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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

manuscript  of the month

Stars and Turtles:

A Buddhist Divination Scroll

One of the great things about manuscripts is the way that they can reveal what was going on 'on the ground' in a religious tradition. When we think of Buddhist monks and nuns, meditation is the first thing that might come to mind; but they have always engaged in other activities as well. These include regular prayer and the day-to-day routine of the monastery, as well as services to the lay community outside of the monastery. To carry out these activities, some Buddhist monks and nuns became experts in medicine, divination, and magical practices to bring prosperity and ward against misfortune. Manuscripts such as the scroll that I am introducing here, show the kinds of services that they offered.

Fig. 1: End of the scroll (recto), with wooden roller > Enlarge

This scroll is from the cache found in a sealed cave in Dunhuang, in Chinese Central Asia. The cave was sealed in the early eleventh century, and rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century. The original cache is now distributed among many different institutions all over the world. This scroll is from the British Library's collection of Dunhuang manuscripts, and has the number Or.8210/S.6878. It is 25 cm high and 411 cm long, composed in individual sheets of paper which have been glued together. A wooden roller is attached to the end of the scroll (fig. 1), and though the first sheet has been damaged, it is in quite good condition. Laid lines are visible in the paper, the result of the paper being made on a bamboo sieve.

The recto of the scroll is written in Chinese, in vertical columns read from right to left; this is the text of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, a key Buddhist text (fig. 1). At some point this scroll was re-used, and the text of the verso, written later, is quite different. Here we see a series of diagrams with the text written in Tibetan. The recycling of scrolls in this way was not uncommon at Dunhuang, and there are many examples where the language on the verso is different from that on the recto. This is a reflection of the multicultural and multilingual nature of society in Chinese Central Asia.

Fig. 2: Diagram and text for ‘divining the good and bad dates
for beginning a journey’. Move the cursor over the image to
highlight the segments mentioned in the text.
> Enlarge

When this scroll was catalogued at the British Museum in the early twentieth century, it was put in the category of Chinese manuscripts, with the result that the Tibetan diagrams and text have been ignored for nearly a century. They have yet to be fully studied, so let's just look at two examples of the divination practices set out in the scroll. The first comes under the heading ‘divining the good and bad dates for beginning a journey’. In the text, the first result is this:

When the day falls in the ‘gate of the sky’, if you go on a long journey, it will be good and auspicious.

If you look in the corresponding diagram (fig. 2), the ‘gate of the sky’ (gnam gyi sgo) is the lower segment of the bottom left quadrant. Under this, it says ‘the 1st day, the 9th day, the 10th day, the 17th day and the 25th day’. So the sky is divided into eight parts, based on the day of the lunar month.
There are bad days too. The next result, corresponding to the lower segment of the bottom right quadrant, is:

When the day falls in the ‘junction of the sky’, wherever you go a great loss will occur - very bad.

The word I translated as ‘loss’ (god ka) usually means a financial deficit, so the main purpose for making this astrological calculation was probably to check on the possible success of a journey for the purpose of trade. That is, travelling merchants (not scarce on the Silk Routes) would ask an astrologer (probably a Buddhist monk) to check the best days for embarking on a journey.

The other divination practice is described at the end of the scroll, and is called ‘the divination of the golden turtle’. This is about how to locate a lost object. The instructions are given below a drawing of the animal (fig. 3), which appears to lack a shell. Each of the extremities of the turtle is labelled: head, ear, arm, armpit, foot and tail (except for the first and last, these are mirrored on the left and right sides).

The instructions themselves are fairly straightforward: you need to count the number of lunar days since the day you lost the object, going around the points of the turtle, and then take the result from where you end up on the turtle’s body. If you lost it within thirty days, start at the head and go round clockwise. If it’s over thirty days, start at the bottom and go round anticlockwise. This way, you end up on a part of the turtle’s body which corresponds to the day you lost the object, and can then read the corresponding result:

Fig. 3: Diagram and text for ‘divination of the golden turtle’
> Enlarge
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the head, it will be found if you look in the place where laundry is washed.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the ears, then even if you come across it on the road while searching for it, it will not be beneficial to get your hands on it.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the arms, you will find it if you look for it on a high mountain, in a ravine, or in the middle of a graveyard.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the armpits, you will find it if you look for it at the goldsmiths, at the watermill, or in the town centre.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the feet, you will find it if you look at the royal gates, the minister's office, or the conference site.
  • If it was lost on the lunar day of the tail, you will find it if you look in your girlfriend’s place.

Though we cannot know for sure who made this manuscript and who would have carried out these divinations, it comes from a Buddhist context, and was probably used by Buddhist monastics. Yet the results of the divination address the needs and lifestyles of lay people. So the divination practices on this manuscript offer us an example of the way Buddhist monks and nuns interacted with their lay communities, in this case providing them with the divination services that were part of their daily lives.


CORNU, Phillipe (2002): Tibetan Astrology. Boston: Shambhala.

IWAO Kazushi, Sam VAN SCHAIK and Tsuguhito TAKEUCHI (2012): Old Tibetan Texts in the Stein Collection Or.8210. Tokyo: The Toyo Bunko.

KALINOWSKI, Marc (ed.) (2003): Divination et Société dans la Chine Médiévale. Étude des Manuscrits de Dunhuang de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France et de la British Library. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

LOEWE, Michael (1994): Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Library
Shelf mark: Or.8210/S.6878
Material: Paper
Dimensions: Scroll, 25 cm by 411 cm
Provenance: Dunhuang, Chinese Central Asia, 11th century or earlier

Manuscript of the Month 04/2017
Text by Sam van Schaik
© for all pictures: British Library
Reference note:
Sam van Schaik, “Stars and Turtles”
In: Wiebke Beyer, Zhenzhen Lu (Eds.): Manuscript of the Month 2017.04, SFB 950: Hamburg,