Ptolemy in Heian Japan?

As part of my ongoing PhD research here in Japan I picked up a copy of Mikkyō Senseijutsu – Sukuyō-dō to Indo Senseijutsu 密教占星術ー宿曜道とインド占星術 [Esoteric Buddhist Astrology – Sukuyō-dō and Indian Astrology] by scholar Yano Michio 矢野道雄 (1944-). It is essentially an introduction and analysis of the history behind Indian astrology in the East Asian cultural sphere, specifically with respect to the Xiuyao-jing 宿曜經 (in Japanese Sukuyō-kyō), which was used in esoteric Buddhism in China and Japan.

As I introduced in an earlier post (see here), the text was translated by the eminent Vajra Master Amoghavajra 不空 in 759 and then later revised in 764 by his lay disciple Yang Jingfeng 楊景風 under his master's guidance. This laid the groundwork for the later astrological tradition of Sukuyō-dō 宿曜道 in Japan, which emerged around the middle of the eleventh century and flourished for a few centuries, perhaps until the Muromachi period (1337-1573). The tradition never died out, though it appears it was often kept secret, at least judging from one twentieth century Japanese account I've surveyed. The Kōyasan scholar Morita Ryūsen 森田龍僊 inherited such a living tradition and wrote, from his emic perspective, a work entitled Mikkyō Sensei Hō 密教占星法 [Esoteric Buddhist Astrology Methods] in 1941.1 While such a work is useful in many respects, it was not written from a scientific perspective. Aside from his work there was not a great deal of concentrated academic work done on the subject until Yano's research, which is objective and critical (there are many modern popular works on Sukuyō-dō).

One very interesting theory put forth by Yano is that, quite possibly, the Sukuyō-dō tradition was early on in possession of a Classical Chinese translation of the Tetrabiblos by Greco-Egyptian astrologer Ptolemy (90-168).2 To begin with, he points out that in 865 the Japanese monk Shū'ei 宗叡 (809-884) brought back with him, among other texts, the following title:


Tori-isshi-kyō, One Part, Five Scrolls

The title here is provided in the Sino-Japanese (on-yomi) reading. In modern Mandarin it would be Duli-yusi-jing. The Sino-Japanese readings, originally preserved from Chinese pronunciations from the Tang period (618-907), better reflect the original title name than Mandarin, so I will use the former here.

Yano proposes that the title here actually stands for Ptolemy's name and presumably would be his work the Tetrabiblos (the Four Books). It is not impossible to imagine that the work could have been translated into Chinese, especially considering the flow of Hellenic sciences eastward through the efforts of Nestorianism. It was translated into Syrian in the seventh century and Persian in the late eighth century.

Ptolemy in Greek is Ptolemaios. In languages like Syrian, however, the vowels are not represented, hence it would be rendered something like this if it were in Roman:


The P could easily be dropped, likewise for some reason the M. The result would be:


Compare this with the Chinese:


To-Ri-Itsu-Shi (Sino-Japanese)
Du-Li-Yu-Si (Mandarin)

This argument is further advanced by texts listed in later catalogs The New Book of Tang 新唐書 (a revised history of the Tang, compiled in 1060) lists this work with the following remark:


In the Zhenyuan period (785-805) transmitted from western India by To-ri adept Li Miqian and translated by Qu Gong.

Following this another work is listed:


Chen Fu, Isshi Shi-mon Kyō, One Scroll

Chen Fu here appears to be a personal name, either the compiler or translator. The title literally reads Isshi Four Gates Classic. One will note the Isshi here is the same as the Tori-isshi-kyō above. The “four gates” here could possibly be a predictable Chinese rendering of Tetrabiblos (Four Books). If Yano is correct, then the Chinese is supposed to say the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemaios. However, Yano is only cautiously stating this as a tentative theory.

This text or some version of it was in fact brought to Japan in 865 and readily utilized by astrologers of the later Sukuyō tradition. We know this because in extant horoscopes (Jpn. Sukuyō Kanmon 宿曜勘文) there are citations of the text. The text itself, however, is no longer extant. However, the fragments that do exist clearly demonstrate a Hellenic model of horoscopes. For instance, consider the following citations from a horoscope from the year 1152:

Saturn is in Jupiter's palace [Pisces] 
Jupiter is in the Moon's palace [Cancer]  
Saturn and Jupiter are 120 degrees apart [trine]. 
Mars and the Sun are 120 degrees apart [trine]. 
Venus and Mercury are in the same zodiac mansion [Aquarius].

These are concepts stemming from Hellenic astrology (Ptolemy's or otherwise), especially the concept of aspect (here trine or in Chinese san he 三合). However, they are not mentioned in the horoscope methods provided by Amoghavajra, who was versed in Indian models of astrology. It is unclear whether he was aware of such concepts, but nevertheless the main text in question was evidently Hellenic in origin and did have an impact in both China and Japan, though it is almost entirely forgotten aside from a few scholars today.

The aforementioned New Book of Tang does state it came from western India, though it has been long known that there was a great deal of Hellenic influence in Indian astral sciences from early on. The scholar David Edwin Pingree (1933-2005) after a lifetime of study divided Indian astrology into four categories based on the origins of the material:

I. Vedic (c.1000-400 BCE). II. Babylonian (400 BCE-200 CE): VedāṅgajyotiṣaIII. Greco-Babylonian (c200-400): YavanajātakaIV. Greek (c400-1600): ĀryabhaṭīyaV. Islamic (c1600-1800).

The third text on the list the Yavanajātaka is literally the Jātaka of the Greeks. Modern scholarship has furthermore traced Hellenic influences in chronologically dated Indian materials related to astral science. Hence, while the Chinese might have understood the text in question above as having come from western India, in reality it might have been just as well an import there from further west originally.

It should come as no surprise that such a Hellenic model was introduced in the Tang dynasty, which has been understood as a “cosmopolitan empire”.3 Buddhists especially made great efforts to adapt imported Indian models to native Chinese models, though as Pankenier remarks it did not have a lasting effect in China:

On the whole, however, these syncretic efforts had almost no influence on long-established Chinese astrological theory, especially given the drastic decline of Buddhism following the Tang Dynasty suppression in the mid ninth century and the subsequent resurgence of Neo-Confucianism. Assimilation was also hindered by the difficulty of rendering foreign concepts and terminology into Chinese, which was often accomplished by means of bizarre or idiosyncratic transliterations.4

Still, in conclusion we might say that it is remarkable should Yano be correct and Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos was in fact translated into Chinese around the year 800, later influencing the development of Sukuyō astrology in Japan starting from the Heian period in the eleventh century. If anything, it just demonstrates how much hybridization occurred in this period: Vedic, Buddhist, Hellenic and Chinese models were brought together and even in the furthest frontier of East Asia – Japan – one can see elements of Hellenic astrology active in the same aristocratic world which gave birth to literature like the Tale of Genji.5

It is always interesting uncovering these subtle strands of history which span great time and space.



1 Morita Ryūsen 森田龍僊. Mikkyō Sensei Hō 密教占星法. Kōyasan: Kōyasan Daigaku Shuppan-bu, 1941.

2 See Yano Michio 矢野道雄, Mikkyō Senseijutsu – Sukuyō-dō to Indo Senseijutsu 密教占星術ー宿曜道とインド占星術 (Tokyo, Japan: Tōyō Shoin, 2013), 160-164.

3 For example, Mark Edward Lewis, China's Cosmopolitan Empire The Tang Dynasty (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

4 David Pankenier, Astrology and Cosmology in Early China Conforming Earth to Heaven (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 9-10.

5 There are also a lot of Buddhist elements in the work. See the following by me: Buddhism and the Tale of Genji.

Reconstructing Sanskrit Mantras from Chinese

Between 633-645 the famous pilgrim monk and scholar Xuanzang (602-664) 玄奘 visited around India, becoming an adept scholar and user of the Sanskrit language. He sincerely believed Sanskrit was the language of the gods, and readily pointed out “accented” forms of the language. The character é (meaning "accented") appears 93 times in his travel account the Great Tang Record of Travels to Western Lands 大唐西域記. He also describes the languages of India as follows:

《大唐西域記》卷2:「詳其文字,梵天所製,原始垂則,四十七言也。寓物合成,隨事轉用。流演枝派,其源浸廣,因地隨人,微有改變,語其大較,未異本源。而中印度特為詳正,辭調和雅,與天同音,氣韻清亮,為人軌則。隣境異國,習謬成訓,競趨澆俗,莫守淳風。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 876, c9-14) 

Their letters were created by Brahma and have been passed down from their beginnings until now, being forty-seven in number. They combine to form words according to the object [declension?] and shift in use according to the action [inflection?]. It has spread around and branched off, its source being deep and broad. Due to regions and peoples there have been some changes, though the words are generally not different from the original source. Central India is especially proper, their diction being elegant and the same sound as devas with a character sharp and clear, which is a model for people. The neighboring countries have become accustomed to erroneous pronunciation. In their chaotic ways and base nature they do not maintain genuineness.

Such a stated belief on Xuanzang's part however did not encourage many Chinese clerics and scribes to learn Sanskrit in China. While indeed in the time of Xuanzang it was possible to learn Sanskrit to some degree in China, this was not so widespread or alluring it seems throughout the Tang dynasty (618-907) when many texts containing mantras and dhāraṇīs were translated into Chinese from Sanskrit. Although the language might have been divine in Indian Buddhist minds, this did not merit precise use of it on the part of Chinese Buddhist clerics.

Sanskrit and Chinese are fundamentally very different languages. Unlike the former, the latter lacks gender, declension, conjugation and any number of other features common to most Indo-European languages. This was as much the case fifteen centuries ago as it is now.

Unlike the Tibetans, the Chinese never attempted to produce a standardized phonetic script to preserve Sanskrit pronunciation. While indeed some texts employed Indian siddhaṃ script for preserving the proper pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras, the general preference in both ancient and modern times has been to use Chinese characters (hanzi 漢字) for their phonetic values in transcribing mantras and dhāraṇīs.

This leads to distortion of the original sounds because even Middle Chinese (used in the Tang period) – to say nothing of modern Mandarin – was phonetically quite different from Sanskrit. Additionally, the pronunciation of characters differed from region to region (the speech of the capital was considered standard), and moreover changed throughout time. Such developments are actually reflected in the Japanese language. The Japanese imported Chinese characters over the course of several centuries and attempted to preserve the different pronunciations from each period. The system in Japan is as follows:

Go 吳 – Readings from before the 7th / 8th centuries. Possibly from the Korean peninsula or southern China. Often used in Buddhist texts. 

Kan 漢 – Readings from the mid Tang Dynasty (618-907). Generally reflect the pronunciation of Chang'an 長安. 

唐 – Readings from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Often used in the Zen school. Here refers to China rather than the Tang Dynasty.

This is why a single Chinese loanword in Japan can have multiple pronunciations. For instance, 和尚 (preceptor or priest) is pronounced oshō in Zen, kashō in Tendai, and washō in Shingon. In modern Mandarin in would be héshàng.

The pronunciation of Chinese loanwords in Japanese is actually closer to Middle Chinese than modern Mandarin (this is not necessarily the case with other Chinese dialects however). For example, the character (“to eat”) is pronounced shoku in Japanese and shí in Mandarin. The consonant ending from earlier Chinese has been preserved in the Japanese importation of Chinese. The Japanese language was thus better able to retain approximate pronunciations of Sanskrit mantras and dhāraṇīs. They also continued regularly using the phonetic siddhaṃ script, though not without problems.

For example, the mantra of the Heart Sūtra (gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā) reads as follows in modern Mandarin:

羯諦羯諦 波羅羯諦 波羅僧羯諦 菩提薩婆訶 

jiēdì jiēdì bōluó jiēdì bōluósēng jiēdì pútí sàpóhē

According to the Heart Sūtra as printed by Eihei-ji 永平寺 (Sōtō Zen) which I picked up at the Japanese temple in Bodhgaya last year, it reads as follows in the Sino-Japanese rendering:

gyātei gyātei hārā gyātei harasō gyātei bōjii sowakā

It is clear that the Japanese pronunciation, which has attempted to preserve Middle Chinese pronunciation, better reflects the Sanskrit.

This is why in my attempts to reconstruct certain mantras' pronunciations from Classical Chinese texts I have to consider the Sino-Japanese readings of characters. The modern Mandarin is just too far divorced from Middle Chinese, which was the form of Chinese used when the mantras in question were transliterated.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of translating Classical Chinese Buddhist texts. In some cases there are siddhaṃ renderings which while often containing inaccuracies are still much easier to decode than ancient Chinese transliterations. Today we have the Chinese Buddhist canon digitalized. The software, like CBETA, fortunately now provides the Chinese and siddhaṃ as it appears in the printed Taishō canon with added romanization:

However, not all mantras will have the siddhaṃ in the primary text. In the absence of it, one has to attempt to reconstruct the Sanskrit using a variety of means.

Later Japanese texts will sometimes provide the siddhaṃ. For example, the Betsu Gyō 別行 (T2476) by Kanjo 寛助 (1057-1125) and the Gyōrin Shō 行林抄 (T2409) by Jōnen 靜然 (12th century). These texts will often, though not always, provide the Chinese characters and a siddhaṃ reading, though this is not always accurate and has to be assessed cautiously. For example, the latter text provides the following rendering for the mantra of Ākāśagarbha Bodhisattva:

namo akaśagarbhaya oṃ ari kamari mori svāhā

Based on the definitions of the terms used in the mantra, my understanding of this mantra would render it as follows:

namo ākāśagarbhāya oṃ ārya kamala mauli svāhā

Bear in mind the pronunciation of a mantra can differ also according to the lineage (in Japanese: ryū ), so traditions will have their own inherited pronunciations.

These last few months I have attempted to reconstruct the mantras for planets as given by Yixing (684–727) in his works. These are found in only a few texts in the Chinese canon. Fortunately, the aforementioned Betsu Gyō does provide siddhaṃ for them, though it is still problematic. For instance, the following is given for the mantra of Mercury:


oṃ vudha nakṣatra svāmina kheduma svāhā

Since the text expressly states this is the mantra for Mercury, we can assume Sanskrit terms for Mercury are likely to appear in the mantra. So, if we do a search for “Mercury” in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary (, we find similar sounding terms like budha and induja. It then makes logical sense to read the mantra as follows:

oṃ budha nakṣatra svāmin induja svāhā

Here kheduma / induja would be read in Sino-Japanese (again remember this is reflecting Middle Chinese pronunciation) as keidoma 契弩摩. I would assume this reflects either a mistransliteration of heard Sanskrit, or the speaker was in fact speaking an Indian dialect rather than standard Sanskrit (or it was not their native language and they mispronounced the word). In any case, it simply seems logical to read induja (“son of the moon”) here and not kheduma.

It should be clear then that East Asia – neither China nor Japan – did not attempt to preserve precise transliterations of mantras and dhāraṇīs. This is understandable given that intensive Sanskrit studies with complete grammars were seldom undertaken or available. This stands in contrast to SE Asia where the study of Pāḷi was diligently undertaken and preserved until the present day.

In the absence of any siddhaṃ for a mantra in transliterated Chinese, the scholar is left to start a long process of guesswork. In some cases, there are parts of the mantra which are identical to other parts of known mantras. However, this will not always be the case as I've discovered.

Sometimes it is quite easy to figure it out, such as this mantra for Indra:


oṃ indrāya svāhā

Sometimes much of the mantra is simply unclear despite some parts being discernible (the underlined words indicate a guess on my part as to the possible pronunciation):


namo ratna trayāya namo suma sarva nakṣatra rājāya saḥ tu dhi pa āḥ lakaraya tad yathā dumati padumati sa piṅ ni kha se svāhā

Sometimes just looking at the Chinese I have been able to decode the Sanskrit without any major issues:


oṃ sarva nakṣatra samaye śrī ye śāntika kru svāhā

As noted above, this is one of the most challenging aspects of translating Classical Chinese Buddhist texts. There are fortunately some scholarly volumes available today which provide decoded mantras, though again these have to be approached with caution. Nevertheless, as a translator when I have to translate these mantras I do appreciate seeing what others have produced. I am neither a Sanskritist nor Vajrayāna specialist, so I would hopefully have experts to defer to, though in many cases I am left to figure things out alone.