The I Ching is one of the oldest books in the world. It is a book of divination that has been used throughout Chinese history. It is important to Taoists and Confucians especially. The book embodies a traditional wisdom and has an uncanny ability to reflect human situations in ways that convey wise advice.

Hexagrams
The book is arranged as a catalogue of hexagrams. Each hexagram consists of a mixture of broken and unbroken lines. The unbroken lines represent yang energy and the broken lines represent yin energy. With six lines, any of which can be either yin or yang, there are sixty four possible permutations of line combinations, hence sixty four hexagrams.

Each hexagram has a name and a meaning. Over the centuries more meanings and commentaries have been added. The book is thus a stimulus to ongoing development as well as being a repository of age old lore.

Yin-Yang Dynamic Balance
The basic idea is that each hexagram represents the balance and configuration of yin-yang in a given human situation. It is, therefore, a way of accessing the will of the gods - the tao of Heaven. Part of the sophistication of the oracle is that when one consults it one gets not just one hexagram, but two, one representing the present situation and the other suggesting where this is heading. This is not deterministic. Even if things are heading in a certain direction wise/skilful or unwise/unskilful action will still modify how it actually turns out. The oracle is simply saying, “This is how it is and if you keep going like this, such and such is where you will end up,” which might or might not be a good place.

Another important dynamic is that which exists within each hexagram itself. The lines build from the bottom. Every situation is itself in this instant, but it is also a pattern of layers relating to different points in time, a bit like strata in rock which each relate to different prehistorical epochs. This means that each hexagram is just about to turn into another as a new line enters at the bottom and the top line disappears. Further, the more lines there are of one type in a hexagram, the more likely it becomes that the next line entering is going to be of the other kind. So, at the extreme, a hexagram of all yang lines is on the point of turning into one with one yin line at the bottom. An all yang hexagram looks very strong, but when there is a yin line entering it looks weak. There is, therefore, a moral something like “Pride comes before a fall” built in. Similarly, “The meek shall inherit the Earth” can be seen in the fact that an all yin hexagram is just about to suck in a series of yang lines.

Consulting the Oracle
You can probably already discern that there is an almost infinite amount that one could say about the I Ching and its philosophy, but nothing really substitutes for making use of it in one’s life. When one does so one should adopt a particular right attitude.

There are various ways of consulting the oracle. The two most commonly used are a complicated traditional method involving the use of yarrow stalks and a simpler method using the heads and tails of coins.  However a person deeply versed in the I Ching can “see” hexagrams in natural phenomena or in contingent situations.

Firstly, one should treat the work with a reverence appropriate to its antiquity and status. Consulting the book is consulting the gods. One should not do so lightly or frivolously. Also, the oracle is no use unless one has a real question. By “real” i mean that it is a question that is important in one’s life and to which one genuinely does not have an answer. The gods are not going to co-operate with somebody who is trying to trick them or who has already made his mind up.

Best results come from questions that are not too vague. Sometimes the answer received is clearly “favourable” or “not favourable”, but sometimes a favourable outcome is conditional upon some form of right action. However, sometimes the oracle advises one to make a prudent retreat.

Trigrams
Each hexagram can be considered as consisting of two trigrams. The complete set of trigrams only has eight members, being the eight possible permutations of yin and yang lines in a set of three. There are thus a number of thought systems built up upon the trigram set. In a way these are mini versions of the I Ching.

The trigrams can, however, also add a dimension of meaning in the interpretation of a hexagram. Not only is there a lower and an upper trigram in each hexagram, but one can also “see” four successive trigrams “moving through” the hexagram from the bottom to the top.

Relation to the Tao Te Ching
The I Ching, or some version of it, is certainly older than the Tao te Ching and we can sense connections between the philosophies implicit in the two books, notwithstanding the rather cryptic style of each of them.

In chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching we find the passage
“Tao begets unity. Unity begets duality, duality begets trinity and trinity begets the myriad creatures.”
One might, based on Western thinking, or even on a basic idea of yin and yang, suppose that establishing duality would be sufficient to provide a basis for multiplicity, so why does the verse say that it is three that begets myriad? This is surely a reference to the trigrams that then give rise to the hexagrams. In duality there is still a balance, that can be paralysing. In a threesome, however, there is always a deciding vote and a shifting dynamic. Duality presents a rather static state, but once there is three things are going to happen. Change is afoot. We can see from this that the Chinese system is one in which change and dynamism are inherent in all situations.

To Western eyes it may seem that one has to be active because nothing will happen unless you do something. That might seem obvious, as when King Lear says, “Nothing comes of nothing.” However, it is Lear who ends up the tragic figure. His failure to appreciate the “nothing” of Cordelia, the only figure in the play who really exhibits the Taoist straight-heartedness, leads to his loss of everything, madness and broken heart. To the Chinese of old this would seem more obvious. Patience brings its own reward and those who too stongly seek for something end up with nothing. Things do not change because we make them do so. They change in their own way. They follow the way of the gods. The wise person who finds himself in an adverse situation, wanders and waits. Times will change. The I Ching throws light upon this process of change and helps to impart the wisdom to know when to go forward and when to retire, when to seize the day and when to show forbearance and be self-effacing.

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Replies to This Discussion

Coincidence or not, I am studying the I Ching, not as a divinatory book, that is its secondary use. The main utility of I Ching is to know the state of the Universe in a given space-time situation. It is the basement of Feng Shui and some Taoist martial arts. Also, it is used to determine the influences in the date of your born. My two cents.

Thank You David for this opportunity to learn more about the amazing science of I Ching! As Juan already has mentioned in his comment: the I Ching is not primary a divinatory book but something like a multi-dimensional image of the micro-and macrocosmos- of the dual energies yin &yang  and the dynamical combination and rhythms of this combination of yin, yang and five elements which generate all phenomenas. Therefore it can be used for divinatory purpose, Feng Shui, Martial Arts and more (Nei Gong, inner Alchemy for example). Unfortunatly i´ve never found the time to study I Ching in depth. One needs many years intense studies to really embrace and understand the whole stuff: Go on Juan :)!

Yes, thank you Juan & Francoise. The word divine is interesting, isn't it? Heaven is divine and "to divine" is to understand the way of Heaven. It is certainly possible to understand these texts as a kind of science of impersonal yin-yang forces, which, i think, is a rather modern way of using the book. We moderns want to have universal principles so that by knowing we can empower ourselves and control things. However, I suspect that for the ancients, what was important was to find out what Heaven wants of us, rather than to usurp its power. They were more willing to accept that we are (and should be) controlled and to find out what is required of us now. I think that the "modern person" wants to be the master and seeks knowledge as the means to be so, whereas the person of old accepted being the servant and was looking for instructions. So a modern person is likely to use the I Ching as a means of getting knowledge whereas originally it was a means of finding out what the gods or spirits intended. These two might work out rather similarly in many situations... in the terms Juan is using, to "know the state of the Universe in a given space-time situation" and "divination" might be pretty much the same thing, but the modern person wants to "know the state" so as to be in control whereas the ancient want to "divine" because to them the important thing was that life should be divine, not just the working of material forces. In the ancient view, Heavenly influence was everywhere at work. So I think (with Arthur Waley) that there is an old and a new way of thinking about these books and ideas. Both work, each in their own way, but I am reluctant to assert that we moderns are right and the ancients were always wrong. After all, this is their book.

There is a very interesting translation of the I-Ching by Greg Wincup, he attempts to strip back the historical accretions and get a sense of what the very early I-Ching may have been like.

It's much less mystical, and  much more practical. Very concrete advice for the leader of a community, and the pattern of the hexagrams follows the rise and fall of a leader. The divination (cracks in bones, from heating them up, originally, I think) is then used to choose the particular advice to follow - advance, retreat, be wary, gather support etc.

There is much less sense of the almost Rorschach like impressionist style of the later additions. In my experience this actually makes it less useful as an oracle, I prefer the famous Wilhelm/Baynes translation.

Waley thinks that the Wilhelm-Baynes is very good but very modern in the sense that I have been using the terms. Nothing wrong with that in itself so long as one does not take something as something that it is not. It is important that there be modern versions and modern applications. For instance, a lot of work has been done relating the I Ching to Jungian psychology. Now, in a certain sense, all of that is "accretion" but very useful for all that.

Then there are certainly plenty of people attempting to find an "original" but i think the whole thing is very difficult because everybody has their preference (prejudice?) about what that should look like so I don't think much of this is impartial. Many people would like to find ancient support for modern attitudes. Often this means taking out the bits one does not like and calling them "accretions". The same thing happens with Buddhist texts. Are all the references to Buddha talking to gods "accretions" for instance as some followers of the "Buddhism without beliefs" persuasion would like us to think? I doubt it.

I don't know the Wincup version so I can't even give an opinion on whether he is successful or not.The idea that the original was intended for the use of leaders seems quite credible. Certainly Confucius was mostly interested in speaking to leaders and he was much later. Early on they were probably the only people worth influencing.

I do have nine other versions of the I Ching and mostly they have the intent of making the I Ching speak to modern people. That, after all is what is going to get a book sold. If the author can further lay it on that this modern sanitised version is what the original author really meant three thousand years ago, then it sells even better, but who knows? I would certainly be interested to see all and any attempts. If we can later look at some specific parts of text, we may all become a little bit wiser.

I certainly cannot claim any final authority in these matters. I am just sharing my opinion and gleanings, just like anybody else. I'm rather sensitive to reading modern preference backwards into ancient text. The modern ideas should stand on their own feet. But then this becomes complicated because one of the modern prejudices is that original is best and there is therefore a lot of scholarly investigation and research into trying to find original versions. Some of this is really helpful, but some of it risks completely missing the point because it is very difficult for a modern person to think like a person from the bronze age.

Yes - we must  be wary of the modern tradition of putting words into the elders mouths... Whincup (with an H, not as I typed above) recognises a pattern and progression in the hexagrams which seems to support his interpretation - of course he would say that - we're just about to have our community meal - but perhaps if I get time later or over the weekend I'll post something of his and we can compare it to some of the other translations.

I do have to say that I find consulting the oracle very helpful, and as sometimes the path it draws me towards is not the one I was consciously leaning towards I don't think it's conformation bias.

  

I'll also just received Khigh Alx Dhiegh's The Eleventh Wing in the post, which is an attempt to make the I Ching accessible for modern readers and dilemmas - I've hardly started it yet, but I do like his idea/ritual that one should formulate the question in eight words - a way of really investigating what the dilemma is - like you he also councils it's use only when there are real dilemmas. I'll let you know what the rest of it's like when I've read some more.

Maybe it is interesting for You to have a look on Lama Anagarika Govinda´s "The Inner Structure of the IGing", preface by Zentatsu Baker-Roshi, Introduction by John Blofeld and calligraphy by Al Chung-Liang Huang. The book is difficult to find and quiet expansive now but there are a free download in the internet by Scribd:

de.scribd.com/213968649/The-Inner-Structure-of-the-I-Ching-Lama-Anagarika-Govinda#scribd

Lama Govinda writes that the Tao Te Ching was "obviously based on the teachings of the Book of Transformations".

Confucius admitted that if he could live another seventy years, he would spend them studying the I Ching. It is deeper than any of us could imagine...

Francoise Guillot said:

Thank You David for this opportunity to learn more about the amazing science of I Ching! As Juan already has mentioned in his comment: the I Ching is not primary a divinatory book but something like a multi-dimensional image of the micro-and macrocosmos- of the dual energies yin &yang  and the dynamical combination and rhythms of this combination of yin, yang and five elements which generate all phenomenas. Therefore it can be used for divinatory purpose, Feng Shui, Martial Arts and more (Nei Gong, inner Alchemy for example). Unfortunatly i´ve never found the time to study I Ching in depth. One needs many years intense studies to really embrace and understand the whole stuff: Go on Juan :)!

Dear Francoise - sounds like a very interesting reference but when I tried it it said "This page does not exist" :-(

Thanks, Juan - yes, he evidently had great respect for it.

Juan de Dios López-Rienda said:

Confucius admitted that if he could live another seventy years, he would spend them studying the I Ching. It is deeper than any of us could imagine...

Sorry David! I have been this evening on the page. Maybe i made a mistake by Copying the Link. Go first to google and search the Titel of the book and "scribd".Maybe it will work. If not, please tell me!

David Brazier said:

Dear Francoise - sounds like a very interesting reference but when I tried it it said "This page does not exist" :-(

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