This talk introduces the Chinese Ghost Festival in some of its folk tradition aspects and as it relates to orthodox Daoist practice.
Horse Moon is the time of year when annual yang reaches its peak (summer solstice). The tidal hexagram associated with this moon is #44 (Copulation), ☰/☴, which suggests qi rising upward and losing its ground – and being brought back down to earth whether it wishes to or not. Because of the full-throttle nature of this moon, it is considered a precarious and inauspicious time – a time of pernicious heat, when seduction, aggression, and danger abound. Horse Moon is when cavalries in ancient China supposedly would march off to war. While certainly a time to be active, it is also a time to pull back the reins a bit, as unrestrained aggression or exuberance is likely at this time to lead to injury or exhaustion. “Calm down or crash” is the essential qi-message of Horse Moon. Hexagram 44 is about the severe consequences of failing to restrain ourselves – letting ourselves overheat.
Horse is the seventh animal in the 12-animal Chinese zodiac. Because the Chinese recognize the Tiger Moon, rather than the Rat Moon (winter solstice) as the beginning of the new year, Horse is considered the 5th Moon. Five is of course a significant number in Chinese numerology, symbolizing completion and balance – the Five Elements. Five also relates to the emperor, meaning the heart of any particular swirl of phenomena. Doubling a number emphasizes its quality, so the fifth day of Horse Moon – “Double-Five Day” – is considered particularly potent and precarious. This year, Double-Five Day is June 14.
According to Chinese legend, Qu Yuan, a loyal minister in the southern state of Chu during the Warring States period, was a fervent Chu nationalist and poet. When the Chu emperor joined forces with the aggressive Qin emperor, Qu Yuan drowned himself in a lake in despair on the fifth day of Horse Moon. The locals venerated Qu Yuan and gathered in dragon boats to splash the water, beat drums, and drop sticky rice into the water so that the fish would not eat his corpse. The Chinese still celebrate “Dragon Boat Festival” in veneration of Qu Yuan’s loyal character and national pride.
As with most aspects of the Chinese almanac, insofar as it interests Daoist practitioners, calendrical festivals are not merely about celebrating culture but calibrating qi. Observing Double-Five Day thus means entering summer with our eyes open – recognizing the danger of summer heat and watching how excess yang affects our conduct. Things can turn for the worse quickly and severely if we do not manage ourselves cautiously, so this is a time to check our conduct – assess our direction and momentum, and recognize that the rising winds beneath our wings are not going to last forever, so it is time to start looking downward to the ground to line ourselves up for a smooth landing – don’t get carried away.
If we are practicing internal cultivation, how well we manage this moon largely influences the qi that will be available to us in the heart of winter – exhaust ourselves or fly off the rails now, and we may stumble through the fall and spend the winter recovering rather than really deepening our cultivation. So this month, we are well advised to check ourselves, calibrate our conduct, and make ritual offerings – relax excess, cool down. Balance yang with yin. Pull back the reins from a gallop to a trot. Beat on drums and splash around in the water. Cool down now to retain some warmth as we head into winter.
In honor of my Taiji teacher’s wife, Stephanie Hoppe, I want to say something about warp & weft in the textual tradition of Daoism. When I was going through my Taiji training, every time I would visit Frank’s home, there was Stephanie, weaving at her loom – her careful, relaxed yet intent presence was always humbling and somehow part of my training. Her work process and finished products alike remain an inspired teaching presence for me.
The Chinese character for sacred text (jīng, 經) shows silk (糹) with a river flowing down (巛) from Heaven (一), and the character for work or practice (工). Sacred texts such as the Dao-De & Zhou-Yi have a vertical quality of revelation – flowing down from Heaven. Jings are thus considered “warp” (縱) texts – referring to the vertical strands in a loom. Weft (橫) strands snake horizontally through the warps to tie them together and complete the fabric. In Daoism, “weft” texts are not scriptures but works like commentaries that allow us to work with the jings and cross-thread them with one another.
My wuweidao lineage teacher, Liu Ming, insisted that the Dao-De is a manual for meditation, but it needs to be “opened up” for us by a person who is “in the practice” of non-conceptual meditation. Otherwise, it is warp without weft, an incomplete fabric. This is what we do in our Wuweidao Cultivation Group – give our participants a fresh translation along with a look at the Chinese etymology of the warp, along with a weft commentary to connect Laozi’s teaching with the actual practice of meditation.
Similarly, this 60-moon observation is tying together the warps of the Heavenly Stems & Earthly Branches with the separate warp of the Zhou Yi hexagrams to obtain a meaningful image of the qi-quality of each moon – a weft enabling us to work more effectively with either warp.
Check out Stephanie’s loom below! And I suggest you take a moment to appreciate some of her works at: www.stephaniehoppe.com.
The brilliant image above shows the twelve tidal hexagrams – I believe these are attributed to Wang Bi, the remarkable 3rd-century scholar who compiled the standard version of the Dao De Jing. This particular image was not developed until much later, as the classic “double-fish” taiji diagram in the middle was developed by Zhou Dunyi in the Song Dynasty.
To understand this image, note that the classical Chinese fengshui map orients south as “up” and north as “down”. It also serves as a clock, with midnight at the bottom and noon at the top (completing one circle per day). So if we are in the northern hemisphere facing south, Earth is below our feet and Heaven is above our head, and north is behind us and south is in front.
From this vantage, notice that the sun traverses the sky in a clockwise motion. At the depth of midnight there is no yang, just yin; at the height of noon there is no yin, just yang – but these don’t last long. Note that the hexagrams shown here are written with the bottom lines facing the center of the circle.
These twelve hexagrams match the Twelve Earthly Branches, or zodiac animals. In this image, Pig is shown at the bottom (all yin lines), Snake at the top (all yang lines). Tiger is at the left (east), Monkey at the right (west). Rat (the first animal) extends out from Pig, with one yang line at the base and the rest yin. From here, yang gradually swells until it reaches the apex at Snake, and then gradually recedes back to Pig.
There is so much we can study based on this chart. I share it here simply with regard to the twelve moons, as these hexagrams describe the quality of each moon in the context of the rise & fall of the year. For example, Tiger Moon is the third moon (technically considered the first moon of the new year). The associated tidal hexagram is #11 (Grandeur), showing three yang lines below and three yin lines above – a state of perfect balance and harmony, thus an auspicious time to start the new year.
These tidal hexagrams are a different system from the bazi hexagrams we are covering in our Dark Moon Newsletter. I honestly don’t know how these systems relate to one another or their respective applications. But I think we should keep in mind that from the perspective of annual qi, Tiger (the third of the 12 tidal hexagrams) always relates to Hexagram #11, while Monkey (the ninth of 12) always relates to Hexagram 12. The numbers 3 & 9 relate to yang and are considered very auspicious, but as with yang, both Tiger & Monkey also come with great potential danger.
Tidal hexagrams notwithstanding, in terms of the Sexagenary Cycle of 60 moons that we use in the bazi, the various signs have different hexagram correspondences. The current moon for instance is Yang-Metal Tiger, which in the bazi relates to Hexagram #12, while Yang-Metal Monkey corresponds to Hexagram 11!
So as we continue this 60-moon observation, keep in mind this separate system of the Twelve Tidal Hexagrams governing the annual qi of each moon, and then within that context look at the bazi hexagram. Subscribe here to join me in this 60-moon project.