Who wrote the Mahāvairocana-sūtra?

Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) is noteworthy as one of the early tantric adepts to visit China and introduce a number of texts and practices in addition to providing initiations (abhiṣeka). He was a contemporary of Vajrabodhi 金剛智 (671–741) and the young Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774). He is most known for his translation of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 (T 848), which was done with the assistance of the Chinese astronomer monk Yixing 一行 (683–727), though he was also active at court and was responsible for other texts. He was born into the royal family of Orissa, but he renounced the throne when his brothers initiated a violent struggle over the succession. In light of his royal background and training at Nālandā, he was likely the most educated Indian monk to live in China in the eighth century (he arrived in 716). He was instrumental in the transmission of early Tantra into China. He might also have been disciple to the human author of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra. There is an interesting document from 834 detailing the history of the maṇḍala lineages which quotes Śubhakarasiṃha as follows.

《兩部大法相承師資付法記》卷2:「三藏善無畏云此法從毘盧遮那佛付囑金剛手菩薩金剛手菩薩經數百年傳付中印度那爛陀寺達磨掬多阿闍梨。達磨掬多阿闍梨次付中印度國三藏釋迦種善無畏(CBETA, T51, no. 2081, p. 786, b5-9)
Tripiṭaka Śubhakarasiṃha said, “This Dharma is from Vairocana Buddha. It was entrusted to Vajrapāṇi Bodhisattva. After hundreds of years Vajrapāṇi Bodhisattva entrusted it to ācārya Dharmagupta from Nālandā monastery in Central India. The ācārya Dharmagupta then entrusted it to Tripiṭaka Śubhakarasiṃha of the Śākya clan from Central India.”

This indicates that the early tantric literature was put down in writing in major centers of Buddhist learning such as Nālandā in Magadha. In the case of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, Dharmagupta is said to have received it from Vajrapāṇi, which seems to mean he was responsible for penning it. The history of the lineage in India before its introduction to China, and thereafter to Japan first via Kūkai 空海 (774–835), was surprisingly short.

The lineage was also transmitted to Tibet and is still maintained, though not necessarily practiced, at least in the Sakya school.

I am unsure if there are any details available on Dharmagupta. We might imagine he flourished in the mid-seventh century at Nālandā. He might have been a contemporary resident of Nālandā when Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) stayed (he arrived in India in 633 and returned to China in 645). As far as I know Xuanzang never mentions the existence of such a lineage even though he was a master of dhāraṇī. One gets the sense that ‘Tantra’ as we would recognize it with abhiṣeka and maṇḍala emerged relatively quickly, though many of its elements existed beforehand in various forms. Dharmagupta might have been one of the early innovators and initiators of Buddhist Tantra. It is furthermore quite instructive that he was from Nālandā as it narrows down the general location we ought to search for in seeking the origins of Buddhist Tantra. It also raises questions concerning the social and political climate which existed at the time in Magadha to foster such developments. It seems it was a time of ongoing conflicts, especially after the collapse of the Harṣa-vardhana dynasty in the mid-seventh century.

This brings to mind the point that one can learn a lot about ancient India through reading Chinese sources. Indology without Classical Chinese is subject to a severe handicap. For example, in my research I’ve uncovered a number of things about Indian calendars and astrology that are never mentioned in Indological resources such as modern monographs and encyclopedias that treat such subjects. Although the scholars involved certainly all know Sanskrit quite well, the reality is that a great amount of Indian literature is preserved in Chinese, to say nothing of all the accounts of India as written by East Asian monks such as Faxian, Xuanzang, Yijing and Hyechao. The latter have all been translated into English, but there are still other accounts of India that are preserved in secular Chinese histories which have brief accounts of foreign countries. Just as an example, I compiled all the accounts I could find of Nepal in Chinese sources and translated them (see here). If you dig around Chinese sources – secular and Buddhist – which are increasingly digitized, there is much data one could collect about ancient India and even Persia (see here).

What this really points to is the artificial barriers between fields like Indology and Sinology. They really ought not to be treated so separately as they complement one another. I suppose this is the advantage that Japanese Indologists have had over Western Indologists – they generally read Classical Chinese and can refer to those sources. This was especially the case in past generations when Japanese scholars attained basic literacy in Classical Chinese before entering university, much the same as Latin was expected of European students. This is not so much the case any longer unfortunately.

Hellenism and Buddhism

The Buddha (Gandhāra)
Over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate student I initially spent my first year studying Greek and Latin before changing my major to Asian Studies for various reasons. In my teen years I was especially interested in European medieval and classical history. I remember films like Gladiator (2000) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) fostering a deep interest in history in me. Although I ended up specializing in Buddhology and Sinology, I never lost my interest in Greek and Roman history. This seemingly has been for the best in light of how my studies have unfolded.

Now after about ten years of studying and researching subjects related to East and South Asia, I am back to where I started: reading up on the history of the Hellenistic world, especially with respect to the history of astrology. I am uncovering definite Hellenistic elements in Chinese sources from the sixth to ninth centuries. It ended up there through a variety of mediums: Buddhist monks, Nestorian Christians and Sogdian astrologers.

I imagine some of the Christians in Chang'an in the Tang dynasty might have read Greek, though by that time I imagine a lot of the Greek materials would have been translated into languages like Syriac and Middle Persian. The Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people, likewise had a significant role to play. I speculate that they were to some degree conveyors of Sasanian traditions, many of which were deeply Hellenistic, though those bodies of literature including their many translations of Greek texts are almost all lost. The Sogdians also practiced a form of astral magic that can be traced back to a Graeco-Egyptian tradition. This was translated into Chinese in the early ninth century or a bit earlier.

Bodhisattva (Gandhāra)
Hellenistic culture in various forms had been introduced into India long before it ever reached China of course. The Sanskrit word for a Greek is yavana (an Ionian). One of the earliest interactions between Greeks and a major state in south Asia was the Seleucid–Mauryan war which started in 305 BCE. The Seleucids fought the early Maurya empire which was then under the leadership of Candragupta. Half a century later Aśoka expanded the Maurya empire and later as the traditional narrative goes became a devout Buddhist before sponsoring the religion and laying the foundation for its expansion across the Indian subcontinent. A few centuries the Milindapañha, which features a Greek king, was written highlighting the status of Greeks in the northwest. Around the same time or shortly thereafter Buddhist statues depicting the Buddha and other figures in full human form appear in Gandhāra in the northwest. The Gāndhārī language, much like their art, reveals those deep Greek influences. For instance, the loanword stratego is found in the language.[1] Gandhāra also celebrated wine festivals in which Buddhist monks might also have consumed the drink (see here for some discussion).

Greek speakers settled in that area after Alexander (356–323 BCE) and thereafter the successor kingdom of the Seleucids thrived for a time in the former territories of the Achaemenid empire, though the Parthian empire which replaced it was by no means hostile to Greek learning either. There was also ongoing trade between the eastern Mediterranean – especially Alexandria – and Indian ports. There were many channels through which cultural interaction could occur between the Greek speaking world and India. The extant ancient literature of both indicate they were mutually well aware of one another.

Hellenism profoundly transformed cultures around the Indian subcontinent. Giovanni Verardi states, “Early Buddhism had interpreted the needs of the merchant class and of the urban manufacturing classes that had come to the fore in the third century BC when India came into contact and became part of the Hellenistic world.” He notes that while such a position might seem problematic and based on outdated paradigms, he points out that the “opening of ancient India to the outside, with the predictable internal reactions, coincided with, and largely depended on the breakout towards the east first by Alexander and his successors and then by the Roman republic and empire.”[2]

This is an interesting position that was also taken by the historian Toynbee. It understandably will be challenged by many to suggest that Indian civilization effectively became part of the Hellenized world, but I would agree that this is valid up to a point. It was due to Greek influences that sculpture – both Buddhist and Hindu – emerged as it did in India. It might also have been the case that Buddhist philosophy as it emerged early on in the form of Abhidharma was in some way a reaction to or emulation of Greek models which demanded a systematized and coherent system of thought, especially when we consider the proximity of the heartland of Sarvāstivāda to Greek colonies in the northwest. Thomas McEvilley in his work The Shape of Ancient Thought (2001) explores this, though admittedly this work has not made much of an impact in academia since it was published. Nevertheless, the influence of Hellenistic knowledge is undeniable in a tradition like jyotiḥśāstra (astrology and astronomy) which uses Greek loanwords (Sanskrit horā for example from Greek horoskopos) while also employing Greek mathematical astronomy.

As a result of all these recognized influences and broad adoptions of Hellenistic traditions, I am starting to wondering to what extent we might consider such influences as they could relate to Tantra. The maṇḍala of the Mahāvairocana-sūtra, which probably dates to sometime in the seventh century or perhaps somewhat earlier, includes the deities of the twelve zodiac signs. A number of esoteric works translated in Chinese likewise mention the twelve zodiac signs and/or their deities. This is significant because the twelve zodiac signs as they came to exist in India directly came from the Hellenistic world and did not to my knowledge accompany the much earlier transmission of astrology from Mesopotamia before the Common Era.

Both astrology and advanced mathematical astronomy were quite popular in India from at least the sixth century CE onward. This explains why early Tantra readily integrated such elements since they were also practicing astrology and believed to some extent in astrological determinism. This leads me to wonder what else might have been transmitted into Tantra from the Hellenistic world? We know that Graeco-Egyptian iconography of astrological deities was introduced into Sanskrit via the Yavanajātaka, a text detailing Hellenistic astrology. [3] How many figures we otherwise think of as strictly Indian have some connection to iconography imported from further west?

Bodhisattva (Gandhāra)
Recently I’ve been reading Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic (2014) by Stephen Skinner while acquainting myself with the Greek papyri text which were compiled and translated under Betz in Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (1986). There are many shared features between such magic and Tantra, yet both are still different from Vedic sacrifices and older Buddhist devotional practices which were aimed at generating merit or gaining the protection of unseen beings. Tantra empowers statues just as was the case in the Graeco-Egyptian tradition. The sophisticated use of images, incantations and specifically prescribed incense, colors and offerings is common to both traditions.

Returning to astrology, the Indian monk Śubhakarasiṃha (637–735) in his commentary on the Mahāvairocana-sūtra which he wrote together with the Chinese astronomer monk Yixing 一行 (683–727) before 727, briefly mentions the seven-day week and twelve zodiac houses in his explanation of what constitutes an auspicious day for drawing the maṇḍala. He states that rites be carried out according to an astrological schedule which modern analysis reveals as only partly Indian. While the lunar nakṣatra calendar is indeed a domestic creation and likely goes back to the pre-Vedic Indus Valley civilization, the seven-day week was a union of Greek and Egyptian concepts.

Śubhakarasiṃha was from Magadha and his views and explanations in the commentary were likely representative of the Buddhist institution in Magadha in the seventh century. This means that in Magadha in the seventh century authors and practitioners of early tantric works were insisting on following a suitable astrological schedule, part of which was Hellenistic in origin. In Graeco-Egyptian magic, as Skinner explains, the magician had to time rites with similar scheduling concerns in mind. 

Although the vinaya states that poṣadha (the gathering of the sangha for confession and other matters) be held according to the lunar cycle (two or three times during each waxing or waning period), the level of concern for selecting suitable dates and times for rites expressed in the early tantric tradition is of far greater complexity and moreover incorporates foreign elements. Such hemerology appears abruptly in the historical record of Buddhism rather than emerging gradually over time, which suggests a foreign inspiration or source.

So I wonder if Graeco-Egyptian magic might be an overlooked 'missing link' in modern scholarly discussions of Tantra. This is just speculation at this point, but again elements of occidental astrology suddenly appear in the literary record, so clearly there was some sort of transmission of ‘occult knowledge’ into India from Hellenistic sources starting from the fifth or sixth centuries. This is something I want to look at in greater detail in the future in my research and hope others might consider the possibility as well.

bhrada vaga stratego puyaite viyayamitro ya avacaraya maduspasa bhaidata puyita
"brother, the Commander Vaga is honored, and Viyayamitra ( = Vijayamitra), [former] King of Avaca. (His) mother's sister, Bhaidata (BhagTdatta?) is honored."

[2] Giovanni Verardi, Issues in the History of Indian Buddhism (Ryukoku University, 2014), 2.

[3] David Pingree, “The Indian Iconography of the Decans and Horas,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 26, no. 3 (1963): 223–254. Pingree concluded the Yavanajātaka was composed in 269/270 CE by Sphujidhvaja as a versification of a Greek prose work composed by Yavaneśvara in 149/150 CE. Mak has contested this with new manuscript evidence and states it could date from 22 CE to as late as the early seventh century. Bill M. Mak, “The Transmission of Greek Astral Science Into India Reconsidered – Critical Remarks on the Contents and the Newly Discovered Manuscript of the Yavanajātaka,” History of Science in South Asia 1 (2013): 1–20.

The Problem of Astrology in Buddhism

Buddhist Astrological Iconography (Japan)
The existence of 'Buddhist astrology' itself is a curious thing because, according to both vinaya texts and several sūtras, it really should not exist. Nevertheless, we can point to a few major specimens across the centuries in which astrology is unapologetically explained: the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna (second or third century CE), Amoghavajra's Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 (eighth century) and the Kālacakra Tantra (eleventh century). Many Buddhist authors indeed took an interest in astrology and weaved it into Buddhist literature, creating what can be called a 'Buddhist astrology'. Although we can speculate about how extensive it was in India – and I personally think it was quite significant from the eighth century onward – much of it was transmitted and preserved in East Asia and Tibet where it evolved and flourished in the new environments.

But how did the early Buddhist community feel about astrology? Bronkhorst points out that Buddhists did not substantially participate in what would become known as jyotiḥ-śāstra (a field encompassing astrology and astronomy including mathematical astronomy). He states it “may have been inseparably connected with mundane matters, in that those who practised it may often have had to make their living through explaining omens and predicting the future with its help. Such practices were however frowned upon in the buddhist tradition from an early date onward.”1

This helps to explain why the encyclopedic explanation of nakṣatra astrology in the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna is given by the layman Triśaṅku and not the Buddha. Although we might get the sense that the author(s) of this work felt astrology was indeed valid, they were still aware of the prevailing sentiments against it at the time. This work would have been written shortly before Hellenistic astrology was being introduced and spread around India. The representative work in this respect is the Yavanajātaka – the 'jātaka of the Greeks'. The status of astrologers was elevated in the following centuries resulting in well-known figures like Varāhamihira in the sixth century.

The Buddhists were no doubt exposed to these influences and Mahāyāna literature like the Avataṃsaka-sūtra suggests the bodhisattva might study calendrical science and astrology for the benefit of beings, which indicates at least some had reconsidered the Buddha's prohibition on such matters. By the early eighth century a model of hemerology (selection of auspicious days for rites) based on a hybrid of Hellenistic and Indian elements had become essential to the proper execution of maṇḍala-s and initiations within the tantric community.

Again, this stands in contrast to the Buddha's word that such things are inappropriate. The Brahmajāla-sutta in the Dīghanikāya presents the Buddha castigating the wrong activities of some śramaṇa-s and brāmaṇa-s in exchange for food. Pingree states that “some of these activities involve various forms of sacrifices and the expelling of demons and other undesirable beings; but a large number are concerned with various forms of divination. Almost every type of omen mentioned by the Buddha is found in both the earlier cuneiform literature and in the later Sanskrit texts; and the terrestrial omens are numerated in an order – houses, ghosts, snakes, poisons, scorpions, mice, vultures, crows, and quadrupeds – that corresponds almost completely with the order of the Tablets of Šumma ālu. The Buddha also lists in his sermon a number of celestial and atmospheric omens: lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, observations of the stars (nakhatta = nakṣatra, probably including planets here), the Moon's and the Sun's going on and off their paths (probably those familiar from Enūma Anu Enlil, the Paths of Enlil, Anu, and Ea), the stars' going on their paths, the falling of meteors and shooting stars, the 'burning of the directions' (i.e., a glow on the horizon), earthquakes, thunder, and the risings, the settings, the brightness, and the dimness of the Moon, the Sun, and the stars.”2

It is of course most unlikely the Buddha actually said such things given that the Pāḷi canon was formulated long after his death (and moreover, the extant version is arguably from even later), but the Buddhist literature presents him in this light and incidentally also records the ongoing introduction of Babylonian astrology into India, which occurred through intermediaries such as the Achaemenids and Seleucids. The early Buddhist community was witness to this and the architects of the literary tradition found it simply inappropriate for the śramaṇa to practice.

This has led some to suggest that although it was rejected as inappropriate, its validity was not – in other words, you could believe in astrology, but you were not supposed to practice it. This is a simplistic conclusion and ignores another specimen of extant literature which actually expresses skepticism about the effectiveness of astrology and refutes astrological determinism: the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna-sūtra (正法念處經; T 721). The Chinese translation was done by Gautama Prajñāruci between 538–541. In it we find long skeptical discussions of astrology and creative attempts to turn the monk from astrology to orthodox Buddhist practice.


There are three great luminaries [graha, i.e., stars or planets], called illness, old age and death. These are greatest and perpetually present in the world. That wicked śramaṇa does not contemplate this, but further contemplates other worldly luminaries. That person is foolish, not having wisdom through hearing, and contemplating the twenty-eight worldly nakṣatra-s [constellations]. One is at fault to contemplate like this and not contemplate the twenty-eight transcendental nakṣatra-s. One will enter the city of nirvāṇa should one be able to contemplate and truly observe them. The twenty-eight are the five skandha-s, five pañcōpādāna-skandha-s and eighteen dhātu-s. One who contemplates these will arrive at nirvāṇa. When there is observation of things as they truly are, detachment from desire and the upholding of precepts, nirvāṇa is consequently attained. It cannot be attained through counting stars.3

This suggests that in fact many bhikṣus were neglecting more orthodox practice in favor of astrology. This is especially noteworthy because a belief in the effectiveness of astrology requires, to some extent, assent to the idea of astrological determinism, i.e., that one's condition, fate and personality are primarily and directly determined by the influences of stars rather than individual action. This effectively undermines the concept of past karma determining one's condition, which would have been objectionable to Buddhists of the scholastic schools. It also brings to mind similar objections to astrology on the part of Christians who saw it as an issue with respect to free will. The text addresses how astrology is incompatible with karma as follows.


This star is further covered by a superior star. That star at a different time is further covered by a different star. Thus it should be understood that astrology is untenable. If there is someone who does astrology, thinking that it is due to the stars that there are sufferings and ease, and that it is not from oneself that there are sufferings and ease, then how is it that when those stars are covered by other stars they can impart sufferings and ease to others? Thus it is understood that [sufferings and ease are] come about due to karma. It is not the stars which can impart the fruits of virtue and non-virtue like this.4

Again, this being a Buddhist text written for bhikṣus, it indicates many such individuals had already adopted a view of astrological determinism and the author of this work felt this was wrong and had to be refuted. However, as the proliferation of astrology in Buddhist culture would suggest, such arguments did not successfully eliminate the heresy.

Incidentally, we might note that the vinaya codes in theory could address the practice of astrology, and perhaps they were used in some monasteries in India to contain the heresy, but I am unaware of any evidence to suggest this happened.

There was, however, a way to skirt the issue of karma and this is provided in a short line from one of Amoghavajra's translations in the eighth century. The *Parṇaśabarī-bodhisattva-sūtra 葉衣觀自在菩薩經 (T 1100) has the following:


Whether king, man or woman, [some] will be difficult to raise and nourish – some will have short lifespans, bound in illness and at unease with sleep and eating. All is due to past karma and causes-conditions, being born under a bad constellational convergence.6 Some often have their birth nakṣatra intruded upon by the five planets, making them uneasy.7

This is saying that a person's ill health and unease are a result of not only karma, but being born under unfavorable astrological circumstances. Another way to interpret this is that being born under such circumstances was a result of past negative karma. Just as someone born with a deformity attributed to past negative karma might be 'locked into' that state for life, so too is the individual stuck with their bad stars. This sort of understanding was arguably only available in a Mantrayāna context which could freely accommodate otherwise foreign and heterodox ideas into the doctrinal fabric of a new Buddhadharma.

This belief in astrological determinism indeed should challenge our understandings of what Buddhists believed or ought to have believed about karma. The various theories of karma discussed at length in the Abhidharmakośa, for example, might have been argued and upheld by a minority of scholastic monks, but alternative views – which were apparently heretical to some Buddhist authors – still withstood the test of time and became accepted by an evidently significant number of elite Buddhist clerics who wrote the relevant canonical texts we have today.

I have never encountered a discussion of Buddhist philosophy in modern scholarship (be it western or Asian) which takes into account the Buddhist concept of astrological determinism. It is simply not recognized in modern scholarship as even existing, even though it was quite influential in the development of Tantric Buddhism especially. This is perhaps because there was no representative school in India, or China or Tibet for that matter, which could be understood as a coherent community with established doctrines and arguments arguing for the truth of astrology. There was of course the Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道 lineage in Japan from the tenth to the fourteenth century, but their history and existence is seldom known today, let alone discussed even in modern Japanese scholarship. Their tradition, however, was far more practical than theoretical.

It is this gap in modern scholarship that my ongoing research addresses. There is much more to be considered and in due time our discussions here will go into more detail as time permits.


1 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 120.

2 David Pingree, From Astral Omens to Astrology From Babylon to Bīkāner (Rome: Ist. Italiano per l'Africa e l'Oriente, 1997), 32–33.

3 T 721, 17: 290b12–19.

4 T 721, 17: 290b1– 8.

5 Read mian as mian 綿.

6 This refers to a convergence between the moon and an unfavorable nakṣatra.

7 T 1100, 20: 448b11–13.

Indian Astronomers in Sui-Tang China

Virgo - South India
As of late I have been immersed in my research on the Buddhist appropriation and implementation of astrology, which requires knowledge of relevant 'Hindu' literature given that many Buddhists in India initially rejected astrology, especially from the early centuries of the Common Era when native Indian astrology based on the nakṣatra-s – which possibly originated in the Indus Valley Civilization – was being increasingly augmented with Hellenistic astrology and later mathematical astronomical science. Nevertheless, the Mahāyāna movement came to feel differently and in the Avataṃsaka-sūtra astrology is a subject a bodhisattva might master for the benefit of beings. Later from around the sixth century, astrologers held a prominent place in Indian society, so much that Varāhamihira could write, “As the night without a light, as the sky without the sun, so is a king without an astrologer, like a blind man he erreth on the road.” Buddhist Mantrayāna came to require observance of an astrological schedule (i.e., hemerology) for the purposes of timing the drawing of a maṇḍala. This blended both Indian and Hellenistic elements: the twelve zodiacal signs, twenty-eight (or twenty-seven) nakṣatra-s, the seven day week and so on.

The Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 compiled by Amoghavajra 不空 (705–774) in 759 and revised in 764 was produced a few decades after the first introduction of true Mantrayāna into China under Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) who was responsible for translating the Mahāvairocana-sūtra 大日經 in 724 and introducing the lineage accompanying its maṇḍala. Amoghavajra was fulfilling a need since the text and its commentary only briefly touch on which days are 'auspicious days'. The Xiuyao jing is an astrology manual which goes into fine detail in determining the most auspicious days, however it is actually not a Buddhist text. It is attributed to Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva, but the actual contents are largely non-Buddhist and some of the prescribed activities therein are antithetical to more conventional Buddhist ethics such as the manufacture of arms and alcohol. Nevertheless, the text was successfully implemented and then carried over to Japan in 806 by Kūkai 空海 (774–835), the founder of Shingon.

There were however other earlier works on foreign astrology translated into Chinese, but these were ignored or dismissed by Chinese Buddhists.

The Sui shu 隋書 is a history of the short-lived Sui dynasty (581–617) compiled in 636. It includes a a lengthy catalog of texts, many of which are no longer extant though the titles themselves can prove interesting. There is one work in fascicle 34 that caught my attention recently:


Astronomical Teachings of Brahmin Sage *Garga – 30 fascicles

So far as I know, the work is not extant, but it again appears in the Tong zhi 通志 catalog compiled in 1161 by Zheng Qiao 鄭樵 (1104–1162), indicating it survived until at least that period.

In the title, Jiejia 竭伽 is most certainly a transliteration of Garga or Gārgya, which Kawai and Kōzen identify.1 However, so far as I know, nobody has suggested that this could have been the Gārgīya-jyotiṣa (*Garga-saṃhitā), of which the Yuga-purāṇa is a component.

30 fascicles is quite long for a work in Chinese. To put that into perspective, the Dīrghāgama 長阿含經 in Chinese is 22 fascicles while the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya 摩訶僧祇律 is 40 fascicles. According to Mitchiner's study, the extant Gārgīya-jyotiṣa has around 64 aṅga-s (divisions) and around 255 folios.2 The length between this and the Chinese text in question seems comparable.

The aforementioned Sui history also lists another related work:


Book on Brahmin Astronomy – 21 fascicles, taught by Brahmin Sage *She

A Buddhist sūtra catalog from 597 lists an almost identical work (婆羅門天文) in 20 fascicles with a comment that it was produced between 566–572 by a śramaṇa from Magadha named Dharmaruci 達摩流支. However, another major catalog by monk Zhisheng 智昇 in 730 states with respect to the work, “Now it is not retained [in the catalog] because it is not a teaching of the Tripiṭaka.”3 Clearly it was not a Buddhist work and thus there was less interest in retaining it in a catalog of Buddhist literature.

In the Sui period between 585 and 592 there was actually a state sponsored program to translate 'Brahmanical' or 'Sanskrit' classics 梵古書 and astronomical works 乾文, which finally amounted altogether to more than 200 fascicles. The titles are not provided, but nevertheless they certainly translated something related to Jyotiṣa (the Indian subject which encompasses mathematics, astrology and astronomy).

There were later a number of formal astronomers either from India or of Indian ancestry operating in China from the seventh century until the late eighth, the most prominent of which was Gautama Siddhārtha 瞿曇悉達 who worked at the court in Chang'an and by imperial decree translated the *Navagraha-karaṇa 九執曆 in 718.4 

This work is extant and it is mainly based on the Pañcasiddhāntikā, though the tabulated latitude value of 35 is for Chang'an, not India, hence it was modified to some degree for localization purposes. It is not a comprehensive siddhānta text, but rather a karaṇa text providing methods for calculation. It details siddhānta algorithms, a dot for zero, a table of sine functions and methods for eclipse prediction superior to those developed in China. A number of terms were adopted directly from Sanskrit into Chinese. However, the work's ultimate influence seems to have been limited, which might have been because Chinese astronomers did not fully understood the advanced mathematics of the text, especially in translation. There is still mention later on in the Buddhist literary record of 'Indian calendrical methods' which could possibly have this work among others in mind.

Gautama Siddhārtha had a fourth son named Gautama Zhuan 瞿曇譔 (712–776). He had a colorful career and was even active during the great An Lushan Rebellion (755–763), which nearly ended the Tang dynasty. His letter to the court in which he connects the occurrence of a solar eclipse with the demise of the rebel commander Shi Siming 史思明 in Henan province is quoted in part in the Jiu Tang shu 舊唐書 (fasc. 36), the history of the Tang dynasty compiled in 945. Here he cites the Yisi zhan 乙巳占, a Chinese divination manual by Li Chunfeng 李淳風 (602–670), which indicates his familiarity with native Chinese sources.

Thus although he had an Indian name, his family was essentially Sino-Indian. There were many such families in the Tang: families of Sogdian, Persian and Silla (Korean) descent which had lived in China proper for numerous generations. In 1977 the tomb of Gautama Zhuan was unearthed in Chang'an, which provides rich information on him and his family.5 The Gautamas were one of three families of Indian ancestry working for the Tang court as astronomers in the eighth century, the other two being the Kumāras 拘摩羅 and Kāśyapas 迦葉.

Nestorian Stele of Chang'an
After Gautama Zhuan died in 776, it seems the bureau of astronomy employed a Persian as their 'foreign' specialist. In 1980 in Xi'an his tombstone was discovered. The inscriptions on it detail the lives of a Persian Li Su 李素 (743–817) and his wife Bei Shi 卑失.6 It seems he was an East-Syrian or 'Nestorian' (Jingjiao 景教) Christian from the community of Persians resident in Guangzhou. Sometime between 766–779 he was summoned to the court to work in the bureau of astronomy. Later his 'courtesy name' of Wen Zhen 文貞 alongside the corresponding name 'Luka' in Syriac appears on the list of Christian clergymen on the 'Nestorian Stele' (大秦景教流行中國碑) erected in Chang'an in 781.7 Thus it seems he was a bilingual and married Sino-Persian East-Syrian Christian clergyman proficient in foreign (Greek) astronomy and astrology working directly for the Chinese emperor in the capital, having replaced his Sino-Indian predecessor. This point really does highlight how cosmopolitan the Tang empire was.

It noteworthy that there is no indication that the professional astronomers working for the Tang court were ever self-identifying Buddhists or really associated with the Buddhist community. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Buddhists never participated in the development of Jyotiṣa in India, which is something Bronkhorst notes in his study as well. He states that it “may have been inseparably connected with mundane matters, in that those who practised it may often have had to make their living through explaining omens and predicting the future with its help. Such practices were however frowned upon in the buddhist tradition from an early date onward.”8

Buddhist Mantrayāna, however, fully adopted astrology for their own purposes – in particular hemerology or the art of selecting auspicious days – but this was arguably an appropriation of an existing art which had been long formulated over past centuries from Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Vedic and perhaps even Harappan elements (the 28 nakṣatra-s might ultimately originate in the Indus Valley Civilization).

The ultimate influence of these astronomers and Buddhist astrology in East Asian civilization is another topic worth discussing in a future post. It is rather complicated because some elements were in fact retained but their original history forgotten. For instance, Daoists venerated the twelve zodiacal signs as deities without citing their origins. I have evidence that at least some Chan monks in the Song dynasty were practicing occidental astrology. Also a calendar (the Futian li 符天曆) based on Indian methods originally drawn up by Cao Shiwei 曹士蒍 between 780–783 was still studied under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). We'll take a look at these points in the future.


1 Kawai Kōzō 川合康三 and Kōzen Hiroshi 興膳宏, Zui sho keisekishi shōkō 隋書經籍志詳攷 (Tokyo: Kyuko shoin, 1995), 603–604.

2 John E. Mitchiner, The Yuga Purāṇa (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, 1986), 105–112.

「今以非三藏教故不存之」(CBETA, T55, no. 2154, p. 544, c29)

4 For an annotated translation into English see Yabuuchi, Kiyoshi 藪內清, Zōtei Zuitō rekihō shi no kenkyū 增訂隋唐曆法史の硏究 (Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten, 1989).

5 Chao Huashan 晁華山, “Tangdai tianwenxuejia Judan Zhuan mu de faxian” 唐代天文學家瞿曇譔墓的發現, Wenwu 文物 10 (1978): 49-53.

6 Chen Guoying 陳國英, “Xi'an Dongjiao Sanzuo Tang mu qingli ji” 西安東郊三座唐墓清理記, Kaogu yu wenwu 考古與文物 (1981-2): 25–31.

7 Rong Xinjiang 榮新江, “Yi ge shi Tangchao de Bosi Jingjiao jiazu” 一個仕唐朝的波斯景教家族, in Zhonggu Zhongguo yu wailai wenming 中古中國與外來文明 (Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 2001), 255–257.

8 Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 120.

Buddhism's Flat Earth Cosmology

Mt. Meru and the Four Continents
In the Chinese Buddhist canon, there is an Abhidharma work entitled *Lokasthānābhidharma-śāstra 佛說立世阿毘曇論 (T 1644), the translation of which is attributed to Paramārtha 眞諦 (499–569). Michael Radich, however, has written that the “text certainly seems to show knowledge of Abhidharma lore and terms that should have been unknown before the translation of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, but the terminology of this text shares very little with Paramārtha's other works. It seems more likely that the text was translated by someone else.” He further notes that it appears in text catalogs from the year 594.1

It has some features indicating localization, such as referring to “western countries” 西國 and “Han lands” 漢地 (i.e., India and China). It is not remarkable for Classical Chinese translations of Buddhist works to insert such notes. Nevertheless, the text is definitely a translation of an Indian work.

This śāstra is a lengthy discourse on Buddhist cosmology, presenting it as buddhavācana (the authoritative words of the Buddha ergo true and irrefutable). Chapter 19 is entitled “Movements of the Sun and Moon” 日月行品. It details a flat earth cosmology of Mt. Meru and the four continents, explaining in literal physical terms how these two bodies (which are described as flat drum-shaped deva palaces) orbit above the disc-shaped world at an altitude half that of Mt. Meru, driven by a circuit of wind (vāyu-maṇḍalaka). Solar luminosity is said to be a result of karma of beings. In such a world, the flat earth is stationary while the sun, moon and stars revolve above, not actually dipping below the edge of the world. The apparent arc that the sun follows as it rises and sets as seen from earth is the sun following along its circular path above at an unchanging altitude.

This was the standard Buddhist cosmology until modern times, and even today some have reinterpreted it as being what those with “pure vision” perceive as it would otherwise run contrary to the recorded infallible statements of the Buddha in scripture. Some would also suggest that Buddhists did not take Mt. Meru cosmology as representative of the physical world, but this ignores works like this śāstra which explain observable physical processes like the waxing and waning of the moon as being a result of the sun coming close to (the waning) or extending away (the waxing) from the moon along their perpetual clockwise circuits (the sun is on the outer circuit). In other words, ancient Buddhists believed the physical world was flat, stationary and that there were four continents surrounding an enormous hourglass-shaped Mt. Meru atop which Indra the king of the gods resides. When he steps out of his palace and looks down he sees the sun, moon and stars revolving around the disc world far below. This is same place that the Asuras once lived until Indra and the devas cast them off the top. They now live at the bottom of Mt. Meru and sometimes climb up "like ants crawling up a tree" to do battle with the devas. This is in line with the mythology of the Indo-Āryans and what the Buddha himself describes in scripture. A spherical earth, even a geocentric model, is at odds with Buddhist scripture.

Hellenistic mathematical astronomy was starting to be introduced into India by around the second century CE.2 Although Indian astronomers especially from the fifth century possessed advanced astronomical knowledge, it seems that Buddhists either never became widely aware of it or simply rejected it. Interestingly, in the year 718 in China a text entitled *Navagraha 九執曆 was translated by the resident court astronomer Gautama Siddhārtha, who was from an Indo-Chinese family. The work provides an accurate mathematical method for calculating one's latitude on a spherical earth (China's latitude is given at 35 degrees, a rough approximation of Chang'an's position). Although such astronomy was superior to what was available in China, the Chinese, like Buddhists in India, either never took much interest in it or simply did not understand it even in translation. However, it was probably the case that such knowledge was kept “in the family” so to speak and as court astronomers they were not permitted to divulge it. The Chinese state had a duty to predict eclipses and compile accurate calendars, and such relevant knowledge was by law supposed to be unavailable to the general public, though it seems the work might not have been widely studied even by Chinese court astronomers. In India such advanced knowledge was likewise probably not widely divulged even in literate society – it was probably something of a “trade secret” which ensured families possessing such knowledge could always find lucrative employment.

This belief in a flat earth on the part of Buddhists continued into the eleventh century when the Kālacakra Tantra was written, though Edward Henning has suggested the world presented therein was not meant to be taken literally (see his website here).

Returning to the *Lokasthānābhidharma-śāstra, chapter 19 aside from the Mt. Meru cosmology also provides basic numbers for identifying the time of the summer solstice. This interestingly also possibly reveals where the text was originally composed in light of the fact that the length of the summer solstice differs according to latitude.

Firstly it defines the Indian measurement of a day:


In worldly [conventions] there are 30 muhūrta-s determined to always constitute 1 day and night. 1 muhūrta has 30 divisions. Each division is called a lava. When daytime is increasing, [add] 1 lava of daytime. If the daytime is decreasing, it is also 1 lava. Nighttime is also like this. When the daytime is decreasing, the nighttime increases 1 lava. When the nighttime is decreasing, add 1 lava of daytime.3

If 1 day is equal to 30 muhūrta-s, then 1440 minutes (24 hours) ÷ 30 = 48 minutes. 1 muhūrta = 48 minutes. Here 1 muhūrta is divided into 30 lava-s, so 48 minutes ÷ 30 = 1.6 minutes. Otherwise, 2,880 seconds (48 minutes) ÷ 30 = 96 seconds. 1 lava = 1.6 minutes or 96 seconds.

The text then defines the summer solstice as follows.


When daytime is longest, it is 18 muhūrta-s. At this time nighttime is shortest at 12 muhūrta-s.4

In modern units, 48 minutes (= 1 muhūrta) × 18 = 864 minutes. This point is particularly interesting because the length of maximum daylight at the summer solstice differs by latitude. According to the data provided at www.timeanddate.com in June 2015 the lengths of daytime at the solstice in the following locations in India were as follows:

Srinagar (Kashmir) : 14 hours, 25 minutes (865 minutes).
New Delhi (UP) : 13 hours, 58 minutes (838 minutes).
Patna (Bihar) : 13 hours, 44 minutes (824 minutes).
Chennai (Tamil Nadu) : 12 hours, 53 minutes (773 minutes).

Although the numbers given in the next can only be considered approximate, it is noteworthy that a northern location like Srinagar in Kashmir corresponds closer than Patna, which is the old capital of Māgadha. As Radich points out in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, the “text is one of a group of cosmological texts related to the Lokasthānaprajñaptipāda of the Prajñapti-śāstra.” The Prajñapti-śāstra is a major Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma treatise. As is well known, the Sarvāstivāda school flourished in northern India. These points, I would tentatively suggest, indicate an original composition in northern India, perhaps around Kashmir, rather than at a farther southern latitude such as around Māgadha.

There are other examples in Buddhist literature where the origin of at least one recension of a given text can be inferred from astronomical or geographical data provided. One noteworthy example is the Mātaṅgī-sūtra, otherwise known as the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna in the Divyāvadāna collection (for Vaidya's Sanskrit edition see here, but exercise caution with it), which is an early Buddhist work significant in its use of mantras, anti-Vedic polemic and encyclopedic detailing of pre-Hellenized Indian astrology (i.e., before horoscopy was introduced to India). It was probably composed in the second or third century. The oldest manuscript of the text is from around the fourth century which was written in North Brāhmī script (see here).

There are two full Chinese translations of the text, one of which is the Modengjia jing 摩登伽經 (T 1300) attributed to Zhu Lüyan 竺律炎and Zhi Qian 支謙 in the year 230, but this is problematic. The text provides gnomonic measurements. A gnomon is an astronomical instrument, usually made of a thin shaft, used for measuring the length of its shadow at noon. Shinjō Shinzō in 1928 calculated an average latitude of 43 degrees from the numbers provided, which suggest a point of reference like Samarkand in Central Asia.5 Bear in mind that Patna in the early heartland of Buddhism is at 25.6°N. Conversely, according to Zenba Makoto's study, the Tibetan translation of the same text provides a calculated average latitude of 27.5 degrees (or if corrected 26.5 degrees), indicating a location in the vicinity of Māgadha.6

Some of the text's contents also generally suggest it was originally composed in Māgadha such as the definition of the māgadha-yojana (the “Māgadha mile”). The aforementioned Chinese translation might be a translation of a modified Central Asian recension which had been revised for the purposes of localization.

Other anomalous features of this particular translation include the addition of the metonic cycle (7 intercalary months added in a 19 year) and the originally Greco-Egyptian ordering of the seven planets (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn). The latter is especially curious because such an ordering does not appear in Indian literature until around the sixth century CE or perhaps a bit earlier. These features suggest a degree of Hellenistic influence which were added long after the text's original composition.

One question that comes to mind about the gnomonic measurements is how they would fit in with the flat earth cosmology of the Buddhists? Gnomonic measurements can be used for calculating latitude, which probably does not work with a flat earth. However, if the point of these gnomonic measurements is to determine the exact time of year from which to calibrate the calendar, then one merely has to know that noon shadows cast on certain days correspond to specific days of the calendar year, which facilitates accurate time keeping. In other words, I do not believe these indicate knowledge of a spherical earth.

In addition, a lot of the contents of the Śārdūlakarṇāvadāna seem to have been appended. The lengthy discussions of astrology, measurements and divination on the part of the main character, the caṇḍāla Triśaṅku, have no clear relationship to the early part of the sūtra where Triśaṅku launches into an anti-Vedic polemic against the Brahmin Puṣkarasārin. Such encyclopedic information presumably indicates how much knowledge a caṇḍāla could have, thus proving the fallibility of caste assumptions, though in my estimation it actually functions as a wealth of knowledge which Buddhists at the time could draw from for their own worldly purposes. In other words, the gnomonic measurements, even if they had been initially devised by an astronomer, were not necessarily understood in any scientific sense by Buddhists at the time. Again, one has only to look at the perpetuation of flat earth cosmology in Buddhist history to see how they were unwilling or unable to revise their models which were based on scripture.

The vinaya and other early Buddhist literature condemn both astrology and astronomy as worldly and inappropriate. The bhikṣu, as an ideal, is supposed to strive for more transcendental aims such as liberation from saṃsāra. This changes later on in Buddhist history with Mahāyāna and especially Vajrayāna traditions which clearly take a deep interest in astrology and justify worldly learning as expedient. There are, for example, five “sciences” (vidyā) that the bodhisattva should strive to master: grammar and composition (śabda-vidyā), the arts and mathematics (śilpakarma-sthāna-vidyā), medicine (cikitsā-vidyā), logic-epistemology (hetu-vidyā), and philosophy (adhyātma-vidyā).

So, were there any eminent bodhisattva astronomers and scientists in the real sense of the word in classical India comparable to Āryabhaṭa (b.476)? Did Nālandā at its height have anyone pushing a round earth theory? These are questions I plan to ponder in the coming years. One problem in this area of research is the amount of highly questionable and wishful Neo-Hindu works on the history of science in India, which inevitably are mixed in with proper academic works. Fortunately, a lot of work done by Indian scholars in the nineteenth century, while dated, is still quite readable and worth consideration.


1 Michael Radich, “Lishiapitan lun 佛說立世阿毘曇論,” Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. Type username 'guest' with no password.

2 David Pingree, "The Recovery of Early Greek Astronomy from India," Journal for the History of Astronomy 7 (1976): 110. See here for online version.

3 (CBETA, T32, no. 1644, p. 196, b1-5)

4 (CBETA, T32, no. 1644, p. 196, b5-6)

5 Shinjō Shinzō 新城新藏, Tōyō tenmongakushi kenkyū 東洋天文學史研究 (Kyoto: Rinsen shoten, 1989), 217. Reprint of same 1928 work.

6 Zenba Makoto 善波周, “Matōga gyō no tenmonrekisū ni tsuite” 摩登伽經の天文曆數について, in Tōyōgaku ronsō: Konishi, Takahata, Maeda san kyōju shōju kinen 東洋學論叢:小西高畠前田三教授頌壽記念 (Kyoto: Heirakuji shoten, 1952), 201.

Japanese Buddhist Astrologers: Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道

12 Zodiac Signs
The Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道 (literally, the 'Way of Constellations and Planets') was an influential tradition and lineage of Japanese Buddhist astrologers (sukuyō-shi 宿曜師) who were primarily comprised of monks specialized in casting horoscopes and carrying out relevant astral magic to divert or enhance planetary influences based on the charts they composed. Their history has been studied to some extent in Japan, but the research is relatively limited and arguably largely unread. I am unaware of any detailed studies in English. I think this is partially due to the taboo and bias against astrology in modern academia, both in the west and east. Modern science has completely and often vehemently rejected astrology. Although the study of astrology has its place especially in religious studies, in Buddhist Studies to date it has not been so widely examined or discussed, or at least not to the extent Buddhist philosophy, abhidharma and meditation have been researched, even though astrology was equally influential. Astrology of course was alien to Buddhism initially and was actually rejected by many in the early Buddhist community, but as I have discussed on this blog for some time now, astrology was quite significant in Buddhist history.

According to a strict scriptural understanding, there really should not exist a 'Buddhist astrology' given how it is forbidden by the Buddha in the vinaya literature and furthermore refuted in some sūtras. Nevertheless, it did exist and many Buddhists in India and elsewhere incorporated it into their practices and literature. A paper of mine awaiting publication entitled “Occidental Astrology and Buddhist Ethics in China 150-1150” addresses this issue, especially as it relates to Chinese Buddhist history where occidental astrology (i.e., astrology from outside China, not native Chinese astrology which is different) flourished, especially after the late eighth century.

Japanese Buddhism likewise took up this interest and also developed a unique tradition devoted to it. The Sukuyō-dō originated in the late tenth century (the mid-Heian period) and vanished in the fourteenth century, existing alongside and often competing with the Onmyō-dō 陰陽道 (the 'Way of Yin and Yang'), who constituted another community of occult specialists deriving their tradition largely from native Chinese lore, divination and sorcery practices. The Onmyō-dō is a better researched tradition, but also has received attention in film and television in Japan. They also arguably had more influence in Japanese history, being skilled occultists both feared and respected by elites in medieval Japan. The Sukuyō-dō likewise catered to the elites, but it seems they were employed for the casting of horoscopes and their apotropaic astral magic. Such skills were desired, but ultimately the Onmyō-dō were better suited to the needs of an age of constant civil strife and warfare.

While the Sukuyō-dō was recognized as a lineage, they did not possess sect-specific doctrines and often had differing views, which was unlike other Buddhist sects such as Shingon, Tendai, Kegon, Rinzai and so forth. It also seems that they were never highly organized or even that numerous. Although nominally monks, the lineage relationship between master and disciple in many cases was actually that of father and son. They could also belong to differing monastic institutions and sects. They were effectively monks specialized in astrology and their transmission of knowledge was recognized as a lineage.

Although sukuyō 宿曜 has been assumed in some modern scholarship to refer to Amoghavajra's Xiuyao jing 宿曜經, in Japanese Sukuyō-kyō (T 1299; compiled between 759–764), the text was actually secondary to the tradition. It drafted natal charts (horoscopes or sukuyō kanmon 宿曜勘文) primarily for aristocrats and predicted eclipses for the court using the Futian li 符天曆 calendar. The Xiuyao jing mentions the use of the Indian calendar to determine planetary positions, but no such methods are provided and moreover Hellenistic astrology is largely absent in the text (such as the natal chart and aspect or the angles which planets make relative to one another on a chart).

Sukuyō unmei kanmon 宿曜運命勘文
The Futian li was a popular calendar (i.e., not officially published by the state) compiled by Cao Shiwei 曹士蒍 (d.u.) in the Jianzhong 建中 period (780–783) of the Tang dynasty, known originally even in pre-modern times as having been based on Indian calendrical methods. This is reported in the history of post-Tang kingdoms preceding the Song dynasty – the Xin wudai shi 新五代史 (fasc. 58) – which further states its starting point is year 5 of reign era Xianqing 顯慶 (660 CE).1 This start date incidentally is necessary in order to understand Sukuyō horoscopes as they state the number of days elapsed since then (積日數). For example, the Sukuyō unmei kanmon 宿曜運命勘文, a horoscope for an individual born on lunar 12/25 in Ten'ei 天永 3 (1113) states that 165,428 days have elapsed: 165,428 ÷ 365 = 453; 660 + 453 = 1113.

It seems the calendar initially did not account for the Indian 'hidden' or pseudo-planets Rāhu and Ketu. In Indian astronomy Rāhu is generally the ascending node of the moon, whereas Ketu is supposed to be the descending node, but it can also possibly function as the moon's lunar apogee (Skt. ucca). This is a native Indian model, though Rāhu originally in Vedic literature was the demon who devoured the moon. By the Tang dynasty, many Chinese intellectuals, both in Buddhism and the astronomy community, were taking an interest in Indian astronomy, which was introduced initially with works like the Navagraha 九執曆 by Gautama Siddhārtha.2 Song Lian 宋濂 (1310–1381) in the Luming bian 祿命辨 reports that early in the Zhenyuan era 貞元 (785–805) after production of ephemerides for the eleven planets3 by Li Biqian 李弼乾 (otherwise Li Miqian 李彌乾), Cao Shiwei additionally calculated ephemerides for Rāhu and Ketu starting from year 1 of Yuanhe 元和 (806).

This was also around when the Duli yusi jing 都利聿斯經 was also translated (785–805), which is not extant apart from fragments. The title possibly stands for 'Dorotheus' and perhaps is related to Dorotheus' Carmen Astrologicum (see Bill Mak 2014). Mak also suggests it was possibly Syrian Christians in Chang'an who translated the work, but some fragments of the work and remarks concerning it in Chinese histories suggest distinctly Indian elements like Rāhu and Ketu, though these might reflect developments in China following the translation of the original text.

Again, it seems that Cao Shiwei's calendar initially did not account for Rāhu and Ketu, but this newly introduced occidental astrology required it, especially for casting Indian-style horoscopes which became increasingly popular in China, and thus the Zhizhai shulu jieti 直齋書錄解題 (fasc. 12) also records a specific work entitled Luoji er yinyao licheng li 羅計二隱曜立成歷 (an ephemeris for Rāhu and Ketu) by Cao Shiwei, noting the start date. 

Table in the Qiyao rangzai jue. Note the 12 places (domus).
This possibly explains why the Buddhist Qiyao rangzai jue 七曜攘災決 (T 1308), an ephemeris for the planets accompanying astrological lore and planetary mantras, has a separate starting date for Rāhu and Ketu: the calendar therein commences from 794 for the five visible planets, and 806 for Rāhu and Ketu (Yano 2013: 174–185 and Yabuuchi 1982: 5–6). It might be noted here that Buddhists in China were clearly free to make use of foreign materials translated by Christians!

It is to be recalled that Amoghavajra's Xiuyao jing only mentioned calendars and the need to identify planetary positions, but provided no means of doing so. Four or five decades later it was men like Cao Shiwei who allowed the Chinese to easily determine planetary positions for any date in order to practice advanced astrology and draw up horoscopes. One should also bear in mind that the early Tang legal codes expressly forbid the private study of astronomy, calendrical science and certain forms of divination, but following the breakdown of central state authority after the An Lushan rebellion (755–763), people were evidently free to produce such materials and even sell them at the marketplace, especially with the widespread development of woodblock printing. One might imagine in the ninth century mass-produced manuals for drawing up natal charts on sale, not unlike what is available today at any common bookshop.

Again, the Sukuyō-dō in Japan primarily used Cao Shiwei's Futian li and lore obtained through various texts to practice their art. It was the Japanese monk Shū'ei 宗叡 (809–884) who brought the aforementioned Duli yusi jing to Japan in 865. Although the Futian li was available in Japan when the Nihonkoku kenzai sho mokuroku日本國見在書目錄 was compiled by Fujiwara no Sukeyo 藤原佐世 (d. 897) in c.891 (listed as 唐七曜符天曆一 under the 天文家 heading),4 in 953 the monk Nichi'en日延 (d.u.) at the request of the onmyōji 陰陽師 (Onmyō-dō master) Kamo no Yasunori 賀茂保憲 (917–977) was ordered to fetch a new calendar, whereupon in the state of Wuyue吳越 he studied and retrieved a version of the Futian li, which he brought back in 957.

It was as much about the text as it was about someone possessing the necessary knowledge and expertise to employ it. Nichi'en was chosen for this role because he was disciple of Tendai monk Ninkan 仁觀 (d. 934), who had a background in calendrical science. The Futian li was used alongside the Senmyō reki 曆 by calendar experts (not unlike in China until the Mongol period 1271–1368), whom the Sukuyō-dō debated with in particular with respect to eclipse predictions until the end of the Kamakura period (1185–1333). The Sukuyō-dō participated in official calendar production from 995 when Ninsō 仁宗 was ordered to assist. This participation ended in 1038. This is noteworthy because it highlights how some Buddhist monks in the Heian period were able to successfully participate in 'secular science', at least for a brief time.

The origins of the Sukuyō-dō lineage itself are traced back to a need for an accurate astrological schedule for Mikkyō 密教 rites (Tendai and Shingon), which are rooted in key scriptures of the tradition such as the Mahāvairocana-sūtra (otherwise a tantra) (T 848; translated in 724). In the second chapter it insists the drawing of the maṇḍala is to be done on an auspicious day 良日, the immediate definition of which was only briefly covered in the text's Chinese commentary, the Dari jing shu 大日經疏 (T 1796) by the eminent astronomer-monk Yixing 一行 (683–727), who also helped to translate the sūtra. Amoghavajra's Xiuyao jing provided a comprehensive astrological schedule for these rites. It was brought to Japan by Kūkai 空海 (774–835) in 806 and again by Ennin 圓仁 (794–864) in 847 and Enchin 圓珍 (814–891) in 858.Kūkai was insistent on the new art being implemented (see here).

Such knowledge required specialization and this led to the appearance of 'astrologer monks', such as Ninkan, who in 926 set the date for a major rite (see Teishin kōki shō 貞信公記抄). Likewise in this century there were star worship rites for the Tennō 天皇 (Japanese Emperor), which required ascertaining his birth day 本命日and birth constellation 本命宿. In 961 for the Murakami Tennō 村上天皇 (926–967; r. 946–967) the monk Hōzō 法藏 (905–969) debated with Kamo no Yasunori over this, highlighting the early division between Sukuyō-dō and Onmyō-dō and increasing faith in star worship.

Said rites along with horoscopes subsequently became widely done for the aristocracy from the late tenth century onward. There are also many examples of Sukuyō-dō monks performing rites when eclipses occurred. Other rites were heavily Daoist in nature, such as those for the Big Dipper 北斗法 aimed at extending longevity 延命 (originally a native Chinese practice), which became prominent in the late Heian period.

Hōzō, who had also probably studied the Futian li, later on was designated as the first sukuyō-shi. The earliest datable appearances of terms Sukuyō-dō and sukuyō-shi in journals of aristocrats are from the beginning to the mid-eleventh century (Toda 2007), though sukuyōdōhō 宿曜道法 ('methods of Sukuyō-dō') appears in a citation of Hōzō's debate recorded in the Ono rui hishō 小野類祕鈔 by Kanshin 寬信 (1084–1153). Therefore although Kūkai first introduced occidental astrology into Japan, he was not regarded as an astrologer and certainly not a sukuyō-shi.

The lineage was prominent enough to make an appearance in women's literature of the Heian period. The noun sukuyō, referring to astrologers, appears in Murasaki Shikibu's 紫式部 Tale of Genji 源氏物語 (chapters 1 and 14) in the early eleventh century:


Summoning an astrologer of the Indian school [sukuyō], the emperor was pleased to learn that the Indian view coincided with the Japanese and the Korean; and so he concluded that the boy should become a commoner with the name Minamoto or Genji.


“You will have three children,” a fortuneteller [sukuyō] had once told him. “Two of them are certain to become emperor and empress. The least of the three will become chancellor, the most powerful man in the land.”6

In the following centuries whole lineage charts existed to document the history of the tradition. The late Kamakura-era Nichūreki 二中歷 (#13, ichi nōreki 一能歷) lists the following lineage of sukuyōshi:

Hōzō 法藏, Rigen 利源(), Ninsō 仁宗, Ninso 仁祚, Nintō 仁統, Fusen 扶宣, Chūin 忠允, Ryōtan 良湛, Zōmyō 增命, Shōshō 證昭, Genso 彥祚, Nōsan 能算, Shōshō ()淸昭, Gōshun ()恆舜, Kokkū 國空, Songen 尊源, Kensen 賢暹, Kyōzō 慶增, Ryōyū 良祐, Myōsan 明算, Shinsan 深算, Nichikaku 日覺.

It also lists the following rokumyōshi 祿命師 (specialists of Chinese luming 祿命 divination) with four in common: Nichi'en 日延, Fusen 扶宣, Ryōtan 良湛, Nōsan 能算, Chūshō 忠淸, and Kyōzō 慶增.

Although several of these monks were from the Tō-ji 東寺 and Taimitsu 台密 (Tendai Mikkyō) lineages, from the mid-Heian period sukuyōshi primarily came from Kōfuku-ji 興福寺 (Hossō school 法相宗), the first known of which is Ninsō (b.945?). The journal of Fujiwara Sanesuke 藤原實資 (957–1046), the Shōyūki 小右記, reports in 982 (Tengen 天元 5) his monastic affiliation and him being ordered to compile an astrology report.

It is noteworthy here that Kōyasan, so far as I have read, never seems to have hosted such astrologer monks. The Xiuyao jing is cited frequently in extant Mikkyō literature as it provided the necessary astrological schedule for rites. However, casting horoscopes – primarily for aristocrats – was perhaps not of interest to them.

Later two mainstream lineages emerged and remained active in the Kamakura period: the Chin-ryū 珍流 (variant: 珎流) and San-ryū 算流. Many such names are recorded in the Sonpi bunmyaku 尊卑分脈 compiled by Tōin Kinsada 洞院公定 (1340–1399) in 1376. In the Insei period 院政期, two prominent sukuyō-shi were Chinga 珍賀 and Kyōsan 慶算. By the Kamakura period Sukuyō-dō had spread to the city of Kamakura and transitioned from primarily casting horoscopes to being ritual specialists (see Toda 2006, 2007). Other noted sukuyō-shi include Shōichi 性一, Kenichi 兼一, En'ichi 圓一, Gien 義圓, and Ninken 任憲.

Sukuyōdō as an identifiable community vanished in the fourteenth century. The Shosaimon kojitsushō 諸祭文故實抄 (final compilation in 1518 by Higashibōjō Kazunaga 東坊城和長 1460–1530) lists eight Sukuyō-dō rites that were temporarily revised and carried out in the Ōei 應永 period (1399–1427) between 1394–1413. The final symbolic blow to the destruction of the tradition was when the Hokudokōrin-in 北斗降臨院 at Kiyomizudera 淸水寺 (built in 1165 by Chinga; see the Enjōji denki 園城寺傳記・九之十) burned down in 1417 as recorded in the Kanmon gyoki 看聞御記 (the journal of Fushiminomiya Sadafusa 伏見宮貞成 for the years 1416–1448).

The demise of the Sukuyō-dō was also largely tied in with the collapse of aristocratic power as warlordism took hold of Japan. The chaos and strife did not really settle down until the Edo period in the seventeenth century under the Tokugawa 徳川 regime. However, by that time the old astrologer monks of centuries past no longer existed and their manuals had probably been largely lost by then.

My study of the Sukuyō-dō has been especially fruitful in helping to shape an understanding of Buddhist astrology in China, especially because they practiced and documented a practice of astrology that was directly carried over from the mainland. As is often the case in the study of medieval Chinese Buddhism, one must rely on Japanese sources as much was lost following the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the early tenth century, to say nothing of the subsequent rise and fall of the Song.

It is worth mentioning that in the twentieth century numerous popular works on 'Sukuyō Astrology' 宿曜占星術 were published in Japan, though these focus chiefly on popular and unscholarly interpretations of the Xiuyao jing

Komine Yumiko 小峰有美子 (b. 1930) claims to have inherited a secret oral lineage from Iseki Tenkai 井關天海 representing the Sukuyō-dō lineage (Komine 1982). It is not impossible that someone could have received teachings on the text as Kōyasan scholars even in the Edo period studied the text and their authoritative version of the text compiled by Kakushō in 1736 was printed for the first time by Wakita Bunshō 脇田文紹 in 1897. However, one will recall that the original Sukuyō-dō lineage was based primarily on other texts and they were skilled in casting horoscopes, an art which the Xiuyao jing does not teach nor even allude to. Therefore any claim of a secret surviving Sukuyō-dō lineage should show awareness of all the other texts relevant to the original tradition, but this seems to have escaped enthusiasts in the twentieth century. Now in Japan there are many works on 'Sukuyō Astrology' available for sale, but these are popular works that take great liberties with the terse language of Amoghavajra's work.


Komine, Yumiko 小峰有美子Sukuyō kyō nijūshichi suku senseihō.  宿曜經二十七宿占星法. Tokyo: Tōyō Shoin 東洋書院, 1982.
Mak, Bill. "Yusi Jing - A treatise of 'Western' Astral Science in Chinese and its versified version Xitian yusi jing*," SCIAMVS 15 (2014): 105-169.
Momo, Hiroyuki 桃裕行. “Nichi'en no Tenfu reki seirai.”  日延の天符曆齎來. In In Ritsuryō kokka to kizoku shakai.  律令國家と貴族社會, ed. Takeuchi Rizō 竹內理三, 395–420. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館, 1969.
Momo, Hiroyuki 桃裕行. “Sukuyōdō to sukuyō kanmon.”  宿曜道と宿曜勘文. In Risshō shigaku.  立正史學 39 (1975): 1–20.
Murayama, Shūichi 村山修一Nihon Onmyōdō shi sōsetsu.  日本陰陽道史總說. Tokyo: Hanawa Shobō 塙書房, 1981.
Toda, Yusuke 戶田 雄介. “Kamakura bakufu no sukuyōshi: toku ni chinyo ni tsuite.”  鎌倉幕府の宿曜師 : 特に珍譽について. In Bukkyō Daigaku daigakuin kiyō.  佛教大學大學院紀要 35 (2007): 45–59.
Toda, Yusuke 戶田雄介. “Sukuyōdō no inseiki: Chinga to Kyōsan wo chūshin ni.”  宿曜道の院政期 : 珍賀と慶算を中心に. In Bukkyō Daigaku daigakuin kiyō.  佛教大學大學院紀要 34 (2006): 27–40.
Toda, Yusuke 戶田雄介. “Sukuyōdō saiki ni tsuite no ichi kōsatsu: hokuto hon haiku to hokuto hō.”  宿曜道祭祀についての一考察 : 北斗本拜供と北斗法. In Bukkyō Daigaku daigakuin kiyō.  佛教大學大學院紀要 36 (2008): 33–48.
Yabuuchi, Kiyoshi. “Tō Sō Shii no Futenreki ni tsuite.” 唐曹士蔿の符天曆について. In Biburia Tenri Toshokan hō. ビブリア 天理圖書館報 78 (1982): 2–18.
Yabuuchi, Kiyoshi. Chūgoku no Tenmon Rekihō. 中國の天文曆法. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1990.
Yabuuchi, Kiyoshi. Zōtei Zuitō rekihō shi no kenkyū. 增訂隋唐曆法史の硏究. Kyoto: Rinsen Shoten 臨川書店, 1989.
Yano, Michio 矢野道雄Mikkyō senseijutsu.  密教占星術. Tokyo: Toyoshoin, 2013.
Yamashita, Katsuaki 山下克明. “Heian jidai ni okeru mikkyō seishinku no seiritsu to dōkyō.”  平安時代における密教星辰供の成立と道教. In Nihonshi kenkyū.  日本史硏究 312 (1988): 37–61.
Yamashita, Katsuaki 山下克明Heian jidai no shūkyō bunka to onyōdō.  平安時代の宗教文化と陰陽道. Iwata Shoin 岩田書院, 1996.
Yamashita, Katsuaki 山下克明. “Sukuyōdō no keisei to tenkai.”  宿曜道の形成と展開. In Kōki sekkan jidaishi no kenkyū.  後期攝關時代史の硏究, 481–527. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan 吉川弘文館, 1990. 日本國見在書目錄
Yajima, Genryō 矢嶋玄亮Nihonkoku genzai sho mokuroku: shūshō to kenkyū.  日本國見在書目錄 : 集證と硏究. Tokyo: Kyuko Shoin 汲古書院, 1984.


1 This is close to the starting point of the Navagraha 九執曆: year 2 of Xianqing (657) (see Yabuuchi translation 1989). The Futian li establishes the solar year 回歸年 as 365 days + 2448/10000 days. It was initially only in popular, not official, use until it was named the Tiaoyun li 調元歷 (or it was otherwise based on the Futian li) and employed for five years under the Later Jin 後晉 (936–946) between 939–944 (see also Liao shi 遼史, fasc. 42). This is echoed by the Kunxue jiwen 困學紀聞 (fasc. 09) which also notes Wang Pu 王樸 in the Later Zhou 後周 (951–960) abolished study of the Futian li. The Song shi 宋史 (fasc. 207) and Chongwen zongmu 崇文總目 (fasc. 4) list it and a few related works. See also the additional remarks in the Yu hai 玉海 (fasc. 10). The alternate title He yuan wanfen li 合元萬分歷 is noted in the Junzhai dushu zhi 郡齋讀書誌 (fasc. 13). The Yuan period (1279–1368) Mishu jianzhi 祕書監志 (under 二夕軒八斤入兩) reports the Futian li and the Xuanming li 宣明曆 as texts to be studied and examined, demonstrating that the calendar was actively studied until this period. Both calendars were also jointly consulted in Japan.

2 Indian astronomy text with Greek influences translated into Chinese by imperial decree in 718. Included as fasc. 104 in the Da Tang Kaiyuan zhan jing 大唐開元占經. It is mainly based on the Pañcasiddhāntikā. However, the tabulated latitude value of 35 is for Chang'an 長安, not India (see Yabuuchi chap. 11, 35), indicating modification for localization. It is not a comprehensive siddhānta text, but rather a karaṇa text providing calculation methods. It details siddhānta algorithms, a dot for zero, a table of sine functions and methods for eclipse prediction superior to those developed in China. A number of terms were adopted directly from Sanskrit equivalents. The work demonstrates Chinese interest in foreign science in the Tang. Access was presumably restricted and it was lost until rediscovered in a Buddha statue around 1600 by Cheng Mingshan 程明善. For a full English translation and detailed study see Yabuuchi Kiyoshi (1989).

3 In addition to the five visible planets, the sun, moon, Rāhu and Ketu, there are two other mysterious hidden planets: Ziqi 紫氣 and Yuebei 月孛 / Yuebo 月勃.

4 The oldest extant catalog of Chinese texts 漢籍 in Japan, listing 1579 works. Compiled by Fujiwara no Sukeyo 藤原佐世 (d. 897) in c.891. 1 fasc. It follows the format of the Jingji zhi 經籍志 of the Sui shu 隋書, listing numerous texts not found in the Tang shu 唐書, making it an important historical source. Also called Nihon genzai sho mokuroku 日本見在書目錄, Honchō genzai sho mokuroku 本朝見在書目錄, Sukeyo roku 佐世錄, Fujiwara no sukeyo chūmon 藤原佐世注文. The oldest version is at Murōji 室生寺.

5 The Taishō version of this text is an edited mainland version different from original Japanese manuscripts which Kakushō 覺勝 used for his authoritative version published in 1736 (for an extensive study see Yano 2013). Sukuyō-dō most likely exclusively used the latter textual lineage.

6 English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker. See online edition: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/murasaki-shikibu/tale-of-genji/index.html