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Blog post: What does ‘crossing the great river’ mean?

hilary

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What does ‘crossing the great river’ mean?

view across a river
This post is for Liz, who commented,

“Hi Hilary,
Ok. Point blank – what does crossing the great river mean?”
How does it feel?


This is a better question to ask, because divination does not work by replacing images with what they mean. First, you use your imagination to get inside the image and appreciate how it feels. Then you recognise what there is in your current situation that feels like this, and you understand what it means – in that particular reading.

So, to find out what crossing the great river means… visit a river. Peer into the water; listen to it. Step in, if you can, and feel the weight of the current dragging at your legs. Feel how it threatens to tug you off-balance with each step.

Look across the river: you are going that way. The river isn’t. Imagine how you could get all the way across.

And then, because drowning isn’t conducive to good interpretation, I suggest you retreat back to the bank. Consider how much easier and safer it would be to amble peacefully along the bank, parallel to that powerful current, or even to hop in a boat, ship your oars and drift downstream. What would it take to get you to make the crossing?

And what, in the situation you’re asking about, feels like that?

What else do we know?


As I was saying in that earlier post, whatever knowledge we can gather on the topic from back when the book was first written is going to help. It still isn’t going to tell us what it means, but it’ll help us to imagine how it feels. And in particular, it’ll help to liberate us from the little conceptual boxes of modern life, where crossing rivers mostly happens by driving over a bridge, frequently in a traffic jam. (47.4…?)

Knowledge is imagination food. Let’s tuck in

Harmen’s video


Harmen Mesker has laid out an hour-long banquet of river-crossing, here. Here’s a quick summary…

The old form of the character she, 涉, ‘crossing’, clearly shows two footsteps, one on either side of a river. It’s included in a lot of oracle bone inscriptions, asking literally about the king’s travels. Would he cross the river and return safely? And also – often – whether he should cross and hunt. In fact, there are phrases such as ‘涉 buffalo’ where 涉 by itself means ‘cross the river to catch…’ – animals, or human captives.

Harmen emphasises that ‘fruitful to cross the great river’ means you are expecting reliable results from the crossing. You know you’ll be bringing home the buffalo.

Since there will be buffalo to bring home, and this is about crossing a big river, and not least because in 11.2 there’s a different verb traditionally read as specifically crossing a river without a boat, Harmen is very emphatic that ‘crossing the great river’ means crossing with a boat, and definitely not wading.

Crossing the river in the Book of Songs (with or without a boat)


Well, since in the Language of Change glossary I specifically translated this as ‘wading the great river’, this is quite awkward. Where had I got this idea of ‘wading’ from?

Partly from the character – those two footsteps on either side of the river. (The word for ‘crossing’ in 11.2 actually looks more like crossing with a horse.) And also from the Book of Songs, where a lot of river-crossing happens – but not for hunting trips. Instead, we have young men and women crossing the river to reach their beloved. Here’s Song 34, using she for wading a ford:

He: ‘The gourd has bitter leaves;
The ford is deep to wade.’
She: ‘If the ford is deep, there are stepping stones;
If it is shallow, you can tuck up your skirts.’

The Book of Songs, trans. Arthur Waley

There are romantic river-crossings in Songs 54, 58 and 87, too, all using she 涉. In 87, someone is to hold up their lower garments and she. (Legge thinks the woman is wading across herself; Waley thinks she’s telling the man to!)
And in Song 232, there are ‘swine, with their legs white, all wading through streams’ – probably not using a boat.

But then again, when in Song 250 Duke Liu crosses (涉) the river Wei, Waley says he ‘made a ford’ while Legge says he ‘used boats’. And if we carry on reading through Song 34, it ends with the forlorn girl still waiting for the man to get his feet wet, in an early Chinese version of ‘He’s just not that into you’:

‘The boatman beckons and beckons,
Others cross, not I;
Others cross, not I.
I am waiting for my friend.’

You can guess which verb is used for crossing with the boatman.

So, Harmen, I think we’re both wrong: you can cross the great river by boat or on foot. Yi doesn’t name the river or the reason: those depend on the reading. But either way, there’s no bridge; it’s not a crossing to be undertaken lightly. I imagine these lovers crossing in a spirit of daring determination, taking the risk because of the strength of their desire.

A historical river crossing


The Zhou people – whose oracle this is – conquered the Shang and founded a new ruling dynasty. And the (literally) crucial moment in their march on the Shang was a river-crossing, at the Fords of Meng.

In 1048BC, a vast army of the Zhou and their allies gathered on the bank – only to be halted by appalling omens, so that Wu gave the order to turn back. Two years later, with the stars and oracles supporting them at last, they made the crossing and marched on to gather in the Wilds of Mu, where they faced and defeated the Shang. (SJ Marshall sees a reference to this gathering in the wilds in Hexagram 13 – which also says it’s fruitful to cross the great river.)

So now we have a whole three-course meal of imagination food. You cross the river on a royal hunting expedition, or you brave the waters to meet your beloved, or you march your armies across in obedience to Heaven’s Mandate.

What about the context?


The Yi is not, pace Redmond, just a ‘collection of scraps’; it’s an organic structure of breathtaking complexity and wholeness. Which means that if we want to understand a phrase like ‘crossing the great river’ in a reading, we’d better look at how it’s being used in that particular hexagram.

Liz mentioned that she’s especially interested in Hexagram 42:

‘Increasing, fruitful to have a direction to go.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 42, the Oracle

Here are two things that will bear fruit: having a direction (or a ‘far place’ to go to), and crossing a great river. That’s an interesting combination, because the ‘direction’ character breaks down, according to Richard Sears, into ‘a man with a pole fording a river’. (LiSe translates as ‘probing’.) Fruitful to set off on your travels, take a sounding rod to test the depth of the ford, and cross the great river.

Hexagram 42 would be a good time to undertake such a journey because now you are blessed with a good harvest, a superabundance of resources. The Image authors, thinking along similar lines, saw this as a time to make whatever changes are needed:

‘Wind and thunder. Increasing.
A noble one sees improvement, and so she changes.
When there is excess, she corrects it.’

Hexagram 42, Image

So in this spirit – knowing you have the resources, energy and all round good luck you need – it’s a good moment to cross the great river. There’s probably a whole herd of buffalo just waiting for you on the opposite bank.

But the phrase is going to have a slightly different feel to it every time you see it. For instance…

‘People in harmony in the wilds: creating success.
Fruitful to cross the great river.
A noble one’s constancy bears fruit.’

Hexagram 13, the Oracle

Those people gathering in the wilds, and the martial character of lines 3, 4 and 5 (and this whole section of the Sequence of Hexagrams) might remind you of the Zhou and their river crossing. Here, crossing the river is placed alongside the noble one’s constancy, as the two things that bear fruit in such times. Now there are people with whom you can find harmony, and you’re in harmony with heaven so that your constancy will pay off (this isn’t Hexagram 12 any more!), go ahead and cross the river to join them.

Or Hexagram 5, Waiting:

‘Waiting, with truth and confidence.
Shining out, creating success: constancy brings good fortune.
Fruitful to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 5, the Oracle

This is the first mention of crossing the great river in the Yi – our introduction to the idea – and perhaps the most important context is how much it isn’t like its paired hexagram, 6, Arguing:

‘Arguing.
There is truth and confidence, blocked.
Vigilant and centred, good fortune. Ending, pitfall.
Fruitful to see great people,
Fruitless to cross the great river.’

Hexagram 6, the Oracle

No use crossing rivers in a time of Arguing, as anyone who’s taken a big decision in a spirit of ‘I’ll show them!’ might agree. But it’s worthwhile to cross when this is a sign of trust: expecting this to work out, and confidently awaiting your reward on the opposite bank.

So what does it mean?


It means what it feels like – what it reminds you of – what you recognise.

photo: looking across a river at sunset

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my_key

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I wonder whether there is more feeling or insight to be had when engaging with a hexagram that promotes the idea of 'crossing the great river' when we actually see it as guidance to step into the river (of life / our internal stream ??) not knowing for certain what is on the other side.

涉 she 4 from what I can gather translates on MDBG to to wade / to be involved / to concern / to experience and speaks more to me of the act of engaging with the river. Wade into (perhaps this is where you got it from @hilary): embrace it; experience it; feel it. The crossing and, by extension, the getting to the other side seems secondary to the act stepping into the river.

The fruitfulness, to which Yi alludes, comes from the act of stepping into the river and not from the reaching of the far bank or even what is necessarily on the far bank - buffaloes or otherwise. Although, by extension, if it's fruitful to step into the great river the chances are that reaching the other side ( actually crossing) and what we find on the other side is going to bring about circumstances that are fortuitous for us.

Boats may make it easier and safer to cross the river than wading. They will certainly keep us safer and drier but is that really what life is about. Sitting in a boat will remove us from the experience of feeling coolness, the waves and the pressure of the current . We will not bodily experiencee the water surrounding us, the rise and fall of the levels and the unevenness of the river bed below our feet. Feeling the great river in a boat is an experience more akin to gliding across the surface.

Hex 5 / Hex 6 seems a good supporter of this.
When things are ripe, if we step into the water with truth and confidence. We feel and experience all that the river has to offer and then we will shine and create our own success.
When truth and confidence is blocked it is pointless to attempt stepping into the river. Things will come unstuck for us. We are blocked from feeling and experiencing the truth of the situation. Before we even think about stepping into the river we have to find 'great people' who will stand us back up straight and centre us again.
 

mandarin_23

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My feeling is similar: go for it, you might as well take action, take the risk which goes with any action in general. It depends really on the question. As I tend to read before acting, this is the main meaning for me, as well. Of course we don't know what's on the other side. Maybe a river is just a hindrance if we are on a tour and want to get somewhere and reach a destination. Then the reading might say that we have what it takes to overcome problems.
 

hilary

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I think you have to have hopes about the other side, at least, or a sense of being called. Otherwise, as I was saying, you could go for a nice ramble along the bank, or just drift downstream. Crossing means going into the current, and also across the current. The river is going one way, and you are insisting on going somewhere else. I think that's the problem with 6 - the insistence shades into defiance, 'So what if it's the wrong time to cross? I'm crossing anyway and you can't stop me, so there!'

Come to think of it... 5 and 6, which introduce the motif of river-crossing, are just one line away from the big river hexagrams, 63 and 64.
 

my_key

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I think you have to have hopes about the other side, at least, or a sense of being called. Otherwise, as I was saying, you could go for a nice ramble along the bank, or just drift downstream.
I agree that something is more than likely calling us to set off and that we have expectations of what we will find on the other side. Rambling along the bank is very much like not accepting the calling - I'm not even going to dip my toe in the water.

Drifting downstream does indicate that we have stepped into the current, and perhaps, where the water is deeper, for a period of time, we would need to go with the flow until we can find a safe or attractive place to alight on the opposite bank. Drifting may therefore be a valid part of the 'crossing' experience. Perhaps resonating somewhere in the eddies of Hex 5.

Crossing means going into the current, and also across the current. The river is going one way, and you are insisting on going somewhere else.
By stepping into the river we are naturally facing a challenge or if the river is fast flowing and deep we may even be facing disaster if we proceed out of our depth. Hex 6 is warning us of the dangers of this.
I'm not so sure I can see the 'you are insisting on going somewhere else' perspective of the crossing.

When Yi guides us to step into the river, surely we are in the right place physically, mentally and spirirually to make that journey. If we are guided to go into the river and do take that step I can't see how we are 'insisting on being somewhere else'. If that was the case surely we'd have received a divination that didn't include as it's guidance for us to cross the great river.

The river is there. We are there on the bank. Yi guides us to step into the river. We step into the river. We understand our destination is the far bank. We do not insist on going somewhere else we go into the river. The banks are part of the river - otherwise there would be no river. The current is part of the river - otherwise all we'd have is a pond.

One element of a successful crossing is where we increase our awareness of matters through what we experience in the crossing and when we have fully crossed over we are able to see our position on the old bank and the landcape around from a different perspective.

I think that's the problem with 6 - the insistence shades into defiance, 'So what if it's the wrong time to cross? I'm crossing anyway and you can't stop me, so there!'

Again here I don't see this element of battle between the person crossing and the current. Yes, if we got Hex 6 and we defied the guidance of seeking out some kind of betterment first then there would be a problem. In this case there would be a battle if we tried to cross the river and things would have a ghastly outcome. The river would be too deep and the current too fast over shadowing our ability to cross.

In the normal course of events though I imagine when we have the impetus of a 'fruitful to cross the great river' divination behind us it'll be a bit like entering the 3 Bear's Cottage. Initially wary and watchful and then we find the nourishment that we need. As part of the experience we taste that which does not suit us and then we reach the final bowl and pick up the spoon and find it's not too hot, not too cold , not too salty, not too sweet, not too lumpy, not too thin. It's just right and we know it to be so.

Come to think of it... 5 and 6, which introduce the motif of river-crossing, are just one line away from the big river hexagrams, 63 and 64.
The ferry man releases a call for progress and a caution against proceeding without connection.
 

hilary

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Again here I don't see this element of battle between the person crossing and the current. Yes, if we got Hex 6 and we defied the guidance of seeking out some kind of betterment first then there would be a problem. In this case there would be a battle if we tried to cross the river and things would have a ghastly outcome. The river would be too deep and the current too fast over shadowing our ability to cross.
Yes, that's exactly what I meant. Arguing is the wrong mindset for river-crossing; Waiting (attending, expecting) is what you need. But when in an Argumentative frame of mind, I for one am tempted to go further, commit to my position irrevocably... which is probably why Yi specifically warns against river-crossing at such times.

I like your reflections on the experience of entering the water.
 

my_key

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I like your reflections on the experience of entering the water.

That's a gratifying thing to hear. Thank you.

Although I have to say, I omitted the detailed description of the trepidation and physical sensations that come with stepping forward into the gradually deepening cold water as it rises from knee to just below the belly button.
 

Liselle

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For what it's worth, I think I had a reading recently where "returning" as part of a river crossing (Harmen made a point about this near the beginning of his video) was an aspect.

Details: Quite a few years ago I subscribed to Flickr's paid service after getting ridiculously snapshot-happy with the small digital camera I'd bought. They were taking up a lot of space on my laptop, I figured Flickr would be a good remote backup, I liked its organizational tools, you had unlimited space, etc. At the time it cost about $2 a month.

It just came up for renewal again - twice the price now - and as time has gone on I've used it less and less, hardly at all lately. So why am I spending money on it??

But I have a lot more than the number of photos you're allowed in a free account, so I'd have to download them, causing all the same storage and backup problems. Plus - here's the 'return' part - if I ever wanted them back on Flickr, I'd have to proactively spend serious time duplicating in Windows the organizational structure I'd painstakingly set up in Flickr.

Asked Yi, "What attitude should I take towards the paid service?" 27.5 to 42, 'Rejecting the standard, Dwelling here with constancy: good fortune. Cannot cross the great river.'

Figured 'standard' was my desire not to throw money away. Remembered that river-crossing is no small matter - knew that downgrading would be a lot more work than renewing. "Dwelling here...good fortune" when my question was about renewing: obvious. Plus I was being offered a substantial discount to renew. Went ahead and paid, albeit with some 😬 .

It was really interesting to find out that 'returning' might be a specific part of it.
 

irfan

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It always sounds like a process of initiation to me. Joseph Campbell once said that the process of initiation is only really meaningful if there is a very real possibility that the person going through it may not survive. It feels a bit like that -- passing through more or less severe ordeals and trials to reach a place that is definitively different from the place you left behind, probably to win some favor or gain knowledge or find something valuable, and probably to bring it back for the benefit of the kingdom or community.
 

hilary

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It always sounds like a process of initiation to me. Joseph Campbell once said that the process of initiation is only really meaningful if there is a very real possibility that the person going through it may not survive. It feels a bit like that -- passing through more or less severe ordeals and trials to reach a place that is definitively different from the place you left behind, probably to win some favor or gain knowledge or find something valuable, and probably to bring it back for the benefit of the kingdom or community.
Two responses...

Yes! That's the kind of association that bears lots of fruit in readings. (It also 'fits' nicely with the story suggested by the final steps of the Sequence - Inner Truth, the Small Stepping-Over, and crossing the river.)

Yes, and... readings come on all scales. Sometimes it'll be a Campbell-esque initiation process, and sometimes moving your photos out of Flickr.
 

irfan

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Yes, and... readings come on all scales. Sometimes it'll be a Campbell-esque initiation process, and sometimes moving your photos out of Flickr.
Haha. Well, maybe there's a very real chance that you won't survive moving your photos out of Flickr. I don't use it, but I've heard it can be traumatic.

Hmmm. It's been years since I've read Joseph Campbell, and I never read his "Oriental Mythology." I took it down just now to look at. It's got a lot of interesting stuff on the Yi and old China, although it's all pretty old now and leans heavily on Wilhelm. Still, a nice telling of all those old myths that still pervade.
 

hilary

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I haven't read that one, either. Should I add it to the ever-expanding reading list?
 

irfan

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I haven't read that one, either. Should I add it to the ever-expanding reading list?
There's a nice section on Chiang Yuan becoming pregnant when she trod on the big toe of God's footprint. You and Charly were talking about that on a thread about Karcher. And a fair bit on early shamanism. Speculative, of course, but what can you do? I meant just to read the Chinese Mythology section, but before I knew it, I was well into Japan. He's a stylish writer with some interesting ideas. A lot of Jung. The idea that all world religions evolve along the same basic paths, with the same underlying myths. Perhaps some of it is a bit dated now, it was written in 1962. The section on the Yi obviously couldn't include all the research and discoveries since then, but it avoids the most obvious blunders.
 

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