Taoism and Chinese Astrology

A few months ago we created an astrological calendar, a Taoist calendar based on Chinese astrology, moon phases, the I Ching (易經, Book of Changes), and on Taoist special festivals and lore (see below for more information).

When putting together the calendar it became clear to me how interconnected Taoism and Chinese astrology really are, with the roots of both having developed long before Taoism existed.

The primary text on Taoism, the Scripture on the Way and Virtue [道德經, Dao De Jing) by Lao Zi (老子), never mentions Chinese astrology. But to say because Lao Zi didn’t mention it means that Taoism was not influenced by Chinese astrology would be an incorrect assumption. 

Chinese Astrology and astronomy were integral to Chinese culture during the time of Lao Zi (sixth century BCE). How could Lao Zi not have been influenced by this? It would have been inherent and intrinsic to his knowledge and upbringing. Marriages could not even be formed unless horoscopes were consulted for both parties.

It may be said that Taoist philosophical teachings (those of Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, and Lie Zi) are not directly involved with or even influenced by astrological concerns, but there is also so much more to Taoism than just philosophy. Taoism is quite vast, and has been practiced and expressed through art, music, magic, ritual, poetry, herbology, medicine, exercise, meditation, astrology, and—certainly—astronomy. So, astrology is one of many pathways of Taoism has expressed itself through in its long history.

We can find many examples of how Taoism and Chinese Astrology are interconnected, here are just a few…

Twelve Earthly Branches, the Ten Heavenly Stems, and the Four Pillars

Very early in Chinese history, one can find examples of the Twelve Earthly Branches and Ten Heavenly Stems (or Trunks) being mentioned. The Twelve Earthly Branches, were originally correlated to the movement of Jupiter, which takes exactly twelve earthly years to orbit the sun, and this is why Chinese astrology is divided into twelve Earthly Branches and twelve Celestial Animal Signs.

The Heavenly Stems are actually based on the Five Elements, in both their Yin and Yang influences, therefore ten in total. But these were also originally correlated according to the Five Planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter), as each planet corresponded to one of the Five Elements.

In early Taoism, the Ten Heavenly Stems (the Yin Yang elements) were also used as a separate means of divination and astrology.

The Twelve Earthly Branches and Ten Heavenly Stems are the pillars of the I Ching, a central text in Taoism.

The five elements are key in Chinese Astrology, Taoism, and Chinese Culture. For example, the Five Elements are a central component of Feng Shui (風水, Wind and Water) a way of arranging spaces to create harmony and balance that is deeply embedded in Chinese culture and which predominately comes from a melding of the inner workings of the I Ching with astrological influences.

The Yellow Emperor

Taoism has been a work in progress ever since the times of the mythical emperor’s Fu Xi (伏羲, 2800 BCE) and Huang Di (黃帝, the Yellow Emperor), both of whom are credited with the earliest Taoist works on cosmology, medicine, and internal and sexual alchemy leading to immortality.

The Texts of the Three Grottos

Within the Taoist Canon (道藏, Dao Cang) in a group of texts called the Three Grottos, information on Spirit Talismans [神符, Shen Fu] and Divine Illustrations [靈圖, Ling Tu] make numerous references to astrological matters in the making of some talismans and amulets.

Bao Pu Zi

In the Bao Pu Zi (抱朴子) by Ge Hong (葛洪), chapter 4 on the Golden Elixir states that processors of the elixir had to ensure the auspiciousness and correctness of their “horoscopes” before beginning their endeavor, and this was written in fourth century CE. Keep in mind that Ge Hong is one of Taoism’s most celebrated writers and cultivators.

The Yellow Court

Then there’s the Yellow Court Scripture (黃庭經, Huang Ting Jing) that long predates Ge Hong, which makes numerous references to astrology. Also interesting is how the early internal alchemists also made reference to the constellation of the Big Dipper, claiming it moves across the sky in the same pattern as the Qi does when circulating through the body (the Renmo and Tumo meridians), and likewise moving through twelve main Qi points of the body, which were all symbolized by the twelve zodiac animals as well, and more importantly to the original astrological formation of the Four Celestial Animals (Red Bird, Black Turtle, White Tiger, and Green Dragon), of which the twenty-eight constellations were divided into four quadrants (seven constellations in each quadrant, equalling twenty-eight constellations).

How can Taoists use Chinese Astrology?

Having said the above, my personal feeling about Chinese astrology, or any astrology system from any culture, is that astrology is best used as a means of learning how to get along with others, not necessarily who is incompatible with whom or who one should avoid. Astrology should not be used to try to scheme and contrive to manipulate circumstances based on astrological predictions, rather it’s about respecting that there are larger forces at work than we humans are in control of, and we can honor those forces by harmonizing ourselves with them.

Astrology is not fixed or “set in stone” as predestined fate, but it influences what happens, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to understand that the moon phases have an effect on our emotions and behaviors, and in much more subtle ways the sun, planets, and constellations would as well. (Of course, there are many other influences in the world that shape and influence our lives.) Tuning into the influence of astrology can help one determine the timing of things. As the saying goes, there’s a “time” for everything, “a time to plant, a time to sow,” and so on.

It’s also the case that the use of astrology in determining one’s personal Tao can be very helpful. After all, astrology is about the interpreting and realization of oneself, so its function in helping any cultivator determine the “timing” of things (practices, rituals, and so on) and in clarifying one’s endowments and propensities can be extremely helpful.

Taoism, just as it gives great credence to the influences of mountains, rivers, forests, bodies of waters, and so forth in nature, it equally pays homage to the influences of stars, planets, and moon phases—all are expressions of the functions and movements of Tao.

—Stuart Alve Olson

Sanctuary of Tao