Root Of Wisdom
An Introduction To The I Ching
How many times have we seen it? The young monk is living a simple life among the working masses, oppressed by a decadent and corrupt despot. By his common wisdom and honesty, the philosopher warrior is able to win the hearts and minds of the people, and through his deep insight he is able to prevail against the minions of the Emperor. His enemies fall like reeds at his blows, yet they are powerless to strike him. He thinks back upon his esoteric training in the innermost chambers of the ancient Shaolin Temple, and the mysterious precepts he learned there come forth at his call to enable him to see exactly at which point to strike the huge Empire to bring its righteous fall.
This is written for the reader who would wish to learn something about that much-touted and allegedly-inscrutable Oriental wisdom to be obtained by study of the martial arts. This is for the one who wants to know more about the ancient discipline of martial arts than just how to kick assiduously and speak ten Japanese words. It is for the philosopher who is curious about the secret inner truth of Kung Fu, but would prefer not to spend seven years in the rice-fields and dojos. It is for the student of Buddhism, of Zen, or Tao, for anyone who would seek the root of wisdom in the philosophies of the ancient Orient.
Is that mysterious Oriental insight still secret, or is it available to all, perhaps taught to students of martial arts? Yes, it is available, and like all great wisdom when it appears, it is infinitely simple, as simple as water flowing downhill and flame rushing upward, simple as a straw driven through the trunk of a tree by the intense power of the hurricane, as simple as the yielding of the solid rock to the gently insistent pressure of the root. There exists a key, preserved for millennia, but available in the Western world only in the last two centuries. It is an archaic form of Chinese divining called the I Ching, which means The Book of Changes.
We Westerners are just becoming introduced to the Oriental mind. Our own history of the Orient is the history of Europeans who have gone to China, their wars and dealings. Oriental thought has been regarded as inscrutable and given no further consideration. For all too many, Chinese history begins with Marco Polo's civilizing influence and reaches its culmination in Richard Nixon's visit to restore capitalist trade with Beijing.
When Dharuma walked the mountains of Burma in 527 AD to bring Buddha to the Emperor of China, he is reported to have noted that the Chinese had no schools of discipline to develop their bodies and minds. He is said to have founded the Shaolin Temple and begun training monks in a series of systematized exercises. These exercises, and the method used to teach them, developed in the students not only great physical strength and skill, but also the wisdom and moral fiber to use their advantage correctly. In the Hindu culture of Dharuma, such an enlightening discipline is called a Yoga. To western cultures such an idea is a sort of religion, sort of science, sort of sport, and sort of art. When the temple was established, the essential content of the flowery and allegorical theology of India, as distilled through the mind of the Buddha, was wed to the ancient dualist tradition long expressed in the I Ching. This event marks the beginning of the Chinese forms of "Yoga" collectively called Kung Fu.
The idea that life is the mystical dance of opposites is basic to Hindu thought. In the I Ching this same idea is reduced to a symbolic pattern, a set of naturally-derived characters which show the steps of that mystical dance. According to both, wherever opposites occur in the world, it is natural that the relationship between them changes in cycles. The principles of cyclic dualism illustrated by the I Ching were applied not only to fighting forms, but also to poetry, calligraphy, dance, and also to family structure, social structure, and medicine.
The I Ching's method for understanding Tao, the natural way of the universe, is based on this idea of polar opposites. The basic polar opposite pair are called Yang and Yin. By showing changes in the relationship of Yin and Yang in a symbolic cyclic system, the I Ching enables us to see those changes in the real cyclic systems in the world. It is exactly like the understanding possessed by a farmer who knows the cycle of seasons, is able to tell what season he is in, and thus knows what to do to be ready for the season coming next. The I Ching uses several cycles which are easily observable in the world, including the cycle of seasons, day and night, growth and death of plants, the motion of water from sea to cloud and back, the generations of a family, and the revolution of social forms. By aligning these cycles, we are enabled to see similarities which identify the various phases of any cycle. The sage, the Kung Fu man, who has mastered the I Ching's keys to the common elements of all cycles, can see his position in many cycles, and thus can behave wisely in all matters.
The I Ching is a symbolic study used to analyze that cycle of polar opposites. Over the centuries, many great scholars and sages have added their own commentaries to the book. Confucius (a Latinization of "Kung Fu Man") and Lao Tsu both are credited with being scholars of the I Ching who added to the work in their elder years. The book came to be considered the clearest means of gaining practical understanding of Tao, the "way," that is, the way it really is, the way events are really related, in the most fundamental natural sense. Taoist thinking suggests that for any circumstances, there are certain relationships and actions which are in perfect accord with Tao which, if followed, will result in the maximum success. The I Ching is a key to knowing those actions.
The I Ching may be the oldest book on the planet, its origin obscured by the centuries in the pre-recorded periods of the history of China. Both Confucius and Lao Tsu were students of the I Ching, and both exerted great influence on the interpretation given it after their lives. It was studied by the ruling families of the great dynasties, considered by them to be an accurate description of the Tao - the order of nature - and hence used as a model for their societies. Through the growth of the Chinese empire and the religious philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism, the I Ching perhaps more than any other single work has shaped Chinese culture and most accurately represents classical Chinese thought.
It is fundamental to the I Ching that cyclic behavior is the necessary result of the introduction of motion, that is, change, to any system manifesting polarity or duality. Since it is implicit in either element of a duality that both elements exist, that which actually changes is only the relationship. Regardless of the medium in which the cycles take place or the symbols used to measure them, all cycles progress through the same relationships in the periodic waxing and waning of their elements. In a like manner to the 360-degree system, a number of cardinal points are marked off along the cycle of natural changes of relationship in dualities. Understanding each of these cardinal relationships, the sage is able to recognize his place in the cycles, and is thereby able to act in harmony with his true nature. These relationships are described in terms of several duality cycles, including the seasons, the cycle of generations and family relationships, plant growth, the cycle of revolution in the state, clouds and rain, and the diurnal cycle. The cardinal points are a set of sixty-four unique patterns called the Hexagrams, so named because each one is made up of six lines.
In order to determine the symbolic relationships revealed by the combinations, the basic forms, the lines, are given the following meaning.
===== YANG, light, positive, masculine, creative, Heaven.
== == YIN, dark, negative, feminine, receptive, Earth.
The understanding of what is meant by this polarity is fundamental to all interpretations of the hexagrams, and to the underlying wisdom of the system. All of the constructions of lines used by the I Ching are made up of these Yang lines and Yin lines. This primal polarity is the foundation of all the relationships discussed by the authors of the book. Since one of the hexagrams is made up of all Yang lines (1. Ch'ien/ The Creative), and one of all Yin lines (2. K'un/ The Receptive), we have in the texts of these archetypal hexagrams a wealth of commentary on that fundamental polarity. These passages are from the Richard Wilhelm/Cary Baynes translation of The Book of Changes, published by Princeton University Press, the definitive edition for the West.
"The first hexagram, Ch'ien, The Creative, Heaven, is made up of six unbroken lines. These stand for the primal power, which is lightgiving, active, strong, and of the spirit. The hexagram is consistently strong in character, and since it is without weakness, its essence is power or energy. Its image is heaven. .... In relation to the universe, the hexagram expresses the strong, creative action of the Deity. In relation to the human world, it denotes the creative action of the holy man or sage, or the ruler or leader of men, who through his power awakens and develops their higher nature. .... Because he sees with great clarity causes and effects, he completes the six steps at the right time and mounts toward heaven on them at the right time, as though on six dragons. .... Here it is shown that the way to success lies in apprehending and giving actuality to the way of the universe (Tao), which as a law running through end and beginning, brings about all phenomena in time. Thus each step is not a hindrance but the means of making actual what is potential."
"The second hexagram K'un, The Receptive, Earth is made up of broken lines only. These represents the dark, yielding, receptive primal power of Yin. The attribute of the hexagram is devotion; its image is the earth. It is the perfect complement of the Creative, the complement, not the opposite, for the Receptive does not combat the Creative but completes it. It represents nature in contrast to spirit, earth in contrast to heaven, space as against time, the female-maternal as against the male-paternal. However, as applied to human affairs, the principle of this complementary relationship is found not only in the relation between man and woman, but also in that between prince and minister and between father and son. Indeed, even in the individual this duality appears in the coexistence of the spiritual world and the world of the senses. .... Strictly speaking there is no real dualism here, because there is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. .... It is the Creative that begets things, but they are brought to birth by the Receptive. Applied to human affairs, therefore, what the hexagram indicates is action in conformity with the situation. .... The superior man lets himself be guided; he does not go ahead blindly, but learns from the situation what is demanded of him and then follows this intimation from fate."
"Just as there is only one heaven, so too there is only one earth. The earth in its devotion carries all things, good and evil, without exception. In the same way the superior man gives to his character breadth, purity, and sustaining power, so that he is able both to support and to bear with people and things."
Where the Yin and Yang are expressed by a broken line and a solid line respectively, eight possible combinations of three such lines occur. These combinations are called The Eight Trigrams, and each of them is given symbolic attributes in each of the patterns of cyclic behavior described by the I Ching. There are sixty-four possible combinations of two trigrams, that is, six-line patterns or hexagrams, and it is by analysis of the attributes of the trigrams thus placed in relationship that one can make sense of the situations depicted by each hexagram.
For example, where the trigram representing the lake (Tui) is placed over the trigram representing the earth (K'un), we have an image of water flowing together to form a body. This phenomenon is what gives the hexagram Ts'ui, Gathering Together its basic meaning and its name.
These are the eight trigrams with some of their attributes:
CH'IEN, The Creative, represents pure Yang, the primal creative power which exists before all created things. It is therefore called Heaven, the Father, the strong, the life force, and the swift and tireless horse.
K'UN, The Receptive, represents pure Yin, the Earth, the creation, that which is acted upon to manifest the creative power, and is therefore associated with the Mother and fertility, the yielding, the docile and productive cow.
CHEN, The Arousing, represents the appearance of the Yang, and so is described as Thunder or shock, as the power of Heaven suddenly becomes manifest in the world of Yin. As the first appearance of the Yang in the field of Yin, it is called the Eldest Son, and among beasts it is the Dragon, which flashes from horizon to horizon.
KEN, Keeping Still, represents the point of rest within motion, and so is described as the symbol of simultaneous end and beginning. It is contemplative, steady, firm, like the Mountain which is its image. By virtue of its being the last time the Yang appears in the field of Yin (in trigrams and hexagrams, the motion of lines is upward), it is called the Youngest Son. Among beasts it is the dog in his function as the guardian.
SUN, The Gentle, has both the symbol of Wind and Wood, from its characteristic of gentle penetration. It is a sign of subtle strength, influence not immediately seen, and as the first appearance of the Yin in a field of Yang, it is called the Eldest Daughter. As a beast it is the cock in its role as watchman, who influences by penetrating the stillness with its voice.
TUI, The Joyous, is the symbol of the Lake. The peace and fruitfulness suggested by the pooling of waters are frequently used as symbols where Tui occurs. Tui is the Youngest Daughter, and often seen in her role as concubine, a respected position (and usually a joyful one) in the family structure of ancient China. Her beast is the sheep, outwardly lowly and docile, but possessed of great inner strength.
LI, The Clinging, is the symbol of Fire. The connection here is that fire requires something to cling to - like a piece of wood, for example - to give it form, as the two outer Yang lines cling to the Yin within. The Creative requires some creation to so cling to in order to be manifest and seen. Li is lightning, the sun, the Middle Daughter, and as a beast, the Phoenix.
K'AN, The Abysmal, is Water, deep water, water rushing down a gorge relentlessly, and so is a symbol of danger and of fate. It is melancholy, treachery, the Middle Son, a man driven by inner power but weak externally. As a beast it is a wild horse whose undisciplined courage brings misfortune.
The I Ching as an Oracle
Because a seemingly random pattern of events such as the tossing of coins is used to select the hexagram relevant to present time, the I Ching is often looked upon as a mystical oracle or fortune-telling device. However, the devices of hexagram selection are not considered to be entirely random. Because all naturally-occurring events follow the economical practice of action along the line of least resistance, it is contended that the fall of coins or the division of piles of sticks must occur in harmony with the true nature of the moment. By understanding the relationships thus revealed by the pattern of the coins or sticks, a person is able to understand the actions he must take if, like the coins, he is to follow his natural course in that situation.
It is wise to not assume that the hexagram is necessarily related to that part of your life that happens to be holding your personal attention at the time you consult it. Therefore do not make a practice of "asking the I Ching a question," but rather trust that whatever mechanism is truly behind the selection of a hexagram, the result is in some way related to your life. It is then up to you to examine your life and to discover where in your life such a relationship or condition might exist. The I Ching then offers such discourse on that relationship as its authors have seen fit to preserve through the centuries as their observations of the natural order of the universe.
The two classical forms for consulting the hexagrams as an oracle are coins and sticks. If one side of a coin is used to represent Yin, and this given the number two, and the other to represent Yang, and given the number three, a series of six tosses of one coin could be used to construct a hexagram. It is important to remember that the sixty-four situations depicted by the hexagrams are not seen as fixed states, but transitory states within a constantly changing flux. In fact, the name I Ching means literally The Book of Changes. There are considered to be two kinds of Yin lines, the young constant, and the old changing Yin, and likewise two kinds of Yang lines. Therefore more tosses become necessary. Three tosses of one coin, or one toss of three coins, will provide four possible combinations.
By tossing the three coins six times, one toss for each line, a hexagram with its changes may be constructed. The motion of lines within a hexagram is always upward, so the hexagram is constructed from the bottom upward. If, for example, one throws 7, 7, 8, 6, 8, 9, the hexagram constructed is:
Upon examination, this is seen to be the trigram Ken over the trigram Tui, which can be found to be the hexagram Sun, Decrease. The person consulting the hexagram is thus given to read the text of that hexagram. However, upon reaching the section called The Lines, only those lines which are change lines are read, that is, six in the fourth place, and nine at the top.
By executing the changes indicated and leaving the others unchanged (that is, 6 and 9 are changed to their opposite in the new hexagram and 7 and 8 are left the same), a second hexagram is created which could be taken as representative of the natural outcome of the changes of relationship occurring in the first hexagram. For each hexagram and for each change line, the I Ching offers commentary on the symbolism and meaning of the relationships described, and the person consulting the book is thus able to relate the symbol patterns to his present-time situation. The ability to isolate which elements of one's life are manifesting that particular relationship is the product of understanding and wisdom.
The other most popular method of casting a hexagram is the Yarrow Stalk Oracle. It is far more complex than the coin method, and so has the advantage of encouraging concentration and placing one in a receptive state of mind. The system calls for forty nine stalks of a size that can all be held easily in the hand at once, like bamboo cocktail skewers, for example. You divide the bundle into two piles at random, or perhaps more accurately, according to the impulse of the moment. You take one stalk from the right-hand pile and place it between the ring finger and little finger of the left hand. Now take groups of four stalks from the left-hand pile until there are only four or less remaining. This remainder place between the ring finger and the middle finger. Count off the right-hand pile also by fours, and when there are only four or less remaining, place these between the middle finger and the first finger of the left hand. The sum of the stalks now held between the fingers of the left hand is either nine or five. To the sum of nine, the value 2 is assigned, that is, one Yin. It is the equivalent of having tossed one coin. If the sum held in your left hand is five, this is assigned the value 3, that is, one Yang. It takes eighteen separations and countings of the stalks to construct a single hexagram. This may seem tedious compared to the tossing of the coins, but there are advantages to your mental state. You develop a rhythm to your countings, and this lends itself very well to chanting or controlled breathing. As you become more proficient, you will be able to remember the lines as you construct them. "Two, three, and two. I have cast a seven in the first place. Three, three, and three. I have cast a nine in the second place. Two, two, and three. I have cast a seven in the third place. My lower trigram is Ch'ien, changing to Li," and so forth.
This concentration will empty the mind of external influences and help you to arrive at a state in which you can best appreciate the counsel of the hexagrams. It is in this manner that the use of the hexagrams as an oracle will do you the most good. Such continued meditative attempts to see how the hexagrams relate to your present situation will gradually deepen your understanding, and the subtlety of the imagery will become more and more profound for you. It is my experience this meditative approach to the I Ching will gradually change your whole being.
The I Ching in History
In Chinese literature four men are cited as authors of the I Ching: Fu Hsi, King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius. To complete this list for the Western reader, credit must be given with them to the greatest of the book's few Western translators and editors, Richard Wilhelm.
Fu Hsi is a legendary figure associated with the period of the earliest tribes and nations of hunters and fishermen, with the first use of fire for cooking, and the invention of weapons and tools. His words on the symbology of the trigrams, the eight possible forms of trinity, makes the I Ching one of the very first uses of symbol pattern by mankind to preserve knowledge, and can be said to predate all recorded history in China. In the earliest versions only the trigrams were examined. Two early collections using the hexagrams are mentioned in the writings of the Confucian school and others, according to the traditions of those times dated as early as 2200 BC. The same general tradition indicates that the recent complete group of the sixty-four hexagrams and their order originated with King Wen of the Chou Dynasty, circa 1150 BC, while he was imprisoned by the tyrant Chou Hsin.
King Wen's son, the Duke of Chou, overthrew Chou Hsin, founded the Chou dynasty, which he declared to have originated with his father, and took up his father's work in developing a comprehensive form for the I Ching. It was he who wrote the commentaries on the meanings of the individual lines, a work of great depth which led to the more widespread use of the book as an oracle.
In this form the book was studied by Confucius. The philosophy named for him, recorded by history to have originated with him, and which in the eyes of the West typifies Eastern thought is based in great part on Confucius' understanding of the relationships revealed by the I Ching. The modern interpretation and views of the I Ching are greatly the result of the teachings about the book spread by the students of Confucius and their successors.
It is among the few Chinese classics which escaped the infamous burning of the books under the tyrant Ch'in Shih Huang Ti in the year 213 BC, but it was relegated to the status of a book of divination and magic until reintroduced as a book of wisdom in the third century AD.
During the years immediately before and after the turn of the twentieth century, Dr. Richard Wilhelm, studying in China with Lao Nai-hsuan, one of the foremost Chinese scholars of the time, undertook to translate the work into German in the light of his many years of study on the significance of the contents. His translation alone produces a monumental document, but his greatest contribution to the growth of this ancient system of understanding is his arrangement of the various commentaries assembled over the centuries.
Thus the I Ching as it appears today is the result of several thousand years of cultural evolution, carefully shaped by great men of widely divergent times and disciplines. In this respect it is not unlike the ancient miniature trees so long beloved of the most highly refined Orientals, and as the Bonsai tree retains its most basic nature despite all conditioning, so too the I Ching retains its most basic and ancient form in the patterns of the sixty-four hexagrams themselves.
The Tao as described by the I Ching is not so much a discipline, a behavioral practice you can force yourself to do, as it is an understanding which grows within you. You do not make yourself a Taoist, as you can make yourself an historian or a mechanic, nor can you simply declare yourself a Taoist, as you can declare yourself a Christian or a Democrat. It is not so much a doctrine or dogma as a way of looking at life. After you have spent some time helping the wisdom of the I Ching to grow within you, one day you simply recognize you have been a Taoist for some time.
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