of Heaven and Earth. Astrology and feng shui are the study the transformational patterns of time (astrology) and space (feng shui) from the (limited) human perspective.

    I hope this helps.

  11. I heard about a person in China who is successful in finding missing persons . It seems he uses birth data at first and as second the turtle method and he is good at finding water with his method . Seems ,that he can interpret locations better than this Tibetan text describe.

  12. Uh yes, shall I pretend that I read German? Thanks for the reference, though, I’ll work my way through it. Lovely article on Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje over at the TOL by the way!

  13. Hi,

    Many people say that this is a tibetan manuscript.
    I would like to know if it is true?
    What is the origin of this manuscript and what means the written text? Can You help me and answer on my questions? Thank You for reply.

    Cyprian, Poland

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