Hilary Barrett, I Ching

Perseverance furthers

A reader emailed me to ask for some comments on ‘perseverance furthers’ and what it meant in the context of the Yijing. So I thought the best response might be to provide an excerpt from the Yijing course, where I talk about yuan heng li zhen. Li is ‘furthers’, in the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, and zhen is ‘perseverance’. Here they are:

Li

The west, the number 3, harvest…

‘Li’ means literally harvest, and this is an image much easier for us to understand – we still speak of ‘reaping rewards’, after all. The character shows both the ripe grain and the knife that cuts it, suggesting an ending that allows new beginnings. (The knife also appears in other characters, notably the title of Hexagram 23, Stripping Away.)

Later tradition developed this into an idea of ‘furthering’ or ‘promoting’ things, doing what is fitting to the nature of each thing so that it is fulfilled as itself. On a human, social level, this is natural justice. It suggests that you bring about the harvest of positive results by observing the intrinsic shape of people and things. Over the long term, something is proven to be just, in the sense of ‘li’, because it works in practice for the highest good of all involved. As so often, the Chinese idea seems somewhat less abstract than its nearest English translation. When the Yijing promises ‘harvest’ from an action, we can expect a return on the energy and effort we invest; if there is ‘no harvest’ in it, then it is no use. The double negative ‘nothing that does not bring harvest’ (wu bu li) is very emphatically positive: all efforts rewarded, a supremely useful way to act.

Zhen

The number four, north, storing, winter, loyalty…

The oldest meaning for this character is divination (originally by scapulimancy): receiving guidance, yes, but also the complete act of aligning yourself with the way things are and the human necessity of carrying what you understand through into practice. More than the other three characters, zhen suggests hard work: winter is the least hospitable of seasons. As a virtue, zhen is translated as ‘constancy’ or ‘determination’, and is understood to imply wisdom. The sage shows ‘zhen’ when she can hold all things in a state of ‘li’, in harmony according to their natures. The common element between this and divination seems to be holding things in contact with their true origins, and ensuring that all actions come from true insight. In the Yijing, ‘zhen’ most often occurs as ‘li zhen’, ‘harvest in constancy’ or ‘harvest in divination’ [or 'perseverance furthers']: a blessing on the whole act of divining, on making the connection real, no matter how hard it becomes.

We have a vision of the future – not what’s inevitably going to happen, but what it is right for us to bring into being. You can conceive of this as a call from the spirits to make a new pattern real on earth; if you or the person you’re working with is uncomfortable with the idea of a spiritual realm, you can speak instead of referring everything back faithfully to personal ideals and goals.”

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