The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Lifeby Jack M. Balkin
As important to Chinese civilization as the Bible is to Western culture, the I Ching or Book of Changes is one of the oldest treasures of world literature. In this masterful new interpretation, Jack Balkin returns the I Ching to its rightful place as a book of wisdom that teaches how to live one's life in a changing and confusing world. Balkin's comprehensive and… See more details below
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As important to Chinese civilization as the Bible is to Western culture, the I Ching or Book of Changes is one of the oldest treasures of world literature. In this masterful new interpretation, Jack Balkin returns the I Ching to its rightful place as a book of wisdom that teaches how to live one's life in a changing and confusing world. Balkin's comprehensive and perceptive commentaries highlight a clear, understandable version of the core text of the I Ching that preserves its striking imagery while remaining faithful to the long tradition of ethical interpretations of the work. The Laws of Change: I Ching and the Philosophy of Life offers the most detailed commentaries available in English on the I Ching's ethical and philosophical teachings, a comprehensive survey of different methods of consulting the I Ching, and an excellent history of the I Ching's transformation from a Bronze Age diviner's manual to a beloved book of wisdom that lies at the very heart of Chinese culture. This is an indispensable work for anyone who wants to understand the I Ching and its history.
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The Book of Changes (I Ching or Yijing) is one of the world’s oldest books. The earliest parts of the text date back three thousand years. To the Chinese the Book of Changes is as important as the Bible is to the West. It is probably one of the most commented on books in human history. Every Chinese thinker from antiquity forward has had something to say about it, and many have based their entire philosophies on the book. In modern times the Book of Changes has become influential in the West as a method of divination. That was its original purpose in the Bronze Age, and it remains a major use of the book throughout the world. But at least since Confucian times the book has also been regarded as a book of wisdom, containing the most profound lessons on how to live one’s life in a changing and confusing world. That is because the subject of the Book of Changes is nothing less than the laws of change in the universe and how human beings can learn to live in harmony with them.
The Chinese name for the Book of Changes is I Ching in the older, Wade-Giles system of transliteration, and Yijing in the modern, Pinyin system. Yi means “change”; jing means “book,” and later came to mean “classic.” Hence another name for the book is the Classic of Changes.
At the heart of the Book of Changes are a set of sixty-four figures called hexagrams. (In Chinese they are called gua.) The hexagrams consist of six lines, which are either solid ( ___ ) or broken ( __ __ ).
For example, Hexagram 32, Enduring, has three solid and three broken lines:
Because there are two types of lines and six positions, there are 26, or 64 different hexagrams. The broken and solid lines in the hexagrams are associated with the metaphysical symbolism of yin and yang. Broken lines ( __ __ ) are yin lines; solid lines ( ___ ) are yang lines. For example, in Hexagram 32, illustrated above, there are yin lines in positions one, five, and six, and yang lines in positions two, three, and four. The sixty-four hexagrams represent all of the possible combinations of yin and yang that can occur in six lines.
Yin and yang are central concepts in Chinese philosophy. Originally, they referred to the shady and sunny sides of a hill. Later they developed an elaborate series of metaphysical connotations. Yang is active, bright, male, hot, large, or superior, while yin is passive, dark, female, cold, small, or inferior. Everything in life and all change in the world is made up out of the alternations between yin and yang. Because the sixty-four hexagrams included every possible combination of yin and yang, the ancient Chinese thought, they included every possible situation under heaven and on earth.
Each hexagram has a name or title that corresponds to a different aspect of the human condition. These include emotions (Joy), actions (Biting Through), situations (Difficulty in the Beginning), strategies (Calculated Waiting), objects (The Well), persons (The Wanderer), characteristics (Modesty), and principles (Inner Truth). Together the sixty-four hexagrams attempt to describe the various phases of human life and human fortune.
Each hexagram is accompanied by a short divinatory statement, called a judgment. The hexagram judgments describe the situation symbolized by the hexagram and what people should do in that situation. As befits the origins of the book as a diviner’s manual, the language of the judgments is often oracular and obscure. For example, the judgment for Hexagram 32, Heng (Enduring), reads:
Enduring. Success. No blame.
It is beneficial to persevere.
It it is beneficial to have somewhere to go.
The lines in each hexagram are numbered from one to six starting at the bottom and proceeding to the top. A short divinatory text is associated with each line. These texts are called the line judgments or line statements. Each line judgment describes a special case of the more general situation symbolized by the hexagram as a whole and offers more specific advice. Like the hexagram judgments, the line judgments are often obscure and feature striking metaphors or images. For example, the text for the fifth line of Hexagram 26, Da Xu (Great Accumulation), reads:
The tusks of a gelded boar.
Just as you can identify parts of the Bible by chapter and verse (e.g., Genesis 1:1), you can identify sections of the Book of Changes by reference to hexagram number and line, separated by a period. The hexagram judgment is designated as line 0; 1 through 6 refer to the successive line statements. So the fifth line of Hexagram 26 is 26.5; the judgment for Hexagram 32 is 32.0.
People consult the Book of Changes by using a random method like tossing coins or manipulating yarrow stalks to generate the six lines of a hexagram. (These methods are described in more detail in Chapter Five.) The method chosen not only determines whether each line of the hexagram is yin (broken) or yang (solid), but also whether the line is moving (changing) or stable. The moving lines change into their opposites: Yin lines change to yang lines, and yang lines change to yin lines. This produces a second hexagram. The first hexagram represents the current situation, the second the situation into which things are changing, and the moving lines represent key aspects of this transformation. People then study the judgments for the two hexagrams and the line statements for the moving lines in order to stimulate creative thought about their current situation and to decide how they should adapt their actions to the needs of the time.
Although many people try to use the Book of Changes to tell the future, I believe this reflects a misunderstanding of the book’s real value. The Book of Changes is best understood not as a fortune-telling device but as a book of wisdom that can help people think imaginatively and creatively about their lives. As I explain in Chapter Three, the processes by which hexagrams are generated are purely random. What is truly important is the underlying philosophy of the book. By formulating specific questions, contemplating the answers, and applying the book’s principles and metaphors to their own situation, people who use the Book of Changes are gradually introduced to its characteristic philosophy of life in concrete contexts. Precisely because the book is structured not as a treatise but as an oracle, its philosophy is revealed not through memorizing a specific set of abstract doctrines, but through application and problem solving. In this way people assimilate over time an intuitive understanding of the book’s approach and its distinctive take on the laws of change.
The earliest part of the Book of Changes consists of the hexagrams, the hexagram judgments, and the line judgments. This part of the book was complied sometime during the Zhou Dynasty in Bronze Age China, probably around 800 b.c. This core of the book is sometimes called the Zhouyi, or the Changes of the Zhou. Hundreds of years later a series of commentaries were added to the core text. They are divided into ten segments, known as Wings. The Ten Wings contain commentaries on each of the hexagram and line judgments, as well as a treatise on the philosophy and metaphysics behind the core text, sometimes called the Great Treatise. (The Great Treatise constitutes the Fifth and Sixth of the Ten Wings.) Together the Ten Wings and the Zhouyi constitute the Classic of Changes, or Yijing. In this book, when I want to refer only to the core text, I will speak of the Zhouyi, in order to distinguish it from the Ten Wings.
Tradition holds that much the text of the Book of Changes refers to the overthrow of the Bronze Age Shang Dynasty by the Zhou, a vassal state, and the subsequent founding of the great Zhou Dynasty. According to legend, the hexagram judgments were written by King Wen, the leader of the Zhou, while he was imprisoned by the tyrant Dixin, the last of the Shang kings; the line judgments, the story goes, were written by King Wen’s son, the Duke of Zhou, one of the greatest statesmen in China’s history. Finally, the Ten Wings were attributed to Confucius. As explained in Chapter Six, this traditional account is mere legend, part of the Chinese custom of attributing great works of antiquity to ancient sages. The core text was compiled and collated by Zhou diviners over many years, long after the time of King Wen and the Duke of Zhou, and there is no evidence that Confucius himself wrote the Ten Wings, although these commentaries contain many Confucian ideas. The mythological origins of the book nevertheless contributed greatly to the belief that those who wrote the Book of Changes were people of great wisdom who understood from their own experience the rise and fall of human fortunes.
Part One of this book introduces the history and philosophy of the Book of Changes. It describes the book’s symbolism, the many changes the book has undergone in the course of its three-thousand-year history, and many of the most well-known methods of divination. Part Two–by far the larger portion of this book–is a translation of the core text (the Zhouyi) plus commentaries explaining how to apply its insights to everyday life.
I wrote these commentaries on the Book of Changes in order to explain its ethical teachings. By “ethics” I mean not simply questions of right and wrong but basic issues about how one should live and give purpose to one’s life. The Book of Changes, whose primary concern is how human beings should deal with a changing universe, is ethical in this larger sense. There is much more to the book than this, of course. One could also study the Changes as a metaphysical or cosmological document, but that is not my goal.
Because of my objectives in writing the commentaries, I included the text of only one part of the Ten Wings–the Commentary on the Great Images (Daxiang), which forms part of the Third and Fourth Wings. Other parts of the Ten Wings offer theories of metaphysics and cosmology, try to show why certain lines and hexagrams are auspicious or inauspicious, and suggest explanations for why one hexagram follows another in the received text. By contrast, the Commentary on the Great Images offers lessons about how to live one’s life in each of the situations described by the sixty-four hexagrams. It is the most Confucian and for that reason the most explicitly ethical part of the Ten Wings. There is ample precedent for giving the Commentary on the Great Images special treatment. Richard Wilhelm’s famous translation of the Book of Changes places the Commentary together with the text of the Zhouyi, leaving the rest of the Ten Wings to other parts of the book.
Many versions of the I Ching designed for popular audiences do not provide the text at all. Instead, they provide only summaries or paraphrases of the text. They offer interpretations of what the hexagrams and line judgments mean but eliminate much of the imagery that is so characteristic of the book. These interpretations are often quite good, but still something is lost in the process. It is not enough to encounter the Book of Changes as a series of abstract principles–one must grapple directly with its symbols, images, and metaphors if one is to understand its wisdom and its power. For this reason I undertook to provide my own working translation of the text. The term “working” is well advised. I do not regard the result as a serious academic translation–that would take much more skill than I possess. Instead, I aimed to provide a simple, easy-to-read version that would offer most of the imagery in the book and help make sense of the commentaries that follow.
The twentieth century has brought a revolution in Yijing studies. We now know much more about its Bronze Age origins. Several of the newest translations have tried to recover the meaning of the text when it was first compiled during the Zhou Dynasty. These translations dispense with the ethical and philosophical glosses on the book, which are the work of later centuries. The new scholarship corrects many errors and infelicities in previous translations, and I have learned much from it. Nevertheless, I am primarily interested in the Book of Changes as a book of wisdom. For this reason the version presented in this volume reflects the ethical interpretations of the Book that shaped its reception from the time of the Ten Wings onward.
To understand the philosophy of the Book of Changes, one must come to terms with two important facts. First, because the book is structured as an oracle, its philosophy is best encountered through asking the book questions and receiving answers, which the questioner then applies to specific problems and questions in his or her own life. Applying the book’s insights to one’s own situation is inevitably idiosyncratic and deeply personal. Offering a list of the book’s basic principles necessarily fails to capture this process of interaction. Any description of the book’s philosophy in propositional form must be general and abstract, far removed from the process of concrete problem solving that gives the book its practical value. In an important sense, the best way truly to understand the Book of Changes is to use it.
Second, there is not, strictly speaking, a single meaning to the text. Appropriately enough for a text whose basic theme is the inevitability of change, the Book of Changes has undergone many transformations in its three-thousand-year history. It has meant many different things to many different people over the ages. (Chapter Six, which chronicles the book’s history, describes many of the most important of these changes.) The Book of Changes began as a Bronze Age manual of divination. The kings who consulted it wanted to know whether to make war, forge alliances, sacrifice human captives, or go on hunts. Later the book was almost completely transformed when philosophical and metaphysical meanings were grafted onto it in the series of commentaries known as the Ten Wings. Those meanings, in turn, were further glossed and supplemented by a series of commentaries stretching from antiquity to the present day. There are as many interpretations of the Book of Changes, one suspects, as there are people who have sought to understand this mysterious and marvelous text.
In the discussion that follows I will be primarily concerned with the philosophical glosses given to the Book of Changes by later commentators. None of this, or very little of it, can be found in the original Bronze Age diviner’s manual. As explained in more detail in Chapter Six, by the time the Ten Wings were written, the original meanings of many of the words in the core text had been significantly transformed or completely forgotten. Nevertheless, convinced that the book contained deep and abiding truths from the ancient sages, generations of commentators constructed an elaborate set of philosophical and ethical meanings for the book. Key words and phrases in the text were reinterpreted in light of Confucian concepts such as sincerity, modesty, and perseverance. Moral and practical lessons on the proper conduct of life in a changing world were drawn from its oracular phrases and obscure metaphors. Through this process, the Book of Changes eventually became what its commentators assumed it always was–a noble and humane work of profound wisdom. Thus the Book of Changes is truly a work where the glosses are more important than the original understanding of the text. Over the centuries it has been customary to ascribe immeasurable and unfathomable discernment to the original text, and to regard subsequent commentaries as obscuring its insights. But the book has been made great by what later readers have made of it rather than by what it was originally
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