MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Primal emptiness separated into heaven and earth. That's how it all began. Before long, a pair of dragons emerged from Bright-Prosperity Mountain: Root-Breath and Lady She-Voice. Now, dragons in ancient China embodied the awesome force of change. A dragon was in constant transformation, writhing through all creation and all destruction, shaping itself into the ten thousand things tumbling through their traceless transformations. So perhaps the appearance of these dragons was the beginning of the ever-changing diversity of things we know as the Cosmos. The legend doesn't say. Root-Breath and Lady She-Voice were dragons, but dragons with human heads. They became the first couple, husband and wife, and Lady She-Voice gave birth to humankind. So you see, we are descended from dragons: we have dragon hearts pumping dragon blood, dragon minds thinking dragon thoughts.
It was Root-Breath, our first-ancestor, who created the hexagrams. More dragon than human, his thoughts were almost indistinguishable from natural process itself, so when he shaped them into the hexagrams, those strange dragon-graphs expressed all phenomena in the endless process of change. Language is how we represent change, reality in its dynamic process of transformation. And it grows out of change. Hexagrams are the first stage in that emergence of language from change, that folding of the Cosmos around onto itself to name and describe itself. They are the most ancient form of language in this sense. Part dragon language, part human, they represent the movement of change at a more fundamental level than our languages can.
Root-Breath's hexagrams were made up of six lines, each of which could be either a solid yang (male) line (-) or a divided yin (female) line (- -), thereby representing the two complementary cosmic principles whose dynamic interaction produces the process of change. And these lines were alive. Like dragons and the Cosmos itself, the hexagram lines were in constant transformation-yang becoming yin, and yin, yang-creating different hexagrams, each of which is defined by its particular configuration of yang and yin. So there are sixty-four hexagrams-every possible six-line combination of yang and yin lines-and these combinations describe every possible configuration in the process of change. The sixty-four hexagrams make up the actual text of the I Ching:I (Change) + Ching (Classic) = The Classic of Change or The Book of Change. The Book of Change and change itself: they emerged together at the beginning of things. And the first two hexagrams return us to that beginning:
As they express all phenomena past, present, and future, the hexagrams contained the secrets of civilization, too. Applying those secrets, Root-Breath taught people how to hunt and fish, how to keep livestock and cook with fire. He was the first emperor, and the ancient emperors that followed also understood the secrets contained in his hexagrams. Using the hexagrams, they taught people about bow and arrow, plow and boat, pottery and markets, carts and buildings, and finally: writing. And so it makes sense, because it grew out of the hexagrams, that writing would be in the form of pictograms representing reality with all immediacy.
All of this time, the earth was alive with geologic transformation. Much later, it was covered by a flood, and another great emperor rescued the people by raising up mountains and carving out rivers to drain floodwaters away. Maybe it happened because writing was invented. Or maybe it was because we had grown too far from our dragon ancestors. No one knows. But somehow, after the floodwaters drained away, legendary emperors were no more and we lost our ability to decipher the primeval language of hexagrams. And so eventually, sages began writing descriptions and interpretations and evocations of the hexagrams, trying to articulate the possibilities opened by those dragon-graphs. It was a kind of philosophical storytelling. First they gave the hexagrams names and evocative interpretations. Then they described and interpreted the individual lines within the configuration of each hexagram. Eventually, they described and interpreted the trigrams, the top and bottom halves of the hexagrams. And because those original hexagram interpretations were so mysterious, they added elaborations on those interpretations. These first levels of elaboration were hardly less primal and mysterious than the hexagrams themselves. Indeed, they seem to establish the mysteries of the original hexagrams, rather than explain them. They were, we might now say, poetry (indeed, much of this text is rhymed in the original). These are the layers of the I Ching presented here, perhaps the most ancient of all Chinese texts, full of poetry and mysterious philosophy, alive somehow outside of time, both primal and postmodern at once.
Several layers of later explanation were eventually added to the text; but unlike the original linguistic layers that function as literary text, these later layers feel like secondary commentary. Still, they were included in the book; and with that, the canonical I Ching was complete sometime around the third century B.C.E. As the centuries passed, schemes for interpreting that canonical I Ching multiplied into the thousands, led by Confucian moralizing with its interpretive fantasies, which were also applied to the ancient Book of Songs (Shih Ching), where the simplest and most transparent folk songs were turned into rigorous allegories for proper ethical and political behavior. This was part of a widespread desire to use the I Ching for practical purposes, which began very early, for the book was seen from ancient times as a divination text that could instruct us about how best to proceed in a given situation.
After the floodwaters drained away, there arose the Hsia dynasty, about which little is known, followed by the Shang dynasty (1766-1040 B.C.E.). In the Shang theocratic worldview, all things were created and controlled by Shang Ti ("Celestial Lord"), an all-powerful monotheistic deity not unlike the Judeo-Christian god. Events could also be influenced by dead ancestors who were powerful in the spirit world. And so, divination practices assumed that fate was determined by outside forces. When the Shang emperors grew tyrannical, the dynasty was replaced by the Chou dynasty (1040-223 B.C.E.). Now, Shang Ti was the high ancestor of the Shang rulers, and he provided them with a transcendental source of legitimacy and power. In order to justify their rule, the Chou rulers reinvented Shang Ti as the impersonal "heaven," thus ending the Shang claim to legitimacy by lineage; and then the Chou rulers proclaimed that the right to rule depended upon the "Mandate of Heaven": once a ruler becomes unworthy, heaven withdraws its mandate and bestows it on another. This was a major event in Chinese history: the first investment of power with an ethical imperative.
The I Ching was projected into this historical transition when later ages attributed the early textual levels to major figures in the transition, attributions that are almost certainly false, but did in fact shape the culture's development over millennia. According to this cultural legend, Emperor Wen ("cultured": c. 1150 B.C.E.) gave the hexagrams names and composed the initial Statements (appearing in this translation immediately beneath the hexagram title) while imprisoned for giving honest advice and criticism to the Shang dynasty's last tyrannical emperor. Wen was the sage ruler of the neighboring state of Chou, and he laid the foundation for the overthrow of the Shang by his son Emperor Wu ("martial"). Wen's other son, the Duke of Chou, was a great philosopher and poet: the inventor of the Mandate of Heaven concept and the author of many poems in the Book of Songs. He is said to have written the evocative interpretations for the individual lines of each hexagram. And it was said that the other layers of the original text were written half a millennium later by Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.), the seminal philosopher who created the political philosophy that was a secularized replacement for the Shang dynasty's theocratic system.
The transformation of the source of creation and order from an otherworldly sky god, Shang Ti, to an impersonal heaven was soon superseded in the philosophical world when heaven became an entirely empirical phenomenon: the generative cosmological principle that drives change. Although heaven is sometimes referred to alone in this sense, an echo of its earlier use as an impersonal deity, it is really only half of a whole. The other half is earth. The two together, in their interaction as cosmic yang (male) and yin (female), generate the Cosmos as an ongoing process. This heaven is ?, which also means simply "sky," and its complement, earth, is ?. This set of terms emphasizes the physical entities that we know so well, but also includes the cosmological principles. ? and ? occur routinely in the I Ching, but there is another pair of terms that reverses the emphasis: ? and ?. These terms, the titles of the first two hexagrams, emphasize heaven as the active generative force of the Cosmos and earth as the receptive generative force. It is their ceaseless interaction that generates the process of change. The two might be read as "Creative" and "Receptive," but in this translation both pairs of terms are translated as "heaven and earth," for this suggests the cosmological dimensions that return us always to the originary moment when heaven and earth appeared out of primal emptiness.
This heaven-and-earth Cosmos is also the Cosmos of our immediate experience, and if we don't think of heaven and earth as mere abstractions, we can see that heaven and earth are indeed an accurate description of the physical reality in which we live. The generative life-supporting reality of earth requires the infusion of energies from heaven: sunlight, rain, snow, air. We dwell in our everyday lives at the origin place where this vital intermingling of heaven and earth takes place, at the center of a dynamic cocoon of cosmic energy, an all-encompassing generative present. We are rarely aware of this wondrous fact; but for the ancients, this awareness shaped everyday existence.
Once Shang Ti was transformed into the cosmological process of change, divination too was transformed. Rather than fortune-telling, an appeal to deities who control fate, it assumes that change unfolds organically, things unfolding according to their own inner principles, and that all those things in the process of change are related. So if we can discern where exactly we are in that organic unfolding, we might discern how to proceed for the best result. This is how divination works in the I Ching, and it reveals a remarkable transformation. In the Shang, people didn't experience themselves as substantially different from spirits, for the human realm was simply an extension of the spirit realm. In this, the Shang system was hardly different from the Judeo-Christian West. But the I Ching assumes a much more primal experience, one that apparently survived outside the mythology of power that supported the Shang. In this experience, we are entirely earthly, an integral part of the unfolding of change.
The I Ching's assumption that one can act to influence one's fate also reflects this transformation. Rather than simply obey political power and implore the spirits to shape your fate in positive ways, the question of wisdom arises, and the empowerment that wisdom offers: act wisely and good things happen, act unwisely and bad things happen. The I Ching hexagrams embody change in a schematic form, so they allow us to locate ourselves in the unfolding of change. This requires that you use either "shaman-flower" (yarrow) stems or coins to perform a "chance" procedure (see "How to Consult the I Ching," here). We call it a chance procedure, but it is in fact a distilled moment in the process of change, and so it allows you to find the hexagram relevant to your situation. Then, because all change is interrelated, the I Ching is able to offer in its mysterious way advice about how to proceed. Or so the story goes.
Ancient China's intellectuals-artists, writers, thinkers, monks-were skeptical and empirical by nature, and they saw the I Ching not primarily as a divination text, but as a wisdom text: the most ancient source of the philosophical system that shaped their experience. And in fact, the hexagrams don't so much tell fortunes in any precise way as describe the various trends or forces that guide change. Seen in this light, the I Ching is a proto-Taoist philosophical text describing in rudimentary and fragmentary form the fundamental picture of the Cosmos that is described more fully in the seminal Taoist texts to follow: the Tao Te Ching (c. 500 B.C.E.) and the Chuang Tzu (c. 300). This is the I Ching that was a fundamental influence on China's artists and intellectuals, those creators of Chinese culture. That is to say, it is the I Ching that profoundly influenced the shape of Chinese culture as it evolved over the millennia, and it is how the text is presented in this translation.
The Tao Te Ching is a compilation of fragments from an oral tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of human culture in China. The I Ching seems also to include many such fragments, and its ultimate sources apparently lie at least as far back. Its mysterious utterances and form certainly justify the myth describing it as a philosophy that emerged even before language. But myth or no, it would seem to be the natural philosophy of the earliest human cultures, for it embodies a cosmology rooted in that most primal and wondrous presence: earth's mysterious generative force. Again we sense this is a worldview that survived outside the mythological power structure of the Shang theocracy, for it is a female-centered system quite the opposite of the male-centered Shang system. This generative force must have been truly wondrous to those primal people not only because of the unending miracle of new life seemingly appearing from nothing, but also because that miracle was so immediately vital to their well-being, directly providing them with food, water, clothing, shelter, and, of course, a future in their children. And this wonder is often invoked in the I Ching:
How vast and wondrous the heaven of origins!... How vast its illumination of ends and beginnings! (1)
How perfect and wondrous the earth of origins! (2)
How vast, how utterly vast it is: the meaning of succession following its proper seasons! (17)
How vast, how utterly vast it is: the meaning of the generative following its proper seasons! (44)
Taoist thought describes the Cosmos as an ever-changing generative whole, and the Taoist term for this generative ontological process is Tao, meaning "Way," from its original meaning "road" or "pathway": the generative ontological process conceived as a "pathWay." The Tao Te Ching speaks of it in explicitly female terms: "mother," "mother of all beneath heaven," "nurturing mother," "dark female-enigma." The term also appears a number of times in the I Ching, where it is clearly the same generative principle, and the Cosmos that the Way describes is everywhere, beginning with the book's first utterance:
All origins penetrating everywhere, heaven is inexhaustible in bringing forth wild bounty.
And the Presentation elaborating on that Statement continues to develop the idea, introducing the concept of the Way:
How vast and wondrous the heaven of origins! The ten thousand things all begin from it. It governs the sky-the movement of clouds, the coming of rain. It gives all the various things their distinct forms. How vast its illumination of ends and beginnings!...
The Way of heaven is all change and transformation at the hinge of things, where the unfurling nature of each thing itself is perfected.
It nurtures vast harmony in wholeness, and remains inexhaustible in bringing forth wild bounty.
The Tao Te Ching describes the Way's most fundamental form as "return." It says "return is the movement of the Way," and:
the ten thousand things arise,
and in them I watch the return:
all things on and ever on
each returning to its root.
Return is also spoken of as essential in the I Ching, where there is a hexagram dedicated to it: "Return" (24). The elaborations on this hexagram say, "All return penetrating everywhere, things emerge and die back..." and:
In return itself, you can see the very heart-mind of all heaven and earth.
The ten thousand things emerge from and then return to a root or source, from which they reappear in a new form. Although this source is not specifically described in the I Ching, later Taoist/Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist texts developed a number of terms for it, such as "Absence," "emptiness," and "dark-enigma." But this is not absence or emptiness in the sense of a realm somehow outside the empirical. Instead, it is an absence or emptiness of forms. Or in other words, it is the undifferentiated ontological whole: the formless tissue that shapes itself into one configuration of form, one array of the ten thousand things, then reshapes itself into another through the process of death, transformation, and rebirth.
This is nothing other than the dynamic interaction of heaven and earth, in which any moment in the ongoing process of change is an origin place. This cosmology of "Way" and "return" leads to a very primal experience of time, an experience embedded in the uninflected verbs of classical Chinese that simply register action, occurrence appearing of itself. Rather than the linear progression the Western tradition assumes to be a kind of metaphysical river flowing past, time becomes an all-encompassing generative present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future.
Remarkably, this primal concept of time is enacted in the formal architecture of the I Ching: we experience it there in the fragmentary structure and discontinuous utterances that frustrate linear thinking; in the layers of elaboration within which the text continually circles back on itself rather than simply moves forward in the usual linear way; and in the divination system of reading, which is decidedly nonlinear, and has no beginning or end. However you approach the I Ching, it feels like you are inhabiting a level below the surface of appearance, a level where the forces driving change move. From the standpoint of literature, it is in a sense the most powerful Taoist text, for in a philosophical system centered around the generative source, the I Ching is a text that still feels messy with origins.
The goal of a Taoist sage is to dwell as an integral part of the Cosmos, of the ceaseless unfolding of change. This is always a challenge because in the texture of our routine experience, we feel radically separate from the Cosmos. Its processes seem to go on outside of our self-enclosed mental ("spirit") realm. Language and perception are always directed at something "out there." I Ching divination practice operates on the very primal assumption that we are an integral part of the Cosmos. And further, it allows us to locate ourselves in the organic unfolding of the generative whole. And so, it is a practice of reintegrating ourselves into the ontological tissue. This practice of harmonizing with the movement of the Cosmos evolved into more profound dimensions in Taoist and Ch'an Buddhist thought and practice. Indeed, the arts too were considered spiritual practices in this sense: poetry, painting, calligraphy. But the I Ching is where such wisdom practices began.
The Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu try to coax us out of our self-enclosed spirit-centers into a broader experience of identity that includes all of the Way. They do that through dark and mysterious poetry, paradoxical insights, and zany storytelling. Ch'an teaching continued and refined these strategies, and meditation practices added an immediate experiential dimension. In meditation, you can watch thoughts emerge from emptiness and return back to that emptiness. This leads first to the realization that you are separate from those thoughts, which we normally identify with self. A second realization is that consciousness is the Way, too. Known in ancient Chinese as "heart-mind" (?), for no distinction was made between heart and mind, consciousness is made of the same generative tissue following the movement of return: thoughts and emotions appearing out of emptiness and returning to their root in that same emptiness. And finally, as thought and emotion fall silent, comes the realization that the root experienced there in consciousness, that empty source, is the source shared by all of the ten thousand things. And so, the source of the empirical Cosmos can paradoxically be described as "heart-mind":
In return itself, you can see the very heart-mind of all heaven and earth.
The weave of identity and Cosmos found in the I Ching and early Taoist texts derives from such a primal level of culture that it shaped the classical Chinese language from the beginning. This is most prominent in the language's wide-open grammar. Prepositions and conjunctions are rarely used, leaving relationships among lines, phrases, ideas, and images unclear. The distinction between singular and plural is only rarely and indirectly made. Verbs are not uncommonly absent, and when present they have no tenses, so temporal location and sequence are vague. Rather than linear time, they register action as the steady burgeoning forth of the Way in its movement of return. And very often subjects and objects are absent, which creates the sense of individual identities blurred together into a shared space of consciousness. It is a grammar of mystery, in which meaning must be drawn out of all this empty grammatical space, as if you were drawing it out of a primal mystery of origins, out of the dark origins where human culture begins, where change itself and the Book of Change too begin. The result is an experience of consciousness as a much more open and penetrating phenomenon than Western thought and language allow. It is an experience of consciousness woven integrally into the Cosmos.
This magical potential inherent to classical Chinese was used to great effect in later Taoist and poetic texts, but it is no less alive throughout the I Ching. It is especially noteworthy in the first four graphs of chapter 1 ("Heaven"), the first utterance in Chinese written culture. It feels like a kind of ur-language, somewhere between hexagrams and a more normally expressive language:
The meanings of the graphs are not entirely clear, nor is the grammar that organizes them, and one can really begin to decipher them only after reading further into the text to develop some context within which to understand their cryptic code. To complicate things, the term heaven appears before them, naming the hexagram, and it isn't clear if it is also meant to be part of the sentence. The graphs may be a list of the essential characteristics defining the four seasons. Hence, assuming heaven is part of the sentence:
Heaven is birth and flourish, harvest and completion.
But the graphs are usually given a more philosophical cast. For ?, the range of meanings might also include:origin, generative impulse, great, awe-inspiring; for ?: penetrate, develop, success, prevalence; for ?: bounty,fitness, profit, effective; and for ?: inexhaustible, constancy, upright and true, righteous.
The wide-open grammar only complicates things further. The graphs might be read one by one, as some kind of oracular pronouncement:
Origin. Penetrating. Bountiful. Inexhaustible.
Or, taking heaven to be part of the utterance, it could be a list of adjectives describing heaven:
Heaven is origin, penetrating, bountiful, and inexhaustible.
The graphs might be read as two separate phrases with two graphs each:
Origin penetrates everywhere, and its bounty is inexhaustible.
Or, again taking heaven to be part of the utterance:
Heaven is penetrating origins and inexhaustible bounty.
And finally, the four graphs might be read together:
All origins penetrating everywhere, heaven is inexhaustible in bringing forth wild bounty.
This texture of open possibility suffuses every dimension of the I Ching, and has allowed it to evolve dramatically over the ages. Meanings of words themselves, divisions of text into phrases and sentences (classical Chinese had no punctuation), syntax and interpretation of those phrases and sentences: these all evolved according to the predilections of influential readers and different ages. And however a reader resolves all of these issues, the text remains a discontinuous series of profoundly mysterious utterances, which opened it to seemingly endless interpretive schemes over the centuries. Hence the I Ching has itself been a case study in its primary principle: change.
Building on the language's grammar of mystery, the I Ching is nothing less than a dance with mystery. Its remarkable architecture is designed to embody and enact mystery, for it allows the book to be read in a number of different ways. As a poetic/philosophical text, it can be read like any other text, from beginning to end. However, even in this conventional reading, the book frustrates expectations of coherence. It is made up of fragmentary utterances, mysterious enough in and of themselves. And these fragments often feel quite disparate in nature: poetry alternates with philosophy, bare image with storytelling, social and political with private and spiritual, plainspoken and earnest with satire and humor. These fragments often repeat in new contexts and variations and reversals. In this, the I Ching engages us with that mystery by continuously proffering the promise of understanding and wisdom, but before that promise is fulfilled, the text always moves on to another possibility, another moment in the movement of change, thereby breaking up and undermining the first. And it is there, in that evanescence, that real poetry and insight lie.
Reading the book through its divination architecture only intensifies this experience, for rather than reading from beginning to end, each time you begin reading, you begin in a new place determined by "chance." And of course, the book's architecture invites another way to read the text, perhaps the most common in actual practice among contemporary readers: wandering the text by reading randomly chosen passages. In either of these methods-divination or random wandering-the text is ever-changing and never-ending, and it is a different text for everyone who reads it. A mystery of enigmatic and often contradictory sayings set within a bewildering architecture: this is a book that never lets you come to a still point where you feel that you have reached some stable understanding. Always frustrating the long interpretive tradition that tried to make the text comprehensible and useful, the book takes mystery itself as its most profound dimension.
In this, the book is enacting the fundamental nature of the Cosmos itself. Even after the most exhaustive and accurate scientific or philosophical account, the most compelling mythology, or the most concise and penetrating poem, the ten thousand things remain, in and of themselves, a mystery beyond us. In China, this mystery of things was seen from early times as a kind of silence, an absence of linguistic knowing, and it was considered the deepest wisdom. The hexagrams are as close as human inscription can come to that silence, and the I Ching text with its fleeting utterances also hews close to that silence. It sometimes suggests this directly, as in the Presentation for hexagram 47, for instance:
When there's talk, there's no sincerity, no accuracy. Revere words, and you soon wither impoverished away.
This skepticism about language and understanding is fundamental in Taoist and Ch'an Buddhist thought, with their various strategies for seeing through the conventional structures of thought and identity. And so the I Ching's architecture of mystery was no doubt its most profound appeal among more sober-minded intellectuals who were fundamentally shaped by Taoist and Ch'an Buddhist practices, the artists and writers who created ancient Chinese culture. In the seminal Taoist texts-Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu-they tangled with paradoxical utterances and ideas made more mysterious by fragmentary forms not unlike the I Ching's. In Ch'an Buddhism they tangled with even more paradoxical texts, encountered the wild and surprising antics of sage teachers, gave themselves to meditation practice. All of these strategies were designed to tease the mind outside workaday assumptions and linguistic structures, outside the limitations of identity. In the I Ching we find similar literary strategies in more primeval forms; and this translation tries to emphasize this "literary I Ching," the one that would have most deeply engaged ancient intellectuals.
For those artists and monks and writers, the sage lives most authentically on the edge where language and identity weave into the ontological tissue of change as a whole. Aren't we each another fleeting form in that tissue's process of perpetual transformation? they might ask. Isn't our fullest identity that tissue itself? Isn't it all and none of earth's fleeting forms simultaneously? To read the I Ching like this, as mystery given evanescent shape in poetry and philosophy, is to return to the origin place where heaven and earth interact in that all-encompassing generative present, to our own primal origins, our place at the wellsprings of change. It is, in fact, to become dragon again.
Copyright © 2015 by David Hinton