Hilary Barrett, I Ching

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.

Rethinking the Well

May 14th, 2015

Lars Bo Christensen has brought out a very interesting new translation of the Zhouyi: Book of Changes – the original core of  the I Ching. I should post a full review one of these days (short version: yes, definitely buy it), but for now I just wanted to share something that’s made me think again about the oracle of Hexagram 48, the Well.

My version from 2010:
‘The Well. Moving the city, not moving the well.
Without loss, without gain,
They come and go, the well wells.
Almost drawn the water, but the rope does not quite reach the water,
Or breaking one’s clay jug,

‘The Well. The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases nor increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.’

Wilhelm says the town may be ‘changed’, but goes on in his commentary to talk about the ancient practice of moving capital cities – an idea that found its way into my translation. And Wilhelm adds an ‘if’ at the end for the unfortunate scenario of the too-short rope and broken jug, so that the meaning-structure of the oracle falls into two parts: ‘Here are some general truths about wells; however, here is what can go wrong.’

Lars’ version is very different:

‘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 the well. 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.’

This isn’t my favourite part of Lars’ book, but – especially in his footnotes – he makes a very interesting challenge to the whole idea of translating gai 改 as ‘moving’ the city. He points out that a quite different phrase is used to mean ‘move the city’ in 42.4. Also, the character appears in 49.4 for ‘changing mandate’ – where you could say it means ‘relocating the mandate’ (from Shang to Zhou), but it’s a bit of a stretch. And 48 overall – line texts, too – is mostly about repairing the well. So he translates it here as ‘renew’.

I went to look this up. Dictionary meanings? Change, amend, transform, modify, correct, put right… – nothing about relocation. In compound words in modern Chinese it also has to do with reforming, improving, rearranging and remaking – also nothing about moving. In the Shijing, the Book of Songs, it appears three times: to mend (a worn coat), the turning of the year, and not-gai meaning ‘unvarying’. Still nothing about relocation. Hmm.

What about the etymology? The phonetic component might be a loom thread or shuttle; the signific is a hand wielding an axe or mattock – a digging tool. The phonetic component apparently had an ancient meaning of ‘unravelling’ – which makes me wonder if it was chosen for this character to suggest ‘unmaking and remaking’. (Nowadays, land-gai means agrarian reform, and gai-group is to reshuffle.)

So there is plenty of evidence to back up Lars’ view that this means not ‘you can move cities but not wells’ (not least, come to think of it, that there is no ‘may’ or ‘cannot’ in the Chinese!) but ‘you’re making repairs to your city, not your well’. What difference does this make to the oracle as a whole?

To begin with, it casts a whole new light on ‘without loss, without gain’. It is actually not convincing to say this means ‘the level of the well water never decreases or increases': water tables do rise and fall, and human activity has an effect. (Just the other day I read a triumphant story from Tigray, where the fruits of shared labour mean you now have to dig only 10 ft down to find water, when it used to be 50ft.)

Also, the meanings of the words are (sorry, Wilhelm) not just ‘decrease’ and ‘increase’. They’re loss as in mourning for the dead and gain as in getting or achieving, literally a hand grasping money. Sang 喪, losing, appears quite a lot in the Yi, and always with an object, losing something specific: partners, a helper; sheep, a horse, cattle; a ladle, a veil, a hundred thousand coins. Always a clear and unmistakable loss, never just a matter of degree.

‘No loss no gain’ starts to sound to me like inertia – like me sitting at my desk all day and not exercising. There’s no gain and no loss obvious enough to weep over, I just get gradually fatter and stiffer. If the well is falling slowly into disrepair, over the course of years or maybe generations, there is never a day when you wake up and find you have lost your well in the same way you might lose your sheep, and mourn the loss. Rather –

‘We come and go, the well wells.’

I’ve always loved the poetic simplicity of that line: just four characters of Chinese, ‘go come well well’. We have comings and goings, to and fro; the well has no such contrasts, no such running about. For me this creates the same kind of effect as a timelapse video: the well quiet and still, and human feet scurrying to and fro, accelerated to absurdity.

This is still beautiful, still reassuring… but is it also tinged with melancholy? The meaning-structure is no longer ‘on the one hand, here are some beautiful truths about wells; on the other hand, this can go wrong’ but a straightforward, single story of neglect. (Very close in meaning to Lars’ version, in fact…) I’ve always thought it odd that what we generally regard as a ‘good’ hexagram should end its oracle with ‘pitfall’*.

‘The Well. Repairing the city, not repairing the well,
Nothing lost, nothing gained,
We come and go; the well wells.
Almost reaching, and yet the rope not quite drawing water,
Your clay pitcher weakened,

(*Actually, it’s very interesting to look at which hexagrams do mention ‘pitfall’ – misfortune, bad luck – in their oracles. Not 23, not 29, not 36, not 47 – but 6, 8, 19 and 48. And the ones that have ‘pitfall’ as the last word are 8, 19 and 48. They seem to have a common theme: you have something good here, and it’s unfortunate when you mess it up.)

I don’t know the first thing about the Yi

March 17th, 2015

Well, here I am getting started teaching week 1 of the I Ching Foundations Class, so it’s hard to think of a better title for a blog post…

Oh, I know quite a few things about Yi. I know some of its history and the stories behind its words, and how its components work together, and how to interpret what it has to say. Ask me what connects 48.3 to hexagram 29 in particular, or what to make of a reading where you receive it along with lines 1 and 5, and I could probably give you a sensible answer. Ask me about all the structural-interpretive tools I enjoy using, and I could probably write a book.

The first thing about Yi, the one I don’t know: why these words with this line?

Some millennia ago, some people somehow took patterns of lines and oral traditions of myth, history and omens, and put them together. They could look at




and know that this meant ‘Well’.

They somehow brought about a confluence of many streams of wisdom, and so they created something between a great work of art and a force of nature.

I play in orchestras, and I have trouble imagining how someone like Sibelius or Mahler conceives of new worlds of sound, never heard before, in his mind’s ear. But the mind that did this? I haven’t the beginnings of an inkling; I do not think I have the right kind of thinking apparatus. If I were in the least inclined to believe in visiting aliens, they’d come in very handy here.

As an aside – yes, I’ve read Wilhelm Book III and much more along similar lines, purporting to explain the line texts in light of line correspondences, trigrams and nuclear trigrams. This is a tremendously ingenious post-hoc patchwork of explanations: there is a wheel in 9.3 because the trigram qian is round; there is a wheel in 63.1 because wheels are associated with kan. The horse of 26.3 is there because of qian, the horse of 59.1 is there because of kan – and so on. Marvellously thorough and detailed work, but not (remotely) the answer to my question, ‘How was this made? How did they know to put these words with this line?’

We can imagine words and traditions gradually coalescing around lines. An obvious example would be the threads of Zhou history that found their way into the book – but which do look, pretty clearly, like threads woven into an existing fabric. Perhaps someone cast those lines at those moments and the divination stories became part of the tradition. We do something like this nowadays, after all, sharing and remembering the more vivid stories of our experiences with the lines. But this is still a long way from perceiving for the first time that


is the Marrying Maiden.

How is that done? I thought I would ask Yi. (Really, can you think of any other source to ask?)

I didn’t want to ask this one sitting at my desk – I took the beads outside so I could stand on the ground under the sky and ask.

Yi, what happened at this confluence of myth, tradition and gua? How were you made?



Small goes, great comes.
Good fortune, creating success.’

(A bird started singing as I reached line 4.)

‘3 coin casting’ video

February 25th, 2015

I’ve taken my courage (and three shiny 10p pieces) in both hands and created another video. This one with my face in…  hiding

It’s about how to consult the I Ching with three coins. I had wondered whether to include this in the Foundations Class, when most people are already familiar with it, but not everyone is. Making this available free ahead of the class seemed a good solution.

Also, it gives me the chance to include a couple of extra downloads – a quick reference, and another booklet on ‘ways of casting’ from yarrow to donkeys.

If you’ve only ever consulted through online readings, this is for you. Hexagrams and lines make a lot more sense once you’ve cast a hexagram yourself.