The Toltec I Ching is the first completely new version of the I Ching in modern times.
Such was not my intention when I stepped onto this path some 45 years ago. As dedicated to the classic King Wen version as any other student, it never occurred to me that I might make the changes to that text that I have. In retrospect, however, it seems inevitable.
Every field of study has its fundamentalists. This is especially so among studies of religious and spiritual texts and traditions. Those who have made a concentrated study of their specialization come to identify with the positions and interpretations they have accepted and to which they have contributed. This is compounded by the fact that religious and spiritual texts and traditions carry with them a sense of the sacred, which is too often perceived as an unchanging—and unchangeable—manifestation of eternal truth.
The field of I Ching studies is rife with such fundamentalists. For personal reasons, both intellectual and emotional that reflect what they have come to identify with, these are students who have mistaken a closed mind for dedication to the Way of Change. One of the first lessons that the I Ching demands of us is the ability to adopt multiple points of view. Until we abandon our strictly personal viewpoints for the greater capacity to shift between many points of view, we cannot be said to have learned even the most rudimentary of the Oracle’s lessons.
Not all I Ching researchers and enthusiasts fall into the category of fundamentalist, of course. Most are open-minded and concerned with carrying the oracular tradition forward into the coming generations. It is to such honest investigators that the remainder of this article is dedicated.
Why A New I Ching?
There are two principal aspects of The Toltec I Ching with which I Ching fundamentalists take exception. The first is the fact that the text no longer follows that handed down in the received version, particularly the names and judgments of the hexagrams. The second is the fact that the order in which the hexagrams appear is not that in the received version.
There is another basic lesson that the I Ching teaches: Change should never be made merely for the sake of change. So what is it that necessitates changing this venerable text at this time?
First of all, the ancients never thought of the I Ching as an unchanging monolithic artifact. It was a living Oracle that allowed them to communicate with the world of spirit. The oracular tradition was part and parcel of life long before the Chou dynasty produced the received, King Wen, version we know today. The Shang dynasty emperor was himself an accomplished diviner and there are many records of the divinations conducted by palace diviners on behalf of the state. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the I Ching was a tool of statecraft: the received version we know today was actually produced by the founder of the Chou dynasty, King Wen, and his son, the Duke of Chou—and the historical epoch they initiated is celebrated as a golden age of enlightened rulers, humaneness and justice.
The version handed down to us was never conceived as the only possible version. The official records of the Chou dynasty, dating back more than 3,000 years, state that three different versions of the I Ching then existed—one for each of the historical dynasties. The most ancient of the dynasties, the Xia, it was said, possessed the Oracle but the order of the hexagrams was different: it began with the hexagram Mountain over Mountain. The succeeding dynasty, the Shang, reportedly possessed the Oracle but, again, the order of its hexagrams differed in that its sequence began with the hexagram Earth over Earth. As he was contemplating the overthrow of the Shang dynasty, King Wen discovered in the re-ordering of the hexagrams the mandate of heaven authorizing him to initiate a new dynasty: it was, then, with the Chou dynasty that the order of the received version came about, an arrangement that begins with the hexagram Heaven over Heaven.
Whether the hexagrams existed as long ago as the Xia and Shang dynasties is a matter of historical question. That the Shang used oracle bones to consult the oracle on matter of statecraft is an historical certainty. That the Chou dynasty used the ordering of the hexagrams to re-form the Oracle as a means of legitimizing the founding of the new dynasty is a matter of their own record. Likewise, they justified this reading of the mandate of heaven by pointing backwards in time to say that the ordering of the hexagrams was instrumental in the legitimization of the preceding dynasties.
A thousand years later, people were still experimenting with variations, as the Mawangdui Silk Texts of the Second Century B.C. demonstrate. In what is the oldest extant copy of the I Ching, the order of the hexagrams is again changed and the names of many of the hexagrams differ from the received version. Another 1,200 years later, the great Neo-Confucian philosopher and I Ching scholar, Shao Yung, made public the natural number order of the hexagrams, which he attributed to the ancient culture hero, Fu Xi. It was this order that the missionary Bouvet sent to Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th Century and which Leibniz recognized as the very binary code he was in the process of discovering in the West.
So the I Ching fundamentalists, citing their dedication to the past by clinging to a single version of the text while ignoring the greater context within which it was created and evolved, are mistaken. The ordering of the hexagrams was, within Chinese culture, a complex question responding to political and philosophical purposes.
The same is true of the naming and interpreting of the hexagrams. Over time, and again within Chinese culture, various interpretations of the Confucian text emerged in order to illuminate the fuller potential of the I Ching’s relevance to other spheres of study. Lui I-Ming produced a version expressing the Taoist alchemical perspective. Chih-hsu Ou-i produced another version reflecting the Tianti Buddhist worldview. And the 11th Century scholar Cheng Yi produced a version reflecting the philosophy of his school of inner design.
Given the facts, why then does a new version of the I Ching meet with resistance from the very people one might expect to welcome it with, at the least, open-minded curiosity? The answer, I suspect, is not precisely what one might expect.
Resistance comes from those who are dedicated to their idea of the I Ching and not to the I Ching itself. Theirs is an intellectual pursuit far removed from the oracular tradition—they are not, in a word, animists. They do not adhere to the principle that all of matter is invested with spirit and they certainly have no first-hand experience of sensing the spirit animating stone, water, wind and plants. They treat the I Ching as an object of study rather than actively engaging the spirit of the Oracle. They forget that an oracle is essentially a speaking and they ignore the question of who or what it is that speaks. They are not, in another word, diviners.
This is why The Toltec I Ching is the first new version of the ancient classic in modern times. It is a book for diviners. It embodies the animistic lifeway of treating all of nature, all of matter, as spiritual entities deserving recognition and respect for the part they play in the whole of Creation. Its emphasis consistently falls on the ethics of inspired action within the emerging world culture seeking peace and prospering for all. It recognizes that just as human beings have a visible body and an invisible spirit, so does every other part of nature—a recognition that extends to the whole of nature itself, whose invisible half is the living World Soul. It does not simply pay lip service to the yin-yang worldview that originated with the ancient I Ching—it illuminates the mechanics of restoring a harmonious balance to life by identifying the intent of the masculine and feminine halves of spirit in each of the 64 hexagrams.
It is an Oracle in the old sense of the word: the agency or medium of a divine spirit. This Oracle has an historical relationship with human beings that extends back at least 3,500 years. It uses the hexagrams and their line changes as its means of expression. It speaks in symbols that give voice to the archetypal essences of the changing relationships between things. The Toltec I Ching releases the Oracle from the cage of intellectualism, loosing its magic back into the world of magic. And this is just what the Oracle does for us, for to encounter the Oracle with our question is to approach the Great Mystery with a sense of the magic of potential transformation at hand—and to receive the Oracle’s answer is to have our own souls released from their cell of intellect and loosed back into the magic of the World Soul’s embodiment.
Beyond these essentially philosophical reasons for a new version, there are the political ones. The first is related to class and the second to gender. As mentioned above, the I Ching was an instrument of statecraft, not only consulted by but also produced by the very rulership of the dynasty. This was not necessarily an ignoble enterprise initially, forming as it did part of the ancient experiment in governing, whereby great emphasis was placed on creating an enlightened rulership that would then create a peaceful and prosperous commonwealth. Reading the received version of the I Ching, we can see how much of the commentary is written to the ruler, giving advice on how to govern those below. Moreover, because the received version was produced by the victorious rulers of the Chou dynasty, much of the commentary is based on the military and political machinations involved in establishing their new dynasty. This focus is amplified by the fact that the received commentary to the hexagrams essentially reflects a bias toward Confucian philosophy, which emphasized adherence to hierarchical relationships.
As to gender, the difficulty with the received version is well-known. Hand-in-hand with its patriarchal classism, its patriarchal sexism of three and a half millennia ago is so obsolete as to be laughable at the very least and actually offensive in some cases.
The Toltec Connection
Such, in short, are the factors necessitating a new version of the I Ching in our time.
Now, a legitimate question can be raised: Why introduce the ancient Toltec worldview of native Mesoamerica into the ancient Taoist worldview of native China? The answer to this question is more straightforward than one might expect.
First, we need to start with the fact that the indigenous Native Americans and the indigenous Chinese share a common Mother Culture. Linked by migrations across the Bering Straight ice bridge over the course of the Ice Ages, the peoples who eventually settled in ancient China and the ancient Americas shared an animistic, or shamanic, lifeway with numerous basic symbolic correlations. Not the least of these is the oracular tradition, so foundational to their civilizations, that their respective writing systems begin with their divinatory systems—the Shang oracle bones in ancient China and the sacred calendar of the Olmec-Zapotec in ancient Mesoamerica.
Second, we need to accept that the I Ching is no longer merely a “Chinese text”. For some time now, it has reached across borders to become a “World text”, even as its study has, simultaneously, been suppressed during modern times in China.
Third, we need to remember that even within ancient China, there were versions of the I Ching that shifted its focus onto another worldview, such as the Taoist and Tiantai Buddhist perspectives mentioned above. The concept of reinterpreting the I Ching through another perspective is similar to looking through different facets of the same gem: not only was this an accepted practice in ancient China, but it was considered proof of the universality of the I Ching’s applicability to all of human life. Moreover, even the received King Wen version is an interpretation: it is essential to keep in mind that King Wen composed the texts for each of the hexagrams while his son composed the texts for each of the line changes. The founders of the Chou dynasty did not just re-order the sequence of the hexagrams—they wrote the texts. That this is made explicit by the Chou dynasty’s own records accentuating the fact that the real I Ching, the core I Ching, is comprised of the 64 hexagrams and nothing more—just the 64 possible combinations of six solid and broken lines making up the hexagrams, without any accompanying text, commentary or interpretation. It is the work of diviners to read the interaction between the upper and lower trigrams making up each hexagram and interpret it in light of the question. What is called the King Wen version is as arbitrary a reading of the I Ching as any other interpretation.
As for the Toltec lifeway, specifically, it is because they are a people at the edge of mythological and historical times that are held up as the pinnacle of civilization by all those in the central plateau of ancient Mexico. Their king, the universally-esteemed Quetzalcoatl, or Plumed Serpent, fostered the birth of the sacred calendar, writing, mathematics, art, architecture, and medicine, all while forbidding practices such as sacrifice. It was a time of peace, in which the crops were never more bounteous, the production of goods was never more beautiful, and the people were never more happy. The Toltec were great traders, as well, and their influence extended all the way down to the Maya in what is now Sothern Mexico and all the way up into what is now the South-Western United States. They were part of the great Tolteca-Chichimeca migration that is marked by the peoples of the high desert plateau of the Inter-Mountain region of North America and Mexico—a people united by their common linguistic roots in the Uto-Aztecan language group.
It is with the descendants of those ancients, the contemporary Rarámuri of the Barranca del Cobre in Mexico, that my wife, daughter, and I were honored to live for two years in the late 1970s. It was among those semi-nomadic indigenes that I found the family of the village shamans, the head of whom adopted me and initiated me into both the Rarámuri lifeway and the most secret of their rituals. And it was from my exposure to their traditional life, relatively unchanged for thousands of years, that I was changed into an animist: I was not any longer separated from nature by my humanity but was united with it by the commonality of spirit shared by all material—and immaterial—form.
It is no coincidence, then, that my collaborator in The Toltec I Ching, Martha Ramirez-Oropeza, is a direct descendant of the Rarámuri people. An accomplished muralist in Mexico, Martha was co-founder of the Universidad Nahuatl in Ocotepec, Mexico—an institution that taught the traditional arts and sciences of the ancient Toltec lifeway. She was especially successful in bringing contemporary Nahuatl-speaking elders from indigenous communities to teach, from whom she inherited a vast treasure house of knowledge and wisdom.
That knowledge and wisdom is immediately apparent in the Illustrations that epitomize each of the 64 hexagrams of The Toltec I Ching. Derived primarily from the symbols found in the pre-Columbian codices and monumental architecture, the Illustrations mark a revival of the ancient Mesoamerican writing system and stand as an important accomplishment in their own right.
In this matter, The Toltec I Ching is not just the first new version of the I Ching in modern times—it is also the first version ever to interpret the Oracle through both visual imagery and the written word. In modern parlance, we would say it constitutes a single language speaking simultaneously to the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Conceived and executed as translations of equal weight, the images of the Illustrations and the words of the text form a single interpretation that shifts the focus of the I Ching from the Old World and onto the New World—it shifts the focus away from the cultural intimacy of the ancient Chinese to their land and history and spirituality and towards the cultural intimacy of the ancient Mesoamericans to their land and history and spirituality.
But it is also a shift in a metaphorical sense, as well—away from the Old World lifeway of top-down patriarchal classism and sexism doing violence to people and nature, and toward the New World lifeway of bottom-up self-governance revering all the people, animals, plants, land, water and climate making up this living world that is our common home. It is a shift away from the Old World of justifying a civilization of war and hatred based on a history of unforgiveable wrongs on all sides, and towards the New World of building a new civilization of peace and prospering for all that is based on universal amnesty and reconciliation. It is a shift, in other words, towards the future that everyone wants, not just for themselves but for their children and their children’s children and all their relations in the coming generations.
It is a shift away from the Old Dynasty of the few overruling the many and desecrating nature, in other words, and toward the New Dynasty of the many ruling themselves in order to live in perpetual harmony with nature.
It is the founding of this emerging world culture that The Toltec I Ching commemorates.
Legitimizing A New Dynasty
The Spirit of the Age has reversed course again and we have entered a new Dynasty. Unlike the dynasties of old that ruled one nation or one people, this time it is an egalitarian Dynasty, a global shift of awareness, setting free the potential of all nations and all people—and their collective relationship with the environment—for the next 5,000 years.
The old Dynasty of nationalism, aggression and self-interest is overturned now by time. In its place, like billions of seeds fallen on the fertile plain of history, the first signs of the new age of enlightened peers reveal the emerging change to all. Like the light from a distant nova that takes years to reach us, the effects of this spiritual revolution are already on their way.
As outlined above, The Toltec I Ching follows the ages-old tradition of legitimizing the new Dynasty by introducing a new version of the I Ching that more accurately reflects the vision and ethics of our age while still maintaining the shamanically-charged power of the Oracle. Keeping to the path laid down by the ancients, we continue the practice of periodically re-ordering the sequence of the 64 hexagrams in order to renew cyclic time and restore humaneness to the social order.
This, then, is the ultimate reason for the appearance of a completely new version of the I Ching at this time: The Toltec I Ching is an intrinsic part of the theurgic process of legitimizing the New Dynasty of Universal Benefit that diviners of many different traditions have foretold.
It is a part of the evolving Mandate of Heaven.