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.

Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan

In the last post we were looking at Heshang Moheyan, the Chinese teacher of Chan (better known in the West as Zen) who became for Tibetans a lesson in how to go wrong in meditation. He taught, they said, a method of suppressing thoughts leading to a blank state of mind that could be mistaken for enlightenment, but was really just a dead end. Not only that, but his teachings were dangerous too, scorning the traditional division between virtue and vice, because both were just thoughts and therefore obstacles to enlightenment. As an old saying attributed to Moheyan goes, it doesn’t matter whether the cloud is white or black–it still blocks the sun.

Well, as I mentioned last time, the Dunhuang manuscripts contain the teachings of Heshang Moheyan, and they were much less simplistic, and more reasonable, than the later cartoonish version of him might suggest. For one thing, he didn’t advocate the suppression of thoughts (with a blank mind “like an egg” as one version of the Samyé debate nicely puts it). He says this quite clearly:

Therefore you should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.

So I think we can say with some confidence that the ‘real’ Heshang Moheyan (insofar as we can claim to know him) was quite aware of the dangers of approaching meditation as the mere suppression of thoughts. He also didn’t think that the simple approach set out in the quotation above was right for everybody. In fact it was only intended for “those of the sharpest faculties.” For the rest of us he taught a series of five techniques of increasing subtlety. All are misguided in some way apart from the fifth and ultimate method.

1. A direct awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts.
2. An examination of that awareness.
3. The prevention of the arising of thoughts.
4. The perception that thoughts have no intrinsic nature (that is, they are empty).
5. Awareness of the arising of deluded thoughts without analysing or pursuing this awareness, so that thoughts are freed the instant they arise.

So it would clearly be an oversimplification to characterize Moheyan as teaching a single method for every student. It seems here that he is well aware of the need for different methods depending on the ability of the student. Likewise, he didn’t reject the bodhisattva’s classic path of six ‘perfections’: generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. In the Dunhuang manuscripts Moheyan answers a question on this very topic with subtlety. The question is, “is it necessary to practice the other dharma methods, like the six perfections?” Moheyan answers:

“According to conventional truth, the six perfections are said to be the means for teaching the ultimate truth; it is not that they are unnecessary. According to the scriptures that speak of the ultimate truth beyond the ordinary mind, there is no knowing or saying whether the other dharma methods like the six perfections are necessary. This is explained more extensively in the sutras.”

Isn’t this the move that the Perfection of Wisdom sutras make over and over again? From the conventional point of view, ethical practice and meditation are necessary to progress toward the goal. But from the point of view of the goal, ultimate truth itself, these practices are all empty of any real existence. So, as Moheyan says, one can’t speculate from the position of ultimate truth about the need for methods which don’t truly exist. What one cannot say, according to Moheyan, is that the six perfections are unnecessary. That possibility is the only one that he is excluding here.

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Perhaps the disagreement between the two sides in the Samyé debate really comes down to this question: who are these people with sharp faculties who can access ultimate truth directly through their own awareness? Because for everybody else, Moheyan’s teachings are not that different from the Indian and Tibetan masters he is supposed to have faced in the debate. If a significant proportion of students may be considered to have sharp faculties, then the difference between the two sides is a significant one; but as that proportion shrinks, so does the difference between the two sides.

I’m not sure we can ever say what Moheyan’s position was here. It might be argued that if he spent so much time teaching the direct approach to ultimate truth, he must have thought that there were plenty of students able to practise it. Perhaps. If we look at a similar (though not identical!) tradition, that of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, we find that the same issue comes up again and again. The greatest exponent of Dzogchen, the fourteenth-century scholar and meditator Longchenpa, wrote this:

“The great yogins who arrived at that [ultimate] state–such as Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Tilopa–taught it directly, without cause and effect, virtue or sin. Even if we can understand this intellectually, we have not reached it through becoming truly accustomed to it. Therefore we are taught it only when we are no longer afraid of that state and can be careful about the subtleties of cause and effect.”

For Longchenpa then, the class of those who can approach ultimate truth directly without a gradual build-up is very small, and perhaps no longer exists at all, consisting only of famous masters from the distant past. As we know from his many other works, Longchenpa was very serious about teaching the direct approach to the ultimate. Yet as this passage makes clear, for everyone but the very greatest of meditators this did not mean rejecting the Buddha’s teachings on causation, or ethics.

If the Dunhuang fragments really do present Moheyan’s teachings, then there is every reason to believe that he held much the same view. He may have had a more optimistic idea of the number of students able to approach the nature of mind directly with no previous training, but he was careful to emphasise the need and value of the rest of the Buddha’s teachings.

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References and Tibetan texts

This post, like the last, is indebted to Luis Gomez’s excellent article which gathers the Tibetan sources for Moheyan’s teachings (see the reference in the previous post). The first quote in this post comes from The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The five approaches are found in Pelliot tibétain 117 and The Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation (p.165). The quotation on the six perfections appears in Pelliot tibétain 823 (f.2.4 to 3.3) and is also found the Chinese version of the Samye debate in Pelliot chinois 4646 (136b.2-5). Finally, the Longchenpa quote is found in Jigmé Lingpa’s Yeshé Lama (p.332; I haven’t found the location of this passage in Longchenpa’s work yet). I also discussed the issue of the different types of student in the context of Dzochen in my book Approaching the Great Perfection (pp.115-124).

Bsam gtan mig sgron p.165: de bas na ‘du shes dgag par yang mi bya / ‘byung bzhin ci la yang mi bcos par gyi na ye gtang ji bzhin du bzhag dang rang zhi ste rjes su mi ‘brang ngo //

Pelliot tibétain 823: f.2.4-3.3: pha rol tu phyin pa drug la stsogs pa’i chos kyi sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos/ smras pa/ kun rdzob ltar pha rol tu phyin pa drug kyang/ don dam par bstan pa’i phyIr thabs su bshad de/ myI dgos pa yang ma yin// don dam par smra bsam las ‘das pa’i gzhung ltar na/ pha rol tu phyin las stsogs pa chos kyI sgo gzhan dgos saM myI dgos shes smos su yang myed de/ mdo sde las kyang rgyas par bshad do/

Ye she bla ma p.332: gshis der phebs pa’i rnal ’byor pa chen po rnams la rgyu ’bras dge sdig med pa thad drang du bshad de padma dang/ bi ma la dang/ te lo pa la sogs pa bzhin no/ rang cag rnams la blos de ltar rtogs kyang goms pas thog du ma ’phebs pas/ gshis la mi skrag cing las ’bras cha ’phra ba la ’dzem pa dang sbyar nas bshad do/

Also in this series:
Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: the teachings of Heshang Moheyan