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Theosophical Encyclopedia

I Ching

The Chinese classic usually translated as “Book of Changes,” although, since Chinese is without inflection, it might more appropriately be called the “Book of Change,” the idea of constant change being one of its basic assumptions, as pointed out by John Blofeld in his 1965 translation. Since the Chinese i is actually pronounced yi and the ch is pronounced more like j the book is sometimes titled Yi Jing.

The Eight Trigrams of I Ching
The Eight Trigrams of I Ching

Tradition attributes its authorship to Fu Hsi, a folk hero of pre-dynastic times whom tradition dates 2852-2738 BCE. This claim of authorship is supported by Helena P. BLAVATSKY (The Theosophist, vol. IV, no. 1, October 1882, p.22; Collected Writings, vol. 4, p. 242) who nevertheless dates the book 1200 BCE. It is also said that CONFUCIUS (K’ung-fu Tzu; 551-479 BCE) wrote a commentary on it and arranged the text in its present order. The work is often interpreted as a book of divination, although it more properly should be considered a book of advice, since its predictions often depend on how we respond to and interpret its admonitions, which are usually stated in cryptic metaphors. It has sometimes, therefore, been termed an “oracle.” It has been translated into several European languages, the earliest English translation being in 1882 by James Legge in the Sacred Books of the East series. His system of transliteration, however, was replaced first by the Wade-Giles system (still widely used by classical Sinologists) and more recently by the pinyin system (preferred by contemporary social scientists). Blavatsky’s transliteration, which attempts to mimic the Chinese pronunciation of the characters, is close to that used by Legge, thus is now outdated. A widely used translation was done by Richard Wilhelm into German with a forword by Carl G. Jung; it was then later translated into English by Cary F. Baynes (Bollingen Series XIX, 1950, rev. ed. 1967) at the request of Jung. Wilhelm was a Sinologist and relied heavily on both his knowledge of the Chinese language and upon those Chinese who used the text; he (and his son Helmut, who wrote an English commentary), as well as Baynes, also a Sinologist, frequently consulted the oracle in their personal lives.

The main portion of the I Ching consists of explanations and commentaries on the 64 hexagrams formed by all the possible combinations of six yang (unbroken) and yin (divided) lines, starting with ch’ien (qian in pinyin), “The Creative” (or “Strong Action”) which has six yang lines; this hexagram is followed by k’un (kun in pinyin), “The Receptive” (or “Acquiescence”) which has six yin lines. It is interesting to note that the binary system used in the I Ching is its earliest known use; such a system was later used in symbolic logic truth tables and is now applied in computer circuitry. But the Chinese system is more complex than that, since it allows for both “fixed” and “moving” lines, i.e., lines which remain unchanged and lines which changes into their opposite. Hence, it is most likely that one consulting the I Ching will get two hexagrams, the first indicating his or her present situation and the second where it could go if the person consulting it were to take the text’s advice. That means that there are actually a total of 3776 possibilities. When one adds to that the fact that the advice is often cryptic and metaphorical, intuition is needed to determine its application to one’s specific situation (or question asked of the oracle), so the range of possible interpretations is essentially unlimited. Fu Hsi is supposed to have developed a system composed of eight trigrams (pa kua, ba gua). Later these triagrams were combined into the 64 hexagrams. One reads the hexagram from the bottom upwards when considering its judgments, images, significance of specific lines, etc. The book is never “preachy” or dogmatic; it merely offers advice about one’s present situation and leaves one free to accept that advice or reject it — or misinterpret it, of course. We live in a moral universe, according to the ancient Chinese, but a moral universe is not a deterministic universe.

The yang line is identified with “Heaven” (Tien, Tian) and the yin line is identified with “Earth” ( Ti, Di); in the Chinese scheme of things, neither is more important (basic, fundamental) than the other. Harmony is thought to consist of the proper balance between the two. One finds the same idea in the ancient Chinese concept of the “soul,” which was said to consist of a heavenly element or hun and an earthly element of p’o; when either predominated, it was said, ill health resulted. The same idea underlies the Chinese system of acupuncture.

A careful study of the text indicates that there is inherent in it a basic, though simple, metaphysical structure. In the beginning of things there was a Great Ultimate (T’ai-ch’i, Tai-qi) which generated the basic things: Heaven (t’ien) and Earth (ti). These produced four forms (the possible combinations of the two aspects: yang-yang, yin-yin, yang-yin, and yin-yang). Since the Chinese word translated “form” (hsiang, xiang) also implies “symbol” or “idea,” we could interpret this theosophically in terms of archetypes or paradigms. From the interaction of these forms (perhaps “cosmic forces” or “forces of nature”) everything else — usually enumerated in ancient Chinese as “the ten thousand things” and “the hundred families” — evolved.

Blavatsky finds theosophical meaning in the I Ching, as do many theosophists who use it in their daily lives. She writes in a footnote to an article by a Parsi member of the Theosophical Society (TS), “Our Brother has only to look into the oldest sacred books of China — namely the Yi Kingor Book of Changes . . . to find that same Septenary division of man mentioned in that system of Divination” (loc. cit.). She equates (1) the earth-bound p’o which becomes a “ghostly shade” or “shell” (in Chinese a kuei, guei) with the physical body, (2) the kuei-shen with the etheric double or linga-sarira, (3) shen itself with “the vital principle,” i.e., Prana, (4) jing with “the fourth principle,” i.e., kama-rupa or what is usually termed the “astral body,” (5) p’o itself (i.e., which does not become earth-bound) with the “animal soul” (presumably so-called “lower mind”), (6) chien with the “spiritual soul,” presumably buddhi-manas, and (7) what she terms Hwân with “pure spirit” or atman. There are, however, difficulties with her equivalences. Since the kuei or Earthly (yin) part of the soul is clearly not identical with the gross physical body (the body having been buried), it must be the same as what is called in theosophical literature the etheric double (Sk. linga-sarira), perhaps also associated with emotions, i.e., the “astral body.” Since the Heavenly (yang) part of the soul or psyche, the hun, is said to go to its appropriate place at death and, if properly venerated, becomes a shen, it presumably would be equivalent to what is called in theosophical literature “higher mind” or the “causal body” (Sk. karana-sarira). Nevertheless, her recommendation of the text — one of the few references to Chinese philosophy in early theosophical literature — should encourage people to study the I Ching and, if so inclined, use it as a valuable oracle in helping them cope with some of the puzzling problems of life.

R.W.B.

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