...life can be translucent


Browsing Allan Lian’s blog, with a New Year post offering a Confucian perspective on self-cultivation, got me thinking. What is self-cultivation – where and how does this idea show up in the Yijing?

Luckily, I don’t have far to look: my guiding principle for the year for Clarity, as given by Yi, is Hexagram 9 changing to Hexagram 26. They’re two very variously-translated hexagrams: just picking up the seven translations that have found their way onto my desk so far this year, for Hexagram 9 I find Small Offering, The Small Accumulating, Smallness Tames, Lesser Domestication, Farming: Minor, The Taming Power of the Small and Small Accumulates/Gathering the Ghosts.

I usually call these two Small Taming and Great Taming – but it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch, I think, to call them ‘self-cultivation in small ways’ and ‘self-cultivation in great ways’.

We’re getting back, here, to the original metaphor of ‘cultivation’. The Chinese word chu means taming, restraining, nurturing and accumulating; its earliest meanings have to do with livestock, and the old forms of the character have to do with dark, rich fields. The person who works both at restraining and also at nurturing is a farmer.

Hexagram 9 has the feel of a ‘small farmer’, more or less at subsistence level, who must go out daily and work the soil, making it ready for the coming rain. There are hints at a historical parallel with the early days of the Zhou people, when the Pattern King, Wen, nurtured and built up the virtue of his people so they became ready to receive the Mandate of Heaven. Self-cultivation, here, means being the scrupulous and attentive farmer of your own inner terrain.

The farmer of Hexagram 26 is no longer working one weed at a time; his ‘great accumulations’ can be used as a kind of springboard into new experience:

‘Great taming,
Harvest in constancy.
Not eating at home, good fortune.
Harvest in crossing the great river.’

Not to eat at home implies finding nourishment beyond the familiar; it also represents going to work at court. The core idea of this – the concept we can work with now – is finding a way for our whole ‘accumulation’ to be of greater service beyond our usual boundaries. It’s possible to do more with this farm than just survive: there can be highly-trained horses, and oxen and boar reared to be fit to offer to the spirits. Self-cultivation here has to do with self-mastery and aspiring to be of greater service.

6 responses to Self-cultivation?

  1. Hilary, I’m confused.

    A couple of days ago you said

    “My guiding hexagram for the coming year is 2, the Earth. So this post is my ‘direction to go’, my idea of where I want to be. In the spirit of hexagram 2, it (naturally) doesn’t follow that I know exactly how to get there: rather, I’m out looking for guidance and ways to be of service.”

    This post talks of your guiding principle and two different hexagrams. What is the difference between a ‘guiding hexagram’ and a ‘guiding principle’? Because of the difference between an unequivocal 2 and 9=> 26, there seems to be quite a profound difference.

    Thank you

  2. Ah – two readings – sorry to be muddled. One for me personally, on how to live the year to the full: that was Hexagram 2, unchanging; one a guiding principle for taking the business forward: that was 9.5 to 26.

    Actually, I think they have themes in common: joining with others (in 9.5 and in 2), being of service (2, 26). Enough that it makes sense to me for 9.5 to 26 to be one way of 2-ing, if you see what I mean.

  3. Ah :o) that makes sense! Sorry to be pedantic, I thought you were making a distinction between ‘guiding principle’ and ‘guiding hexagram’. Happy new year!

  4. Hilary, thanks a million for this post … Hexagram 9 is one that I’ve struggled to “get” — really comprehend — and your writing nailed it. I think it’s in how you have written about the relation between H9 and H26 … I’d had some confusion about “SMALL RESTRAINT” and “GREAT RESTRAINT” …

    Let me know what you think … I”m “thinking this out” as I write it, so if I sound like a total doofus, forgive me 😉

    … I see H9 (in part) as a place wherein we rein in the mind and consider things before we act on them; I think of qualities like caution, discernment, and patience … and there is also be a call to restrain the mind — but gently (as in H57, The Gentle … I love that influence…)

    H9 seems to say *Pay attention* — in a focused, look-around-you-and-inside-you kind of way. *Look at the world around you and your place in it [which is comprehended through the principle of H8, Union] … and consider how you will conduct yourself [as in H10, Conduct].* H9 looks like a firm first nudge into the consideration of an ethic (doesn’t that often start to happen when a child is about nine years of age?…) and the impact that our choices and actions have on others.

    H26 seems to be a maturing of H9; also a coalescing of mindfulness, energy, and power … a further honing of intention, and a gathering of the will to act. (In the Gestalt cycle of awareness, it’s a time of “mobilization of energy”.) Developmentally (as when a person’s around 26 years of age), we’re heavily into “making something of ourselves” and we’re more or less aware of how our actions impact on others. Our bodily strength, developmentally, is at its peak. We have a great deal to give of ourselves during early adulthood … and we do it by making huge changes in our lives — leaving home; attending college and / or starting a career; mating and creating a family; travelling and exploring places, possibilities, and people … Doing these things mindfully demands great concentration, discernment, and considerations of responsibility … and there’s a need to “greatly tame” the side of us that wants to run screaming into the night at any whiff of committment … ;-D

    H26 seems to say, “You’ve got energy to burn, baby … Use it well …”

    … And what you say about self-cultivation, Hilary — yes, that’s it 😀 I had to say it all over again in my roundabout way after thinking it through and reading your words a second time. 😉

    Jaliya’s last blog post..Musings on love in the *I Ching*

  5. Dear Hillary,

    I am curious as to whose translation of the Duan from hexagram 26 you quote in your New Year’s posting. I find ‘Harvest’ especially challenging. Here is the Tuan:

    ‘Great taming,
    Harvest in constancy.
    Not eating at home, good fortune.
    Harvest in crossing the great river.’

    Even a reference would be welcome, and any remarks you might feel useful even more so.


    Paul Hansen

  6. Hi Paul,

    The translation is adapted from the Eranos edition, Ritsema/Karcher. ‘Harvest’ is their word for li – quite a literal translation, and one that ties in well with English metaphors about things ‘yielding a harvest’ or ‘bearing fruit’. Wilhelm translates it as ‘furthering’.

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