THE I CHING AND TAOIST COSMOLOGY
The I Ching is one of the oldest books known to the human race. This book is also referred to as the Book of Change, a manual used for thousands of years for divination and wisdom. The symbolism of the book is very profound by its virtue of representing all the changing phenomena of the universe through an abstract series of symbolic figures. These symbolic images are broken down into two fundamental opposite principles, the yin and the yang. The credibility of the I-ching as a powerful divination device is largely due to the elasticity of the symbols, allowing them the ability to depict complex phenomena in a very precise manner. The symbols are able describe different perceptions on a subjective and phenomenal level which allow them to be utilized as problem solving tools that take into account metaphysical principals.
It is the intention of this paper to demonstrate and explain the significance of Taoist philosophy in the Book of Change. It will be shown that the I-Ching is far from being a mere book on divination, it is more importantly a book on Taoist wisdom using a unique system of philosophy to systematically solve problems.
Since the I-Ching is capable of describing all possible experiences it must be based upon patterns and it must be able to adapt. This leads one to correctly assume that such a system would have to be based upon a profound intuitive cosmology and metaphysics. This is suggested in the Great Appendix when the sages are describing the legend of the origin of the trigrams:
When in early antiquity when Pao Hsi ruled the world, he looked upward and contemplated the images in the heavens; he looked downward and contemplated the patterns on the earth. He contemplated the markings of birds and beasts and the adaptations to the regions. He proceeded directly from himself and indirectly from objects. Then he invented the eight trigrams in order to enter into connection with the virtue of the light of the gods and to regulate the condition of all beings. (Birdwhistell 206)
It is the vastness of scope allowed by the I-Ching in it’s apprehension of the universe that restricts the author to an analysis that can barely scratch the surface of the meaning embodied in the I-Ching. Since the Book of Change speaks of all possible things in all possible times, there cannot be any one time or thing such as this paper, that can describe all of the tenets of it’s symbolism. Therefore the goal of this paper will be to explain the major metaphysical Tenets of the I- Ching and to explain the existing relationship of these concepts in relation to the primary symbols such as the eight trigrams, the nature of the hexagrams, and the symbolic procedures used in divination.
The Book of Change is based upon the T’ai Chi meaning, the Supreme Ultimate. This is a representation of absolute reality, which transcends all manifested and conditioned phenomena of the common world that we normally perceive. Wei Tat describes the Supreme Ultimate in his book, The Exposition of the I-Ching:
This ultimate reality is the one life, the one self existence, the absolute all in all, eternal and infinite, the causeless cause of all things and THAT to which all things eventually return. The phenomenal universe, with all things contained therein, is the objective manifestation of this Absolute Reality. (Tat p.12)
Wei Tat goes to great lengths to describe what many Taoists would say is indescribable and is best left unspoken of all together. Lao Tze would say, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name”. (Mitchell ch.1.) This indicates that the Supreme Ultimate is a representation of a principle, which is incommunicable, and thus beyond mere intellect. This ultimate reality can only be understood through the intuitive faculty and meditation. It is through this approach that a person can really experience this form of reality directly for him or herself. One experience of the Absolute is the two opposite aspects called the Yin and the Yang. (Tat p.12)
These two aspects of the Absolute are always at work in natural phenomena. It is the eternal activity of these two principles through the course of space and time that brings about the continuous changing phenomena in our universe. The opposites, Yin and Yang manifest themselves in many forms such as water and fire, up and down, one and zero, or wet, and dry. The I-Ching contains sayings that make direct reference to these ideas in the ten appendices saying, “The creative rhythm of Yin and Yang constitutes what is called the Tao”. Chou Tun-I in the Ta’I-Chi-T’u Shuo gives an adequate description of this doctrine:
The Supreme Ultimate through creative movement manifests its Yin aspect. This movement, having reached its limit, is followed by Quiescence, and by this Quiescence it manifests it’s yin aspect. When Quiescence has reached its limit, there is a return to movement. Thus movement and Quiescence, in alteration, become each the source of the other. The distinction between yin and yang is determined by the two modes. (i.e., Yin and yang are established.) (Birdwistell 56)
This formula involves two fundamental opposite forces manifesting in all opposites that exist in nature deriving a necessity for their existence by the self sustaining interaction of their polarity. Therefore as soon as one thing is created it’s opposite immediately manifests which interacts in a way which then creates something else which also contains it’s own opposite, ad-infinitum.
The comprehension of this concept is expressed by western thinkers as the law of polarity, stating that the suggestion of one thing immediately brings about its opposite. Ralph Waldo Emmerson points out this relationship in his essay on compensation: “To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature.” (Tat 13)
Another example is the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of 500 B.C. who said, “The path up and down is one and the same.” (Baird 17) This polarity has also been verified by modern science in the analysis of the atom. The atom used to be considered an indivisible substance which modern research has proven to be an aggregate consisting of positive and negative electricity. (Tat 15)
The Book of Change also makes use of the absolute universal law of periodicity that is, the ebb and flow of nature. This principle is an observed fact in daily life through the common occurrence of night and day, life and death, and sleep and waking. This law is referred to in the I-Ching as the law of cycles and the laws of growth and decay. All things must grow and decay, the change of cycles cannot be avoided. The rise and fall of civilizations, people, worlds, and universes is a part of this cycle. The western thinker Herbert Spencer mentions this law in his work, First Principals:
Apparently, the universally coexistent forces of attraction and repulsion which, as we have seen, necessitate rhythm in all minor changes throughout the Universe, also necessitate rhythm in the totality of its changes produce now an immeasurable period during which the attracting forces, predominating, cause universal concentration, and then an immeasurable period, during which the repulsive forces, predomination, cause universal diffusion-alternate eras of evolution and dissolution. (Tat 16)
The Law of Enantiodromia is another law embodied in the Book of Change, that is the reversion of one pole to its very opposite at an extreme point. This law is also discussed in western philosophy, the word Enantrodromia being a Greek word coined by Heraclitus to signify reversion to the opposite. This means that one pole, whether yin or yang automatically changes into it’s opposite at a certain point just as water begins to expand instead of contracting when its temperature reaches four degrees centigrade, and just as night begins to change into day, and day into night at a certain moment. The series of Hexagrams in the I-Ching show that when the creative principal of yang has reached its peak of strength, the darkness of yin is born within the yang, thus night, which is yin, begins at midday when yang breaks up and begins to change into yin. Yin is seen to reach its peak at midnight giving birth to yang and succeeding towards morning. The principle of Enantrodromia in the I-Ching is explained in the Ten Appendices: “…When the sun has reached meridian height, it begins to decline. When the moon has become full it begins to wane.” (Tat 18) This principle is depicted in a clear symbolic form using the diagram called the T’ai Chi Tu, which is the diagram of the Supreme Ultimate bearing yin and yang. (Tat 18) To see the diagram being mentioned here, simply refer to figure one in the appendix included with this essay.
The yang portion is indicated in the diagram by the white portion, which is born from the center outwards gradually decreasing until it reaches the manifestation of the black yin portion of the diagram. The black portion of yin also grows outward and eventually decreases into yang. The diagram also shows each polarity growing to a maximum point before it decreases and merges into it’s opposite. The two opposites are therefore constantly being reborn from each other in an infinite cycle. (Tat 19)
The I-Ching applies this Law of Enantiodromia to humankind by teaching that an individual may remain identical with oneself throughout the transformation of one’s mortal condition; however, only to a certain limit. When the limit is overstepped the unity would surely collapse. It is the fact that reversion of the opposite will inevitably take place when one goes beyond the limit. Dr. C.G. Jung gives an example of this reversion to one’s opposite in his momentary on the Taoist book of Life called the Secret of the Golden Flower. Jung describes many successful business men attaining their desires “…regardless of death and the devil, then they withdraw from their success soon becoming neurotic, and quarrelsome like an ‘old woman’ confined to their beds.” (Tat 20) This scenario can be characterized in the I-Ching with the Ch’ien hexagram, depicting a dragon that has soared too high. The topmost line being beyond his proper element. (Tat 20)
The Hexagrams of the I-Ching are very useful to any person who wishes to transform themselves into more spiritual and superior people. The hexagrams show the spiritually conscious person the transformation of the universe and themselves accordingly. The sixty four hexagrams show the myriad changes and relationships of the yin and yang principal in the persons life, giving the person counsel on how to act, that is how to interact with the current flow of yin and yang energy in a way that will be the most beneficial for the individual. (Metzner 12)
One may ask how the Book of Change may embody these metaphysical concepts, and where in the I-Ching these concepts can be seen in action. The best place to begin with these questions would be with the name itself. The I-Ching as it is called today is usually known as the Chou I. The name Chou I refers to the Book of Change when it was studied in the Chou dynasty. Chou means universality, thus the book deals with ultimate reality that is infinite and eternal from which our phenomenal world manifests. The name also signifies that change is eternal and exists in both heavenly and earthly realms. (Tat 21) The Chinese character used to write the word Chou, denotes minuteness because the I-Ching teaches in minute detail the deepest truth of spirit and earth. According to Yang Chien-hsing the character Chou is a component of the phrase ‘Chou Liu’, which signifies universal flow, therefore the I-Ching deals with the flow of universal energy. Another meaning associated with Chou is universal cycle referring to the eternal cycle of changes of a universe with no beginning or end.
The common name ‘I-Ching’, also bears significant meaning connected to the cosmological plan laid out in the hexagrams. The character I, for instance refers to change, mutation, and transformation. The Chinese character I ( ), according to Ma Po-yang, Chia K’ uei, Cheng Hsuan, Yu Fan, and Lu Ping represents the yin and yang as the two sub characters of sun and moon. The character I itself is the union of the Chinese character for sun ( ) over the character representing moon ( ) . This arrangement shows that change is always taking place in the phenomena of human society and nature. The name Ching refers to ‘Classics’, that which is a canonical and unchallengeable authority. Thus we have the name I-Ching, which implies an unchallengeable authority dealing with eternal universal change on the cosmic, social, and natural levels. The meaning of the names referring to the Book of Change illustrates the philosophical principles that have been pointed out so far as the metaphysical foundations of the I-Ching, thus explaining the ultimate nature of the universe in terms of polarity, universality, eternal flux, and the reversion of opposites. (Tat 22)
The I-Ching consists of sixty-four hexagrams with each illustrating different phenomena in consciousness, nature, society, and the entirety of the cosmos. The series of sixty-four hexagrams describes the universal phenomena as an eternal series of changes of two fundamental opposites permeating all things. The hexagrams show that these changes operate in repeating cycles that transform one type of phenomena into its opposite and that all things are in the process of transforming into their opposite. The yin and yang are manifestations of the Supreme Ultimate, being eternal and absolute, perfectly formless taking on the nature of Tao. The hexagrams represent all the major manifestations of the yin and yang principles, hence all possible things. (Metzner 16)
The principle of yin represents receptivity, darkness, clouds, and shadows, while yang represents a light, abounding and giving quality. These two principles can be equated to female and male, negative and positive, or not being and being. These opposites are universal in the sense that they represent all things that have an opposite nature. It is this universal scope, which allows the hexagrams limitless possibility in their meaning. The meanings of the hexagrams simply cannot be exhausted as a result of the corresponding nature of their symbolism. For example the meaning of fire in the I-Ching could be physical fire, anger, energy, unexpected events, creation, hard work, passion, or warfare. These universal meanings can be applied in a never-ending description of events. It is the context of a question or situation that allows the diviner to gain more specific knowledge or advice about a situation. If the question was about two parties that are having a disagreement an imbalance of fire would certainly indicate a strong risk of a brutal conflict, suggesting that too much energy is being generated. This is the way the symbolism works; the hexagrams provide different archetypal symbols that are so universal in scope that they are able to describe any phenomenon in its proper context. The yin and yang principles are the primary underlying metaphysical concepts behind the whole system of the sixty-four hexagrams, playing a vital role in the description and meanings of the hexagrams. This is true by the fact that the hexagrams are really representing particular phases, and changes that are occurring in the periodic cycles of yin and yang as described in the Taoist cosmology. (Metzner 23)
Since a complete exposition of the hexagrams would require an endless series of volumes, it would be best to explain the cosmological function of the hexagrams through their symbolic aggregates known as the eight trigrams. These eight trigrams are put together to form a complete hexagram, thus the hexagrams are formed out of two primary symbols, which are key in understanding their meanings. (Metzner 23)
The eight trigrams are composed of three lines consisting of eight different combinations of broken and unbroken lines in each trigram. The broken lines are the yin, and the solid lines are the yang. In order to produce the eight trigrams the solid and broken lines are first placed one over the other to produce four primary symbols; ,
, ,and . This series of symbols creates a major yan, minor yin, minor yang, and major yin. Each type or yin or yang is close to its minor opposite showing that the peak of yang gives birth to minor yin, which decreases the yang until the peak of darkness, major yin is developed. This is a good illustration of the law of polarity and enantiodromia that was discussed in the beginning of this paper. This also illustrates how each opposite contains its own contradiction within itself. Refer to figure two in the appendix at the end of this paper to see a diagram that depicts how the manifestation of the four major and minor yin and yang are derived from the basic yin and yang lines and transformed into the eight trigrams according to the Supreme Ultimate. (Metzner 24)
Duplicating the first four figures into a set of eight can now produce the eight trigrams. Now having a set of eight double lines, adding a third yang line to the bottom of the first four and a yin line to the bottom of the second four can differentiate them. (Metzner 24) The third line is added in order to create a trinity, which depicts Man as the harmonizing factor of the two opposites called heaven and earth. The idea being that there are “Three Powers”, Spirit, Earth, and Man. Man is the synthesis of Earth and Spirit, thus the result of the interplay of Yin and Yang. (Tat 30) This metaphysical factor is another good example on how the Taoist cosmology is actually an active working influence in the mechanical structure of the I-Ching itself. Now there are eight trigrams, with each being unique in its combination of yin and yang lines. (Metzner 24)
These symbols represent basic forces operating in nature, and when the trigrams are combined to form a hexagram, the two symbols create a narrative situation. The Chen ( ) trigram, representing thunder and the trigram K’an ( ) representing water can combine to form the hexagram Chieh, showing that the thunder has occurred and the water is released from the storm clouds, hence any fear and anxiety will be over and done with. (Tat 48) This is a good example of how universal symbols based on the Taoist philosophy of eternal interchanging opposites operating on a cyclical pattern can be used to describe any kind of phenomena and provide wisdom to deal with such phenomena. (Birdwhistell 62)
The trigrams are placed on a diagram of the Supreme Ultimate to illustrate how the trigrams represent the Taoist concept of the cosmos. The scheme of the trigrams on the Supreme Ultimate can be observed by simply referring to figure one in the appendix at the end of the paper. When looking at the diagram one can see the pure yang symbol for heaven, Ch’ien ( ) is the father of three sons that is, Chen ( ), K’an ( ), and Ken ( ). The symbol for earth K’un ( ) has three daughters, they are, Sun ( ), Li ( ), and Tui ( ).
The white portion of the diagram shows the initial manifestation of the yang principal growing from within outwards, thus illustrating the principal of Enantiodromia. The diagram shows that yang begins to develop as soon as yin is at its peak in the trigram K’un, which is in turn proceeded by Chen, the first son who is mostly yin, yet is the first beginning of yang. As the yin trigrams on the black portion proceed, the yang portion gradually grows into its peak until it reaches Chien the father of the three sons. Chien transforms into the Sun trigram, the first daughter and the beginning of yin within the yang portion of the diagram. When examining the diagram closely one will notice that each first son and daughter exists in its opposite and some of the genders of each trigram will contradict the yin or yang characteristic of the lines. This is to further illustrate that theTaoist idea of equilibrium and interpenetration of opposites are interwoven in the schema of the I-Ching. One will also notice that there is an expanding and contracting nature in the way that the changes of yin and yang flow in the diagram, thus depicting an expanding and contracting universe, operating on cycles of eternal change following the basis of a polarity, thus involving the reversion of opposites into their own contradictions. (Birdwhistell 62) These laws are embodied in the trigrams and henceforth the hexagrams which illustrate a particular phase of that law expressing itself in natural phenomena. The fact that these universal laws are contained directly in the hexagrams and the potential phenomena is described in a complex and elastic series of symbolism based upon endless correspondences, allows the mechanism of the I-Ching to represent the infinitely complex and changing phenomena of the natural world.
The ritual methods used in Taoist divination involve symbolic acts that represent these cosmic processes that have been discussed so far. A general outline of the divination methods used in consulting the I-Ching will be explained in order to exemplify the philosophy represented in the ritual methods. When consulting the oracle fifty milfoil stalks are used. To begin, one stalk is removed leaving a remainder of 49 stalks. Now the pile of stalks can be divided into two piles of odd and even, thus representing the yang and yin. One stalk is removed from the pile on the right and placed between the little finger and the ring finger of the left hand. This represents the “Three Powers” of Spirit, Earth, and Man. The pile on the left is now held in the left hand and the right hand draws out the stalks four at a time until there is four or fewer left. This corresponds with the movement of the four seasons. The remainder is inserted between the ring and middle finger of the left hand. The various stalks held in the right hand are then placed on the table. The pile on the right is now picked up in the left hand and the whole process is repeated. This should leave a total sum of either nine or five stalks. (Tat103)
Now the remaining stalks in the two piles are then mixed together and again divided. The stalks are manipulated using the same process as before however, the sum of the remaining stalks held between the fingers of the left hand after the second manipulation should be either eight or four. The procedure is now carried out a third time using the remainder of the stalks. Again, the total sum gained from the third manipulation is supposed to be eight or four. The three sums of the manipulations are then added together and their total subtracted from forty-nine. The remainder of the subtraction is then divided by four, thus producing, a six, a seven, an eight, or a nine. If the final number is odd it will produce a yang line and if even it will produce a yin line. Thus it would take another five operations in order to produce a hexagram of six lines. (Tat 105)
The number seven is equivalent to a minor yang line and eight bears a minor yin line. Nine produces a major yang line and six produces a major yin line. All major yin or yang lines must transform into their opposite lines. This part of the operation reinforces the Taoist concept of Enantiadromia, that is that one pole reverts into its opposite. (Tat 104)
The operation of divination also represents the union of opposites in the creation of ‘Man’ by representing the “Three Powers”. The law of polarity is reiterated through the dividing of stalks into two odd and even piles, while the law of periodicity is represented through the constant change of the right and left hand in manipulating the stalks, as well as the alternation from the yin pile, to the yang pile.
After analyzing the structure and the symbolism of the I-Ching, it becomes very evident that the series of trigrams, hexagrams, and the divination techniques all embody a complex and intuitive cosmological and metaphysical system of Taoist thought. The law of polarity, periodicity, and enantiadromia has been illustrated throughout the components of the I-Ching and therefore shows that this is indeed a wonderful book of Taoist wisdom that offers wise counsel and reliable insight into the many events that are faced throughout one’s existence.
Tat Wei, “The Metaphysical Tenets of the I-Ching”. “The I-Ching and Divination”.
An Exposition of the I-Ching or Book of Changes. Academia China Academy. Revised Edition. Dai Nippon Printing Co. Hong Kong: 1977. Pgs. 5-114
Tzu Lao, Chapter 1, Tao Te Ching. New English version, with forward and notes by
Stephen Mitchell, Harper and Row Publishers. New York: 1973
Metzner, Ralph, “I-Ching: Change the Evolutionary Constant”. Maps of Consciousness.
Collier Books, New York: 1971, Pgs. 14-20
Baird Forest, “Three Solitary Figures”. Ancient Philosophy. Prentice Hall. Upper
Saddle River, New Jersey: 2000, Pg. 17
Birdwhistell Anne, “Theoretical Structure of Reality”. “Concepts of Change: A focus on
Cosmology”. “Concepts of Change: Human Beings and the Universe”. Transition to Neo-Confucianism Shao Yung on Knowledge and symbols of Reality. Stanford University Press. Stanford California: 1989 Pgs. 110-304