I cannot distance the I Ching from my own life any more than you.
My first teachers of the Book of Change impressed upon me the perceptual aspect of this ancient work, as opposed to the historical interpretation so prevalent in modern versions. They focused my attention on the natural symbolism of the trigrams, encouraging me to develop an emotional, or heart-mind, experience of the real world energies they represent. This meant spending long spaces of time in nature, learning to cultivate a communication with these energies based on the kind of spiritual intuition I was being taught at the time.
My nature pilgrimages led me to more remote areas of the Americas, especially the least-traveled parts of the Copper Canyon in Mexico, where I was adopted by a family of Tarahumara shamans. My initiation into the densest Pre-Columbian rituals of these descendants of the Toltec peoples opened the gateway of energies connecting each of us with all others.
Stumbling into Native American teachers, in other words, brought me to the understanding that my teachers of the indigenous Chinese I Ching had insisted I learn. This makes profound sense in retrospect. Nature is Nature everywhere. And shamanism, though its techniques and descriptions differ by culture, is everywhere based upon sensing and interacting with the spirit within all matter.
Beyond this, however, it is self-evident that the indigenous peoples of ancient China and the Americas share the same mother culture, which spread not just through Asia but crossed the Bering Strait and populated the whole of the New World. It was only after I encountered the sacred divinatory calendar, The Day Count, or Tonalpoalli, of ancient Mexico that I glimpsed the thread of an oracular tradition running through both cultures.
In the meantime, my continuing studies of the I Ching proceeded without books. I pursued my teachers’ advice to grasp the real world nature of the trigrams in order to see through their eyes. Experiencing the trigrams as the archetypal structure and pattern of human perception allows us to extend that structure into the hexagrams, whose combinations of trigrams reflects the real world coupling of internal and external dimensions. This perceptual approach to the I Ching provides us with a way to encounter the living Oracle, as opposed to sticking to the dead words of the historical rendering.
There are many good books published on the I Ching. However, they are all based on the King Wen Sequence of hexagrams and rework the same historical material over and over. This is not in and of itself bad, of course. There is much to be gained by mining such a rich vein of interpretive material. But we now know that those interpretations of the hexagrams and trigrams, attributed to King Wen and the Duke of Chou, are based on historical events that occurred at the time of the transition from the Shang Dynasty to the Chou Dynasty. The naturalistic symbolism of the I Ching, in other words, was used as a vessel to contain and express the power of righteous change that cannot be fulfilled without the righteous effort of righteous individuals.
Undoubtedly the work of several generations of priest-diviners spanning the Shang and Chou Dynasties, this historical interpretation infuses the hexagrams and lines with the oracular power of an ancient lineage of shamans using the historical developments of the time as a living metaphor for archetypal change as it manifests in any Age. This remarkable accomplishment explains the predictive power of the historical interpretation, originally titled the Chou I, or Changes of Chou, and its continuing efficacy as an Oracle.
But the real power of the Oracle does not lie in its interpretive material—it lies in the real-world energies that manifest in all matter, including human nature. The real power of the Oracle lies in the real-world energies that likewise manifest as the living symbols of the I Ching in the form of its lines, trigrams and hexagrams. This correlation between the real-world energies that form the unchanging pattern of change within nature, spirit, and human nature is the real dynamic that establishes the Oracle’s communion with unfolding events across the entirety of the eternal moment. It is this naturalistic perspective that needs to inform the interpretive material and not the historical events of 3,500 years ago.
The concept of righteous, for example, is based on both a specific spiritual presence and spiritual ethic: it indicates something that is both in accord with the One and actively pursues the course that benefits all. It is a concept that runs like an unconscious assumption throughout the traditional text: because it was written by the court diviners, who were advising the political leaders of their time, it is a top-down model of change that assumes an enlightened, righteous, ruler will lead the many into a time of peace and prospering for all.
Such an ideal, noble and well-intentioned as it is, can now be said without any fear of contradiction to be ill-founded and antithetical to human nature. Power creates institutions to perpetuate power. The many suffer at the hands of the few that hold the reins of power. Wealth and power are concentrated among the few, who enjoy privileges at the expense of the many. Rulers serve their own purposes, not the needs of the governed. Even if one such ruler established a reign of real equality and justice, we know now that the succeeding generations of rulers would not cease in their efforts until they had undone all those reforms. Power is anonymous and perpetually seeks the line of least resistance, following the pull of gravity, towards totalitarianism.
If we are to reach the Golden Age of Humanity that so many generations of sages and savios have prepared us for, it will not be because of the trickle-down righteousness of a ruler. It will be because the ground-up awakening of righteous individuals continues to build into a sea change of self-governance that spans borders and guarantees peace and prospering for all.
Rather than being written for the rulers, the I Ching needs to be written for the governed, who must adapt to the political, economic, and social pressures of the day, all the while seeking the path of personal and collective metamorphosis. The question is no longer how to rule but, rather, how to deal with rulers. It is not how to influence the many but, rather, how to deal with those seeking to influence. Rather than being written for those seeking to maintain the status quo, the I Ching needs to address those seeking to create the most meaningful life possible for themselves and all others at the same time. Rather than being a vessel for the elite, the I Ching needs to be a raft for those seeking to free the elite from their slavery to greed, dominance and self-interest.
Some might argue that there have been efforts to update these anachronisms in various modern interpretations. But this argument fails on the single issue of the Sequence of hexagrams, upon which all those interpretations are based. As mentioned above, this Sequence is attributed to King Wen, who masterminded the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty and the founding of the subsequent Chou Dynasty. This Sequence he allegedly devised while under house arrest by the Shang emperor. It is this Sequence and its appended interpretive material that came to be known as the Chou I or Changes of Chou.
In fact, this Sequence, which begins with the hexagram formed by the doubling of the Heaven trigram, is completely identified with the founding of the Chou Dynasty. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Legend has it that the Sequence of the hexagrams was different during the preceding Shang Dynasty, where it began with the hexagram formed by the doubling of the Earth trigram and was known as the Guizang Sequence. Likewise, the even older Xia Dynasty that preceded the Shang had its own Lianshan Sequence, which began with the hexagram formed by the doubling of the Mountain trigram. Thus, each of three succeeding dynasties had their own Sequence of hexagrams.
The historical accuracy of this legend is less important than its symbolic import, for what it means is that the new Sequence of hexagrams confers upon a new Dynasty its legitimacy.
The Mawangdui manuscript is the oldest physical copy of the Chou I and, even though it starts with the same hexagram formed by the doubling of the Heaven trigram, it presents a different Sequence and even different names for many of the hexagrams. Not only, then, were there different Sequences of hexagrams associated with different Dynasties, but even within the same Dynastic tradition, it was permitted to alter the received Sequence as well as the names of the 64 hexagrams.
Why? Because such altered sequences were not intended to be used to communicate with the Oracle. Similarly, the masterful Sequence of Shao Yung that was based on the natural number values of the hexagrams arose in conjunction with the Chou I but neither was it intended to be used to communicate with the Oracle.
Why not? Because the order of the hexagrams in the Dynastic Sequence alone is charged with Oracular power. The Sequence and even the hexagram names can be changed in order to investigate the pattern of change among the 64 hexagrams but the Oracle answers only to the sacred unchanging pattern of change among the hexagrams as exemplified in the King Wen Sequence.
However, the priest-diviners of the Shang, who were seeing the end of their Dynasty—not just in the events surrounding them but in their oracular divinations—faced the problem of constructing a new Sequence for the coming Dynasty. This they would have considered their sacred duty since their ultimate allegiance was to the Oracle and not any political entity. The specific problem they would have faced, then, was how to devise a new Chou Sequence while maintaining the magically charged Sequence of the Shang Dynasty, which began with the hexagram formed by the doubling of the Earth trigram—the same problem their predecessors faced during the transition from the former Xia Dynasty, whose Sequence began with the hexagram formed by the doubling of the Lake trigram.
What we know as the King Wen Sequence, therefore, is conceived as at least the third iteration of a magically charged Sequence of hexagrams, each of which began with a hexagram formed by the doubling of a trigram. Much research and discussion have followed the King Wen Sequence over the millennia in an effort to explain what appears to be the random ordering of its 32 pairs of hexagrams. It is, of course, this mysterious relationship among the real-world energies of the trigrams and their emergent hexagrams that gives the Oracle its power—which makes formulating a new Sequence that holds this same charge a question of profound import as we enter this new Dynasty.
Next Week: A New Version of the I Ching
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just received a Silver Award in the 2010 Nautilus Awards. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.