Understanding Change with I Ching

The recent events in the Middle East remind us once again of one of the Buddha’s most important teachings: everything changes.

Change is constant, ever-present, and it can be dynamic or subtle. As physical organisms we are changing every moment, whether we seek change or not, regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “Change is so pervasive in our lives that it almost defeats description and analysis.”

Yet, the nature of change has been a subject for analysis since the very beginnings of philosophy and science.  Much of Western Philosophy’s notions about change are based on the foundations of thought built by the ancient Greeks: Heraclitus, like the Buddha, said, “All things are in flux,” that everything in the universe is constantly in a state of change. Parmenides, on the other hand, said that change is an illusion. Zeno, following Parmesides’ lead, maintained that change is impossible. Plato was concerned with change versus permanence and tried to reconcile the two. He maintained that underlying change was a continuum of unchanging essences.

One of the earliest Chinese texts was a book devoted to this subject, the I Ching, literally “Classic of Changes.” In this book, change is eternal. John Blofeld, author and translator of books on Eastern philosophy, describes it as “an Immutable Law of Change.” In the foreword to his translation of the I Ching, Blofeld wrote, “Indeed, there is much reason to assume this Law to be eternal, to suppose that universes may take form and dissolve, aeon upon aeon, without deflecting its action any more than the birth and death of mayflies.”

The Chinese philosophers, like the Greeks, surveyed the world around them and sought to understand how and why change occurs. Unlike later Western religious philosophers, though, they did not ascribe change to some supreme being, but rather to what they perceived as the natural and fundamental flow of reality. The philosophy of  the I Ching is guidebook for living in harmony with change, or “to go with the flow.”

The Chinese word I (“Yi”) means change. As Ch’u Chai and Winberg Chai state in their introduction to the 1964 edition of the James Legge translation, change has three meanings: “(1) ease and simplicity, (2) transformation and change, and (3) invariability.” All change and transformation in the universe are seen as the result of movements, particularly the movements or interactions between the two primary forces, Yin and Yang.

Most people think of the I Ching as a method of divination, a kind of fortune telling. Throw the coins or the sticks, look up the trigrams, and see what the future holds for you or find the answer to a perplexing problem. But I Ching is actually a great work of philosophy, and if approached as a system of knowledge, a book of wisdom, it can provide valuable insights into the patterns of change we all experience.

What follows are some selections from the commentaries in the I Ching dealing with the subject of change, taken from A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan:

Chapter Four – Appended remarks

The system of Change is tantamount to Heaven and Earth, and therefore can always handle and adjust the way of Heaven and Earth. Looking up, we observe the pattern of the heavens; looking down, we examine the order of the earth. Thus we know the cause of what is hidden and what is manifest. If we investigate the cycle of things, we shall understand the concepts of life and death.

Essence and material force (ch’i) are combined to become things. The wandering away of spirit (force) becomes change. From this we know that the characteristics and conditions of spiritual beings are similar to those of Heaven and Earth and therefore there is no disagreement between them. The knowledge of spirit embraces all things and its way helps all under heaven, and therefore there is no mistake. It operates freely and does not go off course. It rejoices in Nature (T’ien, Heaven) and understands destiny. Therefore there is no worry. As things are contented in their stations and earnest in practicing kindness, there can be love. It molds and encompasses all transformations of heaven and Earth without mistake, and it stoops to bring things into completion without missing any. It penetrates to knowledge of the course of day and night. Therefore spirit has no spatial restriction and Change has no physical form.

Chapter Five

The successive movement of yin and yang constitutes the Way (Tao).

Changes mean production and reproduction. Heaven means the completion of forms, and earth means to model after them. Divination means to go to the utmost of the natural course of events in order to know the future. Affairs mean to adapt and accommodate accordingly. And that which is unfathomable in the operation of yin and yang is called spirit.

Chapter Ten

Change has neither thought nor action, because it is in the state of absolute quiet and inactivity, and when acted on, it immediately penetrates all things. If it were not the most spirit-like thing in the world, how can it take part in this universal transformation?

The system of Change is that by which the sage reaches the utmost of things and examines their subtle emergence (chi, subtle activating force). Only through depth can the will of all men be penetrated; only through subtle activation can all undertakings in the world be brought to completion; and only through spirit is there speed without hurry and the destination reached without travel . . .

Chapter Twelve

The system of Change is indeed intermingled with the operations of heaven and earth. As heaven and earth take their respective positions, the system of Change is established in their midst. If heaven and earth are obliterated, there would be no means of seeing the system of Change. If the system of Change cannot be seen, then heaven and earth would almost cease to operate.

Therefore what exists before physical form, and is therefore without it, is called Tao, the Way. What exists after physical form, and is therefore with it, is called a concrete thing. That which transforms things and controls them is called change. That which extends their operation is called penetration. To take them and apply them to the people of the world is called the business of life . . .

Appended Remarks – Part 2

Chapter Five

It is said in the Change, “Full of anxious thought you come and go. Only friends will follow you and think of you.” Confucius said, “What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about? In the world, there are many different roads but the destination is the same. There are a hundred deliberations but the result is one. What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about?”

After the sun goes, the moon comes. After the moon goes, the sun comes. The sun and moon push each other in their course and thus light appears. After the winter goes, the summer comes. After the summer goes, the winter comes. The winter and the summer push each other and thus the year is completed. To go means to contract and to come means to expand. Contraction and expansion act on each other.

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