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Yearly Archives: 2017

Advice from Zhu Xi

Advice from Zhu Xi

One of many interesting things I found in Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography was an account of Zhu Xi’s approach to divination.

Zhu Xi (1120-1200) wrote firmly of Yi’s identity as an oracle, not just a ‘book of wisdom’. In addition to creating the yarrow method we use now, he also prescribed considerable ritual to be used with it. There are ritual ablutions, a dedicated divination room and table that you approach from the east, passing the yarrow stalks through the incense smoke… it’s all a long way away from ‘visit web page, click button’.

What caught my attention most of all was the quasi-prayer to be recited before the reading, especially its last line:

‘Availing of you, great milfoil, with constancy, I, [name], because of [topic], wonder if I may express my doubts and concerns to the spiritual powers. Whether the news is auspicious or inauspicious, involves a gain or a loss, remorse or humiliation, sorrow or anxiety, you alone with your divine intelligence can provide clear information.’

(Emphasis added.) There are echoes of this prayer in an invocation recorded in the 19th century. Prior to consultation, the temple diviner addresses the gods:

‘A man is now present who is harassed with anxieties, and is unable to solve his doubts and perplexities. We can only look to the gods to instruct us as to what is or is not to take place.’

Here is the same core assumption: the querent has a problem that only the oracle can solve. And although I’ve never counselled anyone on the correct placement of an incense burner relative to their yarrow stalks, this is advice I recognise. Yijing divination is for things we cannot know in other, more ‘normal’ ways. If you can learn the answer by…

  • consulting a doctor
  • buying a pregnancy test
  • consulting a lawyer
  • using a search engine
  • making a phone call
  • …and so on…

…then do that. The answer you get this way will be altogether more use: less open to interpretation, more likely to give you peace of mind, easier to act on.

Having said that… yes, I fail to take this advice all the time, too – or at least, I take it with a liberal pinch of interpretation…

For example, a month ago I had a great chunk of enamel fall off a back tooth. After a week or so of treating this with great TLC I was unsure whether the tooth was a) hardening and stabilising or b) decaying – and dealt with my uncertainty by asking Yi what was going on in there.

My friends enquired why (on earth) I did not go to my dentist, who could obviously answer this question far more straightforwardly. Well… because I had a whole lot of ‘doubts and perplexities’ along the lines of, ‘The dentist will want to drill and refill, but the drilling would damage the tooth’s capacity for self-repair, but that’s only relevant if it even has any chance of repairing itself in its current state, and if it hasn’t then I should get the dentist to re-fill it quick before I lose the whole tooth…’ and so on. Caught in that kind of endless loop, it feels natural to me to ask Yi. However, unless you share my strong fondness for dentinal tubules, my hesitation over seeing a dentist is going to appear quite insane.

A more familiar example would be the wise advice:

‘Never mind asking Yi how he feels about you, talk to him!’

This is generally very good advice indeed, but if someone wants to have an idea what’s going on before taking the plunge into such an excruciatingly difficult conversation, can you blame them?

The basic principle that we should ask Yi only when we cannot resolve our anxieties any other way is a good one; applying some logic and old-fashioned common sense (which, as my mother’s mother told her, isn’t common) to the issue might prevent much confusion, and much wear-and-tear on the yarrow stalks.

But really, this isn’t just about where to find good information: it’s about knowing how best to change our inner state. What can bring you sufficient confidence and peace of mind to move forward, engage with the issue and get on with life? Sometimes that’ll be an expert opinion, and sometimes the kind of change of perspective that only a reading can create.

smoke rising from incense burner

The future of the Yijing?

The future of the Yijing?

My publishers have asked me to come up with a short introduction outlining the history of the Yi. So – wanting to do a good, thorough job – I have started by reading Richard J. Smith’s The I Ching: a biography. It’s a fascinating book, very readable, and it’s given me much more insight into the… Continue Reading

The well in the valley

The well in the valley

Hexagram 48 line 6 says, ‘The well gathers, Don’t cover it. There is truth and confidence, Good fortune from the source.’ Bradford Hatcher, who has dug more wells than your average Yijing scholar, suggests that this is an artesian well, one where the water rises spontaneously. That certainly fits with my experience of the line,… Continue Reading

When Yi says ‘me’

When Yi says ‘me’

By and large, we know what sort of thing we expect Yi to say (though not, heaven knows, what it will say): ‘Here’s what you’re doing’ or ‘here’s what would happen’ or ‘here’s how to cope with that’ – something along those lines, describing or advising. Only every now and then – just eleven times, in… Continue Reading

‘If, then’

‘If, then’

Possibly the most Frequently Asked Question about interpreting readings: ‘This line says one thing, but that one says the opposite! How can I make sense of the reading when it contradicts itself?’ It happens a lot: you ask how to go about something, and one hexagram says it’s fruitful to cross the great river, and… Continue Reading

Hexagram 27, Nourishment

Name and Nature The name of Hexagram 27 translates literally not as ‘Nourishment’ but as ‘Jaws’ – not something we call it, because shark. But it does help to remember that it’s not specifically about nourishment (of whatever kind), but rather about the framework that makes nourishment possible. Just looking at the shape of the… Continue Reading

What’s wrong with carting corpses, anyway?

Simple Two lines in Hexagram 7, the Army, talk about carting corpses: line 3: ‘Perhaps the army carts corpses. Pitfall.’ and line 5: ‘The fields have game Fruitful to speak of capture: No mistake. When the elder son leads the army, And younger son carts corpses: Constancy, pitfall.’ The core meaning is surely intuitively obvious:… Continue Reading

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