Introduction to the I Ching

 

Image: I Ching Hexagram 1, "Heaven, The Creative"

Table of Contents

General Information
Consulting the I Ching

GENERAL INFORMATION

            The I Ching is one of the oldest Chinese texts, and it is still important in modern Chinese life. The usual translation of the text's name, "Book Of Changes," points to the way that the assumptions behind the text reflect the Taoist paradigm of continual change in the universe, mirroring the ebb, flow, and tension between the forces of yin and yang. The differing readings in the I Ching are believed to reflect these changes, just as a barometer rises or falls with the advent of a high or low pressure system. This crude meterological analogy overlooks the reality that after one has selected one of the hexagrams through the divining method, this is then followed by considerable interpretation to discern the meaning in regard to one's present situation. Still, the bottom line is that the person consulting the I Ching (which is often described as if it were a person, rather than a text) comes to it with a question, and the particular hexagram that is selected is seen as somehow reflecting and revealing that moment's particular dynamic.

            The I Ching itself is a series of 64 hexagrams (six line figures), made up of all the possible combinations between the eight trigrams (see below). The trigrams are combinations of solid (---) and broken (- -) lines, the former representing the force of yang, the latter the force of yin. The eight trigrams show all possible combinations of these two lines, with three lines in each trigram. Just as the solid and broken lines are opposed, representing the primordial tension between yin and yang, in the same way the trigrams (in one formulation) are arranged as a set of opposites (note: the base of each trigram is the part on the inside of the circle, and the top is the part at the outside):

 

Each trigram in the circle thus stands in opposition with it’s mirror image, with the opposing pairs being heaven/earth, fire/water, mountain/lake, and thunder/wind. In traditional Chinese thought, each of these trigrams also many other associations, including members of the family (with heaven and earth being father and mother respectively), directions of the compass, and various qualities and characteristics.   The basic part of this diagram was taken from I Ching: The Book of Change, translated and edited by John Blofeld (1965, Penguin Books).

            Each of the I Ching's 64 hexagrams is a pair of these trigrams, one on top of the other. For example, Hexagram 14, TA YU ("Great Possessions") has the trigram for “heaven” on the bottom, with the trigram for “fire” above it, and thus looks like this:

            - -

            ---

            - -

            ---

            ---       

            ---

 

CONSULTING THE I CHING

            In its oldest form, I Ching was consulted using dried stalks of the yarrow plant (which were thin and straight). The questioner would hold a bundle of fifty sticks, meditate on his or her particular question, and then pass the bundle three times in a clockwise direction through the smoke from burning incense. One of the sticks is then set aside for the duration of the divination, which is done using the other 49 sticks.  To begin the divination, the questioner randomly divides the pile of stalks, and determines the nature of the line the nature of the line (yin or yang, fixed or static) by counting away the sticks in groups of four.  I have only alluded to this procedure here; should you wish to know more about it consult the relevant authorities (such as a published version of the I Ching).

            The I Ching can also be consulted by using three identical coins, whose differing combinations as they fall reveal the lines of the hexagram. The person consulting the I Ching will hold the coins, meditating on his or her prepared question, and then let them fall from the hand six times. Each fall of these three coins has four possible outcomes, based on the combinations of Heads (H) and Tails (T):

 H + H + H = -O- an old yang line (moving); numerical value = 9

T + T + T = -X- an old yin line (moving); numerical value = 6

H + H + T = --- a young yang line (fixed) numerical value = 8

T + T + H = - - a young yin line (fixed); numerical value = 7

 

The hexagram is constructed from the BOTTOM UP (so the first fall of the coins determines the bottom line), and each succeeding line is drawn over the preceding one. The numerical values for the lines are important for reading the supplemental commentary, which is discussed below. These numerical values were originally determined by the yarrow-stalk divination method, in which these numbers would be the actual number of sticks left over.

“Old” versus “Young” Lines

            The difference between "old" and "young" lines is crucial, and again reflects the Taoist assumption that all forces in the universe are in constant dynamic tension. A "young" line is fixed and stable, and will undergo little change, whereas an "old" line is about to change polarity, and become its opposite (old yang becomes young yin, and vice versa).  Of course, this change gives rise to another completely hexagram, as the lines change polarity. As but one example, a moving line in the sixth position of hexagram #1, "heaven," changes it to hexagram #43, "resolution" (these are written along with the  numerical value of each of the lines:

-O- (9)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)

BECOMES

- - (7)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)
--- (8)

 

            In reading the I Ching in response to one's question, the primary answer is believed to be contained in the initial hexagram (in this case, #1, "heaven"). Yet even after the initial interpretation of the hexagram, there is also supplemental information, based on the position of any moving lines.  In this case, the moving line is in line #6 (known as the “sixth position”), and the supplemental information pertinent to this case appears later in the commentary, usually beginning with a phrase like "nine (the numerical value of the line) in the sixth position...."

            As another example, a moving line in the third position of hexagram #2, "earth," changes it to hexagram #15, "modesty" (shown with the numerical value of each of the lines):

 

- - (7)
- - (7)
- - (7)
-X- (6)
- - (7)
- - (7)

BECOMES

- - (7)
- - (7)
- - (7)
--- (8)
- - (7)
- - (7)

 

In this case the pertinent supplemental instructions for hexagram #2 would begin with the phrase "six in the third position...".

            Finally, the questioner also consults the “changed” hexagram that results from the shift in the moving line, but here the person reads the main commentary only.  This second hexagram is seen as reflecting the "change" from the present situation—that is, as an overall indicator of how things are shifting. 

            Using these instructions, cast and draw your hexagram, carefully noting any moving lines, and the “change” in the hexagram caused by these lines.

            After you have cast your hexagram, go to the I Ching Square, which has a table of all 64 hexagrams in the I Ching. To find your hexagram, you should know that in each horizontal row, the bottom trigram (considered the base and more important) is the same. Therefore, go DOWN the first column until you find your lower trigram, and then across to match your upper one, and read the text associated with it. If your hexagram has any "moving" lines, transform them and read the text with the new hexagrams stemming from the "change." If you want further information, you could go to Gene Thursby's I Ching Page, which has a variety of related sites.

Print the commentary from your primary (and secondary hexagrams). We will use these as a basis for discussion.

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Last modified 11 August 2003