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.

有三大曜,謂病老死,此為最大,常住世間。彼惡沙門,不思惟此而更思惟餘世間曜。彼人愚癡,無有聞慧,思惟世間二十八宿。如是思惟,則有罪過。而不思惟彼出世間二十八宿。若能思惟實觀察者,入涅槃城。二十八者,所謂五陰,及五取陰,十八界等。思惟此者,到於涅槃。以如實觀離欲持戒,故得涅槃。數星思惟則不能得。

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.

此星復為勝星所覆,彼星異時而復更為異星所覆,是故當知數星思惟義不相應。若其有人,數星思惟,謂星因緣,有苦有樂,非是自身有苦有樂,彼星更有餘星所覆,云何而能與他苦樂。故知由業而得。如是善不善果,非星能與。

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:

若國王男女、難長難養、或短壽疾病纏眠5、寢食不安、皆由宿業因緣、生惡宿直。或數被五曜陵逼本宿、令身不安。

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.



Notes:

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.