The Star of Bethlehem and Magi in Tang China (618–907)

As Christmas approaches, I thought we might again discuss Christianity in Tang China (618–907). In an earlier post (see here), we surveyed the basic history of this religion during the period in question, so I will direct readers to this earlier discussion if they are not already familiar with the topic. What I want to discuss in the current post is the references to the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi in Chinese sources from the Tang period. I believe these references can tell us something about how Christianity was first transmitted and what sort of direction it took over the course of its maturation in medieval China.

The earliest reference to the Star of Bethlehem – and to Jesus himself – is found in the Xuting Mishi suo jing 序聽迷詩所經 (T 2142), i.e., the Jesus-Messiah Scripture. This curious text was apparently rediscovered in the twentieth-century and purchased in China by Takakusu Junjirō 高楠順次郎. Although its authenticity is not entirely accepted by all modern scholars, I tend to think the text itself is authentic based on its content and vocabulary.

To give some background to the text, the so-called “Nestorian Stele” erected in 781 explains that in the year 635, a mission led by Aluoben 阿羅夲 from the country of Daqin 大秦 (a general term for the Levant) arrived in the Chinese capital Changan 長安. We also know that in 638, the “Persian monk” (波斯僧) Aluoben presented his scriptural teachings (經教) to the court as tribute. These new teachings were considered beneficial, and thus the court ordered the construction of a monastery in Chang’an, which marks the beginning of formal Christian activity in China. The Jesus-Messiah Scripture as it presently exists is not fully extant, although there is still ample content. This text describes the life of Jesus including the Virgin birth, his baptism by John, his miracles, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection, in addition to general Christian precepts for daily life. It also uses various foreign names and terms in Chinese apparently translated from Syriac (Jehovah 序娑, Messiah 彌師訶, Mary 末艶, Jesus 移鼠, Jerusalem 烏梨師𣫍, Jordan 述難, John 若昏, Pilatus 毘羅都思, Golgotha 訖句). The author of this text continually insists upon the virtue of filial piety, as well as including frequent respectful addresses to the Chinese Emperor, indicating a conscious adaptation to Chinese values.

In addition to these features, the Chinese grammar and vocabulary of this text are highly irregular, even employing Buddhist vocabulary, leading to the impression that it is probably a literal translation of something from another language, such as Middle Persian, with further editing to adequately convey religious ideas in Chinese. It might also not be a translation of a preexisting text, but rather could be a translation of an oral testimony concerning the history and basic doctrines of Christianity. It is quite evident that whoever translated was not a professional translator, but we should bear in mind that attempting to convey the ideas of a foreign religion into a new language for the first time would have been considerably difficult. It is not unreasonable to suggest, as scholars have already done, that the text stems from Aluoben’s mission to China in the 630s. If this is the case, then the first datable reference to the Star of Bethlehem in Chinese is around 638. The relevant line reads as follows, which includes a close translation of the Chinese:

此天尊在於天上,普署天地。當產移鼠迷師訶所在世間居見明果在於天地。辛星居知在於天上,星大如車輪。
This Divinely Honored One [i.e., God] is in Heaven, universally presiding over Heaven and Earth. When Jesus the Messiah was born, being present in the world, there appeared brilliant fruits [signs?] in Heaven and Earth. A new star was recognized in the sky above. The star was great like a wagon-wheel. 

Again, the Chinese is awkward, but it is clear that this is referring to the Star of Bethlehem, mentioned in the Book of Matthew (2:1–12), which signaled the birth of the Messiah. Curiously, the text states Jesus was born “in the city of Jerusalem in the park [=country] of Rome 拂林園烏梨師𣫍城中.” Here 烏梨師𣫍 is clearly from Syriac Urishlim, i.e., Jerusalem (see here for pronunciation of the Syriac). The character yuan (park) is a scribal error of guo (country). Bethlehem is actually a separate settlement south of Jerusalem, so this is anomalous. Fu lin 拂林 here would have been pronounced at the time in Middle Chinese as pʰjuət ljəm (Schuessler IPA) or something approximating this, which is the name “Rome” borrowed from an Iranian language, such as Sogdian frwn and brwn, or Middle Persian hrōm.

The Christian community was formally established in China in the 630s, but it was generally insignificant in terms of cultural and religious influence until the late-eighth century. Their community would have been mostly comprised of ethnically Iranian people as well as a few other foreigners who had traveled from the Near East. It is noteworthy that the first datable reference to the seven-day week in Chinese is also found in the text at hand: “On that day, they took the Messiah and tied him to wood [i.e., a cross] for five hours. This was on the sixth fasting day [Friday] 其日將彌師訶木上縛著五時是六日齋.” Nevertheless, the custom of the seven-day week was still unknown to most Chinese until the following century, when it was Buddhists who implemented its widespread use in East Asia. This point illustrates that the early Chinese Christian community was limited in its influence.

This community, however, later rose to more significant prominence in the late eighth-century. The clergyman Li Su 李素 (743817), for instance, worked as a court astronomer in the capital. The mature Tang Christian community also appears to have become increasingly Sinicized, which is evident from the so-called Nestorian Stele that was erected in 781. The stele describes Christ’s birth, Christian doctrine, a short history of the faith in China from the arrival of the first mission in 635, a eulogy, and a list of names of clergymen. We also see in the inscription the second known reference to the star of Bethlehem:

神天宣慶,室女誕聖於大秦。景宿告祥,波斯覩耀以来貢。
The angel proclaimed good tidings. The Virgin gave birth to the Sage in Daqin [the Levant]. The luminous asterism indicated a portent. The Persian(s) witnessed the brilliance and came to pay tribute.

This is in reference to the Book of Matthew (2:1–2):

1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. (King James Version)

There are two things I would like to note here.

Magi bear gifts to an infant Jesus.
3rd Century Sarcophagus.
Vatican Museum (Rome).
Wikimedia Commons
First, in contrast to the stele that reads “Persian(s)” (Bosi 波斯), Matthew 2:1 in Greek reads μάγοι, i.e., Magi, which was translated in the King James Version (completed in 1611) as “wise men” (see here). The Peshitta, the standard version of the Bible in Syriac, gives “Magoshi” (see English translation at available at http://www.peshitta.org/). The Magi, of course, hail from Persia, so the stele’s choice of vocabulary is not entirely erroneous, although it is curious. 

I suspect the author of the inscription, the famous translator Adam 景淨, decided to use a term which would have been immediately recognizable to Chinese readers, rather than using a transliteration of Magoshi or some other functional equivalent from the Buddhist or Daoist lexicons (Fashi 法師 “Dharma Master” or Daoshi 道士 “Daoist Lord” might have worked well in capturing the idea of a figure adept in rituals and religious lore).

Depiction of a Persian (6th cent.)
Zhigong tu 職貢圖
Wikimedia Commons
The problem here, however, is that the term they used has no such religious or occult sense to it. In fact, Bosi 波斯 in this period had a significantly different connotation: Persians were stereotyped as wealthy merchants. The author Li Shangyin 李商隱 (813858) gives a list of things that are considered “unsuitable” or “unreasonable” (meant to be humorous), the first of which is a “poor Persian” (窮波斯). He also mentions “an ill physician” (病醫人) and “a teacher illiterate and a butcher reciting sūtras” (先生不識字屠家念經). The idea here is that such things ought not to happen, so it would be amusing if they did. The stereotype about Persians being wealthy no doubt reflects their status as merchants in Tang Chinese society.

The point to take away here is that Adam’s choice of word to describe the Magi was, in reality, a bit off. What does this indicate? It seems to suggest that Adam simply understood the Magi as Persians who came to offer tribute to the Messiah when he was born. Although this might be reading too much into the text on my part, there is another part of the cited passage from the stele that caught my attention.

The word in Biblical Greek for “star” in Matthew 2:2 is ἀστήρ (astér), which simply means “star” (see here). The corresponding Chinese term, which I translate as “luminous asterism” is jing xiu 景宿. The latter character in any astronomical context normally refers to the twenty-eight Chinese lunar stations (i.e., constellations through which the Moon transits) or, especially in the Buddhist context, the twenty-seven or twenty-eight nakṣatras, which are also constellations through which the Moon transits over the course of its monthly circuit (in China the indigenous model was used as a functional equivalent when translating the Indian terms). 

In the year 781 when the stele was erected, Adam should have presumably understood that this character does not refer to a star in the singular. Although this variance might merely have been a stylistic decision, I have to wonder if there is more to this than just that.

It is quite likely that the Chinese Christian community in the later part of the Tang dynasty had become quite Sinicized. As the available evidence indicates, it does not appear that their community translated the Bible in its entirety into Chinese. Although we can probably safely guess that the clergy possessed the Bible in Syriac, we might speculate that their clerics originally born in China were not necessarily fully literate in Syriac.

We can draw a parallel here with the Buddhist tradition and their approach to Sanskrit. China in the eighth and ninth centuries had tens if not hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks, but very few of them could read and comprehend Sanskrit. Japan preserves many Sanskrit documents written in siddhaṃ script that were brought over from Tang China. These are often accompanied by transliterations of the siddhaṃ lines into Chinese characters, which shows that on the mainland some Buddhist monks were, in fact, reading out loud Sanskrit texts. 

The question remains, however, how much did they actually comprehend without reference to existing Chinese translations? East Asian Buddhism as a whole, despite the achievements of monks such as Xuanzang and Yijing who became fully literate in Sanskrit, never developed traditions of Sanskrit scholarship, and instead relied almost exclusively on Chinese translations.

Did something similar occur with the Chinese Christian community? Although Adam was famous for his translations of Christian literature into Chinese, how many of the native-born clerics – even those of Sogdian backgrounds – were literate in Syriac? 

It is unfortunate that only a handful of documents survive from Tang Christianity, otherwise we might be able to say more about this community. Hopefully in the future more documents from the Christian tradition will be rediscovered in China.

Do Buddhists Believe in a Flat Earth?

Mount Sumeru and the Four Continents (1921)
(Wikimedia Commons)
When I was traveling around India and Nepal a few years ago, I was told by some monks that plenty of people in the Himalayas believe that the world is flat and moreover that many monastic lectures still teach traditional Buddhist cosmology, especially as it is explained in texts such as the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya by Vasubandhu (chapter 3 deals with cosmology or lokanirdeśaḥ, part of which discusses the physical world). However, some monks also get sent to study modern science and then express upset over the fact that they spent so much time learning Buddhist cosmology, only to learn that the rest of the world mostly accepts a heliocentric spherical-earth model of cosmology.

When I say “mostly accepts”, I mean that there is a movement with quite a large following online that argues that our physical world is comprised of a stationary flat-earth, atop which the Sun and Moon orbit. The proponents of this movement often assert that images of the Earth taken from space by NASA and other agencies are fabrications, and that spherical-earth cosmology amounts to one giant fraud. 

This movement is still perhaps fringe, but it is growing in significance. A few weeks ago, there was a Flat Earth International Conference in North Carolina (http://fe2017.com/). The Guardian and other sources are reporting that a man in California is planning to launch himself into the air using a homemade rocket and reach 1,800ft (550 metres), where he will be able to make observations. The Guardian (see here) also quotes a “flat-earth convert” who states, “It’s almost like the beginning of a new religion.” This particular comment interests me as a researcher of religions.

Scanning online forums on the topic of a flat-earth, I've observed that the inspiration behind belief in this is often stated to be religious – predominately Christian – in orientation. At present, I am unaware of any modern Buddhist teacher of note insisting on flat-earth cosmology, but it still might surprise some Buddhists to know that their religion's cosmology has much in common with modern proponents of flat-earth cosmology.

In a past post (see here), I discussed the Buddhist flat-earth theory. In brief, historically until relatively recently, most Buddhists in any country believed that the physical world is comprised of a disc-shaped landmass covered in water with four continents surrounding an enormous Mount Meru at the center of the disc, atop which gods such as Indra and his retinue reside. Around the periphery of the disc is a chain of mountains called Cakravāḍa, made of iron. This model differs from what I've observed among present flat-earth proponents. For instance, they generally insist that a wall of ice surrounds the world, rather than a ring of mountains. Their models also don't include a Mount Sumeru. Still, their models of the orbital paths of the Sun and Moon are generally identical. See the following model:



In a Buddhist model, Mount Meru would stand at the center of the Earth, and its height would surpass the altitudes of the Sun, Moon, planets and stars. If you stood atop the mountain, you would be able to look down at all the luminous bodies circling the disc-shaped earth below.

What I would like to consider is what the flat-earth cosmology means in relation to modern Buddhism.


Azimuthal equidistant projection of the entire spherical Earth.
(Wikimedia Commons)
After exploring the Buddhist experience of astrology over the ages, it occurred to me that modern Buddhists have quietly overlooked the original features of their own cosmology. This isn't necessarily surprising, given that from the twentieth-century onward, much attention has been placed on areas such as the nature of mind, meditation and Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless, Buddhist cosmology is a big part of the religion and always has been. Mount Meru and the four continents are frequently mentioned in scriptures. According to Buddhism, you could, in theory, travel to Mount Meru or the other continents if you possessed sufficient spiritual powers (we live on Jambudvīpa, the southern continent).

Modern proponents of Buddhism often insist that Buddhism is scientific and always has been. I recently read an article by Natalie Quli titled “Multiple Buddhist Modernisms: Jhāna in Convert Theravāda.”Quli outlines the general approach to meditation on the part of traditionally non-Buddhist peoples in modern times. Some of the features of Buddhist modernism that she describes include “the extolling of reason and rationality”, “a belief in the compatibility of Buddhism and modern science” and “a desire to return to the 'original' teachings of the Buddha, particularly as ascribed to the Pāli canon”. When dealing with the science of mind, it is perhaps easy and plausible to open a discussion between modern scientists and proponents of a Buddhist school, and suggest that the Buddhists have always embraced a scientific approach to reality.

This empowers Buddhism with a kind of elevated social status that other religious traditions seldom enjoy, but these discussions also ignore long-standing Buddhist theories about the physical world. Historically speaking the Buddhists of ancient India seem to have generally ignored or rejected their contemporary Indian astronomers – all of whom wrote in the lingua franca of Sanskrit – who provided mathematical proofs that the world is spherical. This is an indication that Buddhist thinkers preferred scriptural authority over scientific investigations.

What are the implications of all this? If we point out that the Buddha taught a flat-earth cosmology, and his word within a Buddhist context is supposed to be infallible, then we have demonstrable proof that he got something – and something very significant – completely wrong. If he was wrong about the physical shape of the world, is it possible he was also wrong about karma and/or the nature and causes of suffering?

If a Buddhist proponent accepts the fallibility of scripture, then they surrender the right to exercise śabda-pramāṇa, i.e., the means to knowing something through the testimony of a valid authority, such as one whose account is recorded in scripture. That means they cannot defer to the testimony of the Buddha in the context of a debate. It also hampers attempts to scout for apparent scientific facts in Buddhist scripture.

The fact that Buddhists have historically insisted upon a flat-earth cosmology as physically descriptive and real stands to challenge modern assumptions that Buddhism is, or ought to be, considered compatible with science. I would wonder, too, if the modern Buddhist tendency to associate itself with science is what prevents even the most traditionalist of Buddhists from aligning themselves with the contemporary flat-earth movement. If that is true, then modern Buddhist cosmology is entirely shaped, guided and defined by materialist science. It goes without saying that other Buddhist beliefs are likely to end up entirely reevaluated in the same manner.

Pacific World Journal 10, no. 1 (2008): 225-249.

The Buddhist Myth of Ignorant Gods

One of the most important assumptions underpinning the Buddhist project, which moreover shaped Buddhism’s historical interaction with other religions and the cultures into which it migrated, is the belief that the gods are ignorant beings still trapped in saṃsāra, while the Buddha and other Buddhist figures (arhats, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas) are wise and liberated from saṃsāra. 

Buddhism is historically unique as a revealed religion in that it does not deny the existence of non-Buddhist deities, nor does it demonize them. This stands in contrast to Christian thought, in which the gods of polytheists are at best  intellectual errors, or at worst spawns of Satan intent on leading away souls from God’s salvation into Hell. Buddhist traditions throughout history have believed that gods do exist, and they might even be helpful at times, but they are not a means to liberation from saṃsāra. This is why cults to local gods have normally been retained in Buddhist cultures. However, these same Buddhist traditions also tend to consciously reduce the status of local pantheons.


This reason behind this is traced back to the myth of the genesis of Buddhadharma. As the ancient account of Śākyamuni tells us, the young prince decided to abandon his family to pursue a spiritual quest, realizing that worldly pleasures are fleeting, and that liberation from saṃsāra was the only reasonable goal to pursue in life. After studying under some teachers and experimenting with their teachings, he eventually figured out the full truth, unlike his past teachers, and became a fully-awakened buddha, i.e., an awoken one under what would become known as the Bodhi Tree. He was initially hesitant to teach his Dharma to the world, but Brahmā requested that he teach, and it was only then that the Buddha commenced his teaching career (see here).

There is, however, an issue with this myth: Brahmā is supposed to live millions upon millions of human years as a semi-omniscient god, high above even Mt. Meru, being able to look down and survey the world below at will. Why was a thirty-five year-old man able to attain full wisdom only after a few years, whereas Brahmā despite his immeasurably long life was never able to figure things out on his own? From a modern scholarly perspective, the introduction of Brahmā into the story of Śākyamuni’s awakening probably just reflects the attempt of early Buddhist bards to position their religion above those contemporaries who believed Brahmā to be the supreme god. This myth, however, points to the Buddhist assumption that the gods are ignorant or at the very least incapable of figuring things out on their own despite their status and lifespan, and that the buddhas know better.

This is really important to bear in mind because this belief undermines the legitimacy of sacrifices performed to gods. The criticism of the efficacy of these sacrifices is one of the classical “selling points” of Buddhism: make your offerings instead to arhats and the sangha, since the merit is better. 

This also positions human sages, including those in the flesh and blood, above divine beings. A living arhat is considered a suitable refuge, whereas Brahmā is not. Even today, a Buddhist adept considered by his (or rarely her) devotees to be an arhat or advanced bodhisattva is indirectly also believed to be superior in wisdom to Brahmā. Brahmā is a largely ignorant saṃsāric god, while the living arhat, or tulku in the Tibetan context, is a wise being who has truly transcended saṃsāra.

Swayambunath Stūpa (Kathmandu)
There are some traditional Buddhist explanations for the ignorance of the gods. One of the most common is that their realms are so pleasant that they have no need to think of suffering and the need for wisdom before their mortality starts to show, by which time it is too late to do anything. Even if exposed to the Dharma, they have no interest in it. This is why being reborn as a deva is almost as bad as being reborn as an animal: the former has no interest in Dharma, which is almost equivalent to being an animal unable to comprehend language. The gods might also hold false views and never relinquish them over the course of their long lifespans.

However, Sakka or Indra was one of the few devas who decided to learn something from the Buddha (see 
Sakkapañha-sutta). This is remarkable because he is also supposed to be the king of the gods. The Buddha’s eminence is only elevated when he is served by this divine king. This again highlights my main point here: even the gods are better off serving the Buddhist cause, which indirectly constitutes a subtle suggestion that you ought to follow their example too.

I’ve argued in the past that Buddhism ought to be considered under the umbrella of polytheism, since it clearly possesses a large pantheon. However, unlike most polytheist traditions (such as Hellenistic polytheism or Shintō), natural disasters and human tragedies in Buddhism are usually blamed on karma, rather than any conscious divine force. 

In Buddhist thought, there might indeed be some unseen being affecting you for better or worse, but ultimately you are supposed to consider hardship the fruit of past negative karma. In polytheist traditions, however, people are expected to offer sacrifices to specific gods as a way of averting catastrophes. You find elements of such polytheist practices in a lot of Buddhist traditions throughout history, although it isn’t necessarily a part of “orthodox” thought. The navagraha or nine planets in late literature are considered destructive demons (an originally Iranian concept!) that must be placated through recitation of dhāraṇīs and rituals, but more philosophical Buddhist works never address such matters, or how to determine when it is your past karma or a demonic force that’s bothering you.

Another point worth considering is that polytheist traditions almost always think of humans as beneath the gods. There might be a select number of demigods on Earth, but they’re exceptional and probably already gone (Hercules comes to mind). You can perhaps gain a glimpse of divine workings and intentions through mystic visions or divination, but ultimately you as a human can never fully know or comprehend the gods. 

In contrast, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, you are expressly promised that you can achieve the same state as the Buddha if you practice accordingly, just as Śākyamuni did over the course of many lifetimes (and if you reach this goal, you will be above all mundane gods). Even before your attainment of buddhahood, you will become an advanced bodhisattva that stands above Brahmā and Indra. Again, this underlying belief legitimizes even modern worship of eminent monks and Tibetan tulkus who are believed by their devotees to be such advanced beings in flesh and blood form.

I would venture to suggest here that part of the reason why Buddhism has been so successful in the West might actually be because of the belief that humanity can and ought to be superior to the gods. This is perhaps related to the widespread belief that humanity can and ought to gain superiority over nature (in ancient terms, this would have been conceived of as humanity gaining superiority over the gods). 

In the post-Christian world of the modern secularized West, God is long dead. Any tradition of Buddhism can be adopted and sanitized of gods, since these gods are arguably unimportant to the project of bodhi or awakening. A modern Buddhist is justified in completely dismissing practices of venerating gods and focusing exclusively on Buddhist doctrine and meditation, which is something scripture would only support.

I think this isn’t even limited to the West. Modern times have seen a shift in Chinese Buddhist attitudes toward their traditional gods. As a prime example, Humanistic Buddhism in Taiwan consciously purged their versions of Chinese Buddhism of what they refer to as heterodox (Chn. waidao 外道) elements, which includes both traditionally Buddhist and non-Buddhist gods. Although I have not seen any literature expressly denying the existence of said gods, their decisions when it comes to architectural planning reveal a sort of “Protestant” approach to physical icons. Dharma Drum Mountain 法鼓山 and Foguang Shan 佛光山, for instance, generally seem to avoid decorating their temples with statues of anything but buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats and eminent Chinese Buddhist figures (such as Bodhidharma), whereas Longshan-si 龍山寺 in downtown Taipei, a much more traditional Chinese temple, brings together Buddhist and Daoist figures in one location that is furthermore decorated with dragons and other creatures.

Dharma Drum Mountain (Left) and Longshan-si (Right)

Things are somewhat different in Esoteric or Vajrayāna traditions, in which there is more of a positive appreciation of mundane gods, who generally have their place in major maṇḍalas. Mundane gods might also be "tamed" or otherwise subjugated and pressed into service for the benefit of Buddhism. This is why we see Vināyaka/Gaṇapati (Gaṇeśa) in the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅 in the outer court among other mundane deities (highlighted in yellow below). Vināyaka in at least one major Japanese esoteric manual is said to have been manipulated into becoming a Dharma Protector by Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva. Avalokiteśvara manifested in a female form and said he could embrace her only if he would abide by Buddhist teachings and offer his protection. The underlying value behind this story is that it is permissible to manipulate the gods if it is to benefit Buddhism.


Vināyaka/Gaṇapati (Gaṇeśa) in the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala

Wrapping things up, Buddhism tends to favor revealed wisdom from wise human (Buddhist-affiliated) sources or, in the case of Mahāyāna, bodhisattvas and buddhas, while largely dismissing wisdom that might be gained from mundane gods. This approach to gods shapes the way Buddhist traditions interact with their host cultures: not denying the existence of the local gods, but at the same time relegating them to a lower status, even beneath flesh and blood Buddhist sages. This helps to explain the prevalence in Buddhist cultures for constant worship of high monks and other eminent practitioners. Even after they have died, their cremated remains continue to be venerated as a means of generating merit, yet hundreds-of-millions of years-old Brahmā is ignored because he’s ignorant and not noble in the Buddhist sense, so you get more merit out of worshiping the physical remains of a dead eminent monk than Brahmā.


In other words, Buddhism has basically always placed a community of humans (almost entirely male) above their gods. This important point probably explains in part why in the post-Christian West, so many people are attracted to Buddhism: you are promised that you can achieve the same degree of wisdom as the Buddha without having to submit to any divine authorities (some even erase the gods from their religion and identify as Atheist Buddhists). 

Just as modern humanity attempts to conquer nature, so too does it seek to conquer the idea of divinity itself. Buddhism can be utilized to this end.



“Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism”

Recently a colleague asked me to read his intriguing paper that I anticipate will be well-received when it is published, but one issue I had was the use of the term “pre-Mahāyāna”. A few weeks later, a MA student asked me to read over his thesis, in which he frequently used the term “Mainstream Buddhism”.

These terms are basically employed to avoid using word “Hīnayāna”, which was originally a pejorative expression used in Indian Mahāyāna to refer to their opponents who, contrary to the superior bodhisattva path, merely sought arhatship. I feel, however, that “pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” are inadequate.

Here I would like to present my thoughts on the matter. This issue is actually relevant to East Asian Buddhism, too, and I'll address this point at the end.

The term “pre-Mahāyāna” is problematic since this assumes the relevant literature we presently possess, that apparently postdates Mahāyāna literature, was, in fact, produced before the emergence of any Mahāyāna movement or its texts.

However, this is not necessarily the case, since the extant “Hīnayāna” canons date to the Common Era, around which time, if not earlier, Mahāyāna literature already existed. Let me quote some relevant remarks from Gregory Schopen:

We know too that the earliest source we have in an Indian language other than Pāḷi – and this, according to Norman, is a translation – appears to be the Gāndhārī Dharmapada, the manuscript of which may date to the second century C.E. Of our Sanskrit sources, almost all from Central Asia, probably none is earlier than the fifth century, and the Gilgit Manuscripts, which appear to contain fragments of an Ekottarāgama, are still later. Our Chinese sources do not really begin until the second half of the second century, and it is, in fact, probably not until we arrive at the translations of the Madhyamāgama and the Ekōttarāgama by Dharmanandin in the last quarter of the fourth century that we have the first datable sources which allow us to know – however imperfectly – the actual doctrinal content of at least some of the major divisions of the nikāya/āgama literature. It is from this period, then, from the end of the fourth century, that some of the doctrinal content of the Hīnayāna canonical literature can finally be definitely dated and actually verified. Not before.1

Mahāyāna literature was introduced into China alongside texts that would be later classified as “Hīnayāna”. This occurred even before the Chinese translation of the Āgamas. On the basis of the available evidence, it doesn't seem to me that you could say that “Hīnayāna” texts in their extant forms must predate the Mahāyāna. It seems fairer to suggest that both of these types of Buddhist literature in their earliest extant forms stem more or less from the same period. On that point, it is erroneous to suggest that the “Hīnayāna” constitutes a “pre-Mahāyāna” form of Buddhism.

I would agree that the content of “Hīnayāna” probably reflects early Buddhism better than anything in Mahāyāna literature, but the fact remains that the extant body of literature is not actually “pre-Mahāyāna”.

Some might suggest that modern Theravāda constitutes an example of “pre-Mahāyāna Buddhism” that is still active in the present day. According to the proponents of modern Theravāda, of course, their tradition is a true transmission of what apparently existed from the Buddha’s own lifetime twenty-five centuries ago, but this is an emic, not etic, view.

Southeast Asian Theravāda is not so ancient. Theravāda in Sri Lanka claims to be able to trace itself back to the time of Aśoka, and although you can find evidence to support the claim that Aśoka, in fact, transmitted some form of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, was that Buddhism really what would later designate itself as “Theravāda”?

Who defines "Buddhism"?
Again, the living tradition claims an unbroken lineage back to this early century, but then so do Mahāyānists (the latter also claims to have accounts from the time of the Buddha too). Why favor the claims of one Buddhist school over another? Theravāda’s history seems more realistic based on what we know at present, but religious orders don’t necessarily preserve reliable histories (the varying views about Devadatta among early Buddhist schools reflects this issue). Based on the extant literature mentioned above, Theravāda as a coherent lineage might not be much older than what we identify as early Mahāyāna.

With respect to “Mainstream Buddhism”, again I think we need to ask, “According to who? And when?” Buddhism had a long history in India. Sarvāstivāda might have been more mainstream than Mahāyāna for the first five to six centuries of the Common Era, but in the seventh century we see monks such as Xuanzang 玄奘 (602–664) and Yijing 義淨 (635–713) reporting on and also studying Mahāyāna subjects at the great monastery of Nālanda, around which time the fledgling project of Buddhist Tantra was underway. For the next five to six centuries, Mahāyāna-related traditions were clearly in the mainstream. Again, the idea of a “Mainstream Buddhism” as an alternative to “Hīnayāna” is problematic.

Are there any good solutions to the problem at hand? I'd like to suggest simply referring to texts as much as possible by their sectarian affiliations, at least where possible. Grouping Sarvāstivāda and Mahāsāṃghika, for example, together under a single umbrella term such as “Śrāvakayāna” is problematic, since these two Buddhist lineages seem to have considered themselves mutually separate. They did not together constitute any sort of monolithic entity. Their views of who and what the Buddha was also differed considerably.

As Joseph Walser has discussed in Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, there is also evidence to suggest that Mahāsāṃghika, or some members of it, as well as some Dharmaguptakas, accepted or experimented with Mahāyāna ideas.2 On a related point, the bhikṣu ordination lineages in India were all based on explicitly non-Mahāyāna vinaya texts, and Mahāyāna monks, even elsewhere in Asia such as Tibet and China, still ordained via orthodox vinaya conventions (whether they actually followed the primary vinaya codes or not is a separate issue). In light of these points, an identification of a “Mainstream Buddhism” that ignores all the considerable overlap between Mahāyāna and everything else is based on a weak foundation.

Finally, with respect to East Asian Buddhism, I think that the labels Mahāyāna and Hīnayāna are suitable for the simple fact that this distinction was, and still is, observed by East Asian Buddhists. I used to think “Śrāvakayāna” might be more sensitive and proper when referring to non-Mahāyāna texts, but if you read Chinese Buddhism, the common and almost universal term employed is “small vehicle” 小乘, i.e., Hīnayāna.

This distinction was by no means merely scholastic: it directed authors and whole lineages away from texts considered Hīnayāna toward an entirely Mahāyāna-centered focus.

The predictable result was most things considered Hīnayāna seldom becoming influential in East Asia, which even includes the vinaya. Although there is indeed an enormous amount of vinaya literature translated into Chinese, with numerous relevant commentaries written by native East Asian monks, I am of the impression that the vinaya never actually strongly defined Buddhism anywhere in East Asia. It arguably still does not, despite the vinaya revivalism in post-WWII Chinese Buddhism (at least in Taiwan) and frequent calls for monastic discipline.

To sum up, I think the terms “Pre-Mahāyāna” and “Mainstream Buddhism” shouldn't be used. They are clearly problematic from both emic and etic perspectives. What do you think?


1 Gregory Schopen, “Two Problems in the History of Indian Buddhism The Layman/Monk Distinction and the Doctrines of the Transference of Merit,” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2010), 25.


2 Joseph Walser, Nāgārjuna in Context: Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 50–52.


Earning a Doctorate Degree

On the 7th of September, 2017, I was awarded my doctorate degree following successful completion of my dissertation titled "Buddhist Astrology and Astral Magic in the Tang Dynasty". Over the past few years on this blog, I've often discussed parts of my research, so I will not go into details about my study, but, rather, here I'd like to talk about the long path to earning a doctorate.

I initially started my undergraduate studies in 2003 at the University of Manitoba. Without much thought, I took Greek and Latin, but didn't do so well for a number of reasons, one of which was that I had no idea how to study a new language. Despite that first bumpy year, I recovered and took up Japanese as a new major, largely owing to my interest in martial arts at the time, however I was increasingly interested in East Asia as a whole. In the following year, I also started looking at Classical Chinese.

After two years of studying Japanese, I had the opportunity to study for a year at Kokugakuin University, and so off I went to Japan for a year of mostly studying Japanese. During that year I remember having several months of time in which there were no classes, so I also studied Classical Chinese and then modern Mandarin in the hopes of being able to enter second-year Chinese upon returning to Canada. At the time I felt it would be better to transfer to a university with a more established Asian Studies program, so I transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where I spent two years.

Undergraduate Years

My time in Edmonton was quite fruitful. It was there that I started to seriously read about Buddhism. In addition to taking relevant classes, I also attended local Buddhist temples (Tibetan and Vietnamese).

After a few years of studying Japanese and Chinese, I tried my hand at reading Buddhist texts in classical Chinese translation. I remember I started with the Chinese translation of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā (中論), which, given its standard vocabulary and running commentary, wasn't that difficult. This was encouraging at the time, since I was reading by myself without any guidance. I read other works by native Chinese authors alongside English translations, spending many long hours at various cafes in Edmonton doing just this.

Toward the last year of my undergraduate program, I applied for a scholarship offered by the Ministry of Education in Japan, which provides full tuition and living expenses for a graduate degree. I was successful, and Komazawa University was happy to take me on as a MA student.

The view from my dorm room in Japan.

Between 2009~2011, I mostly researched a commentary on the bodhisattva precepts by the Huayan patriarch Fazang 法藏 (643–712), and wrote a thesis in Japanese while living on a mostly nocturnal schedule under the influence of fresh matcha tea.

During my MA program, I visited Taiwan and later India, Nepal and China. My first trip to India was in January of 2011, during which time I visited the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in northern India. It was a challenge at times navigating my way around India, but nevertheless it was an overall gainful experience, and along the way I met many new friends. Taiwan was also an accommodating country to visit, especially as an aspiring scholar of Chinese Buddhism.

In an auto-rickshaw in New Delhi.


While in Nepal in early 2011, however, I received an e-mail notifying me that my application to a PhD program in a university in Canada had failed. In retrospect, I probably should have applied to several programs, but I mistakenly figured I was good to go. It was too late at that point to extend my Japanese scholarship, so I had no choice but to graduate and exit the country.

Nepal

So, in August of 2011, I returned to India and went to Leh, Ladakh in the north for four or five months to sit atop a mountain, read Chinese Buddhist texts and meditate. I spent those months mostly alone, either reading or sitting on the meditation cushion.

My room in Leh (2011)


Although I had failed to get into a PhD program, I still thought of myself as a scholar, albeit without any title or status. I was determined to continue studying Buddhism, while also extensively reading modern secondary sources. At the same time, it was enriching getting to know living Buddhist traditions.

Leh, Ladakh

Once the cold of the Himalayan winter set in in Leh, I migrated south to Dharamsala, where I spent about a month's time. I attended a talk by the Dalai Lama, socialized with a lot of the wandering Dharma seekers, and became increasingly haggard in appearance.


ID for Dalai Lama's Talk (2011)

The predictable problem at this time, however, was my lack of income. Fortunately, I was able to get a job with Dharma Drum Mountain as a translator of written materials. I relocated to Taiwan after India, being based in Taipei for about a year.

Dharma Drum Mountain (Taiwan)


Over the course of that year, I translated two books by Sheng Yen on monastic codes and the vinaya. In the process of doing this, I learnt a lot about the vinaya and its various complex procedures and rules.

It was by coincidence that during my year in Taiwan translating vinaya-related materials, I was invited to ordain as a monk in India. I had often thought about going down this path in earlier years, or at least trying it out for awhile, since I was happy when immersed in a Buddhist environment. So, I relocated to India and became a monk.

I initially spent time in Delhi and Bodhgaya before going to Singapore for about two months when my visa in India expired (the "visa run"). Afterward, I spent a little while in Nepal and then went back to Leh to do a short retreat for a few months.

My friend during retreat in Leh

In mid-2014, however, I had the opportunity to enroll in the PhD program at Leiden University, and I no longer wished to be a part of the Buddhist sangha for a number of reasons, so I left that life behind.

Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya

To give some background to my research project, early in 2014 it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that astrology played a significant role in East Asian Buddhism, yet modern scholarship had not yet delved into this topic as much as was clearly necessary. I did a preliminary study of the primary texts and came to think that this might work well as a PhD project. So, with this topic in mind, I pitched a proposal to Leiden University and started as a PhD candidate in the summer of 2014.

Leiden

The Dutch system includes a system for "external" or "self-funded" PhD candidates, so effectively you are required to produce a dissertation, which is approved by a committee. There are no coursework requirements. I was therefore not subject to any residence requirements, so at the invitation of Dharma Drum Mountain, I went back to Taiwan to spend a few months making use of their library.

Jinshan (near Dharma Drum Mountain)

Following this I was awarded the BDK Canada Graduate Student Fellowship, which enabled me to relocate to Japan for one year to do my research there. This was immensely beneficial since a great many articles that I had to acquire were in printed journals that have never been digitized, or even made available outside Japan in many cases.

Nara, Japan

It was a productive year there and, much to my good fortune, I was subsequently awarded the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in 2016, which helped me to relocate to Leiden.

This fellowship requires the fellow to carry out a proposed research project. Over the course of ten to eleven months, I carefully went through several texts related to Buddhist and Daoist astrology in East Asia, all the while adding my findings to the framework of my dissertation. At the same time, I produced a few peer-reviewed papers, which have now been published.

Kuyō hiryaku 九曜秘曆

In the end, I felt that producing 100,000 words (excluding bibliography) wasn't as challenging as proofreading the document repeatedly (I imagine there are many typos and errors remaining). My committee, all of whom provided critical and helpful feedback, signed off on the dissertation, and awhile later the Dean issued me a letter giving me permission to request a thesis defence date. At that point I just had to make the final edits and get the dissertation printed. On September 7th of this year, I was awarded a doctorate degree.



So, is there any advice I can offer prospective or current PhD students?

I suppose the first thing I would suggest is to maintain a productive schedule. Spend at least eight hours per day doing your research and writing, but remember to rest as well. I generally work Monday to Friday, and rest on weekends. I admittedly also like playing video games in the evening, which helps my mind settle down after a day of intense intellectual work. A long walk and then a glass of wine before bed also helps. Having a regular sleeping pattern is also essential.

With respect to a topic, I had the fortune and challenge of dealing with a topic that hadn't been subject to any comprehensive treatment. Scholars of astrology generally don't know Buddhism, and Buddhist Studies only has a few people alive today who know much about astrology. In addition, I was particularly interested in the art record, so for the first time I was also examining illustrated manuscripts.

This challenge was made easier by having already attained literacy in Classical Chinese, Mandarin and Japanese. Competence in the required languages for your study is critical. I wouldn't have been able to do my project without literacy in Japanese, but more importantly, literacy in Classical Chinese was absolutely essential. Ideally, I would advise having strong literacy in your target language(s) before you start your PhD.

It also goes without saying that having a solid interest in your topic will ensure your motivation remains consistent. I enjoy reading Buddhist texts, but at the same time I found taking on the subject of astrology as a new field of learning to be equally enjoyable. It was invigorating seeing how Buddhism related to astrology over the centuries, especially in East Asia, where Iranian horoscopy was actively practiced from the early ninth-century. Perhaps one of the benefits of specializing in these two areas is that I have very different materials to read, which keeps things interesting.

Finally, if you have the good fortune to have a regular income as part of your PhD program, make the most of that time. It is ideal to be able to research without the burden of financial uncertainty.

I am grateful to all my friends, family and colleagues for all their support, criticism and assistance. From this point on, I plan to continue researching astrology in East Asia, but I will also branch out and start taking a critical look at medieval Chinese Buddhist historiography and its relation to state historiography. This blog, as it has for several years, will continue to discuss my findings.

Buddhist Astrology in East Asia: Some Reflections

Japanese Horoscope for 1113 CE
On February 5th, 2013, I posted a blog entry on “Buddhist Sorcery and Astrology in East Asia”. The content of this article basically constituted the preliminary research behind a larger project I had in mind to study the history, development and impact of astrology in East Asian Buddhism. 

Four and a half years later, I've written hundreds of pages on this topic. At the same time, I've surveyed Daoist and secular sources. My research led me to realize that astral magic – a practice consisting of apotropaic rituals against the planets conceived of a sentient deities – always accompanied the spread of astrology throughout the pre-modern world (arguably, this is true also in modern times, but that is another matter to discuss in the future). So, my topic became astrology and astral magic in East Asia, with a primary interest in what these meant for Buddhist traditions in China and Japan.

One of the biggest highlights of my research to date has been the realization that China received a quite significant amount of materials related to astrology and astral magic from Iranian sources starting around the ninth century. My argument, which I've explained in the publications listed below, is that China shifted from Indian sources of astrology and astronomy to Iranian sources around the turn of the ninth century.



The incorporation of the Iranian icons of the planetary deities into Buddhist and even some Daoist literature immediately indicates that religious professionals during the late Tang dynasty (ninth century) easily adapted such materials for their own purposes. The type of horoscopy that was introduced into China at this time was also largely, if not entirely, Iranian in origin (of course, it ought to be noted that said Iranian sources borrowed Indian elements). The extent of Iranian influences on religion, astrology and astronomy in the late Tang has, in the past, been noted by other scholars, but my research is perhaps the first step into deeply excavating Near Eastern materials in religious traditions of the late Tang.

My approach to the materials at hand has been mostly philological, in that I examine the Chinese and Japanese texts, as well as the relevant iconography, in close detail, with careful consideration of the dating of everything. One of the first things I did when I started my PhD research was to construct a critical chronology. It became evident just looking at various sources that traditional attributions of authorship – which, unfortunately, are often accepted uncritically by modern scholars – are often spurious. However, many of these texts can be dated based on internal evidence alone, primarily by examining the texts they cite. We can also check when the texts were first recorded in Japanese sources. This whole process is made easier by the fact that most of the East Asian Buddhist and Daoist canons are digitized.

Turning to the matter of astrology itself, I would say that it has been a rather complex task, since one has to differentiate between Indian nakṣatra astrology, and the art of classical horoscopy. The latter has its roots in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria (starting in the 2nd century BCE). In addition, China received astrological texts from Indian and Iranian (Persian and Sogdian) sources. The latter included a translation of the manual of Dorotheus of Sidon (probably not the original Greek, but in Middle Persian), and other works that combined Hellenistic astrology with Iranian innovations.

Learning horoscopy is a lot more complex than learning the system of basic Indian nakṣatra astrology, since the latter is chiefly concerned with the significations of the Moon in twenty-seven or twenty-eight lunar stations. Horoscopy, conversely, requires that you first produce a table (the horoscope) indicating the positions of the planets at the hour of interest, which itself requires knowledge of observational astronomy, or at least tables indicating those positions (called ephemerides). In East Asia, astrologers produced horoscopes using Chinese observational astronomy, which is completely different from the occidental systems that have their roots in Mesopotamia. 

Once you have the chart – say, for instance, indicating the planetary positions at birth – then you interpret the specific significations of each planet and its position, as well as the relationships between the planets, using standard lore and doctrines. It takes a fair amount of basic study, paying close attention to original classical sources (that means excluding Renaissance and modern systems of astrology), in order to really grasp how horoscopy works. I learned how to cast a horoscope and interpret it using the original Hellenistic doctrines. Chris Brennan, a modern scholar of Hellenistic astrology, has an online course, which I took, that teaches one the essentials of classical horoscopy based on original Hellenistic sources (see here). I recommend his course and his book.

One conclusion to which I've arrived recently is that astrology ought to be treated as a whole other religion in itself, with its own history and doctrines, as well as its eminent figures, both legendary and historical. The original eminent figures are actually irrelevant in East Asia, but the art of horoscopy itself includes a coherent body of lore and systematic techniques based on the premise that many things and events in the world are predetermined and directed by fate, however that is metaphysically conceived. Exactly how that is supposed to work with the Buddhist idea of karma – the idea that suffering and ease are products of individual action – is itself an interesting topic, and actually this highlights my point that horoscopy is basically a separate religion or “sub-religion” that can be appended to a “host religion”, even when the basic premises between the two are nominally incompatible (bearing in mind that Buddhists can and often do hold views that are incompatible with scholastic interpretations of karma).

How did Buddhists in China and Japan conceive of astrological fate? In short, it seems that the basic idea was that you were born under certain astrological circumstances, for better or worse, based on your past life karma. So, if you had negative karma, you would be reborn under bad stars, and would just have to live with that for the rest of your present life, just as if you had been reborn without eyes as a result of negative past life karma. 

There is also the idea of “transits” in astrology, which refers to the movement of planets through key zodiac signs relevant to the individual in question. A malefic planet like Saturn, for instance, spending three years transiting through your “first place” (the zodiac sign rising at the horizon at your birth) would be thought of as potentially alarming, but not necessarily fatalistic, since magic could be employed to placate or please Saturn. 

The fact that magic could be used to this effect points to the belief that the planets were conceived of as sentient deities, to whom petitions and offerings could be made. In that sense, there is less of a problem with karma, since in Buddhism there is nothing unusual about interacting with deities, including even mundane ones who preside over the natural world, such as Agni for instance.

We might divide astral magic of the late Tang into two types: Indian and Iranian. The former is often employed via a maṇḍala. There are various mantras and dhāraṇīs for the navagraha. Iranian astral magic, on the other hand, employs ritual magic that includes prescribed offerings (incense, types of foods, and objects of specific colors), dietary restrictions (for example, refraining from beef due to the association of the bull with Saturn) and production of icons, either on paper or as sculptures. 

As part of my research into astrology, I inevitably read about astral magic elsewhere in the world, which is perhaps most well-known in the Western world via the Latin Picatrix, an often dark manual of magic that was translated into Spanish and Latin during the thirteenth century from an Arabic text. I discovered that the icons and magic related to the planets in the Picatrix share many parallels with those found in Buddhist and Daoist texts. The most striking of these is the icon of Saturn. The icon of Saturn in the Genzu mandara 現圖曼荼羅, the Japanese version of the *Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala 胎藏界曼荼羅, as well as in various paintings of *Tejaprabhā 熾盛光佛, is actually the Greco-Egyptian Kronos.



In the center is Saturn as he appears in the Japanese Garbhadhātu-maṇḍala. The left image is an engraving on a stone of Greco-Egyptian Kronos.1 The right is Śanaiścara (Indian Saturn) as he appears in the Taizō zuzō. The ritual and prescribed incense for Saturn all additionally indicate that this deity is Kronos, known as Kēwān in Iranian (Middle Persian and Sogdian) sources. 

His ritual is also found in a Daoist text from the late Tang or shortly thereafter, which tends to indicate that his cult in China was probably fairly popular for a time, the reason for this being that he is not only the foremost malefic planet, but also because he governs longevity. Daoists, naturally, would have been attracted to such a deity. Buddhists, too, frequently borrowed from Daoists sources at this time.

Chinese authors predictably combined Indian and Iranian sources, which can easily lead to misunderstandings by modern scholars about sources, since Iranian sources also earlier drew upon Indian materials. As example, the evolution of the icons of Rāhu and Ketu in China need to be understood chronologically: the early icons are Indian, and the later icons are Iranian. The earliest illustrations of Rāhu and Ketu in China are found in a Japanese manuscript, the Taizō zuzō 胎藏圖象, which is traced back to the icons introduced by Śubhakarasiṃha 善無畏 (637–735) during the 720s.

Rāhu and Ketu in Taizō zuzō

Rāhu here is a decapitated head with hands with which to grasp the Sun and Moon. Ketu, which at this point in time was associated with comets (not yet the descending node of the Moon), appears as if shooting out from a cloud of smoke.

One rather interesting discovery I made about these icons is that almost identical icons are described in a text from sixth- or seventh-century Śaivism, titled Śivadharmaśāstra. I discovered this as a result of discussing said text with Prof. Bisschop at Leiden University, who is translating the Śivadharmaśāstra. We were discussing the evolution of the navagraha, and when I looked at his translation of the verses describing these two deities, I immediately remembered the icons of the Taizō zuzō. This finding really highlights the benefits of wider discussions between Sinologists and Indologists.

With respect to the Iranian representations of Rāhu and Ketu in China, one distinguishing feature is the appearance of serpents. This stems from the conception of the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon as the head and tail respectively of a dragon. However, what is even more characteristic is Ketu (or sometimes Rāhu) represented as a demonic-looking man seated atop a bull. Why a bull? This is gōzihr “bearing the seed, having the origin of cattle” or “the ox” (see Encyclopædia Iranica). We see this Iranian motif in the Bonten kara zu 梵天火羅圖, a medieval Japanese document displaying the planetary icons, and based on Chinese sources from the ninth century.

Rāhu and Ketu in Bonten kara zu


One other icon of interest is that of Yuebei 月孛. All the evidence points to this being Semitic Lilith or Iranian Āl. The latter derives from the former (see Encyclopædia Iranica). Yuebei is treated as a planet in Chinese horoscopy of the non-Buddhist type, but like Rāhu and Ketu, it is not a physical body, but rather an astronomically tracked point of interest. In the case of Yuebei, it is the lunar apogee, which interestingly in modern astrology is also called Lilith. I have searched for the origin in modern astrology between Lilith and the lunar apogee, but to no avail. I would assume that the modern Lilith was adapted perhaps from a Hebrew source, but I am only speculating about that. This requires further investigation.

The icon of Yuebei is normally that of a long-haired woman holding a sword and a severed head, scantily clad in red garments. The color red is significant because “Āl” means “red”. Lilith was a part of early Jewish magic, being painted on “magic bowls” (see here for details). This demoness, like in many Chinese depictions, including those from Tangut Xixia, is depicted with long hair and unclad skin. Take for example a painting from Xixia, which my friend Arina Mikhalevskaya photographed and kindly shared:

State Hermitage Museum (ХХ-2424)

In the top right we see long-haired female figure with bare shoulders, who stands in contrast to Mercury the scribe, who is fully clothed. There is a lot of astrological lore associated with Yuebei in Ming dynasty manuals of horoscopy, which is something I need to investigate further. If the icon of Yuebei is in fact Lilith, then it stands to suggest that the astrological lore associated with this planet is also of a foreign origin, rather than having been invented by Chinese authors. I briefly touched on this in my paper on iconography, but it is worth repeating that Yuebei is associated with lust in medieval Chinese horoscopy, which very clearly has a parallel with the religious lore surrounding the demoness Lilith. I hope to write on the astrological lore of Yuebei in a future publication.





Recently, I've been researching the Japanese tradition of Buddhist astrology, the Sukuyōdō 宿曜道, which existed from the tenth to at least the late fourteenth century. We fortunately have two known extant horoscopes from this tradition, which I've been studying. The one for an individual born in 1113 (its chart pictured above) is very intimate, in the sense that it was written for someone concerned with worldly fortunes and their lifespan, not spiritual attainments or scholastic achievements. When I read it, I couldn't help but feel it is more or less the same type of reading you would get from a modern practitioner of classical horoscopy. I've written an article on medieval Japanese Buddhist astrology and astral magic that I hope to get into print next year.

The next big step in my research is to look at the sixteenth century Xingxue dacheng 星學大成 (Great Compendium of Star Studies) by Wan Minying 萬民英 (1521–1603), which is an enormous compendium (close to 600 pages) of information related to horoscopy as it was understood in sixteenth century China. One of the interesting things is that at this point in Chinese astrology, elements from traditional Chinese lore had entered into their practice of horoscopy, and a lot of the earlier doctrines had been modified or even misunderstood by some. In the case of Wan Minying's work, I am of the impression that a lot of the earlier horoscopic lore from the late Tang is well-preserved, but he seldom cites his sources, so this has to be inferred.

To sum up, I've spent the last four and a half years studying the introduction of astrology into East Asian Buddhism, and this led me to look at a lot of areas outside Buddhism specifically. I've greatly enjoyed doing this research, and I feel there is a lot more to read and ponder, such as documents dating back to the tenth century unearthed at Dunhuang in China, as well as texts not presently found in any major corpus. Actually, I suspect that in Japanese monasteries one could indeed find relevant manuscripts, but finding them and moreover gaining access might prove a challenge.

1 Photo from James Evans, “The Astrologer's Apparatus: A Picture of Professional Practice in Greco-Roman Egypt,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 35, no 1 (2004): 17.