I Ching: an Introduction

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Chinese Philosophy


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Introduction to the I Ching (part 1)

By Richard Wilhelm

It may safely be said that the wisdom of thousands of years has gone into the making of the I Ching. Small wonder then that the two branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Taoism, have their common roots here. The book sheds new light on the often puzzling modes of thought of that mysterious sage, Lao-tse, as well as on many ideas that appear in the Confucian tradition.

Going through the streets of a Chinese city, one will find a fortune teller sitting behind a neatly covered table, brush and tablet at hand, ready to draw from the ancient book of wisdom pertinent counsel and information on life's minor perplexities. Not only that, but the very signboards adorning the houses --perpendicular wooden panels done in gold on black lacquer -- are covered with incriptions whose flowery language again and again recalls thoughts and quotations from the I Ching.

A living stream of deep human wisdom has constantly flowed through the channel of this book into everyday life, giving to China's great civilization that ripeness of wisdom, distilled through the ages, which we wistfully admire.

What is the Book of Changes actually?

At the outset, the Book of Changes was a collection of linear signs to be used as oracles. "Yes" was indicated by a simple unbroken line (___), and "No" by a broken line (_ _). However, the need for greater differentiation seems to have been felt at an early date, and the single lines were combined in pairs. To each of these combinations a third line was soon added.In this way the eight trigrams came into being.

These eight trigrams were conceived as images of all that happens in heaven and on earth. At the same time, they were held to he in a state of continual transition, one changing into another, just as transition from one phenomenon to another is continually taking place in the physical world. Here is the fundamental concept of the Book of Changes. The eight trigrams are symbols standing for changing transitional states; they are images that are constantly undergoing change.

Attention centers not on things in their state of being -- as is chiefly the case in the Occident -- but upon their movements in change. The eight trigrams therefore are not representations of things as such but of their tendencies in movement.

These eight images came to have manifold meanings. They represented certain processes in nature corresponding with their inherent character. Further, they represented a family consisting of father, mother, three sons, and three daughters, not in the mythological sense in which the Greek gods peopled Olympus, but in what might be called an abstract sense, that is, they represented not objective entities but functions.

The sons represent the principle of movement in its various stages -- beginning of movement, danger in movement, rest and completion of movement. The daughters represent devotion in its various stages -- gentle penetration, clarity and adaptability, and joyous tranquility.

In order to achieve a still greater multiplicity, these eight images were combined with one another at a very early date, whereby a total of sixty-four signs was obtained. Each of these sixty-four signs consists of six lines, either positive or negative. Each line is thought of as capable of change, and whenever a line changes, there is a change also of the situation represented by the given hexagram.

Let us take for example the hexagram K'un, THE RECEPTIVE, earth: It represents the nature of the earth, strong in devotion; among the seasons it stands for late autumn, when all the forces of life are at rest. If the lowest line changes, we have the hexagram Fu, RETURN:

The latter represents thunder, the movement that stirs anew within the earth at the time of the solstice; it symbolizes the return of light.

All of the lines of a hexagram do not necessarily change; it depends entirely on the character of a given line. A line whose nature is positive, with an increasing dynamism, turns into its opposite, a negative line, whereas a positive line of lesser strength remains unchanged. The same principle holds for the negative lines.

Positive lines that move are designated by the number 9, and negative lines that move by the number 6, while non-moving lines, which serve only as structural matter in the hexagram, without intrinsic meaning of their own, are represented by the number 7 (positive) or the number 8 (negative). Thus, when the text reads, "Nine at the beginning means..." this is the equivalent of saying: "When the positive line in the first place is represented by the number 9, it has the following meaning..." If, on the other hand, the line is represented by the number 7, it is disregarded in interpreting the oracle. The same principle holds for lines represented by the numbers 6 and 8 respectively.

In addition to the law of change and to the images of the states of change as given in the sixty-four hexagrams, another factor to be considered is the course of action. Each situation demands the action proper to it. In every situation, there is a right and a wrong course of action. Obviously, the right course brings good fortune and the wrong course brings misfortune. Which, then, is the right course in any given case? This question was the decisive factor. As a result, the I Ching was lifted above the level of an ordinary book of soothsaying. If a fortune teller on reading the cards tells her client that she will receive a letter with money from America in a week, there is nothing for the woman to do but wait until the letter comes -- or does not come. In this case what is foretold is fate, quite independent of what the individual may do or not do. For this reason fortune telling lacks moral significance. When it happened for the first time in China that someone, on being told the auguries for the future, did not let the matter rest there hut asked, "What am I to do?" the book of divination had to become a book of wisdom.

King Wen, who lived about 1150 B.C., and his son, the Duke of Chou, brought about this change. They endowed the hitherto mute hexagrams and lines, with definite counsels for correct conduct. Thus the individual came to share in shaping fate. For his actions intervened as determining factors in world events, the more decisively so, the earlier he was able with the aid of the Book of Changes to recognize situations in their germinal phases. The germinal phase is the crux. As long as things are in their beginnings they can be controlled, but once they have grown to their full consequences they acquire a power so overwhelming that man stands impotent before them.

Thus the Book of Changes became a book of divination of a very special kind. The hexagrams and lines in their movements and changes mysteriously reproduced the movements and changes of the macrocosm.

Continued in " I Ching:  Book of Wisdom" at taoist-arts.com

This article is a excerpt from the original "Introduction to the I Ching" by Richard Wilhelm.
 It was found at http://www.iging.com/intro/introduc.htm

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