on an article published in the Astrological Journal
Vol 42 No.1 (Jan/Feb 2000)
under the title 'Two Thousand Years of Solitude'
Confusion of Tongues
1986 and 1993 I had the privilege, and the struggle,
of living as a Buddhist monk.
Astrology had been a serious interest of
mine before '86, and I started edging back into
it as '93 wore on.
struck me most about the astrological world which
I encountered in meetings, conferences, classes
and magazines was the lack of consistency, and quite
often the contradiction, in the techniques which
different astrologers used (such as: traditional,
modern, western, Vedic, harmonic, and draconic).
Perhaps these differences in approach struck
me so forcefully because I had spent time in an
environment where the entire focus was on one philosophy
and one approach (that of Theravadan Buddhism).
Maybe, if there had been no break in my astrological
career, I would simply have grown into an acceptance
of the proliferation of disparate techniques.
As it was, however, I felt as if I had stumbled
into the Tower of Babel during its last days, and
seriously wondered if this confusion of tongues
spelled the doom of the whole astrological edifice.
As well as doubts as to whether astrology
had a future, I also began to experience doubts
about whether I had a future in astrology.
can sabotage anything you try to do.
I felt that, unless I made inroads into some
of the questions which troubled me, I would never
be able to wield astrology with the precision which
I alternately believed and hoped to be possible.
Finding the way beyond this impasse in a
manner more serendipitous than designed, I began
interviewing people who are involved in one way
or another with astrology.
The types of involvement are various - from
the sceptical scientist to the ritual magician,
from the ardent astrologer to the man who decided,
with searching honesty, to stop using astrology
because he was no longer convinced of its validity.
process of interviewing has spanned a period of
four years, at the end of which I have interviews
with 33 people on record.
Astrology raises many questions about the
world we live in, and hopefully many of these are
covered, from different perspectives, in my book
'Astrology in the Year Zero' in which the interviews
are compiled and presented.
In this article I should like to pursue one
line of thought, and (with the help of excerpts
from a few of the interviews) look at the issues
raised by astrology offering so many different techniques
- having so many different languages.
Versions of Babel
are two basic approaches to the 'different languages'
is expressed by Dennis Elwell, in his comments on
Elwell: With so many predictions being ventured,
worldwide, the chances are that somebody will
get it right sometime. So you can't take any particular
comfort when your turn comes around. The only
merit is to be able to get it right consistently,
because your methods are reliable, which means
you can show everybody else how to get it right
consistently. Given our pretensions it is crazy
that we cannot reach a consensus on what astrology
says, rather than what this particular astrologer
says. We are here in the domain of testable science.
Those who insist that astrology is merely divination
are indistinguishable from the Tarot readers and
rune casters - my vision for the future of astrology
is something altogether more tangible and objective.
Dennis's vision, the diverse systems within astrology
as we know it have the potential to be rendered
down into one coherent and optimal approach; astrology
is (or at least should be) a "testable science".
The different tongues of Babel, then, may
be resolved once more.
Other astrologers argue that the presence
of 'different languages' is an inescapable feature
This angle is developed here by Robert Hand:
Hand: First of all, I do not believe that there
is an objectively real astrology.
I also don't believe there is an objectively
The real question is, 'Does our experience
of nature in any way uniquely determine a functional
versus a dysfunctional response?'
I think the history of science has clearly
demonstrated that the answer is 'yes', but it
has not demonstrated that the determination is
total; it has not demonstrated that consciousness
does not have a role to play, in fact, post-Schroedinger,
it rather strongly implies that consciousness
has a potent role in this.
I think that 'consciousness' - for lack
of a better term - (I actually like the Greek
word 'nous', because that eliminates more primitive
- or more definite - notions of what consciousness
is, but I'll say consciousness) - I think consciousness
enters into a dialogue with the apparently external
(it may be external, but I'm going to call it
the apparently external) and creates, with that
apparently external, a series of language systems.
And these language systems, like the language
you and I use with each other, begin to determine
the experience of a phenomena.
But it isn't quite the same as projecting,
because the 'apparently external' has an equally
powerful role in determining the nature of the
What makes this different is, there is
no one correct language. Just as you can say the same thing in French, German, English,
Italian, Chinese, Japanese - more or less - you
can say the same thing in different languages
of this kind.
These are what the Renaissance called 'natural
languages'; the languages of nature.
They would have thought they were wholly
I would say, it arises out of this dialectic
between consciousness within and consciousness
Or nous within and nous without.
that, when we forcefully create, collectively,
a construct, that construct becomes a part of
the forming of our experience, and we get a feedback
Now, can any construct be created?
The answer is no, only some constructs
can be created - maybe a large number, but it's
finite. And these are determined, (a) by the structure of human consciousness,
and (b) by the structure of nature - or 'the apparently
for example, you can have Hindu astrology and
Western astrology doing very good jobs with mutually
contradictory means - namely the zodiac. But at the same time, you and I can't sit down and create an
astrology that will work whimsically, out of pure
What we will find is, when we enter into
the dialectical relationship with the apparently
external, some of our intended means will not
work - because there is no resonance between the
structure of the apparently other, and the structure
of the apparent self.
That's actually a deep one; the apparent
other and the apparent self.
'External' is not really a proper word;
'apparent other' is the proper way of putting
the view of Robert Hand, then, there is no problem
in the presence of these different languages; it
is inevitable that astrology should develop this
distinction between 'astrology as objective science'
and 'astrology as subjective art' is, of course,
one which has been discussed before and doubtless
will be again.
It is, I suppose, one of the Big Questions
which each generation of astrologers will need to
question and discuss anew.
For myself, I feel that I have gained enough
clarity on this point that I can lay my questions
about the foundations of astrology to one side and
start learning about and using it again.
For what it's worth, my answer begins with
the observation that thought is, ultimately, only
a tool for modelling what really exists; that 'what
really exists' is sometimes too intractable to fit
neatly into a single 'either/or' compartment; and
that a better question might therefore be: when
is it useful to think of astrology as 'subjective
art', and when is the 'objective science' model
Let's look at each option.
in Subjective Mode
astrology works at all, this fact implies that things
and events in this universe are interconnected at
a level which challenges, and quite possibly surpasses,
the human intellect's capacity to understand.
this interconnection as the basis, the core assumption
behind astrology, it is difficult to see how the
astrologer could stand outside the web of interconnection,
discerning the workings of the cosmos in an objective
way (more or less as a creator God admiring his
It is, surely, more consistent to concede
that, since we are not separate from the nexus of
events, the act of interpreting a chart is inevitably
filtered through the astrologer's intellectual history
and way of seeing things.
An interesting parallel (and that's all it
is) can be found in quantum theory, where the way
in which the experimenter looks is considered to
influence the result of an experiment.
conclusion which emerges from this is that there
can not be one uniquely right way of interpreting
a chart; if astrology works at all, it works in
multiple ways (though not, as Robert Hand points
out, an infinite number of ways).
Thus, in the big picture, different systems
(such as western and Vedic astrology) may claim
to be different fingers pointing at the same Moon.
The same principle can be applied to astrologers
working in the same tradition, or even the same
astrologer working at different times: given the
almost infinite array of techniques available, plus
the variations in weighting which can be assigned
to factors in synthesis, every act of astrology
You cannot cast the same chart twice.
in Objective Mode
saw a cartoon once: a footballer, poised to pass
the ball to his team's centre-forward, had suddenly
stopped and was thinking to himself, 'According
to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, this ball
could go anywhere.'
The ultimate truth of things may not always
provide a manageable context for action.
are, it seems to me, times when it is expedient
to think about astrology as if it were an objective
such time is when we are learning the subject; it
is not, I think, possible to just intuit the meaning
of a chart without training (and I do know one or
two people who have tried!).
There do not seem to be any shortcuts to
avoid learning the definitions of planets, aspects
and so on, and at this stage it can be helpful if
the student approaches their task as if they are
learning the incontrovertible laws of an objective
instance, to dwell on the fact that a planet in
Scorpio in the tropical zodiac would be in Libra
in the sidereal, would only engender doubt and hold
up someone who was trying to learn the meanings
of the signs.
(Though this is not to say that this disparity
could not be an interesting point for discussion.)
a similar way, when an astrologer judges a chart,
one essential quality is focus - which again entails
a total belief in the technique one is using at
that moment, as if it was the only way; as if one
were wielding the absolute laws of an objective
Quest for Quality #1 - The Improviser's Art
this, another issue is starting to emerge: how can
we think about what makes for quality in astrological
In discussing this, several astrologers resorted
to analogy with music, and this is the most useful
way I have so far encountered of articulating and
illustrating the issues.
This excerpt from the interview with Maurice
McCann (himself formerly a jazz guitarist) sums
it up nicely:
McCann: (discussing the astrologer's training)
.It's like being a musician, or a doctor, or a
snooker player - you've got to train, you've got
to put the hours in.
what I'd also say is that - taking the analogy
of the musician - in the end, you need to transcend
What happens with a musician is - you learn
your scales, all your chords, all your arpeggios,
you do your exercises - and then comes the time
when it's automatic.
And then you're playing, but you're way
off in the hills somewhere - you're not thinking
about what you're doing.
You see this with the jazz musicians, because
they just take off.
And if you ask them afterwards what they
played, they haven't an idea.
But they know their stuff.
have to know your stuff before you can improvise
in music, and likewise in astrology.
This raises the interesting question of how
much astrological technique you need to have under
your belt before you can practise to a good standard.
You'll note that I said it's an interesting
question, not that I have an interesting answer.
It is of course another Big Question, so
perhaps the best which can be hoped for is to have
a nibble at its edge.
Quest for Quality #2: How Much Technique?
Buddhist philosophy, it is considered that several
mental factors1 have to come together
if one is to think, act or observe to the best of
Amongst these are confidence
which should be more or less equally strong.
Thus, if one lacks confidence, if one doubts
what one is doing, that doubt is likely to be a
Certainly, I have been struck by the way
in which the more confident astrologers seem to
get the best results.
Yet confidence alone is not enough; the man
who believes he can fly may jump off the roof with
supreme confidence, yet that confidence is unlikely
to keep him airborne on its own.
It is also necessary to have a
knowledge of relevant precedents (whether
it be unpowered flight or astrology) in order to
Robert Hand says, "you and I can't sit down and
create an astrology that will work whimsically,
out of pure intentionality".
It is necessary to investigate
- to study, to ask questions, to assemble a body
of knowledge on which one can draw.
a basic confidence needs to be present - confidence
in the viability of astrology per se, confidence
in one's own ability, confidence in one's understanding
On this theme, at least three astrologers
spoke of reaching a point where they no longer believed
in the efficacy of what they were doing.
One gave up altogether, whilst two stopped
practising for considerable periods of time in order
to re-think their technique from the ground up.
Maybe it is necessary for some people, some
of the time, to re-evaluate their technique (which
is the domain of investigation)
in order to rebuild their confidence.
As an aside, here - it is interesting to
speculate, in the context of an intimately interconnected
universe, that the way they were practising
before the reappraisal might have been the right
way for them for some while, but that
they reached a point where it no longer fitted
how much technique do you need? Enough that you feel confident in what you are doing - always
with the rider, of course, that this confidence
is reasoned and grounded in experience.
So in the end it falls to the individual
astrologer to evaluate where they stand and to achieve
a good working balance between these factors.
No doubt there will continue to be confident
astrologers who have nothing to be confident about,
and masters of a thousand techniques who lack the
confidence ever to seriously apply one.
Quest for Quality #3: Self-Concern
factor to consider in defining what influences the
success of a chart reading is self-concern.
William Lilly said, "the more holy thou art,
and more neer to God, the purer judgement thou shalt
give"2, and I believe that being 'holy'
and 'neer to God' can be (at least partially) translated
as the absence of self(ish) concern.
of the astrologers I talked to adduced relevant
For instance, John Frawley mentioned his
experiences when, after having appeared on TV and
successfully predicted the results of important
football matches, he was taken up by some people
who wished to bet serious money on his predictions:
Frawley: After my TV predictions, I found myself
under pressure from various quarters to provide
lucrative predictions, & did disastrously.
It's only now3, when these people have
washed their hands of me and I can do it for fun
again that I'm getting predictions right. It's
a question of focus: like in tennis - if your
focus is on hitting the ball, you'll do fine;
if it's on lifting the trophy, you'll lose. So
in astrology - the focus must be purely on the
prediction, not on the consequences of that prediction.
illustration came from Robert Hand, who cited with
admiration the attitude of a financial astrologer
whose comment on his work was, "'The money isn't
important - it's just a means of keeping score!'"
- showing that he saw astrology as a type of game, and
not as a means of self-aggrandisement.
perhaps the most perfect paradigm for self-concern
was this, from John Frawley again:
Frawley: An extreme example of self-interest is
where someone you find attractive comes in for a
consultation and asks, 'Should I divorce my husband?'
And the temptation is to say, 'Wa-hey, yes,
come on, divorce him, I'm free!' This is what one
seeks to avoid.
way in which self-concern sabotages effective action
is, I think, wonderfully illustrated by the following
rendition of Chuang Tzu:
an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets -
He is out of his mind!
skill has not changed.
But the prize
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting -
And the need to win
Drains him of power4
may also, however, be misleading to suggest that
the right attitude will always deliver astrological
results. Perhaps it may be that astrology
(no matter which technique one employs) simply does
not always deliver the answer.
This is a point which was made by Robert
Zoller: I remember a movie called 'Little Big
Man' years ago that featured Dustin Hoffman and
an American Indian actor, Chief Dan George, and
he had a wonderful role in this movie. It was about the Cheyenne; they were beset by troubles from
the white man, and it was determined by the shaman
that some sort of big magic had to be done to
fix the situation, and to rectify the laws of
nature and protect the Cheyenne.
So he decided that he would take himself
and his assistant, Dustin Hoffman, up to some
holy mountain - which was a long, arduous trip
- and then perform some big magic on top of the
mountain - and the inevitable result was that
the status quo would be restored.
So they climbed up this big mountain and
performed these elaborate rites, invoked the ancestors
and all the proper spirits.
They waited for the results; and there
were no results.
So finally he just turns round to Dustin
Hoffman and says, 'Sometimes the magic doesn't
the magic doesn't work. Perhaps one of the greatest incentives an astrologer can have
to maintain a disinterested equanimity toward his
or her work is the consideration that, for all our
efforts, the universe may sometimes remain inscrutable.
And perhaps, in contemplation of this sometimes
inscrutable universe, we may find good reason to
connect with other seekers of what may always be
the same truth.
The reference is to the 5 'spiritual faculties'
- see, for instance, Nanamoli (tr), The
Path of Purification (Visuddhi Magga), Buddhist
Publication Society, 1964, p. 135.
William Lilly, Christian
Astrology, 1647 (Regulus Publishing, 1985),
p.9 ('To the Student in Astrology').
I should also like to mention here another
book, in which I first encountered Lilly's statement:
Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment in Astrology, Arkana Publishing, 1994.
Geoffrey's book has been an immense help
and inspiration to me in my efforts to think philosophically
Interview recorded 8th October 1997
Thomas Merton (tr.), Chuang
Tzu, 1970, Unwin.
As Merton remarks in his introduction, his
work is as much an interpretation of the original
text as it is translation.
Garry Phillipson, 2000