Divination is the reading of signs or symbols with the intention of receiving guidance and wisdom about current situations and future events. From ancient and medieval worlds up to our modern era, many different methods of divination have been used and are still being used today, which include but are not limited to: the observation of animal behavior, the movement of the stars and the planets, the casting of lots, and utterances from supposed oracles. In the past, these methods were understood to be some of the ways of communicating with the spiritual world or unleashing unseen powers. But from a modern psychological standpoint, divination now represents one of humans’ subtle means of accessing the wisdom of the unconscious mind.
One ancient system of divination, which originated in China and has endured until now even though thousands of years have already passed, is steeped in myth and legend, and possesses undeniable spiritual, philosophical and historical value. This is known as the I Ching or the Book of Changes, and it is unquestionably one of the oldest and most important books in the world’s literature.
The I Ching, or the Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text and is also the oldest of the Chinese classics. The text possesses a history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation, making it an influential text throughout the world for the inspiration it serves in religion, art, literature, psychoanalysis and even business.
Originally, the I Ching was a divination manual in the Western Zhou period, around 1000 to 750 BC. Sometime between 500 and 200 BC, which was over the course of the Warring States period and the early imperial period, it was transformed into a cosmological text that came with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the “Ten Wings.” After it became a part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching established itself as not only the basis of divination practice for centuries across the Far East, but also the subject of scholarly commentary and an influential tool in the Western understanding of Eastern thought.
The interpretation of the readings found in the Book of Changes has sparked intense debate for centuries. Nevertheless, many have used the book symbolically to provide guidance for moral decision making, which is why it is not surprising that both of the two branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Taoism, share common roots through this ancient text. Many western figures – like psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, physicist Wolfgang Pauli, and writer Hermann Hesse – have recognized the Book of Changes as an intelligent, profound and sophisticated system of divination, which is most likely why it has been in continuous use up to now in different parts of the world.
Philosophy of the I Ching
Change is the central idea behind the I Ching. Much like the way the night gradually and without division follows after day, and one season evolves into another, nothing in life and in the universe is fixed or ever unchanging. Everything is not split into the timeframes of the past, the present or the future. All things in the universe are interlinked and constantly moving and changing. We are all in a state of flux and transition. And the path to understanding and embracing change involves acknowledging and comprehending the relationship between the energetic polarities of Yin and Yang.
Yin and Yang, while seemingly opposing energies are in fact complementary. Yin corresponds to receptive, mutable and contracting form, while Yang corresponds to active, creative and expansive force. The balance between these two energies is ever changing and transforming, which is why it is signified by a wavy, center line (or Wu Wei Line) in the well-known Yin-Yang symbol – also known as Tai Chi or The Great Ultimate.
In Taoist thinking, the concept of energetic balance between Yin and Yang and flow have a deep and meaningful relationship in people’s lives and that of the universe as a whole. And because everything in the universe is generated from the Yin-Yang polarity and the flow between the two opposing yet complementary energies, the philosophy of the I Ching welcomes change, movement, transformation, momentum, and regeneration.
The I Ching is all about change – exploring and defining the changes you experience even if they may be beyond your current understanding, and revealing all the possibilities for future change, action as well as inaction.
Basic Structure of the I Ching as a Divination System
In the Book of Changes, Yang and Yin are represented by unbroken and broken lines. In utilizing the I Ching as a tool for divination, these lines are used to create “hexagrams” – figures which are made up of six lines. Each inquiry to the Oracle will require a hexagram reading and possibly additional line readings as well.
A hexagram is made up of two trigrams, and each trigram is made up of three lines. Each line is either broken or solid, corresponding to the negative force Yin and the positive force Yang. There are eight possible trigrams: Ch’ien for the Cosmos, Chen for Thunder, K’an for Water, Ken for Mountain, K’un for Earth, Sun for Wind or Wood, Li for Fire, and Tui for Lake. These eight trigrams were conceived as symbols of all that happens in both heavens and on earth. At the same time, they were all held to be in a state of continual transition, with one trigram changing into another, just as transitions from one phenomenon to another are continuously occurring in the physical world.
There are sixty-four different hexagrams, and each hexagram has six changing lines, and its presence affects the hexagram’s meaning. These changing lines in the primary hexagram also point to the creation of a second, transformed hexagram, which is also included in the readings and interpretation when responding to a person’s consult over a situation or answering a question.
All in all, there are 4,096 possible core readings. With the inclusion of symbols, nuclear trigrams, as well as other factors, the interpretation possibilities provided by the Book of Changes are pushed into the tens of millions.
Consulting the I Ching
The I Ching is made up of 64 chapters, and each of them relates to a corresponding hexagram which presents a particular message. In consulting the I Ching, the first step to do is to formulate a question, followed by the creation of a hexagram. This is typically done through the process of throwing coins, but several other ways have also been utilized in consulting the ancient text. One traditional method uses grains of rice, while another uses yarrow sticks. But for our purpose of explaining the process of consulting the I Ching, we will be using the method of throwing coins as an example.
Before casting the coins down, those who seek to consult the Book of Changes for divine guidance must first meditate on the question they want to ask, which are usually related to the issue or situation they are currently facing. With a question in mind, the three coins are shaken in a cupped hand before they are thrown down. And in throwing the coins, the intention is to create a hexagram. As previously mentioned, each hexagram is built up from a series of six lines, and these lines are either broken or unbroken, reflecting the energetic qualities of the situation at hand.
A straight line ‘_______’ represents Yang energy or young Yang, while a broken line ‘____ ____’ represents Yin energy or young Yin. There is also another energetic quality which reflects the dynamism of the Yin or Yang energy of any situation; and so, they may be at the point of transformation, either from Yin to Yang or vice versa. These lines are called ‘moving’ or ‘changing’ lines and they can either be Yin moving or changing – also referred to as old Yin – or Yang moving or changing – which is also known as old Yang. The unique combination of these four energetic qualities and the possibilities over the six lines of a hexagram represent the energy of the entire situation an individual is consulting the Book of Changes about.
In the coin method, each time three coins are thrown at the same time translates to an energetic line. And so, throwing the coins six times create the six lines that become the whole hexagram. The two distinguishable sides of the coins are assigned numerical values: “heads” is given the value of 3, while “tails” has the value of 2. By throwing three coins at the same time, their combined value will fall between 6 and 9. These values can then be translated to their energetic lines. 6 corresponds to the old Yin; 7 is the young Yang; 8 is the young Yin; 9 is the old Yang.
The value and the type of energetic line of the first coin throw correspond to the first or the bottom line of the hexagram, while the result of the second throw corresponds to the second line from the bottom line of the hexagram, and so on. Repeating the coin throw six times helps formulate the values of the lines of the hexagram from the bottom up. The bottom three lines are referred to as the lower trigram, while the top three lines are the upper trigram. Together, a pair of trigrams makes up the whole hexagram.
Once the trigrams have been written down, the grid table of the Book of Changes is consulted to identify the name and number of the hexagram that was formulated based on the results of the coin throws. This is the primary hexagram. Each hexagram chapter in the I Ching is divided into two sections. The main opening text provides an overview of the message the hexagram pertains to, but there are also a series of six supplementary passages, each relating to one of the six lines of the hexagram. If moving or changing lines are present within the hexagram, additional line passages that these changing lines correspond to should also be read for further guidance and insight.
Having moving or changing lines in a hexagram may mean that the question asked or the situation consulted about is in an extreme state of flux, which indicates that it is unbalanced or due for immediate change. And so, in addition to reading the supplementary line passages within the primary hexagram chapter, these moving or changing lines can also be allowed to change. This means that every old Yin becomes a young Yang; while every old Yang becomes a young Yin. And with this transition, a second extension or relating hexagram is created.
These two hexagrams – specifically the main text and relevant line passages of the primary hexagram, and the main body text of the extension hexagram – are read together to disclose the full meaning of the spiritual and moral guidance being offered by the Book of Changes for a specific consult or question.
The I Ching represents an entire ancient philosophy that should be treated with great respect and admiration. It symbolizes the cyclical interconnectedness of the Universe and it serves as a moral guide to a personal path of balance and harmony. The wisdom this book contains has the potential to stimulate your sensitivity, creativity and resourcefulness, even when you are experiencing the most challenging and demanding periods of your life, during which those vital personal qualities are not as easy to unleash from within.
Most importantly, the I Ching does not give you specific and straight-to-the point ‘answers’ you might expect to get. Instead, it empowers you and encourages you to look within for the answer that you seek. Its mysticism as a divination system is, paradoxically, founded on its emphasis on the phenomenal nature of human beings.
But apart from its spiritual value and usefulness as a tool for divination, the book also offers a wealth of beautiful poetry and Chinese philosophy that stretches back 5000 years into the origins of ancient Chinese customs and values. And perhaps this is the more widely-embraced reason why the I Ching should be considered a global treasure.