Niels van der Salm: On Divination

On Divination
by Niels van der Salm
USC Kambun Workshop 2019

Life at the Heian court (794-1192) was strongly regulated by systems of knowledge that today we may be tempted to describe as superstition. From the observation of the heavens to the analysis of patterns of sticks thrown on the ground, such practices were largely thought dependent on random events in the lower spheres and regularities of those above. Such a characterisation ignores the fact, however, that at the time, these practices were considered among the state of the art. Like statecraft, mathematics, and many other aspects of the ritsuryō court, they relied on a thorough knowledge of the vast body of knowledge that had been introduced from China via the Korean peninsula to the Japanese archipelago over the course of several centuries. Although separate bodies of knowledge, both astronomy (tenmon 天文) 1 and divination (bokuzei 卜筮) required the mastery of yin-yang (onmyō 陰陽) practices, knowledge of the cardinal directions, and an understanding of the movement of celestial bodies. Ritual specialists specially trained in these subjects were appointed, and frequently consulted, by the court for both official and personal matters. In Taiki, Fujiwara no Yorinaga describes time and again how both he and the people around him make use of the services of yin-yang experts (onmyōji 陰陽師), the professor of the almanac (reki hakase 暦博士), and the professor of astronomy (tenmon hakase).

Both stick divination and the observation of the heavens relied on knowledge of the eight trigrams (hakke 八卦), symbols made up of three interrupted or uninterrupted lines that can be arranged in a total of eight different ways— e.g. open/open/closed ☳ or closed/open/closed ☲. Each trigram was assigned particular characteristics: they were associated with, for instance, the animals of the zodiac, personality traits, the five elements, body parts, and the cardinal directions. These characteristics served the interpretation of the future and of observations made in the night sky. Astronomical observation, which was concerned with observing constellations, planetary motions, and the location and duration of irregular events, could be expressed by way of the eight trigrams. The course of a person's future was determined by divining a number of trigrams and analysing what characteristics were associated with them.

The trigrams could moreover be combined into a more elaborate system consisting of sixty-four hexagrams (rokujūshike 六十四卦), which allowed for greater detail and accuracy in the predictions made by ritual specialists. It is easy to imagine how the interpretation of all these various signs, their associations, and the implications of their various combinations — set out in the Classic of Changes (Yijing 易経) and other texts — required a systematic understanding of system as a whole, and it was for this reason that the Heian court had different experts to consult on different matters.

This did not preclude, however, the possibility of non-specialists engaging in divinatory practices themselves. In the Taiki entry for 1145.6.7, we see Yorinaga requesting Fujiwara no Michinori 藤原通憲 (1106-1160, who had by then become the buddhist novice Shinzei 信西) to perform stick divination for him. Michinori refuses on the grounds that he has renounced the practice of stick divination, which is the practice of counting sticks of yarrow 2 in such a way that one can determine a number from one to eight, to then assign these numbers to the trigrams. Yorinaga then goes on to describe how they had a rather abstruse debate on whether one is to perform stick divination first, or if one should begin by divining with tortoise shells, which involved the inscription of the shells with the question at hand, then baking the shells to crack them, and then interpreting the patterns of the inscription and the cracks. Although Michinori concedes to Yorinaga's point of view, Michinori's rather technical knowledge on these matters and his willingness to interpret the trigrams of another diviner nevertheless suggest that Michinori possessed considerable theoretical knowledge of the divinatory signs, even if he was reluctant to engage in the practical side of the matter.

On the whole, however, Yorinaga mostly availed himself of the services of ritual experts. On 1145.4.2, for example, when he inaugurated his new book vault, he was accompanied by two yin-yang experts, Kamo no Norihide 賀茂憲栄 (dates unknown) and Abe no Yasuchika 安倍泰親 (1110-1183), who had divined an auspicious day to first open the building, and had also divided the shelves and its contents into yin and yang categories. Moreover, Yorinaga described the location of the vault's entrance and its pond, by its trigrammic locations: with the kon 坤 character (corresponding to the ☷ trigram), i.e. the southwest; and with the ken 乾 character (trigram ䷀), the northwest, respectively. 3

The appearance of the comet was announced to Yorinaga (1145.4.10) by Abe no Harumichi 安倍晴通 (1094-1153), a Professor of Astronomy and second cousin of Yasuchika — a hardly surprising relation, given the hereditary nature of occupational groups, again illustrating the close ties between astronomy and divination. The reliance of astronomy on yin-yang knowledge is shown by Harumichi's announcement that "there is a comet in the constellation of kei 奎", which roughly corresponds to Pisces, and which itself was again associated with the trigram kon. 4

Not only the location of the comet itself, but also the organisation of the propitiation rites was informed by the suitability of days that have particular yin-yang characteristics. On 4.15, Yorinaga noted that Fujiwara no Muneyoshi 藤原宗能 (1085-1170) questioned the wisdom of presenting offerings to the twenty-two shrines on a so-called fuku 復 day. Fuku is included among one of the sixty-four hexagrams (䷗), but because the character itself means 'to return' or 'again', the suggestion seems to have been that it would be ill-advised to hold rites intended to end the cosmological calamity on a day that is associated with repetition. As a result, Kamo no Norihide was consulted, but he refused to commit. He initially evaded the question by advising the court to refer to precedent. The debate was settled a few days later, when Norihide returned with the conclusion that days of good or ill omen are not observed when making offerings to shrines, and Nakahara no Moroyasu 中原師安 (dates unknown) added that on the occasion of an earlier comet appearance (Tenroku 1/970), the propitiation offerings were offered on a fuku day. 5

Predicting the future and determining proper plans for action were a central aspect of Heian court life, and experts were employed to provide these services. It would be wrong to dismiss these practices as simple superstition: they were elements of a structured system of knowledge about understanding the course of the future, and like the models used by the economists and climatologists of our day, they had their imperfections. Still, because Heian courtiers shared the assumptions of these practices and its knowledge, they nevertheless structured their experience of the world around them: the way buildings were oriented, the meanings of the stars, the organisation of the calendar. And in this way, it was a form of knowledge that, even if it did not foretell the future, provided the means to make choices, and a way of thinking about the unknowable, chaotic future, just as do the imperfect predictions of stock market behaviour and global temperature increase of our day.

  1. Although there are many shared aspects between tenmon and astrology, I avoid this term precisely because of its modern associations with superstition.

  1. Most translations seem to render the name of the plant used in divination as yarrow. Sometimes, the name milfoil is found; e.g. Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee and David Schaberg, Zuo Tradition (Zuozhuan): Commentary on the "Spring and Autumn Annals", volume 1 (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2016), 269.

  1. See the translation for 1145.4.2, where the relevant terms have been translated with their equivalent cardinal directions.

  1. The Taiki entry was not translated as part of the 2019 workshop. The relevant passage runs, in the original, 「天文権博士晴道来云、有星孛于奎、」, which I read out as 『天文(てんもん)権(ごん)博士(安倍)晴道(あべのはるみち)来たりて云わく、「星の奎(けい)に孛するあり。」と』, and may be translated as "Provisionary Professor of Astronomy Harumichi came to me, saying: 'A star shining {like a comet} in the constellation of kei has appeared.'"

  1. The Taiki entry was not translated as part of the 2019 workshop. The relevant passage runs, in the original, 「宗能卿云、十八日復日、彗星奉弊可有憚歟、」, which I read out as 『(藤原)宗能(ふじわらのむねよし)卿云わく、「十八日は復の日なり。彗星の奉幣憚(はばか)りあるべきか。」と。』, and may be translated as, "Lord {Fujiwara no} Muneyoshi said, 'The eighteenth day is a fuku day. Should we not be hesitant to make shrine offerings because of the comet?'"

Further reading:

Buhrman, Kristina Mairi. "The Stars and the State: Astronomy, Astrology, and the Politics of Natural Knowledge in Early Medieval Japan". PhD diss., University of Southern California, 2012.

Hayashi Makoto 林淳 and Matthias Hayek. "Onmyōdō in Japanese History". Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1 (2013), 1-18.

Hayek, Matthias. “The Eight Trigrams and Their Changes: Divination in Early Modern Japan.” In: Jeffrey L. Richey (ed.), Daoism in Japan: Chinese Traditions and Their Influence on Japanese Religious Culture. London: Routledge, 2015, pp. 209-247.

Hsiao, Chi. Cosmologie et divination dans la Chine ancienne: le Compendium des cinq agents (Wuxing dai, VIe siècle). Paris: Publications de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1991.

Kokushi Daijiten Henshū Iinkai 国史大辞典編集委員会. Kokushi daijiten 国史大辞典. Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1979-1997.

Li, Ling. “The Revolution in Shu Shu: From Divination Using Tortoise-Shells and Yarrow Stalks to Shih Methods and Selection.” Acta Asiatica 113 (2017), 1-46.

Loewe, Michael. “Divination By Shells, Bones and Stalks During the Han Period.” T’oung Pao 74 (1988), 81-118.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

Saitō Kuniji 斉藤国治. Kokushi kokubun ni arawareru hoshi no kiroku no kenshō 国史国文に現れる星の記録の検証. Tokyo: Yūsankaku Shuppan, 1986.