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I Ching

I Ching

Zhouyi, the I Ching, the Book of Changes, the Classic of Changes:  all names for one book, one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts.  As its names suggest, it is a text redolent with mystery and mysticism, even hints of paranormal power.  It contains a divination system comparable to Western geomancy (a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand), and is still widely used for this purpose in both East Asia and the West.  It is surprising how its use has spread throughout the years; although the text is thought to have originated between the 3rd and 2nd millenium B.C., clearly the knowledge contained within it is not something considered outdated.  Instead, as the techniques contained within have been found to be more and more useful, its use has spread throughout the world.  In fact, some consider it the oldest extant book on divination.

Although it is difficult to prove much about its ancient origins, there is some evidence that the book has changed over time.  Between 475 – 221 B.C., the text was re-interpreted as a system of cosmology and philosophy that subsequently became intrinsic to Chinese culture.  It centered on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change.  In the past 50 years, a “Modernist” history of the I Ching emerged based on research into different dynasties, inscriptions, tombs, and so on.  Based on the knowledge gleaned from these archeological excavations, it is thought that rather than being the work of one (or several) legendary or historical figures, the core divinatory text is thought to be an accretion of divinatory concepts.  This accretion began so long ago that the text we know today, reached its form at the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.

The text of the I Ching is a set of oracular statements, represented by 64 sets of 6 lines, each called “hexagrams.”  Each hexagram is a figure composed of 6 stacked horizontal lines; each line is either Yang (unbroken, or solid) or Yin (broken, or with a gap in the center).  When a hexagram is cast using one of the traditional processes of divination with I Ching, each yin and yang line will be indicated as either “moving” (or changing) or “fixed” (unchanging).  Thus there are four possibilities for each line:  unchanging yin, unhanging yang, yin changing into yang, and yang changing into yin.  Any line that is changing is seen as more powerful, and adds meaning to that hexagram.

Thus the text of the I Ching describes each of the 64 hexagrams; later scholars added commentaries and analyses of each one.  The hexagrams can have meanings ranging from “Possessing Creative Power & Skill” to “Engagement in Conflict” to “Stagnation” or “Following” or “Embellishing.”  In fact, the combination of hexagrams can be used to describe nearly any aspect of life.

The process of consulting the book as an oracle involves determining the hexagram by a method of random generation and then reading the text associated with that hexagram, and is a form of bibliomancy (the use of books in divination).  As with any divination method, there is the ever-present temptation of relying upon it too much.  Confucius said that one should not consult the Oracle for divination until over the age of 40.  This discourages compulsion (i.e., asking the same question over and over in hopes of either a different/better answer or some kind of enlightenment as to the meaning of the answers one gets). The description of one of the hexagrams mentions problems with “the youthful and inexperienced” asking the same question three or more times (the hexagram’s meaning has to do with youthful folly, or discovering).

There are many methods for which the I Ching can be used for divination.  Plastromancy (or the turtle shell oracle) is probably the earliest record of fortune telling.  The diviner would apply heat to a piece of a turtle shell (sometimes with a hot poker), and interpret the resulting cracks.  The cracks were sometimes annotated with inscriptions, the oldest Chinese writings that have been discovered.  A variant on this method was to use ox shoulder bones, a practice called scapulimancy.  When thick material was to be cracked, the underside was thinned by carving with a knife.

Another method involves counting yarrow stalks to determine numerical values, which are then translated into each line of the hexagram.  Similar results can be obtained from the marble, bean, dice, and two or four coin methods.  Results are different with the three coin method due to the different probabilities involved.  The three coin method came into use over a thousand years after the I Ching started being used for divination; it quickly became the most popular method due to its quickness and ease.

I Ching has long been used for divination, in order to try and determine what will happen.  Most divination methods using the I Ching focus on this.  However, one method that originated around 50 B.C. was unique in that it attempted to not only determine what will happen, but also when it will happen, by bringing in the Chinese calendar.  This method of divination deviated from the classic I Ching text; instead, it was based on a system that connected each hexagram line to one of the 12 Earthly Branches (a Chinese system for reckoning time), and the resultant picture analyzed with use of the 5 Elements (an ancient, traditional Chinese mnemonic device that associated the five elements with five seasons or virtues).

Aside from divination, I Ching has been connected with numerology, esoteric cosmology, astrology, and feng shui.  Connections have been drawn between the I Ching and various other paranormal disciplines even into modern times; Carl Jung, the psychologist and psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology, associated I Ching with astrology with the introduction of his theory of synchronicity.  Thus, whether considered from a historical or modern perspective, the I Ching remains an invaluable divinatory device whose use becomes more relevant with time.

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