Introduction to the I-Ching

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Michael Erlewine
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Introduction to the I-Ching

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A Brief History of the I-Ching

[It would be great to have some discussion on the I-Ching oracle. Here is a very brief introduction]

Divination in China dates roughly to the early Shang dynasty, around 1675 B.C. At that time, perhaps the most popular form of divination was the casting of animal bones into a fire, letting them burn, and after they had cooled, studying the fine cracks that formed in the bones. The cracks were interpreted.

The I-Ching or “Book of Changes” known as the “Changes of Chou” was originally the known as the oracle of the people of Chou, written down as early as 1070 B.C. Historians have placed the origin of this oracle as early as the 8th century B.C. In other words, the I-Ching oracle is ancient.

And the I-Ching as legend is timeless and it is said that Fu Hsi, perhaps the greatest emperor of China, originally discovered the eight fundamental trigrams that make up the I-Ching hexagrams. Throughout Chinese history the I-Ching has been studied and used by the great sages, philosophers like Confucius, who wrote exhaustive commentaries on the work.

The word “I-Ching” or “Yi Jing” (the more modern Pinyan transliteration) literally means something like “regular change” or the “change that does not change,” that is: change we can count on taking place – persistent change. In this regard, the I-Ching is looked upon as a reflection in miniature of the physical and spiritual world we live in. The I-Ching reflects how our inner and outer world moves and changes.

There are many books and studies on the history of the I-Ching and a quick trip to your web browser will put you in touch with that information. Here we are primarily interested in the I-Ching as an oracle.

The I-Ching consists of 64 hexagrams, each consisting of six lines placed one above the other, and read from the bottom upward. Each line may either be solid or broken (have a gap in the center) and the total number of combinations total sixty four. Solid lines are considered masculine and Yang in nature, while broken lines are feminine or Yin in nature.

In invoking the I-Ching as an oracle, various methods are used to decide whether each of the six lines is yang (solid) or yin (broken), perhaps the most traditional method being the use of yarrow stalks in a somewhat complex method of dividing and re-dividing a group of stalks to arrive at a determination for each line. There are many other methods as well, perhaps the most popular being to throw three coins and see how many come up heads and how many tails. Two or more heads make the line solid or yang, and two or more tails make it broken or yin. Regardless of methods, the result is to perform the task six time and build up from the bottom to the top six lines to form a hexagram.

While the hexagrams are each made up of six lines, some of these lines can be what are called “moving’ or ‘changing’ lines. In other words, each of the six lines may be static or moving. By moving we mean that line is in the process of changing into its opposite, as in a yang (solid line) becomes a yin (broken) line and vice versa. How are these determined?

Using the coin method, if two out of the three coins are heads, then the resulting line is a static (unchanging) solid or yang line. However, if all three coins are heads, then the resulting solid or yang line is moving or changing into its opposite. The same is true for the yin or broken lines.

Therefore, you have in some cases two hexagrams to consider, the first hexagram that was cast and a second hexagram that results by changing any moving line into its opposite. When using the hexagrams as an oracle, it is traditional to examine the first hexagram as the response to your questions, and then look at the second hexagram (if there is one) as what will come of the situation, that is: how it will change even further. Keep in mind that some hexagrams have no moving/changing lines and there will be no second hexagram. The first hexagram is all the answer this is to the question.

As for displaying the hexagrams, although there have been several ways to display a hexagram (such as in a circle, etc.), by far the most common and traditional method is to arrange the six lines staked one upon the other and that is the method used here. Let’s recap and look toward how these lines might be interpreted.

The Hexagram Lines

The hexagrams of the I-Ching are made up of solid and broken lines, solid Yang lines and broken Yin lines. The best clue to what these two lines mean is their simple physical shape.

The Yang or solid line is unbroken, undifferentiated, and most of all: One. And here “One” means the ‘all and everything that is’, the conscious and unconscious considered as a unity.

The Yin or broken line is just that, broken, differentiated, representing duality, the “Two” in everything. These are the essential building blocks of the I-Ching, the One and the Two.

It is easy to understand what is meant here by the “Two,” the familiar experience of duality, the ‘me against the world’ kind of thing – self and other.

It may be more difficult to understand the nature of the “One.” While the One is undifferentiated, the concept of “One” does not mean the ‘one’ that results when the two-distinction is dropped, that is: when we stop isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, and somehow merge in ‘becoming one’.

Instead, the concept of “One” (as regards the I-Ching) means the “The One and the Two” together, that is: the whole enchilada, including universal oneness and also any duality or two-ness, while the concept of “Two” means duality as we know it, as in the self and other. This is a key concept that must be understood in order for the oracle to make sense. Let me repeat it.

Our common idea of the one and the two is that when we consider the ‘one,” we are talking about the “two” losing it’s ‘dividedness” and becoming one, as in the popular playing with words to the point that “alone” (two) becomes ‘All One’ (one). This is NOT what is being presented here. Instead, in I-Ching analysis, the ‘two’ is divided or contains (for example) the Self and the Other, as we all understand it, but the ‘one’ here means containing both the concept of “Self and Other – the (Two) and the “unity (One) AND the ‘Self and the Other (Two)’.

In other words, the solid or yang (solid) line contains all and everything in a static and unchanging state, while the yin (broken) line indicates the activity that occurs when the yang line divides and becomes two, becomes active. Yang is unchanging; yin is change. That is the concept. Now let’s look at the combinations of the yang and yin lines.

The Four Bi-Grams

The Yang or solid line and the Yin or broken line can be combined in only four ways. The Chinese place the Yang and Yin lines one on top of the other, always reading from the bottom line, never the top.

Traditionally, when looking at the four bi-grams, the yang line is placed on the bottom, with the yin line on top, as shown below.

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We need to be able to read these bigrams, so let’s begin. The yang or solid line represents pure potential, everything in whatever balance the cosmos can afford – an enclosed system. The yin or broken line always indicates movement or change – activity and motion.

Since these four bi-grams circle or cycle, we could examine them in any order. However, regardless of which bigram we might begin with, the order of sequencing from that point forward is not arbitrary, but very strict. Let’s start with the most traditional pair, the bigram with one solid line in the first position, on top of which is one broken line, the Yin on top of the Yang. Remember, that the Chinese read these lines from the bottom upward.

Bi-Gram #1 Yang-Yin

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So the first bi-gram combination indicates the motion from stillness in stability to movement or change. Stillness turns into change. Something is coming or arising.

Bi-Gram #2 Yin-Yin

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Here we have pure activity, pure change. Things are in total flux, motion.

Bi-Gram #3 Yin-Yang

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Activity coming to rest


Bi-Gram #4 Yang-Yang

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Pure rest or potential


The Eight Trigrams

Trigram: Tui

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Here we see that this trigram consists of bigram #1 arising from bigram #4.
The trigram Tui is change or activity slowly emerging from potential. Spring, arising. “Awakening”

Trigram: Chen

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Here we see that this trigram consists of bigram #2 arising from bigram #1.
Chen suggests great activity from now dwindling potential. Energy to overflowing. “Blossoming”

Trigram: Kun

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Kun, pure activity

Trigram: Ken

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Here we see that this trigram consists of bigram #3 arising from bigram #2.

Ken, activity beginning to wane. First signs of waning activity. “Activity Actively Becoming Stillness.” Seeking peace.

Trigram: Sun

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Here we see that this trigram consists of bigram #4 arising from bigram #3.
Sun - activity slowing to a creep, going to potential. Hardening off, solidifying. “Naturally Becoming Still”
Stillness overtaking activity.

Trigram: Ch’ien

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Moving from bigram #3 through bigram #4 on to bigram #1, we have the trigram Ch’ien, pure potential. Inactive.

This leaves two final trigrams that do not follow this cyclic progression, and to many writers these two trigrams are the key trigrams to the whole series, what we might call the ‘archetypes of change’.


Trigram: Kan

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One trigram has a single solid or Yang line enclosed between two Yin or broken lines.
Kan - brief stillness in a sea of activity. “An island.”

Trigram: Li

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The other has a single Yin or broken line enclosed between two Yang or solid lines.

Li - A brief flurry of activity. “A Gap”

The Trigrams

The male (undivided line) is the observer, taking things in with the eye and the mind, embracing; the female (divided line) is the observed, the object or one in the flow of things, participating, not observing. Think of the yin or female as the ‘action’, what is happening and the yang or male as the stationary observer.

These eight trigrams represent all of the various ways that the four bigrams (the four stages of activity) can be combined to form groups of three.

The Three Lines

Each trigram consists of three lines, which are read from the bottom upward.

The first or bottom line represents the basis or starting value or concept.

The second or middle line points out the kind of change, the movement from one state or stage to another.

The third or top line represents the final stage or outcome, what the transition results in.

There you have brief introduction to the lines, the trigrams, and how they can work together. Don’t expect to just get it all at once. There is a reason scholars have for thousands of years tried to understand the I-Ching in all its simplicity. The simplest things are always the hardest to understand, which is why most of us are confused by a simple switch or binary statement. Is it “On’ or is it “Off’? If it is “‘On,” then what is “Off,” and so on, or as Paul Simon wrote, the ‘nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-slidin’ away.” When we get close to very simple truths, they change or flip as you try to grasp them. The I-Ching is no exception, as it may be the most compact piece of logic you or I may ever encounter, very difficult to grasp with the mind, but if the mind can but relax, the I-Ching displays the very nature of the mind itself.

And last but not least, take your time to form the questions. As Shakespeare wrote in one of his sonnets:

“You are no more yourself than you now here live.”

Take time to be present hold the question you have clearly in mind before invoking the oracle. And trust the oracle. If you don’t get the answer you had in mind, at least you have learned what you did have in mind, your own bias. Rather than click and click on the oracle till you get what you hoped for, why bother with the I-Ching at all? If you do use the oracle, learn to trust it.
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