An­cient Ti­betan as­tron­omy still shin­ing today

China Daily (Canada) - - TIBET - By XIN­HUA in Lhasa

Ti­betan Bud­dhism con­jures up images of prayer wheels, man­dalas and pros­tra­tion, but there is one other in­dis­pens­able item: a cal­en­dar. Aside from some text­books, the Ti­betan An­nual Al­manac is the most widely cir­cu­lated book in the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion. The in­for­ma­tion it con­tains is crit­i­cal to ev­ery­day life, es­pe­cially for farm­ers, herders, doc­tors and Bud­dhists.

The As­tron­omy Cal­en­dar Re­search In­sti­tute of the Ti­betan Hospi­tal in Lhasa helps make the al­manac us­ing as­tron­omy based on the tantric Kalachakra: the wheel of time.

Dat­ing back more than 2,000 years, the Kalachakra de­scribes eclipses as an align­ment of the sun, moon and ap­pro­pri­ate lunar nodes, ex­actly the same as mod­ern as­tron­omy.

It shows the spe­cific dates and times of eclipses, aus­pi­cious days for farm­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties, as well as the tim­ing of Bud­dhist fes­ti­vals.

Dig­i­tal cal­cu­la­tion

For thou­sands of years, th­ese cal­cu­la­tions were done by hand, ac­cord­ing to Yinba, di­rec­tor of the in­sti­tute.

All the cal­en­darists in Yinba’s teams have gone through strict train­ing in ei­ther monas­ter­ies or re­search in­sti­tutes. They must mem­o­rize so­phis­ti­cated for­mu­las and be adept at men­tal arith­metic, as no scratch pa­per is ever avail­able.

In­stead, they have tra­di­tion­ally made their cal­cu­la­tions by writ­ing with a stick in a tray of sand, quickly mem­o­riz­ing the num­bers as they were cease­lessly erased for the next cal­cu­la­tion.

To make the fig­ures eas­ier to han­dle, an­cient as­tron­omy mas­ters de­vised a set of “cal­cu­la­tion verses” that cal­en­dar mak­ers chant while cal­cu­lat­ing.

In an at­tempt to speed up the time-con­sum­ing work, the in­sti­tute brought in cal­cu­la­tors in the 1990s — but the as­tro­nom­i­cal data proved too much for th­ese early de­vices.

Yet as com­put­ers be­came more ad­vanced, Yinba and his team be­gan to de­velop a set of al­go­rithms on as­tro­nom­i­cal changes and the chang­ing days.

Key in a few num­bers into the sys­tem today, and with a click of the mouse, all 52 pages of as­tro­nom­i­cal data for 2016 will pop up onto the screen in two or three sec­onds.

Us­ing th­ese al­go­rithms, the in­sti­tute has now pub­lished the first Ti­betan cal­en­dar book cov­er­ing AD 1 to 2100.

In the past, it took an as­tro­nom­i­cal mas­ter and his ap­pren­tices more than 30 years to pro­duce a new cal­en­dar, com­bin­ing the four schools of tra­di­tional Ti­betan cal­en­dar mak­ing while work­ing with both the Gre­go­rian cal­en­dar and Chi­nese lunar cal­en­dars.

Yinba said man­ual cal­cu­la­tion is still used to dou­ble check, but the com­put­ers al­lows more time to be spent on re­search and train­ing stu­dents.

When eclipses ap­pear, Bud­dhists are in­spired to chant mantras, med­i­tate or en­gage in other prac­tices that they believe will to take them closer to en­light­en­ment.

A vi­tal prac­tice

As­tron­omy has been viewed as one of the tough­est cour­ses in tra­di­tional monas­tic ed­u­ca­tion. The sub­ject has lit­tle to do with stargazing but is closely tied with Bud­dhist re­li­gious prac­tices and peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives.

In the Kalachakra Tantra, Bud­dha pre­sented not only an ex­ter­nal sys­tem deal­ing with the mo­tion of plan­ets and the ways to mea­sure time, but also an in­ter­nal sys­tem wit­ness­ing the cy­cles of en­ergy and breath through the hu­man body that is closely re­lated to the ex­ter­nal sys­tem.

That is why when eclipses ap­pear, Bud­dhists are in­spired to chant mantras, med­i­tate or en­gage in other prac­tices that they believe will to take them closer to en­light­en­ment.

It also ex­plains why all med­i­cal stu­dents must study as­tron­omy to a cer­tain level in tra­di­tional monas­ter­ies — as­tro­nom­i­cal knowl­edge serv­ing as a guide for when to col­lect medic­i­nal herbs or use ther­a­pies such as blood­let­ting.

The Ti­betan cal­en­dar’s util­ity has en­sured knowl­edge of it has been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. It is used by me­te­o­rol­o­gists, while farm­ers use it as a ref­er­ence for plant­ing and pas­tur­ing.

Look­ing back to his youth study­ing with se­nior monks in Gansu prov­ince and the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion, Yinba said he was grate­ful to the as­tron­omy mas­ters of the past.

“Ti­betan as­tron­omy is a unique part of our cul­ture. To keep it alive, we must not stand still, but make progress,” he said.

While the al­go­rithms are yet to be per­fected, Yinba spelled out an­other dream: build­ing an ob­ser­va­tory in Lhasa.

“I wish more peo­ple could look to the stars through as­tro­nom­i­cal tele­scopes and know more about the uni­verse,” he said.


For thou­sands of years, most of cal­en­darists for the Ti­betan An­nual Al­manac have gone through strict train­ing in monas­ter­ies.

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