I Ching, Introduction to the Book of Changes

Of the five Confucian Classics, The Book of Changes or I Ching, is the most cryptic of the texts. Originating from the Western Zhou period (1047 BCE – 772 BCE) in ancient China during a period of great historical change, it is a text with a long and significant history used as a divining manual.

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Introduction to the I Ching

The word “i” in the Chinese language means “change” and “easy.” The word “ching” translates to “classic” or “book.” The dual definition of “i” reminds one of the relationship between yin and yang. “Easy” being the static, passive contraction of yin, and “change” being the kinetic, active energy of yang. Considered a version in miniature of the universe, the I Ching has historically acted as a tool for moral decision-making in Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. It is still widely used today in East Asian and Western cultures for the same purpose.

Most people would consider divination synonymous with predicting the future, but the I Ching reminds us that the universe is in perpetual motion and the future is rarely so easily calculated. Instead, the I Ching concerns itself with a different concept of divination involving introspection and reflection on present situations. The use of this divination tool emphasizes the relationship we have with our choices and our future outcomes. We cannot control what will happen, but we certainly understand the cause and effect of our actions. The I Ching provides a “mirror” to peer into and see the reverberations of our actions as if they were ripples in the water.

It may also help to view the I Ching as a practical tool in handling times of change and uncertainty. As humans, we often find ourselves struggling against the tide of the universe. We struggle with change because we are most comfortable with stability, but despite our greatest attempts to control the future, it is impossible. Therefore, the I Ching is not meant to give a straight answer to us about what the universe has in store for us. It is a map of order and chaos, of yin and yang, of correspondences meant to guide us in our choices and actions.

Yin and yang

It is difficult to approximate the meaning of these terms in Western terms, but yang can be considered action, and yin to be a concrete form. An example of this is to say that yang is the action of painting, and yin is the finished painting. It is important to remember that these are not qualities of things, nothing is by its very nature either yin or yang. Yin and yang are aspects of processes and are not static traits but expressions. Yin is dark, soft, and contracting. Yang is bright, hard, and expanding. Together, forming a cycle of constant transformation, from old yin to young yang, young yang to old yang, old yang to young yin, and young yin to old yin again.

The I Ching divination

The ancient Chinese believed that nothing is entirely meaningless, that all things happening at any given time are part of a cosmic pattern. The divination of the I Ching is in a scientific framework to be a random procedure. This is similar to many other types of divination such as Tarot readings. However, because there is a foundational belief in the cosmic pattern present in the I Ching, this random procedure is thought to be able to trigger a “collective unconscious” in readings. The shamanic, dreamlike language of the book contrasts the highly structured and geometric process of creating hexagrams. By combining a systemized method of creating hexagrams and the trancelike language of the “collective unconscious,” the I Ching offers a bridge between the left and right brain, of logic and intuition. This “collective unconscious” is represented as a collage of images in the sixty-four hexagrams.

The sixty-four hexagrams of I Ching

The sixty-four hexagrams that make up the I Ching are created from combinations of the Eight Trigrams. The Trigrams are sets of three divided or undivided lines that represent a natural element, a direction, or a moral quality. Each divided line symbolizes yin while the undivided line symbolizes yang. Combinations of these Eight Trigrams form the sixty-four hexagrams, in which exist all possible situations. Every hexagram is accompanied by texts and commentaries that explain the meaning of each component.

A kaleidoscopic set of images accompanies each hexagram in the texts. These texts have shamanic origins that trace back to the Shang dynasty period (1765–1123 BCE). The language has a dreamlike quality that contrasts the philosophical nature of most other texts from the same period. The series of images are meant to spark associations and connections specific to the person consulting the oracle. The context of the consultant's question is what determines the lens in which these images are interpreted through.

It is important to note that these images do not stand as definite predictions of the future, though they may indicate a possible future. These are oracular images that communicate patterns in the universe and function as an associative tool to view a situation in a new light. They are meant to mirror the present situation back to the consultant and because of their abstract nature, consulting the I Ching can be a great form of self reflection as well. Because the I Ching allows one to explore difficult decisions, it is no surprise that it has lasted as a tool for emperors long past all the way to the present.

I Ching - The Upper Canon Hexagrams

The Upper Canon contains 30 hexagrams and represents the natural phenomena of yang, the Heavenly Tao. The I Ching’s Upper Canon begins with the interplay of Heaven and Earth (represented with Qian and Kun); ends with the ceaseless cycle of darkness to brightness (which is represented by Kan and Li).

I Ching - The Lower Canon Hexagrams

The Lower Canon contains the rest of 34 hexagrams and represents the natural phenomena of yin, the Earthly Tao (representing Humanity). The I Ching’s Lower Canon begins with the union of a man and a woman (represented with Heng and Xian); ends with human affairs cycles (portrayed with Ji Ji and Wei Ji).

Comments: I Ching Illustrated Book of Changes

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