Astrology and the Archetypal Power
of Numbers, Part One
In the 8th century CE, Guru Padmasmabhava is said by followers of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism to have planted secret teachings all over Tibet. Padmasambhava intended these teachings – called terma – to be discovered by future incarnations of his 8th century disciples. Terma were written in a concentrated code called dakini language, through which a few seed syllables might contain within them volumes of information. Since then a 1200-plus-year lineage of tertons – translators of dakini language – have spawned an entire literary tradition with its own taxonomy of teachings, and a small firestorm of controversy over which teachings are true and which are false.
In Namkhai Norbu's book The Crystal and the Way of Light, he tells a story about his uncle, a contemporary terton, who one day announces that he has received the inspiration to search for new terma (70). Inviting the whole community to join him on his expedition, he makes his way to a sheer mountain face and announces that the sacred text is just above them. After a moment's meditation, he takes a knife and throws it with all his might into the rock face. “There,” he proclaims, “the terma is behind the knife.” Several of the younger, stronger men of the community build a makeshift ladder, climb to the knife and retrieve it. As the knife comes out of the rock face, it dislodges a piece of rock, behind which is a smooth, round, luminescent ball about the size of a grapefruit. The terton instructs his helpers not to touch it, but using the knife and a blanket, they manage to lower it safely to the ground. The terton then wraps the ball in a white scarf and tells the wide-eyed crowd that the terma he sought is inside the ball.
Before and since, other terma have been found in mirrors, statues, skulls, earrings, onyx bones, and supposedly even undergarments worn by Padmasambhava. They could, in fact, be anywhere. As incredible as such a tradition might seem to the postmodern Westerner, the whole notion of terma is a profound metaphor for the ominpresence of an immanent God or Spirit everywhere throughout this manifest creation – speaking to us from every rock, bird and burning bush.
Most of the world’s esoteric spiritual traditions identify with this presence as the Holy Grail of the soul’s quest for self-knowledge. Spirit’s numinous self-revelation is a gift freely given, they say, but not one easily received. An awareness of the presence of Spirit is elusive to all but those with eyes to see, and more importantly, with the intent necessary to pierce the veils of material obscurity behind which Spirit is hidden. Spirit is alive within every mirror, statue, bone and, yes, even every undergarment. It is alive and in addition potentially conscious of Itself within each one of us. But before we can realize what It is and who we truly are, we must recognize that beneath the dust and disguise, everything and everyone is a luminescent sphere with a terma teaching inside. We must remember our cosmic function as tertons – as revealers of the presence of Spirit.
Astrology as a Dakini Language of Number
To decode the terma teachings that abound everywhere around us, knowledge of a dakini language can be helpful. In my previous books, I have suggested that astrology is such a language because it holds as its most sacred premise the idea that everything in this embodied world is a reflection of a divine order unfolding. This order is discernable through an application of astrology within the context of a human life, an historical sequence of events, the movement of weather patterns through a given geographical clime, or countless other frameworks of revelation. Within the metaphor I am exploring here, each symbol in the astrological lexicon is a syllable of this dakini language – a potent seed, the cracking of which opens a floodgate of hidden knowledge.
Astrologers differ widely in their understanding of how this works, as well as what it is that they are actually seeing in a birthchart when they speak the astrological language. However, the potential exists in any given encounter with astrological symbolism for a terma explosion – a sudden opening of the intuitive mind to volumes of information, the unexpected revelation of meaningful patterns unfolding simultaneously on multiple levels in cyclical time. It is this discovery – or the possibility of this discovery – that unites all astrologers, regardless of their perspective or preferred school of thought – and makes each one a terton (intuitive revealer) of the astrological language.
In Part Two of this book – the second in a series outlining a more intimately personal, imagistic, and intuitive approach to astrology that I call astropoetics – I will elaborate this metaphor by suggesting that astrology’s function as a dakini language is rooted in its use of numbers. Today numbers are understood only in the scientific sense as measures of quantity, but at one time, they were conceived very differently as potent archetypal gateways through which the creative forces at work within the embodied world could be glimpsed, accessed, and harnessed with the power of focused intention. In Part One of this book, I will explore this archetypal sense of number. Leaving astrology’s use of number aside for the moment, it is this more ancient knowledge of numbers to which we will turn our attention now.
The Source of Esoteric Knowledge About Number
According to Richard Heath, author of Sacred Number and the Origins of Civilization, this knowledge was known in prehistoric times, probably before the Egyptian calendar combining solar and lunar cycles arose somewhere in the 5th millennium BCE (Grun 3). Heath traces this knowledge back to Atlantis, the actual existence of which he acknowledges is denied by science. Atlantis, he says nonetheless, was the source of a culture based on number that rivaled science in its sophisticated understanding of the order of the cosmos. Writes Heath (4):
… the fall of Atlantis represents closure on an important period of human evolution that went from a Stone Age culture in which humans learned to count, often using marks on bones to track Moon time, to an Advanced Neolithic culture that was megalithic, in which the view that the world was a numerical creation led to a culture that measured the world and was capable of building according to the same principles.
These principles were known to Pythagoras, who extracted them from a 40-year study of Egyptian, Babylonian, Chaldean, Phoenician, Brahmanic, Hebrew, Greek, Zoroastrian, and Hyperborean (pre-Celtic British) mystery teachings, and passed them on to contemporary Western civilization. Pythagoras, whose name refers to Pythian Apollo, was supposedly conceived after his mother paid a visit to Delphi. He is rumored to be the actual son of the Greek god whose specialties were prophecy, mathematics, music, and medicine. In turn, Pythagoras fathered a lineage of wisdom teachers called the Pythagorean Succession, said to have survived 1000 years after the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the last of the pagan schools in Europe (in 529 CE), at which point it went underground (Opsopaus, Part V:1). Traces of the teaching were passed on through Plato and other members of the lineage to several generations of Neoplatonists, the Hermetic magical tradition, and the esoteric schools of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Guthrie 13).
Pythagorian teachings spanned an appropriately Apollonian range from hygiene, diet, and the early Greek medicine of the four elements, to number theory to geometry to music to astronomy to metaphysics. Though he wrote nothing down, various students preserved bits and pieces of his oral teaching and passed them on in written form. To confuse matters, as seems to be the case in the dissemination of teachings from many great teachers, there is also a rich, profligate tradition of pseudopigrapha – false teachings forged in Pythagoras’ name – probably during a revival of Neopythagoreanism between 150 BCE and 100 CE (Huffman).
Pythagoras’ specific knowledge of numbers was mastered and further developed by Nicomachus of Gerasa and other disciples, whose teachings in turn were written down by Neoplatonist teacher Iamblichus of Chalcis in a book called The Theology of Arithmetic, translated into English by Robin Waterfield – a work that is generally believed to be an accurate reflection of Pythagoras’ teachingsi. This text is my primary source of Pythagorean number theory. Other commentaries on Nichomachus’ work with numbers were made by Asclepius of Tralles and Philoponus in the 6th century BCE, but translations of these are not available (Huffman).
A second strain of this knowledge – though not entirely separate from that espoused by Pythagoras, who studied and absorbed it – arose from the Kabalistic tradition of esoteric Judaism, said to have been handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments (Hall CXIII). The sacred power of number was known in other parts of the world as well, and forms the basis for various ceremonial rituals, religious practices, and calendrical observances - especially among indigenous peoples. The ancient Maya, for example, had an entire series of gods associated with various numbers (Sharer 539), while the Teutonic tribes of northern Europe used their knowledge of number to enhance the power of runic spells (Gundarsson 192).
Although much of the original knowledge about number has been lost, or diluted through intellectual processing of information best experienced energetically, numbers remain a potent set of dakini syllables for those with the capacity to open to them on a level beyond the grasp of the rational mind. According to Aetius (1st or 2nd century BCE), Pythagorus “assumed as first principles the numbers and the symmetries existing among them, which he calls harmonies, and the elements compounded of both, that are called geometrical” (qtd in Waterfield 9). Harmonies can be understood as relationships between the numbers, while geometry is the projection of numbers into three-dimensional space. Number, harmony and geometry “are the three primary means that Plato proposed that the Divine Artificer . . . used to proportion the world soul” or anima mundi (Plato, Timaeus 36, qtd. in Waterfield 9). Numbers, in other words, are the source code through which the world is infused with the presence of Spirit.
Vestiges of this knowledge are encoded within music (as first revealed by Pythagoras), the construction of language, sacred geometry, and the architecture of medieval Europe, Islamic mosques and Hopi kivas. A more overt form of this knowledge exists today as numerology. As is true with most popularized expressions of occult teachings, what we are left with in our modern understanding of numerology is but the echo of an original teaching that reverberated at a deeper level. Perhaps this original teaching can be found in the ancient Greek practice of arithmology – an application of Pythagorean ideas to number, arithmetic and geometry distinct from, but related to, the essence of mathematics as a cosmic art. Arithmology can be linked to mathematics in the same way that astrology is linked to astronomy, or alchemy to chemistry. Arithmology first considers basic mathematical principles related to each number, and then speculates about the allegorical implications of these principles.
Within a world dominated by science, such speculations – indeed all metaphysical speculations about the more cosmic implications of natural order – have become taboo. As Waterfield reminds us, however (26):
It should be noted that while the Pythagorean attempt to give meaning to peculiar properties of number is unfashionably mystical, such peculiar properties have not been explained or explained away by modern mathematicians. They exist, and one either ignores them and gets on with doing mathematics, or gives them significance, which is what arithmologists do.
In this book, I explore the peculiar speculations of arithmology alongside other distinctly non-mathematical sources in order to recover the true nature of numbers as a source of creative potency. I approach the essence of number obliquely, so that we can gain a more visceral sense of it, through our peripheral vision and our non-rational faculties. I believe the original teachings are meant to facilitate an experience of alignment to the forces to which they allude, and it is this alignment that I want to evoke through my exploration of number.
Once numbers are revealed experientially to be the dakini syllables that they are, in Part Two we will then explore their relationship to astrology, and show how they expose a deeper layer of meaning within the birthchart considered as a whole. This is an ambitious undertaking, and I do not claim as deep an understanding of the secret knowledge of numbers as those who have gone before me. Let’s just say that poking around the ruins of this ancient knowledge is a calling I feel drawn to pursue, and like the Fool of the Tarot – associated with the number Zero in most decks – I am ready to step off the cliff into the Abyss of unknowing to see what might be on the other side of the chasm into which I leap.
My Personal Quest For a Deeper Understanding of Number
I first became aware of this chasm in my sophomore year of college. I was studying chemistry, hoping one day to become a research chemist. Who knows, thought I in my foolish youth – perhaps I would be the one to discover a cure for cancer. On the road to this lofty goal, lay a rather pedestrian titration experiment in organic chemistry. I was charged with the task of adding a certain reagent, measured drop by drop, to a flask of sodium permanganate in order to neutralize its acidity, and then determine the concentration of the original solution. It is possible to know when you have reached the point of neutrality because what begins as a dark purple liquid turns clear.
Within the scientific context in which I was conducting this experiment, what was important was the quantification made possible by the numbers. Knowing the volume of reagent necessary to neutralize the acid, I could determine mathematically the molar density (units of reagent per volume of solution) of the original material. But what I experienced instead that day in the laboratory was a moment of personal epiphany. I became enthralled with the magical transformation I witnessed as the purple solution began changing – first to burgundy, then magenta, then blood red, then orange, then pale yellow, then clear. Since this was only one of a series of experiments I had a limited amount of time to complete, my lab instructor was insistent that I move on with the procedure. But I was so excited by this apparent miracle, that I had to repeat it several times. By the time I had satisfied myself that what I was seeing was real, I had unwittingly stumbled into a realization that there was much more to numbers than could be explained by their quantitative properties. For me, this experiment was a terma teaching that changed my life.
In the days that followed, I wrestled with self-doubt. I had thought I wanted to be a chemist, but how could I resign myself to a pursuit so dry that it failed to appreciate the miraculous beauty of the transformations it measured? How could I relate such magic to the mundane chemical formulas that described them, and how was it that something with the power to move me the way this chemical reaction did could be reduced to a mere number? There simply had to be more to the story than I was being told. The more I thought about it, the more the academic journey toward a degree in chemistry seemed a Faustian bargain I could not make. I changed my major to English, and for the remainder of my college career, I studied literature, philosophy, and psychology – finding much more gold at the end of the day for all my efforts than I was permitted to find in the laboratory.
Eventually, I continued my education, working toward a Masters degree in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling. Again, however, I came up against a major stumbling block involving numbers – statistics. I was just beginning to appreciate the complexity of the human psyche – illuminated by some rather clever and imaginative theories, and given poignancy by the fledging work I had begun to do as a therapist-in-training – when I was asked by my teachers to reduce this intriguing complexity to a pedestrian set of numbers. Meanwhile, many of the more fascinating ideas I encountered – particularly those put forth by Jung, Assaglioli, the humanistic/transpersonal school and the radical brief therapy movement being pioneered by students of Milton Erickson – seemed to point toward the psychological equivalent of that sophomore titration experiment.
It seemed to me that those who had the most interesting ideas about the possibilities of human transformation were not concerned with the strictly quantitative dimensions of the human psyche. Instead, they seemed focused on its irrational power to evoke and wrestle with archetypal forces that changed their shape as consciousness was brought to bear upon them. As far as I could tell at this stage in my own understanding, this power of the psyche could not be measured by science, but rather had to be felt, sensed by intuitive faculties, and spoken of obliquely through story, metaphor, and analogy. A true transformation of the psyche’s wounds could not be brought about by manipulation or coercion. It had to be evoked through a compassionate dance of intentional courtship and openness to the mutability of color, tone, and luminescence in the tender soul at the bottom of the flask of circumstance in the laboratory of life.
Yet here I was, being taught to measure these wounds, the external factors that may or may not have caused them, and the effectiveness of various strong-arm tactics of intervention in terms of number. Unlike chemistry or physics, psychology could not be made to conform to immutable laws that would always ensure the same result each time an experiment was performed, despite the collective efforts of generations of psychologists who believed it should be able to. As a concession to the softness of the science beneath psychology, its truths were measured instead by statistics – number used, not as a statement of irrefutable fact, but as a measure of our ability to know or not know something definitive about human nature.
From Control to Conscious Alignment With Natural Law
Why would it be important to measure human nature according to various sets of probability? Because, as I learned early on in my study of psychology, the goal – at least from a clinical perspective – was control: control of the uncomfortable symptoms of the wounded human condition; control of unruly and potentially disruptive emotions; and control of undesirable behaviors. In the darker, more chilling visions of the scientific psychological establishment – as sketched for us, for example, by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and more recently by the Wachowski brothers in the movie The Matrix and its sequels – control extended to the human soul and the course of its journey from cradle to grave.
As pointed out in my earlier book The Seven Gates of Soul, the history of the early development of psychology was an attempt to wrestle the unruly human soul into submission to scientific standards of measurement, predictability, and ultimately control (Landwehr 239-260). Wilhelm Wundt, widely considered the father of modern psychology, was one of the first to insist that psychology was as much a science as physics and chemistry. In defiance of common sense, he believed ultimately there was no difference between inner experience and the outer phenomena by which inner experience could be inferred (Kim). Such a radical posture was necessary because outer phenomena such as behavior and physiological response to stimuli were measurable and thus within the reach of science, while inner experience was not. Despite the fact that this assertion was increasingly untenable to successive generations of therapists dealing with the actual experiences of real human beings, Wundt’s psychological scientism set the tone for all future investigations of the human psyche. Although “psyche” means “soul,” the soul had been effectively eliminated from the discipline of psychology by the time I began by study of it.
What I was offered in graduate school instead of the discussion of soul I craved was a reductionist insistence on describing the endless variety of tastes, smells, and sounds on life’s table as a set of numbers. I couldn’t do it. I dropped out, and fled to northern California where I indulged myself in distinctly non-mathematical pastimes. Eventually, I returned to finish what I had started. But I never did get a satisfactory answer to the obvious question: “What could numbers possibly tell me about the human soul?” Numbers had their own undeniable attraction in the mysterious ways in which they combine with each other and shape-shift into other numbers. At the same time, I could not help but feel that something vital was missing in our understanding of them, especially as they were employed by science.
Numbers, as I had been taught to use them, were solely for the purpose of counting, measuring, comparing, and contrasting, according to quantifiable units of measurement. Because I had witnessed the transformations behind the numbers – the magic that numbers were employed to measure – it seemed to me that numbers were more fundamentally an invitation to understand how each individual piece of the whole fabric of this apparent reality was related to every other piece, and how each piece revealed the presence of the whole. How was it that all these wondrous colors could emerge from the same substance? How is it that a soul caught in the debilitating snare of some psychological trauma could also be loving, creative, intelligent, and at times free from trauma? How do all these various and diverse, sometimes contradictory states of being, live in juxtaposition to each other within the same individual? If numbers were going to be used to investigate the nature of reality, both around us and within us, then they ought to somehow speak to its inherent interconnectedness and multi-dimensionality.
Numbers as the Gateway to an Understanding of Multidimensionality
In the Pythagorean approach, number is seen not as a counting mechanism, but as a living force. In the foreword to Robin Waterfield’s translation of The Theology of Arithmetic, Keith Critchlow finds an expression of this more holistic approach to number in the famous arrangement of ten dots in a triangle. Pythagoras used this pattern – called the Decad or Tetraktys – to illustrate the unity of the first ten numbers. Critchlow says “that ideal number is not necessarily subject to a sequential or causal progression from one through ten, but is rather a unity with ten essential and potential qualities, simultaneously present….” (10) The intriguing implication behind these words is that everything science uses number to measure, participates in this unity, and encompasses these same universal qualities.
Within this worldview, the observer cannot be separate from what is being observed in the way that science insists she must be. The most intriguing implication of the Pythagorean understanding of number is that everything I am capable of observing in some way reflects back to me who I am, because both it and I are embodiments of this same Unity, elaborated and illuminated in different ways by the same numbers. Or as put by the Jewish Neoplatonist Philo of Alexandria, “Both in the world and in man the decad is all” (qtd in Waterfield 21).
As I observed and measured the changing colors in my sophomore titration experiment, something parallel to that transformation occurred in me. As a therapist, every time I was able to facilitate growth in a client, it was because on some level of my own being, I resonated with the changes in them that were wanting to take place. If numbers are a unity, within which simultaneous qualities intermingle and perpetually shift in relation to each other, then subject and object must both share in that dance.
Science remains blind to this possibility whenever science insists on objectivity – requiring its practitioners to pretend that they are not part of the world they observe, and that what they observe is not influenced by their observation. Science’s own experiments have proven that this is an untenable pretension, but most scientists keep on pretending anyway. By contrast, in the original sense in which numbers were understood – by Pythagoras, by Moses, and by the indigenous peoples who employed them in their ceremonies and rituals – they were instead a key to more conscious participation in the world. Participation by number was more conscious because each number was a dakini syllable within which natural law was written, and to become conscious of the true meaning of numbers required the seeker of truth to align herself with natural law. Unlike science, which insists on maintaining intellectual distance, engaging the terma teaching of number is not a spectator sport.
If we imagine this terma teaching to be a thunderstorm, the difference in these two approaches to an understanding of number becomes rather tangible. A scientist witnesses and documents this thunderstorm from the comfort and safety of a room protected from the weather. One who is interested in knowing the original power of number, however, can only do so by entering the storm and getting wet. Such an act would make no objective sense, but be filled with subjective meaning, in the same way that communing with the gods is different than worshipping them.
As a student of both chemistry and psychology, I was brought to the altar by the high priests of education and compelled to worship. All the while, what my soul craved was communion. I wanted to tear the altar down and embrace what it was built to honor. Numbers were offered me in college as the ritual tools of worship. Never was it hinted that they could also become the ritual tools of communion, if I was willing to cross the subject-object barrier and allow them to permeate me. It is to reclaim this missing piece of my education that this book is being written.
Part One explores individual numbers from zero to nine. Each chapter begins where possible with references to the original teachings of Pythagoras, and to other sources that hint of the true creative power of number. My exploration then extends into a free form dialogue designed to elicit an experience of each number in its archetypal essence.
Part Two shows how these experiences reverberate through the birthchart in various ways, and are embedded as implicit dakini syllables at the heart of the astrological language. Part Two includes a series of case studies – of both significant moments in history and of individuals who have altered history – showing how these principles can be used to enhance our understanding of the soul’s journey as it is revealed in the birthchart, and to facilitate the soul’s participation in our collective evolution through a more conscious embodiment of natural law.
The Journey Begins
Imagine, as we begin this adventure, that I have just led you to a sheer rock face that appears to be indistinguishable from the other rock faces that surround it. Suddenly I announce that the terma teaching we seek is above us. I close my eyes, and rest for a moment in what seems like shimmering stillness about to explode. I reach into a sheath attached to my belt, pull out a knife upon which are inscribed a few ancestral symbols, then with all my might, I throw the knife high above me into the rock. Together we fashion a ladder, and from the ground, I encourage you to climb. Upon removing the knife, you notice something shining from within the opening that was created by the knife. I tell you to carefully dig out the opening, and you tell me there is a luminescent ball there. I pass a red silk scarf up to you, and ask you to remove the ball without touching it. You bring it back down to the ground, and hand it to me. As we gaze upon it, it is as though we are standing before a doorway in the rock face before us. Using the luminescent ball as our source of light, we enter.
Much to our surprise, immediately we begin to fall. The luminescent ball appears to float above us, receding as we plunge into utter darkness.
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