I CHING: The Book of Change

Posted on 4 March 2016

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.

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.

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 strongly 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.


Posted on March 18, 2016

I wanted to explain more about the I Ching, So I thought the best way was to let the oracle speak for itself.

To use the oracle, one casts a hexagram. There is a complex method using yarrow stalks and a simpler method using coins. I always use the latter. One keeps three coins especially for this purpose in a special place treated with respect. When one wants to consult the oracle one formulates a question and then keeps it strongly in mind as one casts the coins. There is one throw of coins for each line. The lines cast are termed either moving or unmoving lines. Moving lines add to the judgement of the hexagram and also enable one to determine a second hexagram. the first hexagram is the oracle’s answer to the question in the present. The second hexagram gives and indication where things are leading to in the future.

I asked the oracle what hexagram I should display to enable readers to understand the I Ching better. I got hexagram 16, Enthusiasm, with one moving line at the top.

The description tells us that the strong line in the fourth place (places are counted from the bottom) represents leadership and the lower trigram represents devotion. So, when good leadership is coupled with devotion, enthusiasm follows and carries all before it. The hexagram also suggests movement along the line of least resistance, like the flow of water, which here reveals the pattern of the natural events of human life.

Reading this, I feel that there cannot really be a much better description of the general way in which the I Ching functions. It provides leadership based on the natural “water-course” movement that is the foundational guide to natural human life and if its leadership is treated with devotion and reverence, it leads to enthusiasm and success.

The judgement tells us that when good leadership is at hand one should appoint helpers and get things moving. I think this tells us that the I Ching is not just theoretical or philosophical, it is practical. It is to be acted upon.

The image is that of “thunder that comes resounding out of the earth”. The explanation of this image says that it symbolises the resolution of prolonged tension, just as thunder in early summer resolves the tension in the sky. This resolution has the power to”loosen the grip of obscure emotions”.

The secondary image is of the ancient kings making music to honour merit and please the ancestors. The explanation says that, like the thunder, music resolves tensions. It also expresses joy and enthusiasm and brings people together.

The images tell us that the I Ching is a holy book, a place of ritual, inculcating reverence for ancestors and sacred powers, that, by doing so, it resolves personal problems and releases energy for constructive action that brings the community together.

The single moving line carries a judgement to beware of false enthusiasm. The implication is that it is not too dreadful a thing to be carried away by over-enthusiasm sometimes, so long as one is capable of seeing sense in due course.

When the moving line changes, we arrive at hexagram 35. This is the hexagram Progress. This hexagram represents the sun rising over the earth. “It is the symbol of rapid, easy progress, which means ever widening expansion and clarity”.

So now you know what the I Ching wants you to know about itself.

Calm Before and After Completion

Posted on March 24, 2016

The I Ching is the book of change. So it is about the patterns of change and what we can learn from studying those patterns. The basic unit of the book is the hexagram. This diagram of six lines mutates in a variety of ways. Six is 1x2x3. In other words it is the multiple of the first three numbers which are also the first three prime numbers. Thus, some of the emergent patterns are also a function of number logic. There are various ancient and modern theories about how the basic structure of the universe relates to, or even simply is, numbers.

Let us consider the last two hexagrams in the full sequence. These are numbers 63 and 64. These are to do with the situation when something is coming to an end - a project, a life, a journey, a practice, a phase of life, - things have trajectory and there are beginnings, middles and ends. These last hexagrams are about ending.

Chi Chi : After Completion Wei Chi : Before Completion

63, Chi Chi is, in a certain way, the perfect hexagram. All the lines are in what is considered to be their proper places. So this represents what the ordinary person thinks they are aiming for - the state in which everything has been completed. The job is done. All is now perfect. However, the judgement on this hexagram is: in the beginning good fortune and in the end disorder. The problem with achieving any kind of perfection is that it is all downhill from now on.

64. Wie Chi is the opposite hexagram. Wherever chichi has a yang line, wei chi has a yin one and vice versa. This is essentially a more auspicious hexagram than Chi Chi. It suggests that there is disorder at the moment, but order is coming. This is like the adage "poor dress rehearsal - alright on the night."  There is still danger and the judgement here is "steady as she goes". The natural order is that a good outcome is on its way but if one tries to rush or use too much of one's own strength this possibility will be lost.

Now, aside from the values of these two, as judgements, it is interesting to see the relationship between them. If one were to be in one of these positions and wish to be in the other one, one would have to change every single line. This would be difficult and complicated. However, the natural movement of the lines is upward. In each case a new line is just about to enter at the bottom. If a yin line were to enter chi chi it would immediately and naturally become wei chi without further ado. Equally, if a yang line enters wei chi it becomes chi chi. So by doing nothing one would have a fifty percent chance of getting there.

Of course, the alternative could happen. A yang line could enter chi chi or a yin line enter wei chi. In that case one arrives at

38. K'uei : Opposition 39. Chien : Obstruction

Now these two are both rather unfortunate situations. K'uei refers to conflict within and Chien to obstacle without. Chien gives the image of being stuck between a mountain and an abyss whereas K'uei is the image of conflict within the family. In both these situations what is needed is stillness and patience. While the image is of bad situations, these are both hexagrams that prescribe meditative calm rather than action. In these situations, action will make matters worse, though in different ways. Of course, if one keeps one's equanimity, the situation will again transform as yin or yang lines enter from below.

So this particular range of changes mostly prescribes inaction. Good fortune and bad fortune comes and goes, but throughout it all there is a still point. We can struggle to create change, but when we do so we tend to reckon without the fact that change will come inevitably anyway. We can see that in the philosophy of I Ching there is a deep respect for natural change and although sometimes decisive action is demanded of us, a high priority is given to respect for the natural process first.

The broad advice here is to be particularly careful as things reach completion. If all goes well, then one's role will be that of steadying things as they naturally ripen. By now the conditions should all already be in place. If things go badly - the "wrong" new line comes in - then a calm response is even more important. And finally, after completion, don't go too wild. Even if everything has been a big success, new chaos is on its way and one needs to be prepared to transform this into a fertile situation, so celebrate, but don't rest on your laurels too long.

The Turning Point

Posted April 6, 2016

The first two hexagrams of the I Ching are also a pair of opposites, just like the last two. To change one of these into the other you would have to change every line. However, unlike the final two, there is no natural tendency for them to change into each other.

Ch'ien: The Creative

K'un: The Receptive

These two are Ch’ien, “The Creative” and K’un “The Receptive”. Ch’ien is wholy yang and K’un wholly yin. The Wilhelm-Baynes translation says that Ch’ien stands for “the primal power, which is light-giving, active, strong and of the spirit.” It symbolises Heaven. K’un stands for “the dark, yielding, receptive, primal power of yin”. It symbolises the Earth and represents Nature in contrast to Spirit.

We can, therefore, directly relate these two hexagrams to the yin-yang circle. The Tao is the circle and the yin and yang are the components, ever circling around one another. From the persoective of ancient China this is the essential flow and principle of all relationships and the key to things going well is for us to behave in accordance with the Tao, which means that, according as we find ourselves in the position of yin or the position of yang, acting accordingly.

One might think that this is a highly conservative philosophy and in a certain way it is, but not a static one. In the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world we have a strong tradition of opposition, but we tend not to see how the opponents need each other in the way that is suggested in the Tao. Political parties often act as though their aim was to completely eliminate the opposition. In court, one side wins and the other side loses.

So, one might object, but what if the powerful abuse their power? This would usually mean being overly yang. From the point of view of the I Ching, if one is in a yang position and one uses that power in a childish way, simply lining one’s own pocket or having a tantrum at the expense of those you don’t like, then you are, by that very fact, shedding some of your yang lines. There is, therefore, a natural tendency for abused power to decay and fall.

Also, when one is in either position it pays not to be arrogant about it, either in a positive or negative fashion. All hexagrams are on the point of changing. In these cases - the only ones of this kind in the whole set of 64, we know what each is going to turn into. With all the other hexagrams the line entering at the bottom could be either yin or yang but since each of these is already saturated, if nothing happens to change the course, ch’ien has to naturally turn into 44 Ku and K’un has to turn into 24 Fu. Fu is associated with mid-winter when the light begins to return and Ku with mid-summer when, although things seem bright, they are already starting to move toward the dark time.

Ku: Coming to meet Fu: Return

Ku suggests that when power is at its peak, it is something that at first seems weak and innocuous that creeps in and destroys it. Fu represent a turning point. When we look at the careers of great people, they have often experienced a time of despair followed by such a turning point.  looking back, years later, one sees that the disaster was, in fact, the best thing that ever happened to one because it jolted one out of a rut and forced one to consider possibilities that would otherwise have seemed unthinkable.

In a way, it is really Ku and Fu that are most in tune with the yin-yang circle, since in that circle there is a spot of dark in the light and a spot of light in the dark. It is this spot that we tend to overlook that brings about the most profound change.

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