...life can be translucent

Stephen Karcher: I Ching, the Symbolic Life

Stephen Karcher I Ching the Symbolic LifeStephen Karcher’s latest book, I Ching – the Symbolic Life is a self-published work. The advantage of this: he’s been able to create and illustrate the book he wanted, in colour, with no corners cut. The disadvantage: the price is a little scary. I ordered my copy from the US, which turned out to be cheaper than in the UK even after postage.

It’s a colourful book with a clear, open layout that uses colour to reinforce the associations between hexagrams and trigrams. It also includes small illustrations for each hexagram, drawn from Stephen’s ‘Paper Horses’ work.

(Aside: the book itself simply describes these as ‘an image that gives you a feeling tone,’ intended to deepen your intuitive sense of the hexagram. But for more background on them, thoughts on the workings of images, and characterisation of the trigrams, download the pdf from here. Whether you get the book or not, this is abundantly worth reading for its description of the inner and outer landscape where divination takes place.)

What’s unique

What’s new in I Ching – the Symbolic Life is the seamless blend of imagery from the text with imagery from the hexagrams’ structural relationships. There’s no translation set apart from the rest of the text; instead, there are excerpts and improvisations on the translation woven into the interpretation of the structures.

The joy of discovering structural relationships within the Yijing is the way they can deepen and enrich readings, so you often find that all the answers you seek are already contained within a single answer; there’s no need to muddy the waters with a flurry of extra readings. It gives you a powerful sense of the way divination connects all areas of life and all layers of experience.

And the snag of discovering these relationships is that it generates a huge volume of technical stuff to bear in mind, and a huge range of connected hexagrams. There’s the paired hexagram, the Sequence, the nuclear hexagram, the family of hexagrams that surround that nuclear hexagram, the complementary hexagram, the hexagram created by reversing the trigrams, the Early Heaven hexagram, the Shadow Site… that’s anything up to ten other hexagrams to consider – before you even change any lines. The message of the reading can get very, very lost in a blur of information overload.

To access the richness of these connections without getting completely lost, you could absorb them all into your awareness of each hexagram – this may take quite a few years. You could also use this book.

The connections show up here as they might do in a reading from a diviner who has all these things deeply integrated into his sense of the hexagram. Naturally, he’d let this awareness percolate through into his interpretation without overwhelming the person he was reading for by enumerating all his sources. And in the same way, in the book, some sources are explained and some aren’t.

Similarly, the use of the translation reflects what a diviner might do in practice, maybe after reading out the words of the oracle. What you get here, instead of a complete word-for-word translation, is something like an improvisation on the text. It’s generally very close to it – the oracle of Hexagram 47, for instance, originally says,

‘Confined, creating success.
Constancy of a great person, good fortune.
Not a mistake.
There are words, no trust.’

– and the first passage on Hexagram 47 begins,

“You are cut off, oppressed and exhausted. Collect the energy to get out of this prison and re-establish communication. Be great and master the situation from within. Find what is truly important. Seek those who can help and advise you. The situation is not your fault but words are not to be trusted now. Do not believe what others are telling you to do…”

So this talks about every part of the text, but also (as I suppose is inevitable with any commentary) pushes some possible meanings to the margins – for instance, that ‘words, no trust’ might indicate that the reasoning of your own inner voice is hollow and inauthentic.

The text continues without break:

“Let Confining be your inner guide. It will turn self containment into the ability to manage the flow and flux of events.”

This is no longer drawn from the translation, but from the weaving of trigrams through the Pair. The intention must be that the reader will take and use all these ideas without worrying about where they came from. Also, she has a chance to absorb the relationships without consciously charting them, as both hexagrams and trigrams are consistently evoked using the same simple image-formula of words – a powerful way for ideas to put down roots and become familiar.

This use of structure means that every word of the book has its source: the shortest of short phrases might have an essay’s-worth of theory – and no doubt countless hours of divination experience – behind it. Here’s a very short example, drawn from the trigram-based section of Hexagram 45; I’ve added the source for each part in square brackets:

The Spirit Helpers

Lake above Earth [trigrams]. The Joyous Dancer and the Dark Animal Goddess [trigrams personified as spirit helpers – with the help of the Shuogua, I think]. This is Metal over Earth, an inner field that sustains outer stimulation [trigrams mapped to Five Elements]. Inner devotion now lets you express the spirit in the human community [trigram actions]. Take precautions and eliminate the causes of conflict [Daxiang text]. Do not accumulate great things for yourself [Complementary hexagram, 26, Great Taming/ Great Accumulating]. If you reaffirm common human needs and strengths [the Early Heaven hexagram, the ‘ideal’, Hexagram 48], the new spirit will reveal itself [the ‘Shadow Site’, Hexagram 20].’

And for the background to just one of these concepts, see the article at GreatVessel on Ideal and Shadow, in the amusingly-named ‘I Ching Basics’ section.

For each hexagram, there’s plenty of this kind of concentrated, distilled text that bears a lot of ‘unpacking’:

  • A heading summarising the hexagram’s advice, based on the Judgement text and the movement between trigrams in the Pair
  • Circle of Meanings – thesaurus-like – with reference to the ancient Chinese name of the hexagram
  • Spirit Helpers – trigrams (and complement, and Ideal and Shadow)
  • Heart Theme – the nuclear hexagram – and ‘Cycle of Seasons’ through the nuclear hexagram family, which he suggests ‘shows how this process plays out through time and the energies you can use to bring the action to completion and find the seed of new growth.’
  • ‘Myths for Change’ section, which begins by describing the Pair
    • and then the Sequence text, translated/elaborated as ‘Charge to the Inquirer’
    • and a description of the hexagram (only subtly changed since Total I Ching)
    • and its position within the pair, decade, and probably some other relationships I’ve yet to identify
    • Hidden Exchange – swapping the trigrams to show how one hexagram ‘enables’ and develops another.
    • Direct interpretation and suggestions for action: immediate future, personal development, working with others, working with organizations, relationships.
  • Transforming Lines. For each line (and I’m not altogether sure this is a comprehensive list of what’s being used):
    • Description of that position in the hexagram (in terms of the complementary pair of change patterns it creates – 24 and 44 for line 1, 7 and 13 for line 2, etc
    • Translation-elaboration-improvisation on the text
    • Instruction based on the new trigram created by the line change.
    • Advice based on line pathway, travelling through paired line and fan yao.
    • Advice based on nuclear hexagram of relating hexagram and its nuclear hexagram.

So for instance for 45.1:

Line 1 Beginnings: return of the spirit that brings the entrance of a new fate.

You are connected to a deep source of energy but the connection with others is unclear. One moment you are joyous, the next moment confused. Call out! One grasp of the hand and all will laugh together. Rouse the new energy. Leave your current position and mingle with the people. Changes are coming. You can achieve something great. Serve the highest ideals. Do not pause in your efforts to eliminate inner sources of discord. Proceed step by step. Prepare a decisive new move.’

Also, there’s an appendix at the back, ‘The Pairs in the Loom of Change’ describing how both trigrams and individual lines weave through each pair.

Who’s the book for?

I think it’s for fairly experienced users: people who already have a translation or twenty to hand and would like a way in to explore the meaning of the structures in the Yijing. (An interesting comparison would be with Nigel Richmond’s Language of the Lines.) I wouldn’t suggest this to a beginner as a sole source, because of the lack of clearly-differentiated translation – though it’d be interesting to read a review from a newcomer and see how this material ‘lands’ with someone who comes to it fresh.

Maybe more importantly, it’s for users who are interested in diving deep into a reading. In the introduction, Karcher describes the I Ching as ‘1) a book; 2) a technique; and 3) a way or spiritual practice,’ and says,

‘The long term use of this technique is the foundation of a spiritual practice or discipline that can give us a symbolic mirror that “reaches the depths, grasps the seeds and penetrates the wills of all beings Under Heaven.” In working with the symbols the Change offers, we experience how the Way or Dao is working in our lives. This Symbolic Mirror teaches us about the destiny that Heaven gave us (ming) when we entered this world and helps us manifest our innate power and virtue (de) in accord with that destiny. The practice transforms the shape of our heart-mind and links us with the Way of Water or Dao, the on-going process of the real. And, according to the ancient sages, this individual change of heart can synchronistically help to renew the world and the culture we live in.’

From which you can probably tell that this is not your first port of call for predicting election outcomes or diagnosing computer problems. But I’ve found it very helpful already with a reading about the subtle forces shaping my relationship with a group, and one about incipient depression.

Though this is clearly meant as a way into the depths, it’s meant as a simple way in. For instance, the only method of consulting suggested is one that always generates a single moving line (never more or less). This is the same method that Alfred Huang calls ‘Eight Coin Magic’ in his Complete I Ching: laying out eight tokens around a ring of trigrams. (The trigram-ring – another ‘Paper Horse’ painting – is provided at the back.) So this deliberately excludes all the subtleties that are created in readings by the interaction of different changing lines, or their absence.

Of course I’ll try using the book at least once with the casting method suggested – but I’ll be keeping it close to hand for all readings, for the insights it offers into the meanings created by hexagram and trigram relationships. I think that’s the particular gift of this book: tapping into the full, multidimensional ‘you are here’ capacity of these structural relationships and making them eloquent – something that belongs in a reading, not just in an interesting reference chart somewhere. I’ve only used the book for a couple of readings so far, but its words are already turning out to have that ‘jumping off the page and talking to you’ quality about them.

6 responses to Stephen Karcher: I Ching, the Symbolic Life

  1. Floating and free, let these elegant winged creatures find their way into your heart and imagination. Five Elements

  2. When I start reading something Karcher wrote, it always feels like WOW, great. But after a while it gets smaller. It is as if you see a beautifully decorated temple, but when you get closer, the decorations make it impossible to enter. Is there really a temple behind them? Or is it only an image of a temple.

    It is a lot like a dream which has a big impact. Then someone explains it to you and your consciousness can use it in a small way, but the ‘big’ way happened when you dreamed it. Karcher talks the images out of the actual dream. He dresses them in wonderful clothes, beautiful associations, deep hints of meanings. But the connections with the soul have been cut.

    He does the same with simple facts, not only with myths and images and gods and such. He makes etymology fit into his own imagination. I have no problem with other way around, making the images of etymology live. But leaving the facts for the sake of a beautiful story is not right. Then you should tell that you leave the facts and not make everyone believe that this is the old character.

    I seriously doubt that he translates Chinese. It seems he is a translator, but of Chinese, no. There are so many things even a beginning student of Chinese knows that he doesn’t. Nothing wrong with using other translations to make your own, but then stick to the facts of what has been found, and don’t create your own facts.

    He has a great talent, he can make myth alive in an inspiring way. Such a shame that he makes himself incredible. And even worse that many believe his assumptions without any doubt. They get lost in the beautiful decorations. It is a beautiful place but in the long run it will not take you to the inner space you really seek.


  3. Stephen seems to be like Marmite… loved or, well, not.

    For some people his books open the doors wide and they walk straight into the temple’s inner space, a complete, real and lasting revelation; others feel like they’re lost amongst decorations with no temple.

    I never go to Stephen for facts. For that I want footnotes to dig into and mine, full of sources and quotations so I can look things up, absorb the information for myself and see what patterns emerge. I don’t get far into Total I Ching without longing for footnotes.

    I don’t particularly think of him as a Yijing scholar – don’t know about the translating – but as a diviner. And as a source of ideas, approaches and techniques to use in readings, that turn out to work in practice and connect with people – not just get you stuck inside a system – he is very, very good. Lots of real, rich food for thought; lots of nourishing stuff that leads to lots of genuine ‘aha’ moments for people.

    This latest book is more of a source-book for this. As usual, I want footnotes, or maybe reference tables of all the associated hexagrams, that kind of thing. But it’s seeing what he makes of them in practice that’s got me looking at them (and making my own tables 😉 ). In the past half-dozen readings I’ve looked at the ‘shadow site’ and it’s made good clear, jumping-out-at-you sense every time.

  4. Hi Hilary,

    Thank you for this review. Can you please comment on how this book compares to Karcher’s Total I Ching?

    Thank you

  5. Hi Hillary, I would very much like to see a comparison with the Total I Ching too. However, I’ve just ordered the text from Amazon USA as recommended and am very much looking forward to working with it in a couple of weeks time. For me Total I Ching is THE BEST! But I also bought the Guideways for Change by him too, which I’ve used quite a bit also, but the TIC just works better for me. I’d agree with your comment about his perspective being that of a divine with techniques and told that work so effectively.

  6. Hi David, hi Cristian,

    Total I Ching is a complete translation – a fairly free translation with elaborations/ elucidations, but basically a translation. This newer book has no straight translation at all, except for the tiny snippet of the Sequence titled ‘Charge to the Inquirer’. It’s more an extemporisation on text and structures.

    So… you can’t use this book, on its own, for a Yijing reading, because it doesn’t tell you what Yi says. (Only what Stephen believes Yi means.) Used in combination with a minimal, literal translation – maybe one from a different perspective – it casts light on readings in really intriguing ways.

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