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Blog post: Fire on the river: Hexagram 64


Apr 8, 1970
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Fire on the river: Hexagram 64
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Light outside

close-up of light on flowing water

Tradition tells us that Hexagram 63, Already Crossing, has its trigrams in the right places: water is above fire, like the pan on the stove; things are cooking; everything is in good working order. And then by contrast, Hexagram 64, Not Yet Crossing, with the same two trigrams in reverse positions, has everything in exactly the wrong place. Line theory says that its lines are all wrong too: yang lines are supposed to be in odd-numbered places, and yin lines in even-numbered places, whereas Hexagram 64’s lines are exactly the opposite. Of course, by this logic, Hexagram 63 would have the most consistently good omens in the book, and 64 would have the worst – which isn’t what actually happens. Still, Hexagram 64 is supposed to represent the maximum of disorder and discombobulation in general.

Its Image text says,
‘Fire dwells above stream. Not yet across.
A noble one carefully differentiates between beings, so each finds its place.’

Hexagram 64, the Image

It’s not immediately apparent how the noble one’s actions correspond to the energies of the trigrams. And indeed, Wilhelm doesn’t attempt to draw any direct parallels. The noble one was ‘careful’ in Hexagram 52 as well, where this quality was attributed to the mountain, and also in Hexagram 27. ‘Differentiating between beings’ is something he also did in Hexagram 13, where li is the inner trigram. Differentiation, with its qualities of clear vision and separating and sorting, does seem to me to be an action of the trigram li – in this case, casting light on an inner river.

And speaking of rivers – there’s one causing problems for a small fox which hasn’t managed to cross it yet:
‘Not yet across, creating success.
The small fox, almost across, soaks its tail:
No direction bears fruit.’

Hexagram 64, the Oracle

The noble one’s action is the perfect opposite of the little fox’s problem, which is that his tail is no longer sufficiently differentiated from the river.

How can you imagine the trigrams?

As in Hexagram 38, you can’t very well say that inner water is fuelling or giving rise to outer fire, but the fire can still cast light on the water. You can imagine the trigram fire as the eyes and ears of an older, wiser fox, who knows how to listen to the currents under the river’s thin ice. From there, you might get the idea of developing your awareness of the inner river of experience and its endless flow of changes. That’s not a bad picture for the final hexagram of the Book of Changes.

Fire flames upward; water flows down. Awareness rises and illuminates experience, but it doesn’t need to put the water in its place. Water finds its own way to where it needs to be.

Here, I’m parting company a little from some traditional interpretation. Kong Yingda said that since everything was out of place in this hexagram, it all needed to be put back in place before anything could be helped at all. And Wilhelm follows this idea, though he adds that to try to force things into place would cause harm, and they must be handled with as much care as one would handle fire and water.

But the final words of the Image are simply ‘dwelling place’ – and ‘dwell’, ju 居, isn’t primarily a transitive verb: it means living in a place, not putting something in its place. Maybe Legge’s translation is best: his noble one ‘carefully discriminates among (the qualities of) things and the (different) positions they (naturally) occupy.’ Li here can become aware of how things flow into their right places, according to their own nature.

Perhaps it’s something like listening to a foreign language, where half the struggle is to be able to divide up this unbroken flow of sound into words. Here, the inner river looks to me like the entire flow of sensory and emotional experience. People who recover some lost sight seem to experience this most directly – as ‘overwhelm‘ and a ‘torrent of information’ – very kan-like imagery. But for those of us who have always had the benefit of sight, this seems to be a lot less stressful than Hexagram 63.

Only compare the Image –
‘Stream dwells above fire, Already across.
A noble one reflects on distress and prepares to defend against it.’

– where inner awareness must look outward, anticipating the distress and dangers of kan that it will have to confront in the future. That pot on the stove might boil over at any moment. But when water and fire are instead moving apart, finding their places, things are not nearly so precarious. Perhaps we only need to watch the river flow by and differentiate insight from emotion.

You can also imagine the trigrams as a portrait of the small fox. Its eyes and ears are moving on ahead with the sharp clarity of li, but its poor soaked tail is trailing behind it in the lower trigram. How could it finish crossing the river when its tail still drags it back? And if you read through the moving line texts of Hexagram 64, you can actually see this at work:

‘Soaking your tail,
‘Your wheels dragged back.
Constancy, good fortune.’
‘Not yet across. Setting out to bring order: pitfall.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 64, lines 1-3

The lower trigram is soaked, dragged back, and not yet across. And how can you hope to order anything when you’re still stuck on your own side of the river?

‘Constancy, good fortune, regrets vanish.
The Thunderer uses this to attack the Demon Country.
Three years go round, and there are rewards in the great city.’
‘Constancy, good fortune, no regrets.
A noble one’s radiance.
There is truth and confidence, good fortune.’
‘Being true and confident in drinking wine,
Not a mistake.
Soaking your head,
Being true and confident, losing your grip on that.’

Hexagram 64, lines 4-6

In the upper trigram, it’s time to commit to a three-year campaign to tackle demon country – to look forward so that regrets for the past will vanish. With no regrets left, you can shine out and act with confidence. Though of course, it’s always possible to look so far forward that you lose touch with the present…


Mar 22, 1971
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Hi Hilary
It's unclear if your posting this blog at this time, within a stone's throw of the Winter Solstice, is an act of design or chance. The Winter Solstice symbolic of the end of the Cycle of the Year seems a comfy fireside chair in which hex 64, with it's associated imagery of ending and new beginning can rest. Although, 64 is never able to sit too comfortably, especially with the myriad of things that need attention, at the start of the new cycle.

In 64 the yin and yang lines alternate and none are in their rightful position. As you say, maximum chaos and disorder showing that here entropy is ruling the roost. Discombobulation does seem to appropriately wear the cap in this situation.

Looking at 64 from a trigram perspective makes for a good explanation. For me, the essence of 64 lies in smaller particles than these chunks of 3 lines. Yin and Yang alternating and not residing where they should reminds me of a glass container containing oil and water, in equal amounts that, have have been given a good old shake. The two liquids now become an emulsion of minute individual particles of each liquid scattered and dispersed in each other in the jar.

One liquid is bright light and life sustaining, the other has been syphoned out from the sump of a long serving mode of transport. Now dark, thick and cloggy; its natural lubricating qualities vastly decreased from its first point of use.

The junzi if he wants to refresh himself with a sparkling drop of water, has to discern and discriminate very carefully to be able to see what is water and what is oil. If the discernment skill set is not sharp enough then the first attempts at nourishing himself end up with him a mouthful of nasty tasting oil - or maybe an oil soaked tail. The eroded lubricating qualities of the oil are also shown in line 2.

The improvements that clear and faithful use of discernment bring are clearly documented as the lines advance. Ending with the warning at line 6, that although you may think you have separated with water and the oil, that this is not a time to celebrate early or in inappropriate ways. Discernment needs to be maintained especially when contemplating mixing an oversized slug of whiskey with your water.

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