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The I Ching

Wisdom in soothsayer's clothing
The I Ching: called by some the worlds first hypertext document, called by misinformed others a superstitious oracle, the I Ching is more than anything else a book of profound wisdom about Man's place in the cosmos. Jung was partly inspired to his theory of synchronicity by his studies of the I Ching, and it continues to be a source of puzzlement and advice. I will try to give you an introduction to a book that has spanned the Iron Age to the Age of Computers and still fascinates: the I Ching.

The I Ching as Oracle

 Methods of divination are as old as Mankind. The purpose of divination is often considered to be foretelling the future, but while simple superstitious fortunetelling may aim at that, the true nature of divination is not that superficial. The purpose of serious divination is spiritual advancement. The I Ching gives advice on the underlying spiritual influences of a given situation and on the best attitudes and actions to take towards that situation to bring about the morally most favorable outcome.

While those of a scientific bent may say that the I Ching is so vague as to lend itself to any situation, the fact is that most people who actually make use of it find that it's advice is remarkably reliable and precise. How do we account for this fact?

The great psychologist Jung, a disciple of Freud, believed that the random fall of the coins or the random shuffling of the yarrow (two methods for acquiring a reading), as random acts of a particular time and place, actually partook of some part of the nature of that situation. He described this as part of his general ideas on synchronicity: that all the seemingly random goings on of a particular place and time are connected. 

While Jung's theory has tended to capture the popular imagination, it is not the only or possibly even the best explanation for the amazing relevance of the I Ching's councils. In recent years, a controversial scientist has come up with a general theory that explains not only this, but many other paranormal phenomena. Here briefly, we will explore the possible connections between the phenomena of the I Ching and the morphic fields of Rupert Sheldrake.

Rupert Sheldrake

"These are not books,
lumps of lifeless paper,
but minds alive on the shelves."
-Gilbert Highet

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and a biochemist that noticed that his peers in the scientific establishment weren't paying much notice to ideas widely held by laypeople about the behaviour of animals and people. Rather than assume that the non-scientists were wrong, he decided to test them. There followed a series of experiments on the "psychic" powers of people and animals. One in particular, the maze experiment, indicated that rats would learn a maze faster if other rats had learned the maze first. This and other experiments led him to the theory of morphic fields.

Where is information?

It may help in understanding Sheldrake's theory if we do a thought experiment.
Lets say you print out a document, some information on your printer. Is the information which you are accessing on the sheet of paper? No, of course not, the only thing on the sheet of paper is tiny blobs of dried ink. You see the medium by which the information is accessed. 

Tear up the printout and burn it, and you have not destroyed the information if it is still on your computer. Erase the magnetic fields on your hard drive, and you still have
not destroyed it, you just destroyed a means of accessing it. Grant this one theory, that information does not reside in atoms and chemicals but in information fields, and
suddenly the attitudes of the ancient peoples who created the I Ching makes sense, as does most of the ancient wisdom of mankind. The I Ching is not a book. It is an information field that is accessed through a book.

Granted, if Sheldrakes theories are correct, the information field of the I Ching is not by any means unique. There are innumerable information fields. However, since morphic fields get stronger with use, and since the I Ching has been in constant use by hundreds of millions of people for thousands and thousands of years, it is arguably a very powerful one.

The I Ching as Philosophy

For most people who seriously study the I Ching, it's divinatory powers, while considerable, are almost incidental. It is the I Ching as a book of wisdom that has most captured the minds of scholars for millennia. While I cannot hope to do justice to the wisdom of the I Ching on this small page, a few words of introduction are in order.


While we tend to separate understanding of ourselves from understanding the cosmos, naming one psychology and the other physics, most philosophies through history are not like this. Most, in fact, ascribe to the idea that man is a microcosm of the universe, and that in understanding nature, we can understand ourselves.

While Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching, often considered the foundation text of Taoism, cannot be reliably dated before around the fifth century b.c., Taoism as a general philosophy is much older. Many elements of Taoism appear in the I Ching, which was compiled by King Wen around 1150 b.c. from fragments of even older materials or teachings. Taoism is the perfect representation of this macrocosmic-microcosmic idea, since Tao, meaning way or path, refers not only to the ways of the cosmos but the optimal course for a man to travel through it. This idea, that a man's "tao" was the only reasonable and optimal path through the larger "Tao" of the universe, was incorporated as the rationale of the I Ching. The oracle shows the path from the present to the future that is in accordance with the Tao.


The worldview of Taoism and the I Ching is one of flux. All things tend to change into their opposites, the high fall, the low are raised up. While man tends to resist these changes, in the long run it is like trying to sweep back the sea with a broom. Like a surfer, Taoists seek not to resist the waves of change, but to find the best way to ride them. This path is the "tao" of an individual; the path that may be understood better and followed through the advice of the book of changes.

The Superior Man

"The movement of heaven is
full of power.
Thus the superior man makes himself
strong and untiring."
-Hexagram 1, Ch'ien, The Creative

The superior man is the man who puts aside merely personal preoccupations and acts in accordance with the will of heaven. Just as darkness yields before the light and the green plants of earth yield before the winds of heaven, so too does the superior man yield to the will of divinity. Thus in taking his place in the natural order, both lower instincts and higher aspirations can act their parts in harmony, and the micro- and macro- cosmic come together as one. This is the vision of the I Ching.


"Thus the superior man stirs up
the people,
And strengthens their spirit."
-Hexagram 18, "Work on what has been spoiled."

I have scarcely even scratched the surface of what the I Ching has to offer. Whole libraries have been written on the I Ching. The Confucian classics as well as the philosophy of Taoism have been shaped by the I Ching more than possibly any other single thing. I have not even gone into the mechanics of how the I Ching works and how readings are obtained, or the significance of the six-lined hexagrams and their component parts. The good news is that there is abundant information on the web about the I Ching. Check out some of my links and search for others.

When you decide to get a translation of the I Ching to read and use yourself, I and most I Ching enthusiasts prefer the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, available at most bookstores. If you want an easy introduction to the I Ching, The I Ching Workbook by R.L. Wing is a very accessible adaptation of the I Ching. There are also online versions that will do a reading for you. 

If this is your first introduction to the I Ching, welcome to a source of wisdom that has enlightened scholars and sages for centuries.

An introduction to the structure of the I Ching Hexagrams
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