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The use of the Book of Changes. The Book of Oracles.

Rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes

At the outset, the Book of Changes was a collection of linear signs to be used as oracles6. In antiquity, oracles were everywhere in use; the oldest among them confined themselves to the answers yes and no. This type of oracular pronouncement is likewise the basis of the Book of Changes. "Yes" was indicated by a simple unbroken line (young yang), and "No" by a broken line (young yin). However, the need for greater differentiation seems to have been felt at an early date, and the single lines were combined in pairs:

"Possible pairs of yin and yang
young yang
young yang
young yin
young yin
young yang
young yin
young yin
young yang

To each of these combinations a third line was then added. In this way the eight trigrams7 came into being. These eight trigrams were conceived as images of all that happens in heaven and on earth. At the same time, they were held to he in a state of continual transition, one changing into another, just as transition from one phenomenon to another is continually taking place in the physical world. Here we have the fundamental concept of the Book of Changes. The eight trigrams are symbols standing for changing transitional states; they are images that are constantly undergoing change. Attention centers not on things in their state of being — as is chiefly the case in the Occident — but upon their movements in change. The eight trigrams therefore are not representations of things as such but of their tendencies in movement.

These eight images came to have manifold meanings. They represented certain processes in nature corresponding with their inherent character. Further, they represented a family consisting of father, mother, three sons, and three daughters, not in the mythological sense in which the Greek gods peopled Olympus, but in what might be called an abstract sense, that is, they represented not objective entities but functions.

A brief survey of these eight symbols that form the basis of the Book of Changes yields the following classification:

The eight trigrams
Trigram qián. The Creative, Force the Creativestrongheavenfather
Trigram kūn. The Receptive, Field the Receptivedevoted,
Trigram zhèn. The Arousing, Shake the Arousinginciting,
thunderfirst son
Trigram kǎn. The Abysmal, Gorge the Abysmaldangerouswatersecond son
Trigram gèn. Keeping Still, Bound Keeping Stillrestingmountainthird son
Trigram xùn. The Gentle, Ground the Gentlepenetratingwind,
first daughter
Trigram lí. The Clinging, Radiance the Clinginglight-givingfiresecond daughter
Trigram duì. The Joyous, Open the Joyousjoyfullakethird daughter

The sons represent the principle of movement in its various stages — beginning of movement, danger in movement, rest and completion of movement. The daughters represent devotion in its various stages — gentle penetration, clarity and adaptability, and joyous tranquility.

In order to achieve a still greater multiplicity, these eight images were combined with one another at a very early date, whereby a total of sixty-four signs was obtained. Each of these sixty-four signs consists of six lines, either positive or negative. Each line is thought of as capable of change, and whenever a line changes, there is a change also of the situation represented by the given hexagram. Let us take for example the hexagram K'un, THE RECEPTIVE, earth:

Hexagram Field (kūn). The Receptive
Field (kūn). The Receptive
Hexagram Returning (fù). Return
Returning (fù). Return

It represents the nature of the earth, strong in devotion; among the seasons it stands for late autumn, when all the forces of life are at rest. If the lowest line changes, we have the hexagram Fu, RETURN:

The latter represents thunder, the movement that stirs anew within the earth at the time of the solstice; it symbolizes the return of light.

As this example shows, all of the lines of a hexagram do not necessarily change; it depends entirely on the character of a given line. A line whose nature is positive, with an increasing dynamism, turns into its opposite, a negative line, whereas a positive line of lesser strength remains unchanged. The same principle holds for the negative lines.

More definite information about those lines which are to be considered so strongly charged with positive or negative energy that they move, is given in book II in the Great Commentary (pt. I, chap. IX), and in the special section on the use of the oracle at the end of book III. Suffice it to say here that positive lines that move are designated by the number 9, and negative lines that move by the number 6, while non-moving lines, which serve only as structural matter in the hexagram, without intrinsic meaning of their own, are represented by the number 7 (positive) or the number 8 (negative). Thus, when the text reads, Nine at the beginning means... this is the equivalent of saying: When the positive line in the first place is represented by the number 9, it has the following meaning... If, on the other hand, the line is represented by the number 7, it is disregarded in interpreting the oracle. The same principle holds for lines represented by the numbers 6 and 88 respectively.

We may obtain the hexagram named in the example above -- K'un, THE RECEPTIVE -- in the following form:

Hexagram "Kūn. The Receptive" structure
8 at the topyoung yin
8 in the fifth placeyoung yin
8 in the fourth placeyoung yin
8 in the third placeyoung yin
8 in the second placeyoung yin
6 at the beginningyoung yin

Hence the five upper lines are not taken into account; only the 6 at the beginning has an independent meaning, and by its transformation into its opposite, the situation K'un, THE RECEPTIVE becomes the situation Fu, RETURN:

Field (kūn). The ReceptiveReturning (fù). Return

In this way we have a series of situations symbolically expressed by lines, and through the movement of these lines the situations can change one into another. On the other hand, such change does not necessarily occur, for when a hexagram is made up of lines represented by the numbers 7 and 8 only, there is no movement within it, and only its aspect as a whole is taken into consideration.

In addition to the law of change and to the images of the states of change as given in the sixty-four hexagrams, another factor to be considered is the course of action. Each situation demands the action proper to it. In every situation, there is a right and a wrong course of action. Obviously, the right course brings good fortune and the wrong course brings misfortune. Which, then, is the right course in any given case? This question was the decisive factor. As a result, the I Ching was lifted above the level of an ordinary book of soothsaying. If a fortune teller on reading the cards tells her client that she will receive a letter with money from America in a week, there is nothing for the woman to do but wait until the letter comes -- or does not come. In this case what is foretold is fate, quite independent of what the individual may do or not do. For this reason fortune telling lacks moral significance. When it happened for the first time in China that someone, on being told the auguries for the future, did not let the matter rest there hut asked, "What am I to do?" the book of divination had to become a book of wisdom.

It was reserved for King Wên, who lived about 1150 B.C., and his son, the Duke of Chou, to bring about this change. They endowed the hitherto mute hexagrams and lines, from which the future had to he divined as an individual matter in each case, with definite counsels for correct conduct. Thus the individual came to share in shaping fate. For his actions intervened as determining factors in world events, the more decisively so, the earlier he was able with the aid of the Book of Changes to recognize situations in their germinal phases. The germinal phase is the crux. As long as things are in their beginnings they can be controlled, but once they have grown to their full consequences they acquire a power so overwhelming that man stands impotent before them. Thus the Book of Changes became a book of divination of a very special kind. The hexagrams and lines in their movements and changes mysteriously reproduced the movements and changes of the macrocosm. By the use of yarrow stalks,9 one could attain a point of vantage from which it was possible to survey the condition of things. Given this perspective, the words of the oracle would indicate what should be done to meet the need of the time.

The only thing about all this that seems strange to our modern sense is the method of learning the nature of a situation through the manipulation of yarrow stalks. This procedure was regarded as mysterious, however, simply in the sense that the manipulation of the yarrow stalks makes it possible for the unconscious in man to become active. All individuals are not equally fitted to consult the oracle. It requires a clear and tranquil mind, receptive to the cosmic influences hidden in the humble divining stalks. As products of the vegetable kingdom, these were considered to be related to the sources of life. The stalks were derived from sacred plants.

"I Ching: Introduction by Richard Wilhelm" book structure
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  • The use of the Book of Changes:
    • The Book of Oracles

6 From the discussion here presented, it will become self-evident that the Book of Changes was not a lexicon, as has been assumed in many quarters.

7 Zeichen, meaning sign, is used by Wilhelm to denote the linear figures in the I Ching, those of three lines as well as those of six lines. The Chinese word for both types of signs is kua. To avoid ambiguity, the precedent established by Legge (The Sacred Books of the East, XVI: The Yi King) has been adopted througout: the term "trigram" is used for the sign consisting of three lines, and "hexagram" for the sign consisting of six lines.

8 For this reason, the numbers 7 and 8 ,never appear in the portion of the text dealing with the meanings of the individual lines.

9 The stalks come from the plant known to us as common yarrow, or milfoil (Achillea millefelium).