SAGE OF SAGES

My hands are scrupulously clean, and so is the table. Before me waits my 1950 original edition of Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching, The Book of Changes, to me an object of reverence. My book is not wrapped in silk, however, as the ancient tex ts prescribe. I have not kow-towed to the volume, and I am using nickels, not yarrow sticks--this is 1994, after all. My coins, though, are sacrosanct to the purpose, kept in a special box.

Still holding in mind my question, I toss once more--again, two heads and a tail. For the second line, seven, a yang line.

Each toss of three coins must yield either two heads and a tail, two tails and a head, all heads, or all tails. Making and decoding throws, I will construct a hexagram that matches one of 64 with which the I Ching, so it is said, describes every basic ty pe of change in the world.

The third throw brings two tails and a head. That's an eight, even and therefore yin. It portends receptivity, a falling energy.

And so it goes. I am "throwing the I Ching," as people have been doing for some 30 centuries, seeking help with urgent questions. Today I have asked, "How should I describe you, I Ching, for Meridians?"

AS ALWAYS WITH the I Ching, I am not sure what to expect. Is this question too trivial, one the I Ching will think I should be able to answer for myself? Has it already described itself to me at some time in the past ? If so, the six-time toss of the coi ns may yield the slap of hexagram number four--Meng, Youthful Folly.

It is not I who seek the young fool;

The young fool seeks me.

At the first oracle I inform him.

If he asks two or three times, it is' importunity.

If he importunes, I give him no information.

The text then relents, a trifle. "Perseverance furthers," it counsels. (Perseverance, in the I Ching, by no means always furthers.) "In the time of youth, folly is not an evil..." begins the commentary.

The I Ching is often like that: forthright, and even eerily precise. Once my 25-year-old daughter, living in New York, asked it how she could improve her social life. "It furthers one," counseled the I Ching, "not to eat dinner at home." Mix and mingle, kid, get out there to mix and mingle.

The advice is often less appealing, however. One time I had met with a public rebuke that left me shaking and nauseated for days. What to make of it? I was half-hoping, half -expecting, to be told I was a noble creature, sorely abused and entitled to a noble wrath. But no-- Hexagram 1, The Creative, said the I Ching. "The Creative works sublime success, furthering through perseverance ...We should rectify our way of life by conjoining it with the universal harmony...The Creative principle operates by Change!" In other words, I should accept the rebuke. It was for me to change, not the group leader.

When I thought it over, this had the dreadful thonk of unpleasant truth. The behavior I'd been rebuked for, viewed in this light, looked more like showing off than helping. So I gritted my teeth and went back, saying nothing, though it was one of the har dest things I've ever done. The I Ching does not always tell you what you want to hear, you see. And my life, from that shift, has been greatly enriched. I literally cannot imagine my life without the wonderful people and things I know because I went bac k to that setting. As to the behavior, I'm still working on it. Thank you, I Ching.

Another time, I was dithering helplessly over whether to sell my house. I'd been living there happily for years, but now saw panhandlers, new amounts of blowing trash, and a steeply rising crime rate. Should I tough it out? I no longer felt safe. Yet...m y garden! My nice kitchen! All the work of moving! "Perseverance brings misfortune," reported the I Ching. (The following excerpt comes word-for-word from the Wilhelm translation, moving line six in the fifth place, Hexagram 7, Shih, The Army): "Game is in the field-- it has left its usual haunts in the forest and is devastating the, fields. This points to an enemy invasion ... Despite the greatest degree of perseverance and bravery, this would lead to misfortune." I sold, in the nick of time. My emotio nal attachments had made me reluctant to believe and act upon a truth I knew, and which the I Ching brought to the fore: My neighborhood was getting too dangerous.

Note, by the way, that "It furthers one not to eat dinner at home" would NOT have answered the question about my house. However the I Ching works, I do not believe it's just that the human mind can link up whatever chance brings.

The fourth throw: two tails and a head--yin.

TO A WESTERN PERSON the first question the l Ching rouses is likely to be, "Why? What's the basis of it? Tossing coins is so arbitrary. This makes no sense."

I can only agree. Yes, it makes no sense, from a view that seeks concrete trains of cause and effect. At the same time--does everything have to make sense? We seldom require to know Why about things that we're sure do work. For instance, it is only in th e last few years that Western medicine has understood precisely how aspirin works, an ignorance that did not prevent us from treating our aches and pains with aspirin. (For that matter, I still don't understand my VCR.)

What I know from experience is that, in use, the I Ching has the feel of a very old tool--its handle worn smooth from the hands of craftspeople before me, its heft and balance just right. You probably have a tool like that, one that's been kept, repaired , and cherished, because it just WORKS. It's your just-right fielder's mitt; your dear old sewing machine; a knife that makes chopping easy. It's that tool you reach for without having to look, the one that you never lend and always oil--you know, the on e that WORKS.

The I Ching is like that. Elements of the ideas and the hexagrams go back about 4,000 years, and some of the texts almost that far. Parts of the commentaries are thought to have been written by Confucius and his students. People have been drawing wisdom from this text for 3,000 years, tinkering and refining so that it speaks ever more closely to the human situation.

In fact, why wouldn't it work? To me, in this case, that's a much better question than why would it work? For many centuries, the best minds of a great civilization have worked on this compendium of wisdom. Why wouldn't it work?

Throw number 5: two tails and a head--yin.

THE ANCIENT CHINESE themselves seem not to have asked either why or why not, probably because they did not conceive of the universe as having a purpose, an end toward which all things should move in some sort of divine plan. Rather, the Chinese universe is circular, one of continual cyclic change--rise and fall, yang and yin, day and night, life and death--in which the only constant is change itself.

In that continuing creation, Chi'en, the Creative force (yang, sky, male) dances with K'un, the Receptive (yin, earth, female), in a dance that gives rise to all the ten thousand things, from butterflies to bamboo, empires to E. coli. And as Chi'en and K 'un eternally dance on, each of the ten thousand things also passes, leaving room for the new to rise.

Hence the centrality to Chinese thought of change, the subject of the I Ching (literally, Ching = book, I = change). The book is about movement, and each hexagram describes one particular way that energy rises and falls. To understand all 64--an amazing thought --would be to master the art of timing, of appropriate response at just the right moment.

For in a world in which all things change, one cannot expect a final solution to any problem. Well-timed response is all-important. Of promising times, says the commentary on Hexagram 19, "we must work with determination and perseverance to make full use of the propitiousness of the time... spring does not last forever." Of a dangerous situation, counsels the same paragraph, "If we meet danger before it becomes reality--before it has even begun to stir--we can master it."

A friend of mine used to say of university politics, "If you have to wrestle a crocodile, wrestle him while he's little." A master of the I Ching, presumably, could expunge the critter's egg.

Consider: There are 64 hexagrams in the I Ching, beginning with #1, Chi'en, The Creative, and #2, K'un, The Receptive. The next to last of the series is #63, Chi Chi, After Completion, which describes a state of order so perfect it can only deteriorate-- perhaps into #64, Wei Chi, Before Completion. There is no hexagram for Completion, of course. How could there be, in a world that always changes?

Numbers 3 through 62 include such typical movements in life as Increase, Decrease, Obstruction, Difficulty at the Beginning, Possession in Great Measure, Work on What Has Been Spoiled, The Marrying Maiden, Providing Nourishment, Waiting, Wooing, The Abys s, and so on. And since each of the 64 can in principle develop into any of the others--as in life--that yields 4,096 possible descriptions of any situation.

That's rich enough for me. So when troubled about something, I set aside an evening and throw the I Ching, and it always shows me a new way to see the situation.

My throw number 6: two tails and a head--yin.

A FEW HINTS FOR using the I Ching:

Any good text can tell you how to read the throw of the coins (or yarrow sticks, if you're curious). But do make sure you get a good text. You'll know because each hexagram will take up several pages, and some of the ideas will seem quite alien, at first blink. That's what you want--an I Ching that will make you really wrestle with your dilemma, in enough detail to jar you into a fresh viewpoint. If the viewpoint you already had was so great, after all, why are you throwing the I Ching? So avoid a text that's been predigested. No doubt the wrestling that produced it was very useful to the author, but it won't be useful to you. To my taste, the Wilhelm translation--available in the Traditional Acupuncture Institute book-store--remains the best.

Formulate your question carefully, in nice, broad terms--none of this yes or no stuff. The I Ching is about wisdom; its reality is complex. I've had good luck with questions like this: "What should be my attitude toward X?" "What should be my highest pri ority during the next three months?" "How can I strengthen my position at work?" "What can I expect to happen if I do Y?" "How can I best help my friend Z at this time?" You can even elaborate: "How can I best help my niece without making my sister feel I'm on her turf ?" Formulating a brief but explicit question requires you to achieve clarity about what is actually bothering you, and for that reason is helpful in itself.

Above all, make sure you don't ask two questions at once: "Should I do X or should I do Y?" With that question, no matter what the I Ching says, you won't know whether it's talking about X or Y.

Do your best to do your throw "right," but don't let doing it "right" stop you. So maybe you'll get mixed up about whether heads are yin or yang. Even so, if you do it with serious intention--to consider the advice, if not necessarily to follow it--someh ow, you'll get answers that help. They may leave you still confused, but they won't leave you where you started.

The "superior man," by the way--being a woman, I always reword it into "superior person" -- is almost always you. If the text says the superior man does this or that, that's not your boss or your dad. That's advice.

Take your time. I usually allow a whole, uninterrupted evening to throw the I Ching. It takes thought. People who get good answers tend to do it alone, or with a single, serious friend.

Don't shop around, doing a throw about this, then that, then the other. Your head will become a whirl of conflicting images--the mental equivalent of eating a box of chocolates in ten minutes. You can't digest the wad, and you haven't experienced the goo dness of any single piece. Just do it. Isolate your real question, do the throw, and ponder.

The images are often rich and wonderful (which is why the jumble tempts, of course). A successful military retreat, for instance, is described somewhere: It's not a wild flight, but a thought-out movement that leaves one in a position to win another day. Hmm. Or take The Well, that invaluable resource: The town can be moved, says the I Ching, but not the Well. Hmm. That implies that all people must come to the Well, doesn't it? If the rope is broken, water may not be obtained, even though it's there. Hm m again. One time, I was advised to imitate the planets, steady in their courses. I was going through a rough patch of my life, and at a practical level that reminded me to eat and sleep on a regular schedule. Prosaic and extremely helpful. As well, the image was inspiring-me as Jupiter, sailing along undeflected by any Earthly storm. Hmm.

But you can see why you wouldn't want to be working with three of these hexagrams at once. Don't be greedy. Take what you get.

Of course, nothing prevents you from just reading the I Ching as a wisdom text, in order to ponder (let us say) the progression of change that centers around a stable source of life-giving power like a Well.

I find it useful to copy out the throw and to write down my own abridgement of the commentary, because that forces me to pay attention to every part of the reading. Also, having a copy helps me come back and think more later. I even have a special notebo ok for the purpose--where do you think the examples in this article come from?

WERE YOU WONDERING

what the I Ching told me to say about itself? Number 19, the image of Approach:

Thus the superior man is inexhaustible

In his will to teach,

And without limits

In his tolerance and protection of the people.

"Oh," said Confucius, "is not the I a wonderful book?"

Elise Hancock is senior editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine and a contributing editor of Meridians.

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By Elise Hancock

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