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I Ching

Category: Books sutras and myths

The I Ching is also known as the Book of Changes.  It is one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts.   If you read the common descriptions about it, it is described as a ‘book of divination’ – prophecy at its best and fortune telling at its worst , but it it not, as we shall see.

Its wisdom was devised before written language and it was passed on using pictures and symbols until it was recorded in written form.

Traditionally, the I Ching and its hexagrams were thought to pre-date recorded history, and based on traditional Chinese accounts, its origins trace back to the 3rd to the 2nd millennium BC. Some consider the I Ching the oldest extant book of divination …..The oldest manuscript that has been found, albeit incomplete, dates back to the Warring States Period (around 475–221 BC).[wikipedia]

To understand the I Ching you need to understand the principles of the Great Work.  The I Ching  is a book to help you achieve your Destiny.

It does this by describing things in terms of states, thus it is similar in its approach to the Sephirot.  These states however, apply to any undertaking which is part of the Great Work.  It can be your progress on the spiritual path, a project, a business, a kingdom, a state.  Whatever aggregate of people [and possibly other living things]  has got together for the purposes of creating or achieving something, the I Ching has applicability as long as that something is part of the Great Work.  If it is not, the wisdom will not apply.

To see how it works I will use the diagram below:

At a certain point in whatever you are doing you may find yourself in State 1.  To know whether you are really in state 1 and to see why you got there, you can work backwards and see described a number of previous states – say states 6, 7. 8. and 9 .  Along with the description of these previous stages is a very broad and general description of what was done – what activity – to cause the change of state.

Occasionally it shows that the change was inevitable – ‘no fault’ .  Those who devised the model noticed, in other words, that it always seemed to work out this way and there wasn’t much you could do about it.  Since change is inevitable because nothing stands still, even doing very little sometimes still results in a change of state.

Because this is a generic model, the descriptions of the activities are necessarily equally generic, but it does give you some idea of what was done to cause you to go from, say, state 6 to state 1.  Thus we have a generic causal model.

Along with the causes, there is also a description of what can happen next, described in terms of, again, a generic activity and a state.  Thus, if you do this, you will be in state 2, if you do that you will be in state 3 and so on. This then is the effect of actions – it gives you an idea how to proceed from there and what the results will be in a generic sense.

This is where people get the idea that it is a book of divination – but you can see clearly that it is anything but this.  All it is providing is a whole series of possible effects from a single state – those effects being dependent on what you do next – an activity.  Furthermore what happens next is only capable of being ascertained if the state you are in is part of the Great Work.  If it is not then anything could happen – you could be run over by a rampaging hippopotamus whilst on your way to taking your library book back.  It has happened.  Just one of those things.

The result is actually highly complex because state can follow state can follow state, with numerous branching paths and alternative routes.

As a consequence there is little point in following it much beyond the next state, but it is quite interesting to trace backwards to see why you got where you are.

One presumes that by going back you can remember what you did, so you will be able to trace the path backwards more easily.

The intention in doing this is not to blame yourself for what happened or even praise yourself, but to understand why it happened.  It is thus a good useful learning exercise.

The I Ching does not use bubbles or arrows to describe state and causes and effects.  The current state you are in is described using a Chinese character called a Gua or Hexagram.

There is a chapter for each Gua.  The sixty four chapters of the I Ching are then divided into two parts, the Upper Cannon and the Lower Cannon.  The Upper Cannon represents the yang aspect and lays emphasis on the Tao of Heaven or natural phenomena.  There are thirty states/gua in the Upper Cannon.  The Lower Cannon represents the yin aspect and focuses on social phenomena and human affairs.  There are 34 states in the Lower Cannon.  The Upper Cannon is of more importance spiritually.

I will be using the Complete I Ching as my source from now on in this explanation,  translated by Taoist Master Alfred Huang, as of all the versions I looked at, his proved the most useful and helpful.

Each State is describe in the I Ching with the following

  • The name and structure describes the meaning implicit in the name.  In effect what is meant by the name and what sorts of state might we include in the definition.
  • The sequence of the gua – is a commentary supplied by Confucius that gives a broad overview of the previous and subsequent states.
  • The Decision – is a description given by King Wen of how the gua applies to the spiritual path.
  • Commentary on decision – is Confucius’s elaboration of King Wen’s description.
  • Commentary on the symbol – is Confucius’s interpretation of the Chinese character and the hexagram itself.
  • Yao text – describes the states that can lead to this one and the possible activity that led up to it together with what might follow next again with an indicator of the activity.  It is very difficult to unravel and you have to understand the movements between levels in the hexagram.  The hexagram obviously provides one diagrammatic way of seeing how this works and it is extremely compact and ingenious, but occasionally it helps to simply draw out the bubble diagram.
  • Significance – in the book I recommend there is added commentary on how the yao can be interpreted and it can be helpful, but it can also be misleading, as of course the objective of the yao text is to keep it as generic as possible, more like a template than specifics, so all anyone can do is give examples of how it might be interpreted

 As you should be able to see using the I Ching with dice or yarrow stalks or whatever other arbitrary mechanism of chance is used, rather misses the point.  It is not supposed to be a book of chance, but a book of change and a book moreover that helps you direct change by doing the right thing.  What it is trying to tell us is that by following a certain course of action, then the result is likely to be this – in a generic way.

The skill is of course in understanding where you are, not being too optimistic or pessimistic, but being realistic.  Are you ‘beginning’ or ‘responding’, are you ‘needing’ or ‘fulfilling’,  are you ‘approaching’, ‘watching and waiting’ or ‘advancing’.

As a book to support one’s path to destiny, it is very helpful  - indeed invaluable, because it makes you think. 

As a book to help you decide whether you need to order the groceries from Waitrose tomorrow or on Friday, it does not have a great deal of applicability. It also does not help with ingrowing toenails, telling you whether the boyfriend you have is cheating on you or not,  or whether to have a new sofa or not.  Unfortunately this is the way it is being used by many people today.  Needless to say, if it ‘works’ and proves right in this context, it is a lucky accident.


There is little point in providing numerous observations which are just extracts from the I Ching, as it makes more sense to access the text online and view it yourself.  There is symbolism built into the text, but much of it does not use the symbols I have on this site.

In almost direct opposition to the explanation above I have chosen as a reference site this LINK, simply because it is fun.  It provides a way of learning the text and finding your way around, but in a personal way.



For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.