The I Ching or Book of Changes


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Six-lined figures, with each line in one of two states, meaning that there were two to the power of six possibilities in all, or It furthers one to see the great man… When there is hoarfrost underfoot, solid ice is not far off… Bites through tender meat, so that his nose disappears… The wild goose gradually draws near the tree.

Perhaps it will find a flat branch. No blame.

In the weeks and months that followed, I started getting to know the I Ching better. It was in this way that I found myself becoming a diviner. A couple of days after getting the book home, for the very first time I took three coins — twopence pieces seemed to be suitably unostentatious — formulated a question, and went about the ritual of casting my first hexagram on the basis of each toss of the coins, thus putting my foot on the slippery slope that would lead first to learning Chinese and, eventually, almost inevitably, to China.

Guide to Life's Turning Points

M y relationship with the I Ching was complex from the very beginning. Meanwhile, on the internet, whole armies of crazies advanced their theories about the book: that it coded the deep structures of human DNA; that it provided mathematical proof of the Mayan prophecy of the ending of the world; that it might hold the secret to that holy grail of the physicists, a Theory of Everything.

And when I read these things, I found myself thinking of the 20th-century British Sinologist Joseph Needham, who said that the I Ching was nothing more than a massive filing system for pigeonholing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. The I Ching seemed to adapt to any purpose whatsoever. I felt myself descending into a realm of unfettered lunacy, stumbling across increasingly bizarre claims made on behalf of the I Ching ; and yet on the other hand the book seemed, bafflingly, to work. I divined for new hexagrams and new stories, tossing coins or sorting yarrow stalks, sat at my desk with a stick of incense burning, and the longer I did so, the more the stories continued to multiply.

I was caught between profound unease at the sheer unreason of what I was doing, and the fact that the I Ching so often bore rich fruit in new thoughts, ideas and images. So, in , I travelled to China to get to the bottom of things. There, covering thousands of miles by train and bus, I set about trying to establish once and for all what this book was about. In Tianshui, I made offerings in the temple of Fuxi, the legendary originator of the I Ching ; in Shandong and Hong Kong, I spent time discussing divination practices with philosophers; between Beijing and Guangzhou, I endured an uncomfortable hour train journey in the company of a deranged tattooed diviner who talked the entire time; and along the way, I accumulated books and articles that I sent home in large, unwieldy packages.

I began to wonder if attempting to understand the I Ching in terms of understanding the I Ching was to risk misunderstanding the I Ching. The priest pushed his entrance-fee sign to one side, opened a drawer and took out a notebook, tearing off a page. He took a biro from his pocket and smiled at me. Then he started an impromptu lecture. As he talked, he scribbled complex diagrams and notes on the page. He told me about Fuxi, about hexagrams and their constituent three-line trigrams, about the pole star and astrology, about philosophy and metaphysics, about the Hetu or the River Map, which explains the relationship between the eight trigrams, and about the wuxing or five phases of wood, fire, earth, metal and water, and its relationship to the numerological magic square known as the Luoshu , or Luo River Book.

I leant forwards, occasionally asking him to repeat something, trying to look intelligent; but very quickly I found myself lost in thickets of philosophical and linguistic difficulty. I had read about all this stuff countless times, but I have never had the kind of mind that could keep track of complexity. This makes me a poor student of esoterica.

As the lecture proceeded, a crowd started to gather, because in the most populous nation on earth, crowds are easily summoned. The two old ladies whom I had passed on my way up the hill now stepped into the cool of the temple and grinned wildly to see the foreigner talking with the priest. A family appeared from somewhere or other, the children peering at me in fascination. Three or four others also congregated behind me. As the priest continued to scribble various astral configurations and hexagrams and mystical diagrams, all annotated in a spidery handwritten Chinese, a debate began to take hold among the onlookers.

Yes, he does! But I heard him speak Chinese! No, I distinctly heard him speak some Chinese! A few words, perhaps, no more. What about Dashan, the Chinese TV celebrity?

How to Understand and Consult the Ancient I Ching

Dashan is a Canadian, and he speaks Chinese. Yes, but this guy is clearly not Dashan. With the debate behind me, and the priest in front of me spiralling ever deeper into metaphysical complexity, I felt the beginnings of a headache; but at last the lecture came to an end, the priest folded up the paper and handed it to me. I put it in my breast pocket, where later, while hiking up another nearby hill, it would become unreadably drenched with sweat. I thanked the little old Daoist. He chuckled as he shook my hand.

Then I stood up and smiled at the small crowd that had gathered behind me, and I scuttled into the darkness to nurse my headache and get myself some peace. N ow you understand the I Ching , he said; but in truth I understood no more than I had before. The I Ching has always had the curious quality of becoming more baffling the more I have found out about it.

While I knew an increasing number of facts relating to the I Ching , as time went on I was not sure that I actually knew the I Ching itself any better than when I started out. By the time I flew home, I felt even further away from understanding the I Ching than at the outset.


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It was only after my return to the UK that I began to wonder if attempting to understand the I Ching in terms of understanding the I Ching was to risk misunderstanding the I Ching. In other words, although we are accustomed, in this information age, to treat books only in terms of the information that they contain, what is most compelling about the I Ching is not so much the promise of some secret, hidden, innermost meaning. Instead, what is most striking is the very real and concrete impact the book has had upon the world through the centuries.

Meaning nothing, containing the seeds of countless possible meanings, the I Ching is the space at the hub that allows the wheel to turn.


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Undeniably, the I Ching has been one of the most breathtakingly productive of books, a book that has put its stamp on some of the greatest philosophers, poets and writers in Chinese history, that gave Leibniz sleepless nights, that fired up the creative juices of the likes of Dylan and Philip K Dick. A book this productive had to have something going for it. The only question was, what? So, more recently, I have started to ask a different set of questions about the I Ching.

I am no longer so worried about what the book means , about what wisdom, if any, it imparts. Instead, I have started to content myself with asking about what it does. In fact, I have come to suspect that perhaps the book has no wisdom to impart, that perhaps it means nothing whatsoever, and it might be in this that it is possible to find the secret of its power. Meaning nothing, the seethe of images — dragons and hoarfrost, migratory geese and ice — nevertheless contains the seeds of innumerable possible meanings. It is like a ring doughnut: empty in the middle, but with the meaning around the outside.

But, of course, there cannot be a ring doughnut without a hole — or to paraphrase the passage in the ancient Chinese text the Laozi , it is thanks to the hole at the hub that the wheel turns. A fter seven years, the book I set out to write is complete. I have written 64 stories, with commentaries, each based on a hexagram of the I Ching : stories about gods, bizarre machines, archaeologists and kleptomaniac pensioners, non-existent rulers, fox-spirits, inventors, and infernal bureaucrats.

Like the I Ching itself, this book of changes that I have written is a strange beast, a little too strange perhaps for any wholly sane publisher to take a risk on. But long ago, this project stopped being about writing this one book. So much else has followed from my long tussle with the I Ching : five years of studying Chinese, visits to hillside temples in China, innumerable new stories and fresh thoughts, a multiplication of projects, possibilities and friendships, and new scents to follow.

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The uncertainty machine

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, although my own book of changes is close to an end, I still find myself turning to the I Ching for guidance. I do so not because the I Ching provides me with fresh certainties or with off-the-peg wisdom, but rather because when I put the book to work it tends to give me better uncertainties. Sitting with the coins or yarrow stalks in my hand, going through the ritual of asking the I Ching a question, I am not looking for some irrational mystical guidance. Instead, I am looking for a release from the prison of competing certainties, a way of letting loose the simmering doubts and confusions that accompany all thought, so that I can take advantage of their creative richness.

In other words, I use the I Ching not as a certainty machine, but as an uncertainty machine. Dissolving false certainties, it integrates the fact of unknowing into the fabric of my thinking, opening me up to hitherto unimagined possibilities, scattering the monotony of my either-or dilemmas into a myriad of forking paths. The world we live in is very different from that in which the I Ching first arose. We have access to an astonishing array of tools and algorithms and banks of data that help in predicting probabilities for the future.

Each one is indicated by a hexagram, which is a symbol made up by 6 lines, each of which can be broken or unbroken.

Introduction to the I Ching - By Richard Wilhelm

To decide which hexagram is related to the situation at hand, a "random" hexagram is obtained by throwing coins or yarrow sticks, that traditionally were used. The "random" hexagram is supposed to not be random at all, but to coincide with the situation. There doesn't seem to be any scientific theory that explains how this can be although some people think quantum mechanics provides for a possible explanation.

However, experience shows that it works in practice. The psychologist C. Hexagrams are sets of six lines, that can be broken or unbroken. The broken lines are "yin," the unbroken lines "yang. The 64 hexagrams are indicated by a number, that is universal. They also have a name, that may differ. The coins are thrown six times, while a question is held in mind.

The hexagram is built from the bottom up, so the first line is the bottom one, the sixth line the top one.

The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes
The I Ching or Book of Changes The I Ching or Book of Changes

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