13 April, 2007

Consulting the Oracle

I should preface this entry, which will be the usual transcription process from my diary, with a brief introduction. It will deal with the Yi Jing (also known as the "I Ching"), and may provide a little background for those to whom this is an unfamiliar subject. If any find themselves in such a position, I very much pray that this introduction fuels your interest, rather than dissuading you from further investigation.

Among its many functions, of which I shall not attempt to describe today, the Yi Jing is an oracle. One may question it, through a well-defined method that has survived for many thousands of years (literally), and receive an answer.

So, then, we find ourselves to be on grounds which may be reasonably described as "superstitious".

Though I have studied science my whole life, I do not believe in science. Rather, I do not believe in an outlook to life which is limited by science, for I believe that it is the very nature of science to be limited.

By necessity, science is an abstraction of reality. Indeed: there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I encourage healthy skepticism in all things. Buddha himself tells us not to accept anything that we cannot verify through personal experience. To the skeptic of the Yi Jing, I would counsel: suspend your disbelief, if only for a while.

To that same skeptic, I would also hold up my personal experience of consulting the Yi Jing in its capacity as an oracle. I have consulted this book on scores of occasions throughout the past fifteen years that I have spent with it, and every time have been left sincerely taken aback by the appropriateness of its answer. Each and every time it answers, it does so with the voice of a wise sage who has an intimate knowledge of the very specific problem that I have posed.

The famous psychologist, C.G. Jung, well-known for his theories of the collective unconsciousness, penned an insightful introduction to the first, and perhaps the most famous, Western translation of the Yi Jing. He stated that, writing from his position of advanced age, he felt he could be honest in stating his respect for the Yi Jing, without fear of scientific recrimination. He laid out what surely is the definitive argument in support of the Yi Jing as an oracle, and in the footsteps of such an academic giant I shall not, cannot, follow. I point the reader interested in further reading to the standard work:

"I Ching: The Book of Changes", by Richard Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Baynes. (1950)

The convergence of Western science with Eastern philosophy fascinates me without end. Zen teaches us that all of life is apprehended in this current moment; in fact, that all of life is this current moment. As Jung argues, by consulting the Yi Jing we are exploring that current moment - the current moment, because it contains all things, contains the seeds to its own solution. The Yi Jing, he maintains, allows one to explore oneself. As Gibran writes, we already contain the solutions that we seek:
Your hearts know in silence the secrets of the days and the nights.
But your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge.
You would know in words that which you have always known in thought.
Kahlil Gibran
The Prophet

Thus, the Yi Jing may show us those truths that already reside within us, by virtue of the fact that all of life is contained within each of us: it is the proverbial string of pearls, each pearl of which is the string of pearls itself.

And so, today's Yi Jing consultation. While quite a private practice, I hope that this article might prove interesting in being shared. The tea community is fortunate enough to lay claim to several Yi Jing scholars, to whom I hope that this entry will not appear too clumsy. I won't do them disservice of naming them here.

Consultation of the Yi Jing typically requires the phrasing of the question in such a way as to allow the book to "speak" properly. It does not provide yes/no answers, but offers cautions and predictions which are usually specific and precise enough to the phrased question to be uncannily useful.

It is very definitely not the Magic 8-Ball.


"The Half-Dipper: what of its immediate future, and what cautions should be taken?"

I use the Wilhem (1950) version of the Yi Jing, and now the Huang (1998) version as recommended by a fellow tea-drinker. The former provides a translation familiar to Western ears, whilst the latter is almost the perfect complement, being an excellent work by a foremost Eastern professor.

To answer the question posed, we construct a hexagram ("gua") - a picture comprised of six lines, each line being "yin" or "yang". There are many methods of creating such lines, but the most traditional (and I believe most effective) is that of manipulating 49 yarrow sticks.

We are fortunate enough to use those shown above, made by my father-in-law for the purpose. It takes approximately 10-15 minutes to create a hexagram using a series of numerical manipulations that I won't detail here. The more modern methods of generating a hexagram that do not use yarrow stalks take less time, but I believe that the time taken is an essential part of the process. It is the meditation that allows one to understand the answer - to hurry is against the spirit of the exercise, much the same as it would be to hurry through gongfucha.

Effectively, the process is a large random-number generator, the outcome of which is six-line hexagram. In answer to my question regarding the Half-Dipper, I obtained the following, comprised of six broken (yin) and unbroken (yang) horizontal lines:

This hexagram represents the current state of the situation. It describes what is happening now, in relation to the question. Taoists believe that the world is in constant flux, and that change is the only truth. Each moment is an everchanging interplay of yin and yang, positive and negative, active and passive. The created hexagram is a product of the moment, and thus it is believed to be a "snapshot" of the current moment, characterising the moment's essence.

We will see later how this hexagram that we have generated changes into another hexagram which indicates the next state of the situation.

For now, let us see what the Yi Jing has to say about the current state, as given by the above hexagram. The book provides a number of texts for each hexagram - each of the possible 64 hexagrams has its own character.

Thus, each moment is characterised by one of 64 prototypes. The genius of the book is that, somehow, the hexagram that is provided is specifically relevant to the problem.

One would imagine that, of the 64 situations, some will be inappropriate for a given situation. It is my experience that, not only are the hexagrams never inappropriate, they are usually uncannily accurate. It is the sort of observation that one can only state with confidence, without fear of the recrimination that Jung noted, after trying it out for oneself. Accept nothing that cannot be personally verified...

The text of the book is large, and layered like an onion. Each layer is attributed to various historical sages. The coremost text is provided by King Wen; surrounding that text is a layer attributed to Confucious (who famously stated "if I could have another lifetime, I would devote it to further study of the Yi Jing").

Current state:
Hexagram 12 - Meng ("Childhood")

After birth, there is childhood. This hexagram, "Meng", at the time of the authors' writing, referred to the wisdom inherent in childhood that is waiting to be uncovered. It is the innocence of youth (what one source terms the folly of youth), from which wisdom can be coaxed through education and enlightenment.

The themes of the hexagram are auspicious: the beginning of a life, the potential uncovering of wisdom.

In generating the hexagram, some lines are assigned particular emphasis (in fact, indicating that they are about to change from yin to yang, or from yang to yin). In drawing Meng, I obtained such emphasis on three of the six lines, for which further text is provided:

The first emphasised line symbolises the magnanimity of the teacher, in his providing something in the way of education. His magnanimity brings about good fortune. The teacher is ready to teach.

The second emphasised line gives a note of caution: humiliation can occur if one loses touch with reality; isolation is a danger to be avoided.

The third emphasised line indicates that the education is well-received. This also brings about good fortune. The student is ready to receive the teaching.

Before we interpret these statements, let us first turn our attention to the next state. In fact, this is derived by changing the three emphasised lines (those mentioned above) into their opposites: yin into yang, yang into yin. The next state that I obtained is:

Here we have taken the current state, Meng, and inverted lines 2, 4, and 5 (where the bottom line is 1, counting upwards to the top line, 6), in accordance with the original generation via the yarrow stalks.

Next state:
Hexagram 12 - Pi (Hindrance)

This hexagram represents a warning that stagnation may occur after the previous pleasant situation. A caution is given to avoid such stagnation: one must not seek, or become attached to, success. One must not strive for high position nor handsome payment, but remain true to himself. In doing so, by showing his integrity to his cause, potential calamity can be avoided.


Thus, we have seen the current state, and the next state, relating to our question.

The current situation is a very positive one. It is uncanny in that it has identified that a birth has recently occurred. It indicates that there is potential value waiting to be revealed. I cannot lay claim to Half-Dipper being a good educational resource, but if it provides useful to others, as well as being an electronic repository of my own notes, it will have served its purpose. This theme is provided by the text: the educator is willing, the student is willing - good fortune.

It cautions that it must stay in touch with reality, specifically stating that to isolate oneself, to retreat into oneself, would bring misfortune. I have long held that some blogs are the ultimate in vanity publishing - I believe informative blogs, such as tea notes, are exempt from this criticism, providing a useful function. I very much hope that Half-Dipper can serve a function other than the pontification of the Self. A wise caution from the Yi Jing, indeed.

The coming situation is a strongly-worded caution: one must not chase rewards or position, but remain true to original purpose. This is wisely said. Already, I have faced the temptation of being kinder to a tea in my transcription from my diary, softening my words, because I know that the vendor might be reading. In such cases, I have held true to my original notes, and aim to continue to do so. How wise is it for an endeavour to remain true to its purpose without striving for the vulgarity of reward?

Critics of the Yi Jing have made the ill-informed comment that any hexagram can be interpreted to fit any situation, and thus it always appears to be giving good advice. I cannot concur, as a simple reading of the various hexagram shows their unique and individual characteristics. The power of the book, or the power of what it reveals working inside the human psyche through the lens of its accumulated wisdom, is that good, specific advice is (in my experience) invariably provided.

One of the small joys of my life are those rare occasions on which I am fortunate enough to read the Yi Jing for someone else. For those still suspending their disbelief, thanks for bearing with me.

After writing, I notice that VL has produced an interesting piece at Tea Logic, musing on the concept of change, while I have been working on this article. It just goes to show that there is no such thing as coincidence... As Jung himself would say, just more evidence for the synchronicity of life.


speakfreely said...

My own oracle of choice is the Osho Zen tarot deck. Been thinking I should switch to tea leaves, but I don't know if there's any reasonably interesting publication telling me how to read them? As oracles go, I think any source of true randomness is a good choice. True randomness is hard to generate intentionally, as a recent article in "Science" pointed out. I am another scientist who sees that science will address only the repeatable, reliable aspects of reality, (which are only "repeatable" at selected scales of measurement) and agrees that there is much more in heaven and earth than is dreampt of in the scientific philosophy.

My understanding of oracles differs from yours, however. The "wise sage who has an intimate knowledge of the very specific problem that I have posed" can only be my own consciousness. While "guidance" has had significant positive impact in my own life, I don't believe in the sage as being "out there" somewhere. In short, I believe that god, conciousness, spirit is exactly what does NOT exist materially. I further believe that what does not exist is woven, tantra-like, into what does exist, and perhaps seeps into existance with the passing of time, and can perhaps be cultivated by using one's imagination. But the value of consulting the oracle is similar to the value of meditation. In both cases, one quiets the internal chatter and listens inwardly for answers. The randomness has something to do with jogging out the right answer by making one think in new ways about the question at hand. My belief is that human problems have human answers. The sage is within!

vl. said...


Thank you for writing this... it clearly took quite a bit of careful thinking :)


Anonymous said...

Hi Hobbes,

The hexagrams can be interpreted to any situation, and that is the beauty. Western readers often miss out on an essential note to the Chinese Classics. That is, they are products of the spatially oriented right brain as opposed to the analytical left, which lies behind the philosophy we know today. This means each chapter is holographic: a complete reflection of the work, differing only in angle. (An illustration would be to imagine yourself suspended in the centre of a prism of mirrors. Each mirror is a ‘different’ you, though you are the same Hobbes behind this good blog.)

The Yi Jing is an oracle in so far as it illuminates nature’s way of non-resistance and balancing extremes.

‘Each moment is an everchanging interplay of yin and yang, positive and negative, active and passive.’ At the smallest level perceivable to us, is it not true that the stability of atoms are determined by the interaction of electron (yin) and proton (yang)?

My two cents. I follow your posts with interest.


Hobbes said...


Many thanks for the detailed reply. I'm not familiar with Osho Zen tarot, but a brief trip to Wikipedia tells me that this might be related to a mystic from the 1970s-80s; is that correct?

The true nature of randomness is a particularly interesting concept for scientists. The nature of "randomness" is a slippery concept, and one which (typically) we avoid through abstraction. I urge you to read Jung's introduction to the Yijing on that subject, if you haven't already.

I don't know if we differ in our opinion of oracles, you know. I'm very much of the opinion that oracular advice isn't "out there", but "in there", much as you describe. For this reason, I rather like that little quote from Gibran that I included, which essentially says that "the answers are inside you, but you want those answers lifted out of your heart and set in front of your eyes."

What is the source of this internal understanding? There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in that concept, which allow Zen and Christianity to peacefully cohabit my heart, for example.

You write that "the value of consulting the oracle is similar to the value of meditation", with which I cannot agree more. It is for this reason that I use the traditional yarrow-stalk oracle rather than, say, using simple coin-flips to generate the hexagrams. The latter takes 1% of the time, but the experience is greatly different. I recall the western Tarot process being something similar - do please correct me.

I'm sure many Zen masters would happily give me a well-deserved punch for attempting to put my shabby words around these subjects, but I find it hard to resist.

"Human problems have human answers", but how do those human answers get there? Is that human?

That one I won't try to put my tawdry words around.

Thanks again for your post.



Hobbes said...


Thanks for the kind words; your blog entry was striking in the similarity of its spirit, and it was fascinating to see that both appeared truly simultaenously. MarshalN put it nicely: we drink tea just because it is a part of our life.



Hobbes said...

Dear Desmond,

Thanks for the post, and the kind words. You wrote,

"At the smallest level perceivable to us, is it not true that the stability of atoms are determined by the interaction of electron (yin) and proton (yang)?"

The similarities are striking. Have you come across "The Tao of Physics"? I'm sure you have, as it's a classic on the subject. The more conversations I have with my brother on the subject (a cosmologist), the more the parallels between the two concurrent investigations of West and East become obvious. As Jung said in an introduction to "Secret of the Golden Flower" (another Daoist text translated by Wilhelm), perhaps this occurs because the structure of what comprises "mind" is similar for all of us, and so our unconscious experiences should be similar (though differently interpreted through lips trained by different cultures). Following that line of thought, if Zen Buddhists are correct about the unity of "mind" with matter, is it surprising that there is such unity between "religion" and "physics"?

Thanks again, and toodlepip,


Anonymous said...

Dear David,

While I don't always agree with Jung, I seem to have missed the 'The Tao of Physics' (unfortunately, not very well read in the area). It does sound like an excellent recommendation.

Thank you for your kind replies to all of us!


speakfreely said...

Hello, David!

Geez, I got pretty serious in that last posting. Actually, I never bothered to find out who "Osho" was - perhaps I should? I think the tarot deck was created by some of his devotees. It's really quite a nice work in itself, and was given to me as a gift.

I notice that I've got the Henry Wei translation of the I-Ching on my bookshelf. May go play with that.

It is possible that our understandings of oracles is more similar than I suspected. Or perhaps not, and it doesn't matter, really, in any case. What you said about using the yarrow stalks instead of a coin toss brings me back to tea, oddly enough. I'm starting to think it might be appropriate to get a proper set of
wenxiangbei and the pinmingbei instead of drinking out of a larger vessel (gaiwan usually) into which I've decanted the entire yixing. At least for 1st time tastings and "special" teas....All of these things are about making room for stillness in one's life. I have no problem doing that when I feel others are pressuring me - I do it out of defense, or outright orneryness at those times. It is when I am not pressured, when I could be sitting in stillness, that it is more of a challenge to do so.


Hobbes said...


Thanks for the post. It's always most challenging to maintain that level of stillness when there are no distractions. When there are no others around, and we are not "escaping" from something, it is particularly difficult to be still, just as you say. We face ourselves, or whatever it is that we have attached to the concept of "self", and monkey-mind is very good at distracting us.