Mark McElroy, of tarottools.com, has kindly sent me the proofs of his upcoming book, I Ching for Beginners. And as beginners’ books go, it’s pretty good, with some useful, thought-provoking ways of approaching the hexagrams. I’ll review it later on its own merits – but first, I need to get this rant out of my system. Because Mark swells the growing numbers of ‘modernisers’ and â€˜simplifiers’ who carefully remove all the oracle’s imagery.
The Yijing is alive with imagery and colour. Loud with horses, pigs, tigers, wild geese, elephants – and the dragon. Water and blood, yellow leather and crimson sashes, bronze arrows and prison pits. And then there are heroes and anti-heroes and their stories: the hubris of Wang Hai, Yu’s great labours, and the huge epic – just waiting for the Hollywood treatment – of a heaven-sent mandate to do the unthinkable and change the world.
The images and stories are the lifeblood of the oracle. When we consult with it, this is what we connect with. So why, when people set out to write some variant on the-everyday-simplified-easy-I-Ching-for-modern-beginners is their first step invariably to expunge every last image, story and colour?
(And why, especially, would a tarot expert do this? Has he ever felt the need to paint out those ambiguous images on his tarot deck and convert them into flashcards, with one or two keywords neatly printed in crisp, black ink?)
OK, I do know why they do it. Because images can be puzzling, and it’s often not immediately obvious what they mean. Maybe most of us are unwilling to wait for understanding; maybe we’ve lost confidence in our ability to relate to imagery. Maybe people will flee from the I Ching in droves with tigers and dragons snapping at their heels. But surely there has to be a better way of getting past that?
I mean… listen to this. Hexagram 1, line 5:
‘Dragon flying in heaven.
Harvest in seeing the great person.’
Yi offers you a dragon soaring in heaven. Brian Browne Walker (in The I Ching or Book of Changes, a Guide to Life’s Turning Points) offers:
‘Your attention to proper principles has fostered an emergence of the Creative. Influence occurs without any conscious intervention on your part.’
Sarah Dening (The Everyday I Ching) has:
‘This is one of the most favourable positions of all. It indicates that you can accomplish almost anything. Make full use of all your resources. Aim high and do the very best you can. You have considerable influence. Use it well.’
Another example – Hexagram 3, line 6:
‘Now driving a team of horses,
Now tears of blood flow endlessly.’
‘Negative emotions tempt you to abandon your efforts. It is the greatest misfortune to do so. Hold fast to the truth and persevere.’
‘You have been offered an opportunity to leave behind an unsatisfactory situation and move on to better things. Yet you feel that it is all too much for you. Such a defeatist attitude must be overcome at all costs. Nothing is holding you back except yourself.’
(I think these are both interpretations of Wilhelm’s commentary on the line, though one says â€˜stick to your guns’ and the other says ‘move on’…)
Looking at all this lot, I would recommend without hesitation that beginners get hold of Stephen Karcher’s I Ching Plain and Simple (formerly known as How to Use the I Ching). It’s not only plain and simple, it’s also the I Ching: a real translation.
The next best thing might actually be The I Ching Made Easy, by the Sorrells. I think they prove that there is a better way of overcoming fear of imagery than just omitting it. Their book is easy – about as unintimidating as paper and print can get – and it’s at least part of the I Ching. The Sorrells don’t give a complete translation, but they do talk you through the essential imagery for each hexagram, from both text and trigrams. So there are still dragons and tigers, arrowheads and bronze vessels, as well as straightforward commentary.
Looking at the same examples in their version –
Hexagram 1, line 5:
‘Dragon flies in the sky
You are a leader of distinction. Winning and triumphant. Select good advisers to help you. An opportunity to successfully accomplish a great ambition.’
And Hexagram 3, line 6:
‘On a horse at a standstill, tears of blood flow
You are stuck in the middle of a situation that you did not prepare for ahead of time. If you are willing to see it through, you will overcome the difficulties.’
(Not that I’m convinced by this interpretation, but at least the image is there for people to respond to directly.)
A good one to recommend to anyone who thinks they’re ‘not intellectual enough’ for Yi.