The Circle Time Parade of Changes

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow, they fade
And then they have to die
Trapped within the circle time parade of changes

Phil Ochs, “Changes”

Responding to an April post, “Sameness and Nonsameness“, which dealt with Taoist and Buddhist uses of the I Ching (“Book of Change”), a reader commented that the book is a Confucian text. I agree this is a common understanding, but I don’t think it is a complete understanding. Actually, as Taoist master Alfred Huang notes in his translation*, “Both Confucianism and Taoism originated from the philosophy of the I Ching. They both followed the Tao of Earth, but they diverged.” To me the separation between the two seems rather slight, but that may be a matter of perspective and opinion.

I Ching 02bThe “Book of Change” consists of 64 hexagrams or gua (two trigrams of 3 broken and unbroken lines) and related judgments and commentaries. In the traditional account of I Ching history, King Wen of the Zhou (1152-1056 BCE) developed the hexagrams from eight trigrams created by a legendary folk hero named Fu Xi. However, modern scholarship has tracked back the origins to China’s first recorded history during the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1046 BCE) when divination was accomplished by studying the cracks in animal bones, tortoise shells, metal, and stone heated in a fire. Even in this crude method, we can see the traces of the four oldest pictograms (Yuan, Heng, Li, Chen).

The judgments are thought to have been composed sometime between the 7th to 9th centuries BCE, and while Confucius (551-479 BCE) has been identified as the author of the commentaries, Wing-Tsit Chan (1901-1994), one of the world’s leading scholars of Chinese philosophy, noted that some scholars believe the commentaries are the work “unknown writers three or four centuries later.”**

During the Ch’in (221-206 BCE) and Han (206BCE-220CE) dynasties, the I Ching emerged as a complex philosophical system that sought to clarify the patterns, structures, and forces of existence.

The I Ching was a text used by all three major philosophies in China, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and there was a great deal of cross pollination between these schools of thought. As far as Buddhism is concerned, while the influence of the I Ching was limited, Thomas Cleary writes***, “When Buddhism came into China, it picked up certain key phrases from the Chinese classics to put forth its message in the local idiom.  Among the classics Buddhism drew from was, naturally, the I Ching.  Eleventh-century Ch’an Buddhists used well-known lines referring to effective adaptation, an axial Buddhist theme.”  It’s also important to mention that Buddhism in China was heavily influenced by Taoism.

Within the I Ching there is an understanding of change and a non-dual view of existence generally consistent with Taoism and Buddhism. According to the I Ching, interaction between the two opposite principles, yin and yang, is the primary cause of all change. I or “change” is symbolized by the advance or retreat of the dragon. As in Buddhism, all things are impermanent, subject to change, but change is not one-dimensional, rather it is cyclical. The purpose of consulting the I Ching should not be to divine one’s fate or to engage in a form of entertainment, the aim lies in gaining insight into the ebb and flow of life, with an eye toward creating harmony between the individual and the constant movement of the cycles of change.

In his book, The Inner Structure of the I Ching, Lama Anagarika Govinda calls the text “The Book of Transformation,” for ultimately that is what it is, a tool for transformation, self-development – we might even call it the world’s first self-help book. The I Ching is sometimes referred to as “The Oracle,” but as Lama Govinda tells us,

When we consult the I Ching, we do not renounce our free will, but we seek clarity for our decision. Thus, the I Ching helps us to exert our free will, not to suppress it, as most people think who look for easy solutions and want to avoid responsibility by treating the I Ching as a soothsaying book. The I Ching is not there to predict the future, but to show you the possibilities that lie before you. But you yourself must decide your fate.”

To learn more, I Ching on the Net has a compressive list of related links.

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* The Complete I Ching, Trans. Alfred Huang, Inner Traditions International, 1998, 51

** Wing-Tsit Chan (Ed.), A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, 262

*** Chih-hsu Ou-i, The Buddhist I Ching (Chou i ch’an chieh), Trans. Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1987.