Reading I Ching Symbols

A detailed discussion of the background and methods of reading i ching symbols

The Book of Changes - I Ching in Chinese (pronounced Yee Jing) - is unquestionably one of the most important books in the world's literature. Its origin goes back to mythical antiquity, and it has occupied the attention of the most eminent scholars of China down to the present day.

In China, as in the West, correspondences between parts of the human body and parts of the universe were carefully worked out and applied to divination and medicine. The head was associated with heaven, and the hair with the stars. The eyes corresponded to the sun and the ears to the moon. The breath was linked with the wind and the blood was the equivalent of rain, running through veins and arteries, which represented streams and rivers. The bones were thought of as mountains and the orifices of the body as valleys. Five vital internal organs took their nature from the five elements: the lungs (wood), heart (fire), kidneys (earth), spleen (metal) and liver (water).

The Book of Changes is full of mystic sayings and seemingly abstruse matter of a symbolic nature. The I Ching is constructed around 64 six-line figures whose English name is hexagrams. These are made up of all the possible permutations of a broken line and an unbroken line in combinations of six. All phenomena are the result of the interaction between positive, creative, feminine yin forces; yang is represented by the unbroken lines and yin by the broken lines that go to make up each hexagram. In this way the 64 hexagrams symbolize all the stages of change operating in the universe. The texts of the I Ching describe these changes and apply them to the pre-occupations of mankind.

Your copy of the Book of Changes should be kept, when it is not in use, on a shelf fairly high above the floor, and wrapped in a clean piece of cloth. When you wish to consult it, it should be placed on a clear table and unwrapped so that the book lies on the cloth. The whole procedure depends on your attitude of mind. It is obvious to all who understand to any degree the working of the subconscious mind that the ritual prescribed favors suggestion by making a powerful appeal to the imagination, thereby activating the spiritual process of the subconscious.

Traditionally, before consulting the I Ching, you should make three kowtows (touching the forehead to the ground as a gesture of respect) and then, while still kneeling, pass the fifty sticks (or coins or wands) three times through the smoke of burning intense. Then compose yourself quietly and think of the question you want to ask the oracle. Try to phrase it in your mind as clearly as possible, and make sure it is a question that is of real importance to you. Remember that the I Ching does not tell the future, but offers advice on how you should conduct yourself in the present in order to make the best of what the future holds in store. The advice given by the I Ching can be expressed as one of four simple injunctions: advance confidently; advance cautiously; stay where you are; retreat. But the texts of no two hexagrams are identical and the advice given in each is both subtle and precise.

The I Ching can be consulted in three ways. The first involves the use of fifty yarrow sticks (narrow wooden sticks, each about one foot in length); the second requires three coins, and the third uses six specially marked wands. Of these three methods the oldest and most venerated is the sticks technique.

Yarrow Sticks

The instructions that follow may seem complicated at first, but work slowly and they will soon seem quite simple. Take one of the fifty sticks and put it completely aside. It will not be used again but is included in the bundle to make the total up to the magically significant number of fifty. Using your right hand, divide the heap of sticks into two heaps (at random), separating them by a few inches. Thereupon one stalk is taken from the right-hand heal and put between the ring finger and the little finger of the left hand. Then the left-hand heap is placed in the left hand, and the right hand takes from it bundles of 4; until there are 4 or fewer stalks remaining. This remainder is placed between the ring finger and the middle finger of the left hand. Next the right hand heap is counted off by fours, and the remainder is placed between the middle finger and the forefinger of the left hand. The sum of the stalks now between the fingers of the left hand is either 9 of 5. The various possibilities are 1 + 4 + 4 or 1 + 3 + 1 or 1 + 2 + 2 or 1 + 1 + 3; it follows that the number 5 is easier to obtain than the number 9. At this first counting off of the stalks, the first stalk - held between the little finger and the ring finger - is disregarded as super-numeracy, hence one reckons as follows: 9 = 8 or 5 = 4. The number 4 is regarded as a complete unit, to which the numerical value 3 is assigned. The number 8, on the other hand, is regarded as a double unit and is reckoned as having only the numerical value 2. Therefore, if at the first count 9stalks are left over, they count as 2; if 5 are left, they count as 3. These stalks are now laid aside for the time being. Then the remaining stalks are gathered together again and divided anew. Once more one takes a stalk from the pile on the right and places it between the ring finger and the little finger of the left hand; then one counts off the stalks as before. This time the sum of the remainders is either 8 or 4, the possible combinations being 1 + 4 + 3 or 1 + 3 + 4 or 1 + 1 + 2 or 1 + 2 + 1, so that this time the changes of obtaining 8 or 4 are equal. The 8 counts as 2, the 4 counts as 3. The procedure is carried out a third time with the remaining stalks, and again the sum of the remainders is 8 or 4. Now, from the numerical values assigned to each of the three composite remainders, a line is formed. If the sum is 5 (= 4, value 3) + 4 (value 3), the resulting numerical value is 9, the so-called old yang. This becomes a positive line that moves and must therefore be taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol Ø or O. If the sum of the composite remainders is 9 (=8, value 2) + 8 (value 2) + 8 (value 2), the final value is 6, the so-called old yin. This becomes a negative line that moves and is therefore to be taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol __ X __ or X. If the sum is 9 (2) + 8 (2) + 4 (3) or 5 (3) + 8 (2) + 8 (2) or 9 (2) + 4 (3) + 8 (2) the value 7 results, the so-called young yang. This becomes a positive line that is at rest and therefore not taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol ______. If the sum is 9 (2) + 4 (3) + 4 (3) or 5 (3) + 4 (3) + 8 (2) or 5 (3) + 8 (2) + 4 (3) the value 8 results, the so-called young yin. This becomes a negative line that is at rest and therefore not taken into account in the interpretation of the individual lines. It is designated by the symbol

__ __. This procedure is repeated six times, and thus a hexagram in six stages is built up. When a hexagram consists entirely of nonmoving lines, the oracle takes into account only the idea represented by the hexagram as a whole, as set down in the Judgment by King Wên and in the Commentary on the Decision by Confucius, together with the Image.

The Three Coins Method

You will get the same results by adapting a passive, psychic and receptive state of mind before using the coins. The three coins are tossed and, according to the way they fall, the lines of the hexagram can be obtained. As with the yarrow stalks, the first toss gives the bottom line, and so on upward. Chinese coins traditionally have an inscribed face and a blank face; the inscribed side is given a value of 2 and the blank side a value of 3. If you cannot obtain Chinese coins, you may use any western coins--but in this case "heads" is valued at 3, and "tails" at 2. So a toss of three heads give you a total of 9, while two tails and one head give you a total of 7. The "moving" lines are 6 (a broken line) and 9 (a solid line); this means that these lines change into their opposites--the broken line (6) now becomes a solid line and the sold line (9) now becomes a broken line. You now have a second hexagram to read for more advice on your problem; the Judgment, the Commentary and the Image, as well as the texts given to these lines in the original hexagram are taken into account. However, when you have obtained a hexagram without "moving" lines, only the Judgment, the Commentary and the Image have any meaning for you; the same applies when reading the second hexagram.

The Six Wands Method

This is the simplest way of consulting the oracle. Unlike the fifty sticks technique described previously, it is not necessary to perform a complicated sequence of operations before you can lean the answer to your question from the oracle. Here is how you begin. First, you need a set of six special wands. These should be about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 1 inch (2,5 cm) wide, and about an eighth of an inch (3 mm) thick. Each want should be colored plain black on one side and plain black on the other side with a 1½-inch wide band of white painted across it in the middle. When a wand falls with the all-black side uppermost this counts as an unbroken yang line

( _____ ). When a wand falls with the side showing the white stripe uppermost this counts as a broken yin line ( ___ ___ ). So all you need to do to get a quick answer to your question is shuffle the six wands together behind your back as you concentrate on the question, then roll them smoothly onto a table in front of you as if you were unrolling a small mat. Arrange them into the form of a hexagram, starting with the wand closest to you. The second closest will be the second line up, and so on. However, there is a limitation to this method of consulting the oracle. By casting the six wands you cannot obtain "moving lines", so the texts given to the lines of the hexagram cannot be taken into account--and you cannot obtain a further hexagram, which might throw extra light on your problem.

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