Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mysteries of the I Ching, Part II

Example of I Ching Divination

In order to better explain the I Ching and what it's all about, I decided to do a sample casting for the purposes of this post. The question I asked was "What is the I Ching?" and the symbol I got from counting out the yarrow stalks was this:

Symbol #62 (Xiao Guo) with the third line changing from yang to yin.

Meaning of Symbol

The Wilhelm translation of I Ching renders Xiao Guo as "Preponderance of the Small." For comparision, one of the copies I have at home (edited by Alfred Huang) calls this symbol "Little Exceeding" and the other (by Wu Wei) labels it "Attention to Detail/Small Tasks/Avoid Excess".

Huang translates the text for this symbol as follows:

King Wen's Judgment:

Little Exceeding.
Prosperous and smooth.
Favorable to be steadfast and upright.
Little affairs can be done,
Not great affairs.
A flying bird leaves a message:
Not appropriate to ascend,
Appropriate to descend.
Great good fortune.

Commentary on Judgment:

Little Exceeding.
The little ones exceed and proceed.
Favorable to be steadfast and upright
And to act in accord with the time.

The yielding attain the central places.
There is good fortune in dealing with small affairs.
The solids are neither central nor correct.
Great affairs should not be dealt with.

There is an image of a flying bird.
The flying bird leaves a message:
Not appropriate to ascend,
Appropriate to descend.
Great good fortune!
To ascend is contrary to the situation;
To descend is in accord with the time.

Commentary on Symbol:

Thunder above Mountain
An image of Little Exceeding.
In correspondence with this,
The superior person weighs the pros and cons of his conduct:
Excessive humility is better than excessive arrogance in behavior.
Excessive sorrow is better than excessive expense in a funeral.
Excessive frugality is better than excessive luxury in spending.

Right, so what does all this mean? Wu Wei actually seems to sum up the symbol pretty well: the central themes are (a) paying attention to small details, (b) aiming to accomplish small, acheivable goals (little accomplishments will eventually add up to something big), and (c) avoiding excess (its better to make due with a little less than the ideal than to have too much).

And what's all that business about the flying bird leaving behind a message? Huang explains that, from watching the mother bird leave the nest, the baby birds learn that it is better to fly low than to fly high. Flying closer to the ground is safer, in part because you're more likely to be within reach of a suitable place to land when the time comes. For me this brings to mind the myth of Icarus, and I feel like the I Ching is recounting the same allegorical lesson about the dangers of soaring too high.

So that's step one. Step two is to look at the line-text for our changing line (the third line in the symbol). Here's Huang's translation of the line-text along with the associated commentary:

Yao Text

Third Nine
Go not too far.
Guard against this.
Otherwise one might be injured: misfortune.


Otherwise one might be injured
What a serious misfortune it is.

So yeah that doesn't really seem to add much to our understanding in this case. The line-text just further emphasizes the warning against going too far or overdoing it. Also, watch your back!.

Our final step is to check out what symbol is formed when that third line completes its change from yang to yin. This turns out to be symbol #16 (Yu) which is variously translated as Enthusiasm, Delight, Happiness, Peace. Some of the explanations I read for Yu include "inspire enthusiasm/ great success/remain humble" and "humility and sincerity bring harmony." Also: after you acheive success you must try to remain humble and avoid selfish thoughts.

My interpretation

I think that this is actually a pretty interesting and appropriate answer to our question ("What is the I Ching?"). The I Ching is "preponderance of the small." This makes sense given that in order to use the I Ching you have to take some time and sort through sticks. The I Ching is attention to detail, success through small achievements/realizable goals and avoiding excess. And, finally, the I Ching leads to happiness and harmony and success but remember to stay humble.

Putting all the answer stuff aside, I think that this casting also tells you a lot about what the I Ching is like. As you can see, in addition to being a fortune telling instrument, the I Ching is actually pretty didactic. It's text is full of advice about being steadfast, moral, honest, upright, etc. I want to say that this sets it apart from other fortune telling techniques like tarot cards or tea leaves or whatever. With the I Ching, any pronouncement about the future always comes hand in hand with a lot of preachy/sage wisdom.

Consulting the I Ching is more usually a solitary, introspective experience. With tarot cards, the meaning of the cards is really wide open to different interpretation which you leave up to a fortune teller. But with the I Ching it's all written down in a big book. The answer you get is definitely open to some interpretation, but if you're literate and intelligent you can decide for yourself how the words apply to your question/situation. Interestingly enough, I read an article where the author said that when she spoke to people about the I Ching she found that no one ever claimed its answers were incorrect -- in the worse cases the answer was just obscure. What's more, you'll really never go astray following its advice since the I Ching's philosophy is very much about being the most moral, disciplined person you can be.

Image: illustration of Xiao Guo from


nola32 said...

i do agree that i've never asked an i ching question that came out with an answer that i thought was wrong, i just feel as if sometimes it can get very complicated. upon reflection though i have to say that maybe it's because i've asked questions to which i already know the answer and have gone through the trouble just to have it tell me to be patient or that the path is already clear to me and that's frustrating.
i feel like the i ching is how you want to go if you want good divination and tarot is the way to go if you want the answer you want to hear rather than the answer that you should hear.

Meeg said...

That's an interesting take on the I Ching v. tarot.

I will admit that sometimes the answers can be complicated and even obscure. And I've also read that "often when you get the answer it's what you thought/knew all along" so there you go...