This is the first of five periodic articles reviewing some of “the best books on mediation.” 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.
Before 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, translated 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.”
In 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:
“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.