...life can be translucent

Balkin – Laws of Change

First, this is a beautifully produced book: strong binding, silky paper, and the sense of a job done carefully, attentively and well. The same feeling stays with me from the Introduction right through to the Bibliographical Essay on page 625. The introductory section and the translation and commentary are equally thorough, conscientious and thoughtful. It’s also all highly intelligently expressed, and very clear.

Part I of the book is over 100 closely-printed pages long and comes in six chapters: ‘Introduction’, ‘The Philosophy of the Book of Changes‘, ‘How the Book of Changes works’, ‘The Symbolism of the Book of Changes’, ‘How to Consult the Book of Changes‘, and ‘A Short History of the Book of Changes‘.

The Introduction’s explanation of the mechanics of hexagrams and readings is (like everything else in the book!) exceptionally clear. He states firmly that it is a mistake to use the book to try to tell the future:

‘The Book of Changes is best understood not as a fortune-telling device but as a book of wisdom that can help people think imaginatively and creatively about their lives.’

It is a book of wisdom, containing a single, uniform philosophy, and the purpose of divination is ‘to help the questioner confront the book’s philosophy in practical, concrete contexts.’ This enables you to assimilate that philosophy one small piece at a time. But Balkin is too canny to fall into either of the pits that generally seem to await those who decide they know Yi’s philosophy: he neither suggests that understanding this supersedes divination (emphasising that ‘the best way to truly understand the Book of Changes is to use it’), nor do his commentaries try to make every line say the same thing.

The next chapter introduces this philosophy. As you might expect, it is a very good introduction to some central Yijing concepts that you’ll meet repeatedly in divination, illustrated from hexagram texts. It also shows unmistakable signs of practical experience in divination: for instance, he points out that Yi doesn’t compartmentalise what works and what is right in the way we would normally do – and that the same hexagram can refer to external or internal circumstances – and that in any case this distinction exists more in our own minds than in the Yijing.

Your reaction to Chapter 3 will depend on what you believe yourself about how the Yijing works. The first sub-heading shows where Balkin is coming from:

‘Why does the Book of Changes seem to give relevant answers to questions?’

His answer would be a combination of human ingenuity, ambiguous oracle texts, and a question-answer format for divination, and he goes to considerable lengths to expunge any hint of magic or spiritual communication from the business of divination. Balkin usefully points out that there is nothing whatsoever you need to believe in order to benefit from divining with the Yijing: his book could prove a sturdy bridge into its world for people who are frightened off by mention of ‘spirits’.

Chapter 4 covers yin and yang, the trigrams, the associations of each line position, and corresponding and ruling lines; there’s more detail about these last two in the ‘history’ chapter, when he discusses Wang Bi. Chapter 5, on how to consult, offers robust, good advice on what kind of question to ask, and what to do (and what not to do) with the answer. He recommends the six-coin method that always generates one and only one moving line: a method you’re unlikely to choose if you believe there is a specific message that Yi needs to convey to you, but that makes a lot of sense if, like Balkin, you are only expecting random stimulus to self-examination. But he is nothing if not thorough: there follow detailed accounts of two coin, three coin, yarrow, simplified yarrow, sixteen token and playing card methods (!), plus Alfred Huang’s method for reducing the number of moving lines – and more.

The history chapter also gives you vastly more information than your average I Ching book – from the legendary version, through textual evidence for accurate dating, through the changing meanings of characters and composition of the Wings, and even a history of interpretive traditions with detailed accounts of the ideas of Wang Bi and Zhuxi.

And so on page 119, the translation begins! (And it is a translation, without compromise: not a ‘modernisation’ or ‘simplification’.) It includes only the Zhouyi texts and the Daxiang – the same as you will find in Book I of Wilhelm. Balkin considers the other Wings to be more ‘cosmological’ than ethical, and hence outside his remit. As for the experience of using it… well, if you own Stephen Karcher’s Total I Ching, imagine its complete opposite. Karcher expects you to absorb the imagery and ‘roll the words in your heart’ so that an answer takes form within you. Balkin expects you to read the words like an instruction book, and go and act accordingly. (To be fair, he does say in his introduction that you should feel free to ignore his commentaries if the imagery takes you a different way – but they are not easy to ignore!)

With this book you will never be left to wonder what the imagery means. There’s no ambiguity, no fluff: the line means this, so you should go and do that. There is not the slightest tendency to gloss over or subtly omit the difficult parts, either. First any awkward imagery is explained; then there is a direct, second-person set of instructions. Hexagram 43 line 3, for instance (very awkward stuff about power in the cheekbones and being soaked by rain):

‘ “Powerful in the cheekbones” means talking too much or talking at the wrong time. To meet with rain and become soaked means to suffer the indignity of misunderstanding and disapproval from others.’

And the instructions follow. Alternative readings for the translation are explained in footnotes to each hexagram – something RJ Lynn does, too, and I wish every translation would follow suit.

If you’re familiar with Wilhelm, some of the commentary will sound very familiar: there are parts that are basically just rephrased and elaborated from Wilhelm/Baynes. But overall this book is not just (yet) another Wilhelm remix – far from it! There’s also considerable use of modern scholarship (though nothing radical) – and then there’s Balkin’s own insight. There are interpretations here that were entirely new to me – including some real light-bulb moments, like the idea that the light of clear perception in hexagram 30 liberates the potential of a situation in the same way that fire releases latent energy in wood.

I use this book when I need an incisive answer to propel me into action – though not when I need to take time and space to find my own answers. And when giving readings I find it useful as a source of direct, straightforward explanations: this is the translation I’m most likely to quote from (besides my own 😉 ). I wouldn’t use it if I wanted to hint, or expand possibilities, or invite a querent to discover the right application for themselves.

I think you’ll find this book especially useful…

  • if you tend to get stuck in your readings at the ‘idea’ stage rather than acting on them.
  • if you like Wilhelm’s basic approach, but are sometimes afraid you might be missing his point – or if you find his attitude to women hard to swallow.
  • if you find talk of spirits off-putting, or if you read for people who do.
  • if you would like to move on from a ‘simplified’ I Ching but don’t want to be set adrift in a sea of imagery on your own
  • if you want cues for action and ideas to get your teeth into, rather than meditate on

I like

  • the clarity of thought, intellectual honesty and evident care taken
  • the in-depth introduction

I wish

  • maybe for a little more of a nod to the mystery?

Recommended for

Beginners or people who’ve been with Yi for a while, and especially if you’re interpreting readings for people averse to the ‘spiritual’.

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