Skip to content

Theme and variations

snowflake crystal

From its first appearance in the first words of the Yi, the creative flow through the four characters yuan heng li zhen is tangible. Its power is felt in the other five hexagrams with the whole, uninterrupted formula.

But the natural cohesion of the four-word formula can also be felt in the hexagrams where it doesn’t appear – where the formula’s interrupted or partial. Because these words belong together so strongly, anything that breaks their flow stands out and asks to be noticed.

An instance of this I’ve probably mentioned before: Hexagram 4 begins,

‘Not knowing, creating success.’

A lot of hexagrams start this way: hexagram-name heng. The name of the hexagram takes the place of yuan in the original formula, suggesting that this hexagram is itself a way of making a successful offering. And we know, of course (especially after hexagrams 1-3) that heng is meant to be followed by li zhen: creative engagement flowing on to fruition, with clear and steadfast intent –

‘Not knowing, creating success,
Constancy bears fruit.’

This is almost what happens – except that the formula is interrupted:

‘Not knowing, creating success.
I do not seek the young ignoramus, the young ignoramus seeks me.
The first consultation speaks clearly.
The second and third pollute the waters,
Polluted, and hence not speaking.
Constancy bears fruit.’

And this interruption consists of the repeated questioning of the young ignoramus. The hexagram doesn’t just describe how such importunity interferes with the oracle’s speaking, it shows us how it happens.

Hexagram 18 has a different relation to yuan heng li zhen. It begins,

Gu. Yuan heng li…
‘Corruption. Creating success from the source, fruitful…’

We know – especially after hexagram 17 – that zhen, constancy, comes next: li zhen, constancy bears fruit.

‘Corruption. Creating success from the source.
Fruitful to cross the great river.
Before the seed day, three days. After the seed day, three days.’

So ‘cross the great river’ comes in place of zhen: it breaks the pattern.

Hexagram 17 (‘yuan heng li zhen, no mistake’) is about Following the creative flow; 18 is about a pattern that must be broken. The hidden currents of Corruption are creating the same pattern of experience again and again; they must be interrupted, there must be a change of direction to carry through the creative potential of yuan heng… . Again, the hexagram doesn’t just tell you what’s needed, it shows it by breaking the pattern – and breaking it with exactly the phrase that means ‘go against the current, do what doesn’t follow.’

One more example of the deliberate use of the mantic formula: its partial use. Thus for instance Hexagram 14 says only,

‘Great Possession.
From the source, creating success.’

I believe this emphasises that 14 is the stuff of beginnings: raw material, like wealth or talent. How this might be used is an open question.

There are also three hexagrams that begin [name] li zhen – constancy bears fruit. The first of these is 26, Great Taming:

‘Great taming,
Constancy bears fruit.
Not eating at home, good fortune.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Just as Great Possession is a hexagram of potential and beginnings, Great Taming is a hexagram of stored potential brought to fruition by long hard work – of implementation over time.

The other two pure ‘li zhen‘ hexagrams are 30, Clarity, and 34, Great Vigour. And here’s something interesting: this variation on the yuan heng li zhen theme is part of a much larger pattern. These three hexagrams are part of a group of 10 that Scott Davis calls the second ‘big little’ set (after the hexagrams called ‘Great’ and ‘Small’). I’ve described the perfect symmetry of this group before. Its central axis is the pair of 29-30, Repeating Chasms and Clarity; the ‘trigram theme’ that frames it, in hexagrams 25 and 34, is the relationship of thunder (initiative, action) to heaven (creative power, ultimate reality). I have a sense that this section of the Sequence is tackling the question, ‘How can we build a life based on both ways of knowing: 29 and 30, “below” and “above”, the “connected heart” and clear insight?’

And here we have the two ‘great’ hexagrams of this section, Great Taming and Great Vigour, equidistant from Clarity, and each affirming that ‘constancy bears fruit’ – not forgetting that zhen isn’t mere doggedness, but holding to the truth in divination.

(A final note:

‘Great Possession.
From the source, creating success.’

seems to call, and, two decades later,

‘Great vigour,
Constancy bears fruit.’

to respond.

33 introduces the response with a contrast to the ‘great’ hexagrams, promising small harvest in constancy: dun heng xiao li zhen. And 36 and 37 bring a kind of coda: they follow the ‘[name] li zhen‘ formula, but with an added qualifier: hardship-constancy bears fruit; woman-constancy bears fruit.)

What I find so extraordinary is that this – on both the small and large scale – is exactly the kind of pattern that I learned (over 20 years ago!) to recognise in great literature. Words used not just to describe an event but to enact it, so you can’t read them without having the experience. Meanings that dance across great arcs of pattern and structure. I didn’t expect to be finding this in a book 3,000 years old, so close to the rudimentary beginnings of written language – one that’s regarded by plenty of perfectly respectable scholars as fragments assembled by chance, or jottings from a diviner’s notebook.

1 thought on “Theme and variations”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *