Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Some ways Yi doesn’t answer your question

July 26th, 2015

This oracle, as I keep saying, isn’t a slot machine. It’s not ‘insert question, get answer’. Someone who is completely familiar and comfortable with Yi does not therefore receive the answers to all their questions and live in a state of perfect certainty. What they are is deeply engaged in conversation with the whole reality – and because this is real conversation, it isn’t under control.
Probably everyone has encountered the idea that hexagram 4, Not Knowing –

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

– is Yi’s way of saying, ‘Nope. Too many questions, not answering.’ Of course, hexagram 4 is more than that. But it’s also very far from being Yi’s only way of responding without answering. Actually, there are probably 4096 of those – but here are some I’ve noticed quite frequently over the years:
Hexagram 29:

‘Repeating chasms.
There is truth and confidence.
Holding your heart fast creates success.
Movement brings honour.’

More even than hexagram 4, the Repeating Chasms can convey the message that some things are just not available to be known. You want something clear-cut, graspable, with bright well-defined edges – but the reality is possibly-bottomless pits of swirling water. In some situations, pleading ‘I want to understand!’ is really a way of saying, ‘I want the situation to be different! I want there to be a clear answer!’ If there isn’t, Yi will say so. It will show you where you are and guide you through – which can be quite annoying when what you wanted was a transporter that would beam you into an alternate reality. ‘Yes,’ says Yi, ‘this is terrifying and confusing. Here’s how to navigate: hold your heart fast and act.’

Other ‘Yes, confusing, isn’t it?’ readings might be 30.1,

‘Treading in confusion.
Honour it,
Not a mistake.’

or 31.4,

‘Constancy brings good fortune, regrets vanish.
Wavering, wavering, going and coming,
Friends follow your thoughts.’

Both of these suggest that your confusion is not the disaster you may think. You are beginning to see, or you are in the midst of transition, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Both also have that navigation advice: ‘honour it’; ‘constancy brings good fortune.’

Of course, if you have spent weeks dithering over a decision, consulting friends, family and Google, and turn to the oracle in the hope it will finally make your mind up for you, and Yi says,

‘Constancy brings good fortune, regrets vanish.
Wavering, wavering, going and coming,
Friends follow your thoughts.’

…well, your first response might be along the lines of ‘Very funny, Yi.’ Then after you’ve gone back and re-read the beginning of the line, you might ask, ‘Yes, but constancy to what?‘ And the answers available for this are either supremely unhelpful or perfect, depending on your point of view. ‘Constancy to what you know. Constancy to revealed truth. Constancy to your intent.’

We often turn to Yi for help with decisions – and Yi has never made a decision for anyone. It never makes your mind up for you, though it might reveal your mind to you. But it does have quite a repertoire of ways to say, ‘Make your own mind up.’ For instance…

Hexagram 40.

‘Release. The southwest is fruitful.
With no place to go,
To turn round and come back is good fortune.
With a direction to go,
Daybreak, good fortune.’

You are advised either to get going as soon as you can, or to let the idea go and come back. Yes, but which? That would depend on whether or not the path you’re considering leads anywhere worth being. You are utterly free to choose. This can also be a remarkably annoying, or embarrassing answer.

Then there’s Hexagram 43, Deciding – could this hexagram name be a hint? – with its fifth line that says, ‘Decide! Decide!’

And 60, Measuring, that says ‘Bitter measures do not allow for constancy.’ So are you being advised to impose limits, or that the measures you have in mind wouldn’t be sustainable? Well, that would depend on whether they are bitter – how they taste. The proof of the pudding…

Or 64.6 –

‘Being true and confident in drinking wine,
Not a mistake.
Soaking your head,
Being true and confident, losing your grip on that.’

– it’s not wrong to find truth and confidence in drinking wine, but it’s possible to overdo it, to ‘soak your head’ and lose your grip. So are you being just confident enough, or too confident? Time to conduct your own sobriety test.

In all these readings (and doubtless many more), the question’s turned back to you: you judge, you decide. Ultimately, that’s how Yi always works with decisions.
‘What if I go down this road? Or that one?’
‘Well, here’s a picture of what’s down this road, and one of what’s down that one. Which do you prefer, or feel you need now?’
This is one reason why the whole idea of a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ hexagram is twaddle of the first order. You might have had more than enough life-in-free-flow to last you; someone else might be eager to escape artificial boundaries and inhibitions. So is Hexagram 59 a good hexagram?

Among those ‘you decide’ readings are also those that encourage you to see and take in the evidence already available.
‘He’s ignoring all my messages, he’s unfriended me on Facebook, and when I saw him on the street with another woman he sprinted across the road almost as if he were trying to avoid me! What’s happening?’
‘Hexagram 20. Seeing.’
This probably does not mean that he is stepping back and contemplating his relationship options before committing himself.

Hexagram 27 (‘see the jaws!’) and 10.6 (‘observe the footsteps’) can also be ways Yi encourages you to notice what’s in front of you.

Then there are readings – maybe the most devastating to receive – that question (or just condemn) your way of asking or motives for doing so. Hexagram 4 is one of these; Hexagram 8 can be too, probing into your original reason for divining – but I’d rather receive one of those than 27.1,

‘Giving up your own spirit tortoise,
Gazing at me with jaws hanging down.

or 57.6,

‘Subtly penetrating under the bed,
Losing your property and axe.
Constancy, pitfall.’

which may tell me I’m abandoning my own spiritual or moral autonomy by asking like this. Then there’s 21.6,

‘Shouldering a cangue so your ears disappear.

which ‘suggests’ I stopped listening a while ago. These answers aren’t always excoriating criticism of the person asking – that depends on the context – but it’s pretty clear when they are. Ouch.

As I was saying, there must be 4096 ways for Yi not to answer the question – in other words, any reading can challenge your line of questioning and the assumptions behind it.
‘How can I achieve x?’
‘No, you can’t achieve x.’
‘What if I did y?’
‘Y isn’t really what you’d be doing.’
Readings often challenge the imagery you’re thinking in – asking how to fight something, for instance, and receiving Hexagram 43 (‘fruitless to take up arms’), or how to act to transform things and receiving Hexagram 52, Stilling… and so on. 4096 ways.

Unchanging readings, too, can sometimes hand the question back to you. The ‘missing’ relating hexagram and change patterns in an unchanging reading can indicate that the role or agency of the querent is likewise ‘missing’ – and sometimes that can point to a lack of clear intention and true will to act behind the question. (Only sometimes, not always – for example, it could also indicate that you have no role, or it can just be a very simple answer.) So an unchanging answer can have a ‘yes, and…?’ tone to it.

My most recent unchanging reading came when I’d been thinking about my original inspiration and vision for WikiWing, and asked what would be the right course of action for it in the context of other plans (I’ll explain soon!). I received Hexagram 16, Enthusiasm, unchanging – which points me straight back to that original vision and inspiration and asks, ‘…so, where will you go with that?’ That’s a common question for unchanging readings to ask: ‘where are you going with this?’ or ‘why?’ or ‘what for?’

But then changing readings can do the same, especially with multiple moving lines that clearly can’t all apply at once.
‘How will this work out?’
‘Like this… or like this. It depends…’
It depends on where you stand (line position) and where you’re coming from (zhi gua for the line) and so on. Readings with the underlying question, ‘is this a good idea, or not?’ often seem to get answers that come down to, ‘first, clarify what you’re actually doing.’

And finally, there are those very occasional readings that change the subject utterly. You asked about that, but this is more important. I find that such readings are very rare indeed, and I recommend being very slow to conclude that this is what you have unless there’s overwhelming external evidence to that effect. (For instance, you asked at the weekend about what you expected to be doing on Tuesday, but the answer turns out to advise you how to cope with the life-changing event on Monday that derailed all your plans.) Without this, leaping to the conclusion that this just can’t be about what you asked can mean missing a lot of chances to learn – it can be a way of denying and blocking the conversation.

The thing is… talking with Yi is a conversation. That means everything is open for discussion and nothing can be withheld. You can (and should) use your question to clarify your own intent, but there is no way to instruct Yi on what isn’t up for discussion – no ‘if this is a daft idea, I don’t want to know’ or ‘be kind and spare my delicate sensibilities’. It’s an oracle; it isn’t tame. All you can do is work with it, let it change how you see things and guide you along paths whose existence you’d never suspected. While Yi may or may not be answering your question, it is certainly answering you.

Myth and legend in hexagrams

July 14th, 2015

Why look for the stories behind the hexagrams?

To start with something uncontentious: the people who wrote the Yi had wisdom and intelligence (as well as mind-boggling genius), and were well-informed, and had good reasons for their choices. One of the things they appear to have been well-informed about is their culture’s myth, legend and recent history – and this awareness is infused throughout the Yi, from little passing historical allusions (the ‘neighbour in the East’ of 63.5 being the Shang, for instance) to huge mythical and legendary narratives pregnant with significance.

Of course, we are a few thousand years too late to share this awareness, but every glimpse we can get opens up new meanings – and, most importantly for me, is wonderfully helpful in divination. It means the diviner isn’t limited to reading and interpreting the text, but can tell the story behind it.

Stories are a big part of how we think, especially how we think about and understand ourselves. They work in a quite different way – on a quite different level of awareness – from concepts:

‘You are hiding away for fear of getting hurt.’
‘Let me think about this. Yes, that could be right.’

‘You are like Prince Ji, who lived under a corrupt regime with a murderous tyrant; he concealed his insight by pretending to be insane.’

The story gives us a new way to see the situation, to understand and experience it. This is not at all the same thing as merely getting a new idea about it. Concepts give us something new to think about; stories give us a new way to think, and that transforms our experience. There’s a reason why religions spring from stories not rulebooks, and why wise teachers tell parables.

How to recognise an intrinsic story?

Connecting a story with a hexagram, or using a hexagram’s unfolding line texts to tell a story, is easy. Recognising an original reference that’s truly part of the Yi, and hence part of the answer it’s giving you, is not. How to recognise the intrinsic stories and tell them apart from the noise of random association?

I can think of three criteria to look for:

  1. A clear reference in the text: is it really there?
  2. Resonance with the message and theme of the text: does it fit?
  3. Experience in readings: how does this work, in practice, as a story-to-think-with?

1. A clear reference in the text

This is a big one. There has to be something in the words of the text that refers clearly to this story – as 36.5 identifies Prince Ji by name. Without this… well, the hexagrams are all broad and general enough to lend themselves to the telling of a whole host of stories, and many translators simply assert that this hexagram is about such-and-such a story with, frankly, no supporting evidence worth mentioning.

Two who do this constantly: Alfred Huang, in The Complete I Ching, and Joseph Yu in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the I Ching. Thus Hexagram 28…

Huang: ‘This gua tells us that after the Zhou dynasty was established, its territory was greatly expanded, and administrative work was extensive.’

Yu: ‘This hexagram describes how the Duke of Zhou handled the rebellion led by his brothers, the Three Monitors.’

Hexagram 47 for Huang is about an expedition led by Wen; for Yu, it’s about the Duke of Zhou & his troops being trapped by rebel tribes.

and so on. Both are honourable representatives of Chinese tradition, yet they almost never agree on their choice of historical reference – which is telling.

It’s not a bad thing that they associate hexagrams with history. Hexagrams are well-adapted as tools for telling stories, and telling stories with hexagrams – whether personal anecdotes, fiction, myth or legend –  is an excellent way to relate to them more deeply. A brilliant example of this: Will Buckingham’s Sixty-Four Chance Pieces  – a short story for every hexagram, based on its imagery and language and atmosphere and tradition, capturing something of its essence. Imagination-food, inspiration for readings, new ways of seeing, sources of synchronicity, and simply beautifully written stories. Enjoy (in the UK, too).

Hexagram stories can be brilliant – including as a way into a reading. Commentators asserting without evidence that this is the story (/history) of the hexagram – not so brilliant, especially not as a basis for a reading. You can’t say, ‘Yi says your situation is like this one…’ and make this the foundation of your understanding – not when Yi says nothing of the kind.

(For a well-grounded work associating hexagrams with Zhou history – one that’s helpful and thought-provoking in divination – I’d recommend Freeman Crouch’s Chameleon Book (which you can find at Google books as well as Amazon) It still isn’t gospel, though!)

2) Resonance with the message and theme of the text

This might be even more significant than #1. A reference that isn’t in harmony with the basic message of the reading is nothing but an academic curiosity – interesting, of course, but not something that will help anyone. It also raises questions about its validity. This book was written as an oracle; each hexagram and line has a message to convey. Usually there are many layers of text, structural connection and allusion combining to convey it. If a reference is clearly present, then it’s worth spending time trying to understand why it is part of the oracle – how it fits, what it adds. But if it doesn’t resonate with the overall meaning… then I would consider that to be evidence that it isn’t real.

An example of a reference that doesn’t seem to fit the message: those lines in hexagram 7 that talk about ‘carrying the corpse’. Wu is said, in one version of the conquest story, to have carried his father’s corpse into battle rather than delay the conquest for the required three years of mourning. This is a fairly clear textual reference to the Yi’s central story – but what are we to make of it in readings? Wu was criticised for his choice, true, but he triumphed in battle and founded a great dynasty – and yet ‘carrying the corpse’ is, in both 7.3 and 7.5, ill-omened. So what’s happening here?

In fact, I think the authors were using this story subtly to make a point about something that used to be full of vitality and meaning, but has now become dead weight. Human bodies can do that, and so too can legendary stories. But if someone’s received 7.3, simply saying, ‘You are like King Wu marching out to conquer the Shang and found a great dynasty…’ is not going to help; 7.3 is not the way to conquer or found anything. The historical reference is just one part of how the reading works and speaks to you.

Which brings me to the third important quality of a good identification:

3) Experience in readings

A good reference will work as part of the oracle: it will transform your perception.

There’s a fine example of this in the Sorrells’ The I Ching Made Easy,  in their sample reading for Hexagram 36. They describe a woman who was being abused by her husband, but made to feel as if she were the one with something wrong with her. “When the caller heard the title of the hexagram and the story of Prince Chi, who had to pretend to be insane in order to survive, she burst into tears.”

You can recognise that as an oracle at work.

An example: Hexagram 55 and the city of Feng

A less widely-known reference that has the same power: Hexagram 55 as the city of Feng. This was, as far as I know, first identified by SJ Marshall in his Mandate of Heaven in 2001, and it isn’t nearly as well-known as it should be.

The story is of King Wu, the ‘martial king’ of the Zhou: how at the garrison city of Feng, with his father Wen recently dead, he had to assume the military and spiritual leadership and determine whether he yet had Heaven’s Mandate to march on the Shang – or whether he should retreat into the three years of mourning required by tradition. He looked to the skies and received portents that justified his decision to march out. (Marshall thought the lines described a total solar eclipse, but in fact they speak of reading patterns of sunspots.)

Textual fit? Yes. The name of the hexagram is the name of the garrison city Feng; the oracle speaks of ‘not mourning’ and line 6 refers to the mourning hut. Also, the personal name of King Wu, Fa, is at line 2, and in a context that makes sense in translation – ‘to have truth and confidence like Fa is good fortune.’ (Which is important, as Chinese has plenty of multi-purpose words, so just because a character is also a proper noun doesn’t necessarily mean any reference is intended.)

Thematic fit? Absolutely. The theme of the hexagram is such Abundance as to become overwhelming; the Image speaks of the importance of swift decision, like thunder and lightning coming together; the Sequence is from Hexagram 54, the story of someone who is ‘landed’ in a new (and more adult) role without having any choice in the matter; the nuclear hexagram is 28, speaking of such overwhelming pressure that something must be done. Everything resonates with the story.

Usefulness in readings? Yes – unfailingly – the story of overwhelming pressure and unsought responsibility speaks to people who receive Hexagram 55. (It’s also surprisingly often true that a literal bereavement has brought that responsibility.)

Word play

This doesn’t mean that Hexagram 36 is about Jizi or Hexagram 55 is named after the city. Finding a reference doesn’t mean you know ‘what it’s about’ and can say, “Feng here means the name of the citadel, not ‘abundance’ after all.” It’s better to think of it as word-play – part of Yi’s fabric of meaning, with its grand abundance of allusions, nudges and reminders. You can’t say ‘this is about that’ any more than you would say that since ‘crossing the great river’ refers to the Zhou crossing into Shang territory, it has nothing to do with how dangerous river-crossing was in general, or about brides crossing rivers to their husbands or young men swimming across to their young women. Yi is not much like a history book, and much more like poetry. It has layers.

Stephen Field’s new book

The Duke of Zhou Changes, is what prompted this post. I will try to give it a full review soon! It’s a treasure trove for these ‘stories to think in': more and more accurate information about the ones I knew already (including Wu at Feng), and whole new possible connections to explore. Here it is at Amazon UK and US.

News from Clarity

July 10th, 2015

I asked Yi for work advice recently, and received hexagram 58. It seems that work has a lot to do with communicating – who’d’ve thought, right? So I will do more of that and less keeping of things under wraps, and if I ever seem to have gone a bit quiet, please prod me. Here’s what’s going on…

First, there is a new version of the Resonance Journal. If you haven’t looked at it for a while, the main difference you will find is that it now installs seamlessly (no fussing with java) and will add a shortcut to your journal on your desktop – which you can drag to your taskbar, for ease of access –

Resonance Journal taskbar icon
Also, the copying errors in my translation/commentary and LiSe’s have been corrected, and there’s a new option to restrict the quick ‘filter’ search to tags only, which will speed up the search in larger journals. (This option can be found under Entries > Search > Entry Filter Settings.)

For a first-time installation, download from here:

(where you’ll also find a quick video introduction to the software).
To update an existing journal, download the updater from here:

We completed the first Foundations Class. It went beautifully – except, note to self, people need more time! Part way through the class, there were enough rueful comments about the difficulty of keeping up that I halved its pace. That worked much better, though it still wasn’t convenient for everyone.

So… I’m currently working on turning the materials into a self-study, at-your-own-pace, no-time-limit course. This involves a long series of fairly boring technical tasks which really shouldn’t take me much longer to complete. (Stephen Field’s lovely new book – US / UK – is not helping. When I have the choice between diving into new interpretations of the lines of hexagram 50, and fiddling about editing video, guess what happens…) I’ll let you know when it’s ready!

While I’m working on this, I haven’t re-opened for readings – one thing at a time! – but I’m available one day a week for a couple of 30 minute I Ching related chats.  (They’re on Tuesdays, this month – I change the day and time each month in the hope that everyone will eventually see a time that suits them.) Of course 30 minutes is not remotely long enough for a full reading, but it turns out to be just right to suggest a ‘way in’ to a reading and get the gist of it. And it’s nice to have the chance to (re-)connect with people.

These calls are free for Change Circle members – the booking link is here, in the private Reading Circle forum.

Consulting under the sky

June 25th, 2015

From time to time, someone asks me about the validity of consulting with a computer program. Does it work – are the answers real? I always say yes, it works. What matters is not the physical method, but the quality of your attention.

I have plenty of experience to back this up: both powerful, clear readings that came via a computer algorithm, and stories from people who have cast first with the computer, then had second thoughts and turned to a more tangible method, only to receive the same answer again. The cosmos works; the Yijing works; you can’t break it by using a computer.

All this is certainly true. If you’re in a dark room, it doesn’t matter whether you open the door or the window shutters; the light will enter through any opening you give it. Everything’s made of Yi-stuff, including computers. And it’s certainly the quality of your attention that matters, and all the rest – coins/ computers/ beads/ stalks, incense/ meditation/ ritual/ none – is only important insofar as it affects that.

Which means, of course, that it can be supremely important.

Something that makes a great difference for me: where I consult. Most of my readings are done sitting behind my desk, by picking up the beads that sit beside the computer keyboard. (And then I record them in my journal – only I prefer casting with beads, visualising the hexagram in the mind’s eye before I see it on paper or screen.) But consulting outside is different.

When I was asking Yi how it was made, I found myself heading outside to ask: feet on the earth, under the sky. Big questions seem better asked with trees for company. I’m not sure why… it could be because readings are about connecting with reality, and it feels harder to do that from inside the artificial cocoon of wires, wifi and double glazing. The force that makes hexagrams is everywhere – but when I’m out in the woods, that same force is busy photosynthesising, decaying, squawking, climbing, growing, buzzing, weaving… hard to miss.

Yesterday I took water, lunch and the tablet and gave myself as long as I wanted out in the woods. It was bliss. And… when I wanted to talk with Yi, and had omitted to take beads with me, I couldn’t bring myself to use the perfectly good app installed on the tablet. Instead, I used three oak leaves in place of coins.

How to consult the Yi with three oak leaves

  1. Ask permission politely from the tree.
  2. Toss the leaves in the air and let them float down.
  3. A leaf that falls with its rib running along your line of sight (pointing towards/ away from you) counts 3;  a leaf that falls across you, at right angles to your line of sight, counts 2.
  4. Since casting this way takes some concentration, you may want to keep track of the lines as you cast them:

14.2.4 zhi 22

(Of course, then I took this photo with the tablet before using it to jot down question and thoughts and look up the text. Wonderful stuff, technology.)

Hexagram 40, Release

June 13th, 2015

jie, releaseThe ancient character for jie, the name of Hexagram 40, shows hands with a knife removing a cow’s horn. Perhaps this has to do with a horn implement for prising knots apart – Chinese boys could carry a knot-horn at their belt when they became men – or perhaps simply with the act of removing the horn, and with it the danger of being gored.

The primary meaning of jie is to untie, loosen, separate or cut apart; a secondary meaning is to interpret and understand – one imagines the kind of understanding that comes of breaking a ‘knotty’ problem down. The imagery of knots and their untying is key to Hexagram 40; it carries through the Wings as a kind of etymological-metaphorical echo.

Oddly enough, in the songs of the Shijing that are more or less contemporary with the Yi, jie is unfailingly a bad thing: it’s what good people and good rulers don’t do, and means being idle. English equivalents might be ‘unwinding’ or ‘slacking off’.

Limping and Release

Hexagram 40 is paired with and follows from 39, Limping or Difficulties:

‘Things cannot end with hardship, and so Release follows. Release means letting things take their time.’

(To ‘let things take their time’ is to let things go, to delay or slacken; the character shows trailing silk threads.)

Limping is a hexagram of uphill struggle, but it also suggests a turnaround, away from struggle and towards flow – like Yu the Great, the limping hero who conquered the floods not by toiling alone to dam the waters, but by enlisting allies to dredge channels to the sea. The emblem of this change is the distinction between northeast and southwest: ‘fruitful in the southwest, not fruitful in the northeast.’

The northeast was where the Zhou people ultimately found their calling and purpose, to oust the Shang dynasty, but the southwest was where they found allies. The two directions are first introduced in Hexagram 2, as where you gain or lose partners; Hexagram 39 shows how a move towards the southwest, away from solitary heroism and towards support, is the best response to struggle. Then Hexagram 40 arises from that turnaround, and begins by looking towards the southwest.

The same shift is reflected in the Sequence of Hexagrams, if you look back one more step to Hexagram 38, Opposing:

‘When the way of the home [hexagram 37] is exhausted, you naturally turn away, and so Opposing follows. Turning away naturally means hardship, and so Limping follows. Things cannot end with hardship, and so Release follows. Release means letting things take their time.’

A story takes shape: alienation creating hardship, which is ended by reconnection. This is connection not only with people – though that’s often vitally important, especially when you receive Hexagram 39 – but also with the whole environment, the whole natural flow of being.

The Cheshire Cat’s hexagram

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘- so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

Lewis Carroll


‘Release. The southwest is fruitful.
With no place to go,
To turn round and come back is good fortune.
With a direction to go,
Daybreak, good fortune.’

Reconnecting in allied country, you can unwind – you’re not constantly under tension. You can take stock, reorient yourself and think about where you’re headed. Besides, to march out – against the Shang, for instance – on your own without support would be stupid. (And the Tuanzhuan, commentary on the oracle, says that going southwest means ‘gaining crowds’.) Reconnect first; then decide.

If you’re asking Yi’s help with a decision, this is one of its simplest (and most embarrassing) answers – a classic way for Yi to hand the responsibility and the question back to you. If this action doesn’t really lead anywhere, let it go; if it does, why haven’t you already started? You already know whether it does or it doesn’t; quit dithering. 

Some subtleties – which shouldn’t distract from that embarrassingly simple ‘make your mind up’ answer…

The ‘turning round and coming back’ is lai fu, ‘coming returning’, with fu as in the name of Hexagram 24, Returning. So this is a reminder of Hexagram 24’s atmosphere of calm and sense of timeliness. The Tuanzhuan says that by returning you gain zhong, the centre.

‘Place’ as in ‘place to go’ is also used in 6.1, ‘not a lasting place for work’ – it’s similar to English ‘there’s no occasion to…’, only with the metaphor from place rather than time. A more idiomatic translation might be, ‘If this just isn’t going anywhere, turning and coming back is good fortune.’

‘Direction to go’, though, is Yi’s standard phrase for acting with purpose: literally going out with a sounding rod to test the depth of the river you’re crossing (LiSe), and specifically connected with travels away from the centre to the borders (Harmen). Rather than knowing exactly what’s ahead, it implies having a direction to explore.

Besides ‘quit dithering’, Hexagram 40’s message can also be, ‘Where are you really going with this?’ I have a couple of recent Hexagram 40 readings where what I was asking about was working well enough in the short term, but wasted effort in the long run. In one case I was asking about the condition of a wisdom tooth with a large cavity reaching through enamel and dentine almost to the pulp. Yes, I had successfully cured the infection for now (extraordinary stuff, garlic!); no, I did not have a ‘place to go’ with all my efforts, except, in the end, to the dentist to have the thing out. So Hexagram 40 can also say, ‘Beware activity for its own sake; untie the knots that bind one action to the next – I did this so now I must do this so next I must do this…’

Must you?

The key phrase there is ‘I must’ – or ‘I should’ or ‘I have to’ or ‘they left me no choice’, and so on – all those complicated knots.

The Daxiang (Image) says,

‘Thunder and rain do their work. Release.
A noble one pardons transgressions and forgives crimes.’

grape-vine-592995_1280This is the change in the atmosphere after a thunderstorm: oppression dispelled. The human way to create such a change is to forgive.

The character for ‘crime’ is made up of ‘net’ and ‘wrong – the net catching the criminal, the precise opposite of Release. Release means amnesty: slackening and untying the net.

Sometimes we tie nets out of guilt and obligation for ourselves, sometimes for others – in which we invariably get tangled ourselves. (‘Justice must be done – and I must be its instrument!’) In any case, Hexagram 40 is a good cue to respond to every ‘must’ with a ‘really? who says?’ and unravel the net.

The Tuanzhuan, meanwhile, has two views on the trigrams:

‘When there is danger one should make a move, for by so moving one avoids danger, that is, Release occurs.’

– so the thunder trigram above is active in escaping from kan (water and deep pits) below. But also,

‘When Heaven and Earth allow Release, thunder and rain play their roles; when thunder and rain play their roles, all the various fruits, shrubs and trees burgeon forth.’

(Translation from RJ Lynn, I Ching.)

Release means not only escape from the trap, but also how liberated energy can come to fruition.

Structural perspectives

More angles on Hexagram 40 come from its structural connections:

Its complement – the hexagram different from it in every line – is 37, People in the Home. The complement shows both what the hexagram is not, and also what it fits with, like mould and cast, to make a whole. In the home, you have your place, and by filling this you fulfil yourself. You have your role, so in a sense what you ‘have to’ do is known. This offers you personal security: knowing what’s expected of you, knowing where you belong, having a safe place to grow with your needs provided for. Hexagram 40 is vertiginous by comparison: complete freedom that requires you to choose.

(There’s a little mirror-pattern in the Sequence here: hexagrams 38 and 39 are the only neighbouring non-paired complementary hexagrams. 37 and 40 are part of this play of contrasts: belonging and difference, isolation and alliance, struggle and freedom, freedom and belonging…)

Release’s Shadow – hexagram ‘minus 40’, inverting the whole sequence of hexagrams and counting backwards through them – is 25, Without Entanglement. So in a time of Release you should not think of it in terms of being Without Entanglement, and vice versa – Disentangling is no time to think of Release. That needs a second look, as on the face of it ‘disentangling’ and release from knots look very similar.

The distinction, I think, is that to be Without Entanglement you disengage. You are to act with ‘uprightness’ in the moment, well-grounded, freely present, but without assuming ownership of events, and especially not of results. 25 can say, ‘Not my business’; 40 must be always re-engaging. 25 might leave the outcome in the lap of the gods; 40 needs to be thinking about whether this is ‘going somewhere’. (Not always a good way to think, for instance if you need to be guided by enduring principle – 32.3 – or if your judgement of what works might be impaired – 64.6.)

And the heart of Release, its nuclear hexagram, is 63, Already Across: the moment when you’re already committed, already in motion, and need to keep your momentum to avoid falling into chaos:

‘Already across, creating small success.
Constancy bears fruit.
Beginnings, good fortune.
Endings, chaos.’

Always be beginning (63); always be choosing (40); never just follow along by rote.

More on hexagram 44

May 27th, 2015

Hexagram 44 is – famously – a tricky one.

‘Coupling, the woman is powerful.
Do not take this woman.’

That’s all it says – which is more than enough to give rise to all kinds of ideas. The traditional one is that the woman represents something malevolent, the seductress, power-grabbing – a distraction, a disruption, to be resisted (like temptation) and excluded.

Margaret Pearson initiated a challenge to this (at least, as far as I know this idea started with her): the woman is powerful because she is a queen and gives birth to the heir. That she should not be ‘taken’ she should not be seized; she is not for ordinary men to control. Stephen Karcher picked this idea up and ran with it: she is royal, she goes to the king, let her through.

The oracle, of course, says neither: neither that you should shut her out because she is evil, nor that you should let her pass out of respect, but only that there’s a powerful woman and you shouldn’t marry her. (What I’ve translated ‘take the woman’, to leave both options open, is actually a quite ordinary expression for ‘marry the woman’, though the character also means ‘seize’.) The commentary (Tuanzhuan) is helpful here, adding that marriage with her could not last. That’s often the case: you can encounter, make contact, but it can’t last.

I try to steer between these two points of view and respect the essential neutrality of the oracle. There is something powerful. That something cannot be ‘married’ – that is, it cannot be brought into relationship or into your way of life or under your control  in the way you might think/want.

(A lot of the power and energy in the situation actually seems to come from a persistent desire to achieve the impossible and make a ‘marriage’ work. Perhaps that’s 44’s ‘seductive’ power – the little voice that says, ‘If I just try this one more thing, if I just extend myself and give of myself a bit more… and a little more, and a little more… then surely it has to work out.’)

Where to look for the powerful woman? Sometimes it’s part of your own character – maybe something irrepressible and unmanageable about you. Sometimes it’s another person – maybe one who can’t be reasoned with or befriended, no matter how hard you try. Or simply an idea, one that doesn’t fit with your regular way of thinking and tends to undermine it.

What will contact with this power do? Only one thing is sure: it will not ‘fit in': it will not support your plans or intentions. They will be undermined, disrupted, transformed or wrecked. Is that a bad thing? It depends on the value of your plans!  The ‘powerful woman’ can be a storm that wrecks your boat, but she can also be an oracle that disturbs your rational idea of how things work. Muse or Lorelei. The aftermath of the encounter with her might be pure wreckage, or a remade world – which may not feel like much compensation.

wrecked ship

(What a wonderful new home for the fish!)

This doesn’t mean the storm is malevolent (or the idea is wrong, or the part of your character is evil, or the person is actively seeking to harm you) – only that it has its own power and its own reasons, which are not compatible with yours.

‘The woman is powerful. Don’t take the woman.’ You don’t need to know why not, or what her agenda is; you just need to stop trying to marry her. (Perhaps this is not such a tricky hexagram after all.)

In readings, you would look to the moving lines to find what this storm-woman brings and how – or whether – it might be good to engage with her. I’m also getting the impression – so far this is just a provisional idea to try out in future readings – that the relating hexagram might embody those plans and intentions of yours.




Lars Bo Christensen, Book of Changes

May 17th, 2015

Here’s a new I Ching worth getting: Lars Bo Christensen’s Book of Changes, available (in the US and UK) for Kindle and now also on paper.

His aim is to create a coherent, usable and authentic translation of the Zhouyi core text. That’s interesting in itself, as ‘usable’ and ‘authentic’ are usually separated. Another recent I Ching, John Minford’s, is actually subdivided into two parts: the ‘wisdom book’ with all its accreted tradition, intended for use in divination, and a suggested reconstruction of the original meaning, which is no more intended for use than Rutt’s Zhouyi. Lars finds plenty of wisdom, coherence and psychological depth in the simple Zhouyi.

The book’s contents:

  • Introduction – not in any way a rehashing of the usual Yijing book introduction, but 80 pages with information on history, structure and sources.
  • The Zhouyi: Chinese text with line-by-line translation, using square brackets to show the translator’s interpolations, just like Legge. Each hexagram is followed by a glossary of most of the characters in the hexagram (the more commonly used characters get their own separate glossary, and there’s a section of the introduction dedicated to yuan, heng and zhen), giving their dictionary definitions along with notes on the translation.
  • Appendices: the glossary of common characters; a full listing of the trigrams and hexagrams of numbers found on late Shang and early Zhou artefacts; the Chinese text; a long bibliography.
  • A second version of the translation designed for easier use – no Chinese, no square brackets, and brief comment on the core meaning of each line.
  • Instructions for yarrow and three coin consultation, and a hexagram look-up chart.

Things I like

I would buy the book just for the introduction. It includes a really good, thorough, readable account of the book’s history, sources and dating. Perhaps it’s a teensy bit repetitive for lack of an editor, but it’s fascinating reading and I’m very glad to have all this information in one place. There’s a description of all the recently excavated texts, the readings described in the Zuozhuan, and a description of the number-trigrams and -hexagrams inscribed on artefacts.

The introduction also explains the thinking behind his translation – which is another thing I like. The gist is that the received text is coherent and intended for use (bravo!), that the words must be understood through their context, and that context includes not only contemporary texts and background knowledge of Zhou life and culture, but also the structure of the text (bravo!!).

By ‘structure’ he doesn’t mean the post-hoc systematisation of nuclear trigrams and the like, just the basics: the sequence of hexagrams, the sequence of lines rising through each hexagram, the hexagram pairs (he goes through and lists their contrasts and commonalities), and each line’s zhi gua. He points out that the use of zhi in the Zuozhuan to identify moving lines (such as ‘1 zhi 43′ for 1.6) probably indicates that the zhi gua had some significance – otherwise, why not just say ‘1 line 6’?

‘If a divination answer is obtained with the method of multiple lines then the lines must obviously be intended to be connected into little “stories” – stories of increasing length the more lines that the divination yields. And there must be a connection between the combined line statements and the following hexagram. I say it is obvious because I can hardly imagine that a divination answer with, for example, four lines changing to a following hexagram was supposed to be viewed as five different answers to that particular question.’

To which I say about 85% ‘hooray! bravo!’ and 15% ‘yes, but’ (see the ‘mixed feelings’ section).

He even gives specific examples of lines working together with their zhi gua – both single lines and combinations, both fully-worked examples and some more briefly stated that you can mull over for yourself. Funnily enough, I don’t agree with most of them – which is good for me, as I get to see some different possibilities and not get too stuck in my own ideas. But some are simply good. For instance…
‘H30 line 4 and 6 changing to H36: A flash of light makes it clear to us which of the barbarians can be trusted.’
or for 60.1 to 29,
‘Stay inside. H29 is not only a picture of a bad pit, but also a good space that can contain something.’

He believes the book was written by a single author, for whom he obviously has a great respect. I like the advice to read the Shijing ‘for anyone who finds it difficult to accept the full scope of themes in the Zhou Yi.’ In other words, Yi represents a full and complex inner life, not just politics and/or lucky/unlucky offerings. (There is a daft modern tendency to describe the ancient world as if people back then hadn’t quite developed self-awareness yet.) Lars makes the radical, blunt assertions that ‘H52 is about meditation and H31 is about the ancient concept of internal energy.’ He adds, ‘I believe the main problem in translating the Zhou Yi lies not in understanding the words, but rather in believing that someone more than 2500 years ago could hold the complexity of all these ideas and express them as clearly as they are, in fact, being presented to us in the Zhou Yi.’

The section on the yarrow method gives both the source and the practical method. There’s also an excellent practical explanation of the Nanjing method (for getting just one changing line) if you want to use that.

I really appreciate the use of square brackets in the translation to show the interpolations. Basically, when you’re translating the Yi you can either add hardly anything, and end up with something so cryptic you have to write reams of commentary to make up for this (which is pretty much what I did), or you can include some interpretation in your translation. By doing this and using brackets, Lars gives you something readable without creating any confusion as to what’s original and what’s his own idea. Some interpolations seem to me a bit much, but some are real ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Like 2.4:
‘It is no mistake to keep the sack closed, but you will get no credit [for what is in it].’

Also, I’m pretty much over the moon about the glossary and footnotes to each hexagram. It’s not just the dictionary entries, though those are good to have in themselves, but also notes explaining his translation choices, comments on contemporary usage and other occurrences of words and phrases within the Yi – which is part of Yi’s ‘vocabulary’ for communicating through a series of readings, so it’s important to know – and a privileged insight into his research and thinking in general. It also gives you the means to challenge his translations! If you’re not happy with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as translations for the names of the first two hexagrams (which I’m not), then check with the glossary.

Things I have mixed feelings about

I’m delighted that he points to the importance of structure in creating meaning, but not-so-thrilled with some of his assertions. He says the ‘following hexagram’ (aka changed hexagram aka relating hexagram) ‘was a sort of conclusion like: “Because … [line] and because … [other line] you should …”.’ That might sometimes be how it works, but – in my experience – not usually. (A single fixed meaning for the relating hexagram, ‘What you should be doing’? Good luck making that work in all your readings…) And while multiple moving lines often do work together as stories, that’s certainly not their only way of relating – and not the line texts’ only ‘baked in’ structural principle, either.

Along similar lines, he’s noticed the relationship between lines of the same level in the pairs (eg 12.1 and 11.1) but not the actual paired lines ( e.g. 41.5/42.2, 43.4/44.3, 63.3/64.4 – he notices the repeated text in each case but doesn’t put two and two together). He notices that lines tell stories and express ‘increasing levels of meaning’, that ‘the first one or two levels of lines are about feet, roots, staying, being closer to home, holes in the ground, beginnings, walking, tails, mats, staying low — in general anything that can be considered low or basic’ but not, for instance, the particular awkwardness of lines 3 and 4 as ‘threshold’ lines. Of course, it’s a very safe bet that we have all missed seeing things about Yi’s structure – but when I find that rare gem, a translator interested in how the structure helps to create the meaning, I wish he’d take this further. Maybe in the next edition?

He is distressed that 63 and 64 are the ‘wrong’ way round and thinks someone must have muddled up some bamboo strips. Perhaps, or perhaps Yi has – and embodies – a profound sense of humour. (We must ask Lars about this again after he’s done a few dozen rounds of textual revisions…)

Moving on to the translation – there are a lot of ideas here that I’ve never seen before and that had never occurred to me. In itself, this is a Very Good Thing: I’m compelled to stop and think and reconsider, and with enough of this I might even learn something. Some examples…

12 line 2 changes from,
‘Embracing the charge: good for small people, blocking for great people. Creating success.’
‘To shelter and support small people is good. By refraining from doing so, the great man makes things go well.’
Interesting! And you don’t have to agree with the change-around to appreciate the flexibility and the challenge to rethink what you thought you knew.

12.0 is intriguing. What’s usually along the lines of,
‘Blocked by bad/non- people. No harvest [in a] junzi[‘s] constancy. Great goes, small comes.’
‘Refrain from this. There is no one that does not want gain, but the wise person acts correctly when he lets great things go away and settles with the smaller.’ So ‘no harvest’ has become ‘does not want gain’, constancy/correctness is no longer ineffective, and the bad people (匪人) have disappeared into ‘no one’ – a choice he explains in the glossary note on 14.1,
‘The meaning of 匪 in the Shi Jing is in all cases derived from “not”; “nothing”, “without”, “there is no”, “no one”. 匪 can, in later texts, also mean “bad people” “bandit” or “robber”. There is, however, no example of this meaning in the Shi Jing. For that reason, I don’t think the meaning of 匪 in line 1 can be “bad” but rather “wrong [for you]”.’

Or how about 10.6:
‘Look when you step [on the tiger’s tail] and observe any signs that [indicate that the tiger will] turn around. [This is the] basic [method to insure things turn out] for the good.’
Lots of interpolations, but it’s not a bad idea, is it?

The surprises only rarely come from the translation of a particular word. An exception: the phrase in 45.0 and 59.0, ‘the king enters his temple’ (Wilhelm) or ‘the king places himself in service to the temple’ (Harmen) or ‘with the king’s presence there is a temple’ (Barrett, in the updated version in the Resonance Journal) becomes something like, ‘When the king is otherwise unoccupied, there is the temple to go to,’ as if the relationship with the royal ancestors were an afterthought. This is again explained with reference to the meaning of the character in the Shijing, which is fine in principle, but I am really not convinced.

More often, surprises come from one of Lars’ principles of translation:

1) One character per meaning. One Chinese character can have many English translations, of course, but many Chinese characters should not be reduced to one English word. If there’s already a character that means ‘move (a city)’ then a different character must mean something different (like ‘renew’). He makes exceptions when compelled to do so (as by the carriage in 40.3), but otherwise is guided by this. It makes sense, especially if you agree with him that the book has a single author. There aren’t so many characters for the author to choose from, so surely the choice of a different one would be deliberate and meaningful.

2) There is no punctuation in the original, so the traditional parsing can be discarded without loss: everything can be rethought.

This creates the freedom that allows for a lot of his best ideas. However, sometimes this reparsing extends into translating the words in a different order from that in which they appear in the text. Now… here I am going to start holding forth on things I know nothing about. Lars reads Chinese and is qualified to translate it; I don’t and I’m not. All I have is a rudimentary instinct for the book. Rudimentary instinct says that the order of the words in the original is an important part of the meaning. It creates a rhythm to the text that’s sometimes used to show contrasts and alternatives.

I first noticed Lars’ approach to word order in 48.0:
‘The Well. It is bad if the village is renewed, but the well is not renewed. Without [thinking about] what they can lose or gain, [people just] come and go to thewell. But the well can dry up even to the point where you cannot quite [reach down] to draw water from the well, [and prolonged use] will wear out its bucket.’

Wait – where does that ‘it is bad’ come from? Ah – from the xiong that’s the very last character of the whole oracle. Well… if the whole thing is a single utterance describing a single situation, I suppose it doesn’t make so much difference whether you put the omen at the end or the beginning. (Except that the author put it at the end, which makes you read the oracle differently, and maybe that reading experience is important in itself…)

Then there’s 11.4:

Word by word –
翩翩 (flutter-flutter) 不 (not – except Lars translates it as ‘don’t’, which I thought was 勿 wu as in 1.1, which he translates ‘can’t be’… sorry, speaking of flutter-flutter, where was I?) 富 (rich) 以 (in-relation-to/using) 其 (the/its/your) 鄰 (neighbour) 不 (not) 戒 (on guard) 以 (in-relation-to/using) 孚 (truth/confidence).

You don’t have to know a word of Chinese to see the parallel construction: 不 + adjective + 以 + something. Good old rudimentary instinct says that’s deliberate. So I (after a lot of trying and failing to find a single English preposition to work for both cases of 以) ended up with,
‘Fluttering, fluttering.
Not rich in your neighbours.
Not on guard against truth and confidence.’

Lars has,
‘Don’t go back and forth many times to enrich yourself with help from your neighbour, don’t feel unsafe but use your own inner confidence.’
He’s reading it as if the first 不, ‘not’, were at the beginning of the line, applying to the ‘fluttering’ or ‘going back and forth’. Does old Chinese ever work like that, with a negative applying to the preceding verb?

Who should buy it?

Probably almost anyone who’s interested in the Yi and not quite sure that they already know what it all means.

In this review I’ve talked mostly about the parts that grab my interest, which mainly means the translation with bracketed interpolations and those lovely glossaries and translation notes. It’s a great source of new ideas, and the information in the introduction is good to have. If you – like me – have got comfortable with certain explanations of the lines, this is an excellently uncomfortable book to have, and greatly recommended.

And if you’re more of a beginner? Well – out of consideration for less Yeeky types, there is also the second version of the translation included: no Chinese, no square brackets, and a quick comment indicating the gist of each line. This would be very usable for divination: straightforward, direct, respectful and authentic. I wouldn’t recommend it as your only version, as some of those novel translations are really very novel. (But then again, there isn’t really any book I’d recommend as your only version.) But it would make an excellent and eye-opening companion to another translation: look at this one, look at your Wilhelm/Karcher/Barrett/Hatcher/Lynn…, see how they differ, explore why, listen for what resonates…

You can find the book at Amazon – UK or US.