Meditation & Divination: A review of The Taoist I Ching

This is the first of five periodic articles reviewing some of “the best books on Taoist I-Chingmediation.” The I Ching might seem an odd choice for a book on meditation but this is an uncommon I Ching; written by an 18th Century Taoist adept who was learned in Buddhism (and Confucianism), this a book that explains not only how to extend meditation into daily life, but also what qualities of self-cultivation are needed for each and every day. As the book’s translator Thomas Cleary put it, “Liu I-ming’s classic can be read as a guide to comprehensive self-realization while living an ordinary life in the world.

Thomas Cleary is one of the preeminent translators of books on Eastern spirituality, having translated over fifty volumes of Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian and Islamic text. A contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Liu I-ming was a most unusual and remarkable person, attaining his realization through a shapeshifting, yogic lifestyle. As Clearly puts it, “During his life Liu I-ming consciously adopted various roles in the world, including those of a scholar, a merchant, a coolie, a recluse, a builder, and a teacher and writer.

At this point, a brief explanation of the I Ching is called for. This ancient book, arguably the world’s oldest, is comprised of sixty-four six-line hexagrams, with each “hexagram” denoting the qualities of a life event or question. Names such as Biting Through, Work on What has been Spoiled, and Inner Truth are often quite self-illuminating as to the meanings of each hexagram, as are the configurations of the lines, which are either yang (firm) or yin (yielding). “Divination” takes the form of throwing three coins six times (the most common contemporary way of determining the outcome) to build a hexagram. The basic principle of the I Ching is that the phenomenal world has meaning, and everything in the world is a reflection of that meaning at any given time. That we – our ego – cannot control the outcome of the falling coins allows meaning to come through.

What makes The Taoist I Ching singular is that it is written in such a way as to show us the makeup and stages of our “meditative career,” the pitfalls and opportunities that present themselves in ordinary life, the challenges to be overcome. The language of the book uses an assortment of terms or phrases that characterize this inner “alchemy” (as transformation is called in Taoism). By looking at the definitions of these terms we will see how applicable and illuminating this book is.

CaldronBefore we look at these terms we need just a bit more technical explanation of the I Ching. Each hexagram looks, for instance, like this (in the case we’ve illustrated hexagram #50, The Caldron):

Furthermore, each hexagram is comprised of two “trigrams” which consist of eight possible combinations, each denoting an aspect of nature or energy. There is an “inner” trigram, the one below – in this case Wind – and the “outer trigram, the one above – in this case Fire or Illumination.

Now we can go on to look at the book’s terminology. The natural place to begin is with yin and yang, the two primordial polarities from which all the other trigrams and hexagrams arise. Yin is commonly called The Receptive, but in the Taoist I Ching it is translated simply as “yielding.” The yielding quality can be “correct” (enlightened) or “delinquent” (neurotic or unbalanced). Correct yin is yielding, flexible, selfless, receptive, devoted, etc. Delinquent yin is vacillating, weak, co-dependent and irresolute. With some reflection, it is not difficult to spot within ourselves which set of yin qualities we are abiding in at any given time. With the use of The Taoist I Ching we are shown a way to increase the correct and reduce the delinquent (more on this below) aspects of yin.

[By the way, we’ve discussed yin first although usually yang is discussed first since it normally appears as the first hexagram in the book. But research has shown that originally it was probably the other way around, since yin is associated with the feminine principle, which is container, space and womb, these qualities precede what occupies the container, the space, the womb.]

The correct qualities of yang are firm, keen, strong, resolute, unified, etc; the delinquent qualities take these qualities to an extreme: strident, petulant, forcing and violent. Minimal self-reflection shows how close these qualities are to each other (as are the qualities of yin), how easily we become delinquent.

Moving on to the hexagrams, the Taoist I Ching claims that four of the sixty-four hexagram are “eternal” in that they apply to any and all situation. Thus hexagrams one and two – the need to be firm and yielding – apply to all situations of daily life. Carrying on a conversation means to speak (yang) and listen (yin). When these qualities become unevenly distributed the conversation will become unsatisfying and obstructed.

The other two eternal hexagram are numbers twenty-nine and thirty, luck-662036_1920translated in The Taoist I Ching as “mastering pitfalls” and “seeking illumination.” The reason these are called eternal is that there is not a single moment of life that does not, in some way, challenge us. Likewise, all of us seek understanding, resolution and wisdom. (These correspond beautifully to the first and fourth Noble Truths; that there is suffering in all conditioned experience; and that there is a path that leads out of unnecessary suffering.)

We can easily find correlation between yang and yin in one of the classic adages of meditation: “Not too tight and not too loose.” These of course mean the proper balance of the firm – discipline – and yielding – letting go. When we become too tight our meditation and attitude toward it -and to life – become rigid. When we are too loose we wander aimlessly in discursive thought and/or dullness.

In any given situation qualities of yang and yin are needed, and these qualities are often described in the classic Taoist terms of “action” or activity and “inaction” or rest. What is called for depends on the time: Thomas Cleary described the I Ching meaning of time this way:

“Here the “appropriate time” seems to suggest the time for doing or accomplishing whatever is to be done or accomplished, the time when something become possible or necessary due to a suitable configuration of conditions.”

The purpose of divination is to reveal the nature of the time and show us the best way to proceed. Here are examples of ordinary situations that Liu I-ming cites as ways to increase correct yang (the notion of alchemy or tantra is always at play in this translation, showing how ordinary life can be transmuted into “gold” or wisdom):

“It may happen that while you are reading books or reciting poetry, personal desires suddenly vanish and a unified awareness is alone present – this is one aspect of the arising of yang.

Also, sometimes when friends gather and talk, they reach a communion of the inner mind, and suddenly yang energy soars up and the true potential bursts forth – this is also one way in which yang arises.

Furthermore, even when playing music, playing games, writing, drawing, fishing, cutting wood, ploughing field, reading books, if you can harmonize spontaneously… there will be serenity and contentment – this is in each case a form of arising of yang.”

A final set of phrases we could look at are “acquired conditioning” and “celestial nature”; the first pertains to our innate basic goodness, our primordial nature, the mind of Tao. The second refers to or habitual patterns; when we are lost in discursive thought and delinquency arises. The Taoist I Ching cautions us that conditioning is much stronger than our celestial nature, not because this is fundamentally so, but because we have become so used to it. the book is filled with examples of the celestial and the conditioned. Here is one from hexagram #7, The Army:

“When people have not yet lost the primordial, this is pure natural reality. It is like when the nation is at peace – even if there are intelligent knights and good generals, there is no need for them. Then when people get mixed up in acquired conditioning, their senses trouble them and their emotions run wild.”

NourishmentIn closing, we should use a specific example. For this, I turned to divination and asked, Please show me a hexagram that would be a suitable illustration for this article. I received #27, Nourishment. The text explains the essence of the hexagram:

“Above is mountain, still, and below is thunder, active (the trigram mountain indicates stillness, the trigram thunder, movement). Action does not depart from stillness; stillness nurtures action.”

In terms of meditation this might mean having a firm seat and nurturing stillness while at the same time accommodating thoughts, including when our mind runs wild. It could also simply be a reminder to practice since movement is “within” (the lower hexagram) while stillness is “without” (the upper hexagram). So often when we are excessively discursive and emotional is the time when we should sit but we don’t.

Finally, I should add that the literature of this text is of the highest order, and beauty, due in part to the superb translation. The spiritual logic of Taoism is elegantly revealed, and is often quite moving, showing the innate goodness of human beings, how our celestial nature manifests. This is from hexagram #13, Sameness with People:

DSC_1629“To mix with the ordinary world, concealing one’s own light, requires great impartiality and impersonality. This is a matter of being selfless. If there is no self, there are no others. When there is no self or others, the sense of others and self leaves; when the sense of others and self leaves, then others are oneself and oneself is identified with others. This is like the sky’s covering everything, like the sun’s shining everywhere.”

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

What is the Bardo? Part I

The Tibetan word bardo has begun to enter common usage in the West. Bardo means “gap,” “in between” or “intermediate state.” In Buddhism, bardo generally refers to the time following death and preceding rebirth, a time of disembodied passage and vivid encounter with both one’s enlightened nature and one’s karmic accumulations and psychological projections, some blissful, others disturbing if not terrifying.

Buddhist practitioners often use the term bardo to describe any period of groundlessness and potential confusion: an illness, a relationship breakup, a lost job, even single moments of unsettledness, anxiety or depression. These usages are actually quite apt, since the bardo after death is not considered fundamentally different that these bardos of waking, human experience. In fact, as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and many other teachers have pointed out, it is precisely through awareness and training in unconditionally opening ourselves to these uncomfortable moments that we prepare ourselves for the more demanding journey of bardo after death.

So pervasive is the experience of bardo – the in between state – that every second of our life can be considered a bardo, a moment of nowness sandwiched between the past and future. This state of existence is what is meant when Buddhist teachers speak of the world as dreamlike, merely apparent, without the solidity we impute upon it. That the world is only apparent is a phenomenology found not only in Buddhism but also Sufi teachings (and other systems of spiritual wisdom). The great 12th Century Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi wrote about “existence” this way:

“For the world’s existence is the instance of its nonexistence. Thus the Manifest imposes manifestation upon the first hiddenness, and the world is produced. Next the Hidden imposes hiddenness upon the first manifestation, and the world vanishes. Then the authority returns to the Manifest – and so forth, ad infinitum. This is what is called “renewed creation”. The imaginary prolongation which seems to result from this flowing of similitudes is Time and motion is its measure.” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power)

DSC_2660Historically, there are a number of different bardos; the bardo of our human life, from birth until the dying process begins is called the kyenay bardo. Contrasting to this is the chikhai bardo or the process of dying itself, the generally uncharted “undiscovered country.” In Tibetan Buddhism, as in all systems of Buddhism, the process of death is seen as a dissolving of the elements—not to be taken literally—beginning with the gross and ending with the most subtle: the body loses the earth element and becomes weak and immobile; it loses the water element and circulation becomes labored; it loses the fire element and begins to become cold; finally it loses the air element when one takes one’s last breath.

In all but the most advanced practitioners, the most awake individuals, death comes as a shock, something confusing, bewildering, overwhelming. Not only that, but as Trungpa Rinpoche once told some of his students, “Death is not a big deal… except it is so painful.” Physical pain mixes with the psychological pain of realizing everything we’ve known is about to be irretrievably gone. A significant part of Buddhist practice is to invite awareness of the reality of death; the major vehicles for this are the “four reminders,” including the reminder of the reality of death:

“When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.”

A little know aspect of the Vajrayana phenomenology of death is the existence of the “bardo body.” In fact, according to this view, we have three bodies: the gross physical body composed of the elements discussed above, the subtle body consisting of prana or life force and the nadis or channels that the life force runs along (and are the basis of esoteric healing systems such an acupuncture and qigong), and the bardo body. When we die, the first two bodies die; the first during the “outer dissolution” and the second during the “inner” one. The bardo body, however… does not die! As Lama Yeshe says:

“Understanding the subtle body and the very DSC_1710subtle body helps us to recognize that we have other bodies within us in addition to our physical body – so we don’t have to worry too much when our gross body is degenerating or being uncooperative.” (Preparing to Die, by Andrew Holecek, Snow Lion, pg. 69.)

This advice makes it sound easy, but from a Buddhist perspective it is unlikely that we can take comfort in our more subtle bodies unless we have encountered awareness of them in waking life though the practice of meditation.

Resuming our discussion of the dying process, as the elements dissolve, “Our consciousness starts to withdraw, becoming increasingly fuzzy and unclear,” as Traleg Rinpoche puts it, “until we are eventually rendered unconscious. We black out” (Karma, Shambhala Publications pg. 66). But this black out is only temporary, for in the next moment we enter, from the point of view of enlightenment, the most important bardo of all, the chonyi bardo. This is the moment of the famous “clear light” or the “light of consciousness” of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The clear light is the pure emptiness, without content of location but still luminous, knowing and awake. This is the moment all meditation practitioners practice for, for at the moment one can realize and merge with one’s true nature. But again, through meditative practice we can encounter these moments throughout our life, as Ibn ‘Arabi put it, “Every month, every week, every day, every hour, every minute or even – which is the goal – with every breath.”
The phenomenology of Vajrayana Buddhism states that the clear light is usually a brief moment and typically goes unrecognized. At the same time, the light of awareness is considered easy to recognize for those who have trained to recognize it. In any case, the chonyi bardo offers a chance for liberation, but so do the upcoming passages of the sidpa bardo, the journey through one’s psychological progressions that ultimately leads to rebirth.
(The sidpa bardo will be the topic of “What is the Bardo? – Part II.)

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.