Browsing Allan Lian’s blog, with a New Year post offering a Confucian perspective on self-cultivation, got me thinking. What is self-cultivation – where and how does this idea show up in the Yijing?
Luckily, I don’t have far to look: my guiding principle for the year for Clarity, as given by Yi, is Hexagram 9 changing to Hexagram 26. They’re two very variously-translated hexagrams: just picking up the seven translations that have found their way onto my desk so far this year, for Hexagram 9 I find Small Offering, The Small Accumulating, Smallness Tames, Lesser Domestication, Farming: Minor, The Taming Power of the Small and Small Accumulates/Gathering the Ghosts.
I usually call these two Small Taming and Great Taming – but it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch, I think, to call them ‘self-cultivation in small ways’ and ‘self-cultivation in great ways’.
We’re getting back, here, to the original metaphor of ‘cultivation’. The Chinese word chu means taming, restraining, nurturing and accumulating; its earliest meanings have to do with livestock, and the old forms of the character have to do with dark, rich fields. The person who works both at restraining and also at nurturing is a farmer.
Hexagram 9 has the feel of a ‘small farmer’, more or less at subsistence level, who must go out daily and work the soil, making it ready for the coming rain. There are hints at a historical parallel with the early days of the Zhou people, when the Pattern King, Wen, nurtured and built up the virtue of his people so they became ready to receive the Mandate of Heaven. Self-cultivation, here, means being the scrupulous and attentive farmer of your own inner terrain.
The farmer of Hexagram 26 is no longer working one weed at a time; his ‘great accumulations’ can be used as a kind of springboard into new experience:
Harvest in constancy.
Not eating at home, good fortune.
Harvest in crossing the great river.’
Not to eat at home implies finding nourishment beyond the familiar; it also represents going to work at court. The core idea of this – the concept we can work with now – is finding a way for our whole ‘accumulation’ to be of greater service beyond our usual boundaries. It’s possible to do more with this farm than just survive: there can be highly-trained horses, and oxen and boar reared to be fit to offer to the spirits. Self-cultivation here has to do with self-mastery and aspiring to be of greater service.