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Monthly Archives: September 2023

Fire outside: hexagrams 14 and 21

Fire outside: hexagrams 14 and 21
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Light outside

I’ve written about the trigram li, fire and light, and the role it plays as inner trigram, inside the hexagram. Here’s a look at fire on the outside…

In the ‘Trigram Associations’ pdf that’s part of the Yijing Foundations Course, I simply wrote that,

The outer li illumines more expansively, with less concentrated focus than the inner. It casts light on the inner trigram, suggesting a broad awareness of it. It can also be sustained by the presence of that inner trigram.

A whole two (2) ideas there: illuminating the inner trigram; sustained (fuelled) by the inner trigram. I think all I’d add now is that sometimes, both of these can be true at once.

Hexagram 14, Great Possession

As I mentioned in my first post on ‘fire inside’, the trigram li isn’t introduced until the second ‘decade’ of the Sequence of Hexagrams, after the pivot point of Hexagrams 11 and 12. Great Possession is the last of a group of six hexagrams with the trigram qian, Heaven:

  • Hexagram 9, Small Taming: wind over heaven
  • Hexagram 10, Treading: lake below heaven
  • Hexagram 11, Flow: earth over heaven
  • Hexagram 12, Blocked: earth below heaven
  • Hexagram 13, People in Harmony: fire below heaven
  • Hexagram 14, Great Possession: fire above heaven

Qian tends to represent the immutable law of heaven: absolute reality, it is what it is, and we need to find ways to relate to it. Adapt with wind, reflect in lake, accept and support with earth… and with fire?

With Hexagram 14 in readings, it can be hard to get beyond ‘What a nice answer!’ – and often there’s no need to – but still…

The trigram picture here shows light in heaven: the heavenly bodies in their courses. You can compare it with Hexagram 35, Advancing: there, we’re focussed on the ground, making hay while the sun shines on earth below; here, we look up into the sky. I think Advancing has more to do with what the sun does (or what we do), and Great Possession has more to do with what it is (and we are).

This is li sustained by its inner trigram: the sun, moon and stars giving continuous light according to the laws of nature. And it’s also li casting light on the inner trigram, wholly literally, because we look up at this light and watch how the universe works. You can see how heaven in the Image of Hexagram 14 –

‘Fire dwells above heaven. Great possession.
The noble one ends hatred and spreads the good,
She yields to heaven and rests in her mandate.’

and also in its 6th line –

‘From heaven comes help and protection.
Good fortune.
Nothing that does not bear fruit.’

– appears as something like a law-giver. From the lights in the sky, we get to see the structure of things. Another good translation for the name of this hexagram would be Great BeingYou 有 in the Yijing often means ‘there is’.

So how did the authors of the Image see this trigram picture?

‘Fire dwells above heaven. Great possession.
The noble one ends hatred and spreads the good,
She yields to heaven and rests in her mandate.’

In the first place, they don’t seem to see it in terms of the trigram attributes. There’s nothing here about illumination or clinging or even hollow things – all attributes of the trigram li. Heaven and its mandate are mentioned, but yielding and resting are not associated with fire and light.

There may be one hidden exception to this, in the word for spreading, 揚 yang. The dictionary tells me that the original components of this character are hand and sunrise, and it means to spread and make known, but also to raise. So there is some sense of uplifting the good to make it visible – like those lights high in the firmament.

But I think the real work of li here is that the noble one is clear-sighted: she understands. She will collaborate with Heaven, not battle against divine timing. And it’s surprising how many lines in this overwhelmingly ‘good news’ hexagram could use that advice: three have the omen ‘not a mistake’ (which often implies ‘however much you might think it is’) and one has ‘nothing that does not bear fruit’ (which sometimes suggests ‘no, really, even this‘). Maybe part of understanding Great Being is getting a sense of scale and perspective.

Hexagram 21, Biting Through

Here’s a much clearer trigram picture: thunder and lightning – the storm. (True, thunder doesn’t really precede lightning, but at the heart of an active storm, it would be hard to tell.)

‘Biting through, creating success.
Fruitful to use legal proceedings.’

Hexagram 21, the Oracle

The storm is like courtroom drama: the climactic moment when the tension of conflict is finally discharged in enlightened (li) action (zhen).

The Image’s trigram picture is another legal one:

‘Thunder and lightning. Biting through.
The ancient kings brought light to punishments and proclaimed the laws.’

(My book says they ‘enforced’ the laws, but that was a mistake: this is about legislating, not just enforcing.)

Unlike in Hexagram 14, the trigram attributes are clearly apparent here. The ancient kings brought light – li – to punishments – zhen, thunder: li as outer trigram casts light on the inner trigram, creating understanding. This thunder isn’t random; we should be able to see it coming.

It’s interesting to compare this with Hexagram 55, where lightning comes before (inside) thunder:

‘Thunder and lightning culminate as one. Abundance.
A noble one decides legal proceedings and brings about punishment.’

In 55, enlightenment precedes action: first the decision, then the consequences. Or first you understand the celestial signs, and then you march on Shang.

So is that sequence reversed in 21 – first action, then enlightenment? Can the inner trigram also be fuel for li? I think so; I find Hexagram 21 is often a lesson about consequences. At its simplest, that could be what the legal proceedings of the Oracle text are for: reestablishing cause and effect in good order. The kings’ understanding brings light to punishments, but maybe experiencing the results of our actions helps to create some clarity for the rest of us.

(Six more hexagrams to come…)

I Ching Community discussion

Finding spiritual direction

Finding spiritual direction

A podcast reading with two radically contrasting hexagrams: 23, Stripping Away, changing to 42, Increasing: changing to Maria’s question: ‘How should I lead my spiritual life to know the truth?’ In this reading, she and Yi trace a path through what seems like an impossible situation. Links I mention in this episode: Continue Reading



The muddle If you’re new to the I Ching, you could be forgiven for wondering why there are apparently two hexagrams called ‘Obstruction’: Hexagram 12 (according to such translators as Cleary and Richter) and Hexagram 39 (according to Balkin, amongst others). Neither hexagram is one you’d generally rejoice to see in a reading – both… Continue Reading

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