Monday, September 7, 2009

Mysteries of the I Ching, Part I

What is the I Ching?

The I Ching is one of the most ancient Chinese texts.  It was included among the Five Classics preserved and taught by followers of Confucius, which all predate the establishment of the Qin dynasty by the book-burning First Emperor in 221 BC.  "I Ching" is usually translated as "The Book of Changes" which reflects the tome's underlying philosophy: that our world is made up of forces (opposing forces, balanced forces) which are always changing, that history is cyclical, and that there is continuity between the past, present and future.  I also have a copy which calls itself "The Book of Answers," reflecting the fact that the I Ching is primarily used for divination.

How did I discover the I Ching?

I think I was wholly ignorant of this classic until three years ago when I read the novel The Man in the High Castle by scifi writer Philip K Dick (the guy who wrote the book on which Blade Runner was based).  The novel, which deserves a recommendation in and of itself, takes places in an alternative world where the Japanese and the Germans won WWII.  The US has been carved up, with the Nazis taking the East Coast and the Japanese the West, while a Free America in the Heartland acts as a buffer between the two world powers.

Most of the action takes place in the western half of the country where the I Ching figures among the many aspects of Asian culture disseminated under Japanese occupation.  Several of the characters consult the oracle for advice, and Dick claims that he turned to it for guidance when he was writing the novel.

After finishing The Man in the High Castle my curiosity was piqued and I was eager to check it out for myself, but (although I gave it to a couple of people as a gift) I didn't get a copy of my own until earlier this year.

History of the I Ching

The I Ching's origins are prehistorical.  Traditionally, much of the classic's present, written form is attributed to the work of three authors.  King Wen ("Zhou Wen Wang" 周文王, , 1099-1050 BC), the progenitor of China's Zhou dynasty (1045 - 256 BC), is credited with putting the 64 symbols in their present order and with writing the Judgments for each of the symbols.  While Wen's son King Wu would go on to defeat their enemies the Shang and put the family in power, Wu's younger brother -- known as the Duke of Zhou ("Zhou Gong" 周公) -- is said to have continued their father's literary work and written the explanations for each of the six horizontal lines that comprise each symbol.  Finally, the commentary further expanding on the meaning of the symbols, King Wen's judgments, and the Duke of Zhou's line-texts is traditionally attributed to Confucius (孔夫子, 551 - 479 BC).

Contemporary historians now believe that the traditional account of the I Ching's authorship is legendary, much the same way that the Torah is thought to be the work not of the prophet Moses but of a number of different authors.  Nevertheless, scholars believe that the core of I Ching  (the symbols, judgments and line-texts) were written down and canonized during the span of Zhou dynasty with the commentary being added by later generations of Confucianists, perhaps incorporating elements of an oral tradition that began with the philosopher himself.

How to consult the I Ching

The way that I Ching divination works, basically, is you ask a question and then you are directed to one of the book's symbols and whatever is written there is your answer.  You can either ask a question seeking knowledge (what will the new year hold?) or advice (what should I do about...?).  One of the books I have at home suggests that the wise man asks "what should I do?" rather than "what will happen?"

In order to find out what your symbol is, you need some way to generate random numbers. Perhaps the most ancient method involved banging turtle shells and reading the cracks that formed, but the knowledge of how to do this has been lost (plus, poor turtles!). Another one of the oldest methods employs dried yarrow stalks, and this technique (or at least a modern reconstruction) is still used today.  There's really no reason why you couldn't use a bundle of any old kind of sticks (you need 50), but -- you know -- the yarrow stalks are traditional.

A more recently invented method (which became popular in the 12th/13th century AD) uses three coins.  A lot of people like this method because it makes it quicker and easier to get the six lines of your hexagram, but at least one of my I Ching books disparages the coin method as "inauthentic."  Also, the probability of getting each of the four types of lines is different depending on whether you're tossing coins or counting sticks.  I've only used the yarrow stalks; I guess I feel like it gives you the full I Ching experience.

The process of manipulating the sticks is somewhat complicated (here is a good set of instructions).  You need to do this six times in order to get the six lines that make up your symbol.  Each line is either yin (broken) or yang (solid) and either constant or changing.  When you are finished, you look up your symbol in the I Ching and read the corresponding judgment and commentary (your translation of the I Ching may also include a further explanation provided by the translator/editor).

But this is not the end: if your symbol includes any changing lines you should also read the line-texts for these lines (and the associated commentary) which usually give you a more specific answer applying to the situation you are asking about.  I Ching users are sometimes uncertain how to interpret an answer with more than one changing line, but I follow the general rule that a lower changing line speaks of a situation closer to the immediate present whereas higher changing lines speak about a later, future situation.  Finally, when the changes have occurred (i.e. changing yin lines have turned into yang lines and vice versa) the six lines will form a new symbol.  Look up this new symbol and read the Judgment and commentary to find out what the situation will be like once the current changes have been resolved.

Stay tuned for Part II and an example of I Ching divination

Images: cover of I Ching edition published by St. Martin's Griffin found at; portrait of King Wen found at; photo of statue outside of Confucius temple in Beijing found on wikipedia.


nola32 said...

yeah, i was one of the people you gave one to. it was a whole divination set sort of thing though, not just a book on the i ching. it's really hard to cast, i feel, and takes a great deal of willingness, effort and concentration. it certainly is the hardest of all of the divination techniques (tarot maybe being the easiest-- oh no, wait, magic 8-ball is the easiest). i do really dig i-ching and have actually had someone (who claimed to be an 'expert') do it for me. i must say that i found it much more satisfying to do it myself. the guy who did it for me didn't really explain what he was talking about very well, he didn't source the book on what the predictions were, he was reading from memory (and i frankly think that his memory wasn't so great). my only problem with i ching divination is that sometimes you get uber complex answers to your questions. i've asked simple, 'what should i do about x?' type of questions and ended up with a whole series of answers that seemed to lead in circles.

Meeg said...

Doing the casting with the sticks can seem pretty complicated at first and its somewhat time consuming. But the more you do it the better you get at it.

I am dubious about that expert too.