The I Ching, or Yi Jing, is one of the oldest books in the history of religious thought, but it was not until the seventeenth century that it attracted the attention of Western scholars, most notably the German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), the inventor of the binary number system. Only in the twentieth century have mainstream thinkers such as C. G. Jung, the father of modern psychotherapy, regularly consulted the Book of Changes. In the past twenty years, catching the wave of the New Age movement, the I Ching has become the focus of various occult and pseudo-scientific thought systems.
Early History and Structure
Historical events mentioned in the earliest layers of the I Ching depict the period just prior to and following the founding of the Zhou dynasty (1046–249 b.c.e.). First known as the Zhou Yi, its earliest rendition was a series of sixty-four six-line omen texts and prognostications, which most likely originated in the sacred ritual of oracle bone divination—a tradition dating from Neolithic times. When rulers were not confident of their own ability to decide issues of great import (battles, wedding dates, journeys, etc.), they resorted to divination by scapulimancy (reading cracks in heated bones), or by casting lots using the stalks of the yarrow plant. The latter technique generated random numbers that would then correspond to a particular oracle in the Zhou Yi.
As the Zhou dynasty waned and as the power of the nobles began to eclipse that of the king, the use of yarrow stalk divination, originally a royal prerogative, permeated virtually all of literate society. This familiarity led to ever-increasing use of the text for rhetorical rather than religious purposes, and much of the original oracular import was forgotten. It was an age of collapsing social norms, and new schools of thought began to develop to account for the apparent degradation of society. As proponents of these incipient philosophies wrangled in the intellectual centers of the day, ancient texts such as the Zhou Yi were newly scrutinized. The debates eventually resulted in a compendium of ten commentaries, or "Wings," which attempted to picture the Zhou Yi as a coherent system of thought and not merely as a book of divination. The ten commentaries were attached to the sixty-four omen texts, and the book was canonized as the I Ching in 136 b.c.e.
In addition to the textual content of the I Ching, each of the sixty-four omen texts is accompanied by a linear configuration known as a gua, or hexagram. Each hexagram is a matrix of six solid (yang) and/or broken (yin) lines, which are perceived as dynamic, not static, and thus susceptible to change. Ordered change—the reversal of polarity—occurs in the alternation of yin and yang lines across each hexagram, corresponding in nature to the alternation of day and night, summer and winter, etc. Random change is manifested in the chance appearance of a particular hexagram when cast, which corresponds to the fortuitous occurrence of ominous events in nature. Time is a factor of change and is a function of both alternation and progression, just as day and night alternate as the seasons progress. In the stalk-casting ritual, as the hexagram develops from the bottom upward (reflecting organic growth), each line captures a possible development in the world outside the diviner. So the chance appearance of a given line in a given position, which results in a given omen, is equivalent to a real-life transformation or occurrence of a super-natural event. The hexagram omen, as such, is a microcosmic model of a unique moment in the life of the inquirer.
The I Ching in the West
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe witnessed a search by the Figurists for a cosmic correspondence of the many cultures, religions, and sciences of the world under the supremacy of Christianity. At this time the Christian thinker Leibniz was attempting to combat Cartesian materialism by postulating a binary number system that represented creation ex nihilo (0) by God (1). A Jesuit missionary in Beijing discovered a numerical correspondence between the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching and Leibniz's binary system, which prompted Leibniz to claim that the former was an ancient Chinese "prefiguring" of the latter. Jung drew upon this history for his theories, concentrating on, among other things, astrology, magic, alchemy, quantum physics, relativity, ESP experiments, and, of course, the I Ching. In the foregoing account of I Ching structure we can see ample reason why Jung cited it as venerable proof of his synchronicity—the acausal correlation of subjective psychic states with objective events in the material world. The book intrigued Jung because he believed it was based on the inquirer's capacity to find in a specific I Ching omen a corollary to his own inner psychological state. While this may be an appropriate assessment of the modern function of the oracle, the Zhou dynasty kings believed the spirits of their dead ancestors were answering their questions through the medium of I Ching omens. The only way the original process of I Ching divination can coincide with Jung's notion of synchronicity is if the latter is based on a religious psychology, which is the opinion of some modern scholars (Faber 1998).
Something like the Figurist ideal seems to be the driving force behind any number of New Age systems of thought that make liberal use of I Ching structures. Many of these compare the sequence of sixty-four hexagrams to the sixty-four codons of the DNA genetic code, a correlation discussed by Katya Walter in her Tao of Chaos (1994). Most notable of these pseudoscientific systems is Terence and Dennis McKenna's "Timewave" theory, revealed in their book The Invisible Landscape (1975). In this scheme, time is a complex of wave hierarchies composed of physical and psychological energies that combine like hexagram lines. The Timewave will peak in the year 2012, which (coincidentally) is the time of the "Omega Point of Planetary Awakening" predicted by José Arguelles in his book Earth Ascending (1984), and the end year of the Mayan calendar. Arguelles's mix of Mayan myth, DNA sequences, and I Ching hexagrams is called "holonomics." Taking us full circle back to the Figurists is Joe E. McCaffree, a diffusionist who believes that the Chinese and Indian cultures were influenced by the older and superior Hebrew culture. In particular, he believes that the I Ching and the Torah are essentially the same book, and his Bible and I Ching Relationships (1982) is an attempt to prove his theory.
While these thought systems do not as yet constitute religious orders, there is one defunct American group inspired by the I Ching that flourished in the 1970s. Called the Great Brotherhood of God, it was founded by Cecil Frederick Russell (1893–1987), a disciple of the famous occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), and was patterned after Crowley's Argenteum Astrum, the Order of the Silver Star. Crowley himself was an adept of the I Ching, and his writings contain interpretations of the hexagrams. According to one of its initiates, the study and practice of the principles of the I Ching were fundamental components of the Brotherhood. The order taught that the casting of hexagrams was the result of "superconscious Intelligences" communicating through the text of the I Ching. However, one of its leaders, Louis T. Culling (d. 1973), would have agreed with Jung, believing it was the "supraconscious" mind of the inquirer that spoke through the omen texts. His translation and study of the I Ching is called The Pristine Yiking (1989). Partly as a result of its association with Crowley and his adherents, in some Christian circles the I Ching is regarded as inherently occult and therefore heretical. Professor Jung Young Lee wrote his Embracing Change in 1994 to correct this misunderstanding.
Richard J. Smith assisted me in locating some of the sources that were consulted for this article. His forth-coming work will be the definitive analysis of "global" uses of the I Ching, including its contemporary use in the United States.
Faber, M. D. Synchronicity: C. G. Jung, Psychoanalysis,and Religion. 1998.
Girardot, Norman J. "Ritual Combat During the 'Babylonian Era of Sinology.'" The Oracle 2, no. 8 (1999): 8–24.
Smith, Richard J. Fortune-Tellers and Philosophers: Divination in Traditional Chinese Society. 1991.
Wilhelm, Richard, tr. The I Ching; or, Book of Changes. Rendered from Wilhelm's German into English by Cary F. Baynes. Foreword by C. G. Jung. 1961.
Stephen L. Field
The I Ching or Book of Changes has been used as a method of divination for more than 5,000 years, and in spite of its venerable age, modern enthusiasts insist that it is the most sophisticated method of predicting future events ever devised. Querents approach the I Ching with such questions as "What does the future hold for me?" "Should I marry now?" and throw coins. Each coin is assigned a number, so the results of the tosses are totaled to find the corresponding hexagram to learn the answers to the inquiries. The "book" consists of 64 hexagrams, each comprising six broken or unbroken lines. Although the text accompanying the I Ching does not refer to the two primal cosmic principles—the yin and the yang—in essence, the philosophical premise of the I Ching does hold that the broken line and the unbroken line can represent any pair of polar opposites, such as male/female, light/dark, and so forth.
Those who believe in the wisdom of I Ching maintain that within the 64 sections there exist teachings for every possible situation that anyone will encounter throughout his or her life. Within the hexagrams are represented numerous archetypal situations in cater-gories such as "The Rise to Power," "Proper Relationships," "Negativity," and so forth. The hidden meanings of the hexagrams were divined by ancient Chinese sages who were in tune with the philosophy of the Tao, which views human beings as creatures of nature and teaches that instincts, feelings, and imagination should be allowed to have free reign. Taoism is in sharp contrast to Confucianism, which envisions humankind as rational and moral creatures who have responsibilities to their society. The essential philosophy of Taoism is that the natural world and the Tao are one.
Those who rely on the I Ching as their dependable window to the future explain that they find this method of divination to be superior to all others because, as its name implies, it recognizes the difficulty of focusing on events that have not yet occurred and it takes into account the likelihood of changes that may most certainly occur. In fact, the basic premise of I Ching is that every situation in the panorama of human events has within its context an inherent tendency to change. While some may despair and complain that the only thing constant in life is change, those who rely on I Ching agree—but remain confident that changes occur within cycles and that these cycles may be observed, predicted, and acted upon.
Carroll, Robert Todd. "I Ching." In The Skeptic's Dictionary. [Online] http://skepdic.com/iching.html. 9 March 2002.
Dening, Sarah. The Everyday I Ching. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Seabrook, Myles. I Ching for Everyone. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1998.
Wilhelm, Helmut, Richard Helmut, and Irene Eber. Understanding the I Ching. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
I Ching / ˈē ˈching; ˈjing/ • n. an ancient Chinese manual of divination based on eight symbolic trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, interpreted in terms of the principles of yin and yang. It was included as one of the “five classics” of Confucianism. English name Book of Changes.