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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

3 responses to Advice from Zhu Xi

  1. I share your fondness of dentinal tubules and feel very protective of mine. I have asked MANY dental questions to gain clarity on issues that stumped all the dentists I consulted. Yi often suggested it was time to consult great people – but yikes, where were they!?! It took years to find dentist who could diagnose my problems. Also I received lots of hexagram 23 responses – shudder. So how did it finally work out with your tooth and was Yi helpful? Btw I like the quasi-prayers and I do something that is somewhat similar.

    • I’m lucky – I have a really nice dentist, who is not at all drill-happy. I wish I’d found her earlier. I didn’t need her services on this occasion, though – the tooth has toughened up and is fine. Yi was very helpful, in a gruff sort of way. 7 unchanging for advice – I’m afraid that means I have to stay ‘organised’ about it indefinitely if I want to keep the tooth. No more sugar between meals for me!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful clarification. I find just the asking often shifts my state, but being present to the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’seems to augment whatever answer appears. Readiness to receive the outcome also plays a role, but I suspect that is dependent on both the question and the levels of anxiety on the part of the querent.

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