(Photo credit: Unknown)
A Tibetan refugee spins wool at a Tibetan carpet factory in Nepal, 1968
In Tibetan astrology, there is a twelve year cycle. Each of these years is characterized by a different animal and associated with one of the five elements. Therefore, a full cycle of the twelve animals being associated with each of the five elements takes sixty years. The twelve animals according to the Yungdrung Bön texts are the Rat, Elephant, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Horse, Snake, Sheep, Garuda, Monkey, Dog and Pig. Each animal has an associated element for its life-force and a direction which is determined by the life-force element. Not only are these twelve animals associated with a particular year, they are also associated with particular months, days and hours.
2010 was the year of the Tiger. Therefore, people born during this year would be a Tiger and would have an emphasis of the specific qualities associated with Tiger. (It is important to remember that this year corresponds with the Tibetan lunar calendar which begins somewhere between February and mid-March each year.) 2010 was also governed by the element of Metal and was a male year. So, people born during this year would be Male Metal Tigers. The element which governs the life-force of the Tiger is Wood and its direction is East. So, if a Tiger person wanted to strengthen their life-force, they would focus upon strengthening the element of Wood internally and externally. Their positive direction is East. So, facing this direction while meditating, doing healing rituals or just relaxing and taking deep breaths is beneficial.
In general, the Tiger is considered to be courageous, independent, unpredictable, artistic and passionate. The Tiger tends to go after life with passion and daring. Making its own path, it tends to gravitate towards unconventional lifestyles and avoids following traditions or social conventions simply because they are ‘supposed to’. The Tiger is a fierce and determined leader that can be quick-tempered and protective of its ego. The Tiger wants to live life to the fullest in its own way, and without being told what to do.
The Tiger‘s soul day is Thursday and the life-force day is Saturday. These are the best days for beginning new projects and activities that are meant to increase or develop something. The obstacle day is Friday. This day is best for cleansing and letting things go. It is not a favorable day for beginning new things.
Tiger years include: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, and 2010
In the high altitudes of the Himalayas, grows a fungus that is a parasite to a moth caterpillar. It is known as Yartsa Gunbu, Winter Insect Summer Grass. For centuries, there have been Tibetan families who have made their living by gathering and selling this fungus. Because of the difficulty involved in harvesting it along with the high demand due to its medical benefits, it is one of the most highly priced and highly valued ingredients in Chinese Medicine. It is categorized as a tonic and prescribed to boost the immune system, as well as to increase strength and virility. It is most commonly used by consumers for its aphrodisiac qualities and has come to be called ‘Himalayan Viagra’. The market among Chinese men has escalated demand for Yartsa Gunbu to the point that it is increasingly difficult to find the fungus where once it grew in abundance. This has created a market of cultivating the fungus by growing it on peas, rice or other mediums.
Yartsa Gunbu is the fungus Cordyceps sinensis. The pupa of the moth burrows underground in the high altitude grasslands for up to five years. During this time, as it becomes infected with the fungus, the caterpillar moves closer to the soil’s surface. Eventually killing and mummifying the caterpillar, the fungus fills its entire body cavity. In the Spring once the snow melts, the fungus grows from the forehead of the caterpillar up to six inches above the ground. It then releases its spores which will wait for their future hosts.
Harvest is by hand and begins in May and lasts for 5-6 weeks. In 2013, over 53 tons of yartsa gunbu was harvested. Since 1997, prices have increased by over 500%. A single average-sized piece can cost over $16. A month’s supply of 30 pieces can cost a consumer over $465.00. This is the world’s most expensive fungus. Because of this, yartsa gunbu is not only used for its medicinal value, but also as a status symbol to show one’s wealth. In recent years, areas of Tibet have begun to enforce rules that no outsiders are allowed to harvest or export the fungus.
For more information about the Cordyceps fungus, see Daniel Winkler’s blog: http://mushroaming.com/blogs/cordyceps
The twelve animals of Tibetan astrology according to the Yungdrung Bön texts are the Rat, Elephant, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Horse, Snake, Sheep, Garuda, Monkey, Dog and Pig. Each animal has an associated element for its life-force and a direction which is determined by the life-force element. Not only are these twelve animals associated with a particular year, they are also associated with particular months, days and hours.
For example, 2009 was the year of the Elephant. Therefore, people born during this year would be a Elephant and would have an emphasis of the specific qualities associated with the Elephant. (It is important to remember that this year corresponds with the Tibetan lunar calendar which begins somewhere between February and mid-March each year.) 2009 was also governed by the element of Earth and was a female year. So, people born during this year would be Female Earth Elephants. The element which governs the life-force of the Elephant is Earth and its direction is Northeast. So, if an Elephant person wanted to strengthen their life-force, they would focus upon strengthening the element of Earth internally and externally. Their positive direction is Northeast. So, facing this direction while meditating, doing healing rituals or just relaxing and taking deep breaths is beneficial.
In general, the Elephant is stable, steadfast, and practical. It can express itself well and is rather independent. It prefers to approach things logically and without the cloud of emotion. It is competent and trustworthy, preferring to lead rather than to follow. It values tradition but can be resistant to change, rigid and authoritarian. Although it can have a temper, the elephant is generally patient and loyal.
The Elephant’s soul day is Saturday and the life-force day is Wednesday. These are the best days for beginning new projects and activities that are meant to grow and increase. The obstacle day is Thursday. This day is best for cleansing and letting things go. It is not a favorable day for beginning new things.
Elephant years include: 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, and 2021
The Fourth Way within the Nine Ways of Bön is called The Way of the Shen of Existence and is primarily focused upon rituals for the dead. From the perspective of Yungdrung Bön, the moment that the consciousness leaves the container of the physical body is a time of great potential. If someone has received the proper instructions and practiced, it is possible for them to achieve liberation from cyclic existence at that time. If not, there are methods to lead the deceased’s consciousness to liberation or at the very least, to guide them to the circumstances of a positive rebirth.
In general, once an ordinary person dies, they experience a kind of unconsciousness like falling into a deep sleep. “Awakening” from this state, it is possible for them to not realize that they have in fact died and therefore to continue to be attached to their family and life situation. Generally lasting three days, but possibly longer, this is the time when the lama tells the individual that they have died and instructs them to not be afraid and to release their attachment to family and friends. The fourth day after death begins a 49 day period of transition referred to as the “bardo” and literally translates as “in-between”. During these seven weeks, the individual both becomes less attached to the previous life and is drawn by the force of karma to the next life. While this is happening, each week the deceased is having experiences of each of the six possible destinies of rebirth. These six destinies of rebirth from lowest to highest are: the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the demi-god realm, and the god realm. For example, during the first week, the person would have experiences related to the hell ream. During the second week, they would have experiences related to the hungry ghost realm, and so on. Therefore, prayers and rituals are done each week that emphasize antidotes and guidance for the particular obstacles and experiences that the deceased might be having. Additionally, offerings of light, prayers of aspiration and recitation of mantra for the benefit of the deceased are performed each day. On the 49th day, special rituals and prayers are performed in order to strongly influence the path of rebirth.
This is a general description. Whether someone spends a greater or lesser time in the bardo, or doesn’t experience it at all, is dependent upon many factors including their virtue or non-virtue and the strength of their awareness and spiritual development.
The lama performing the rituals must have both proper knowledge of the rituals as well as have developed great compassion for other beings. According to the words of the Enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwo,
“The best of shen who is expert in meditation and who has aroused feelings of immeasurable compassion towards feeble living beings, and who possesses the four immeasurable qualities and who puts the good of others before himself..”
Preceding the preparations for the rituals, the lama will ascertain the details of the death such as the time and circumstances involved. Then, a divination and astrological calculations are performed in order to determine the proper day and place to perform the ritual and burial as well as any additional rituals that could be of benefit for the family. In this way, the natural process of death and rebirth is supported by the spiritual guidance and the ritual expertise of the lama. From the Bardo Thodal, “Liberation Upon Hearing”:
“Lama, from your compassion, bless me. Bless me to stop the deluded visions of the bardo. Bless me that I may prevent the possibility of rebirth in the lower destinies of rebirth. Bless me that I may achieve the five wisdoms.”
In order to accomplish the benefits of a spiritual practice, it can be necessary to be removed from the ordinary world. Here, a monk poses in front of a closed retreat hut. Inside, the retreatant is in complete isolation except for this small opening through which food is passed each day. These types of retreats continue for 49 days, 100 days and sometimes for years.