Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Meaning of Taoism


I Ching Hexagrams

Not until the 12th century did the relatively complex system of 64 hexagrams come into being. The ruler Wen Wang, of the Hsi-Chou Dynasty, developed Pa-Kua until it became the sophisticated analytical tool we know today. As we have seen, the hexagram is formed by six lines, either broken or solid.

Surprising as it may seem, the rationale for using six lines for a successful divination, and not some other number, is still with us. In each of the lower and upper trigrams, one line is assigned to heaven, one to the earth, and one to humanity. The six lines are arranged in a stack that is separated into two parts, an upper half and a lower half. This stack forms the basis of the predictive readings given in the I Ching. The basic part of this text is simply 64 explanations, one for each of the hexagrams. When a hexagram is cast, the I Ching is then consulted for insight into its meaning.

Each of the six lines is assigned a special meaning according to its relative position to the others in the stack. A broken line on the bottom of the stack, for example, might indicate some kind of fundamental weakness, whereas a solid line might suggest the opposite. So the I Ching explains the meaning of the hexagram as a whole and also discusses each of the six lines as separate entities. This in-depth analysis makes for a simple but logical system.

Each hexagram within the framework is of equal value. They are all neutral. They cannot be described as being either good or bad in themselves, but they do contain the seeds of either favorable or unfavorable possibilities. It is here that the commentaries in the Ten Wings reveal a wonderful secret. The commentaries show us that each of the hexagrams can be interpreted in two ways, known as the superior and the inferior outlooks. With a superior outlook, the reading will offer clues as to how best to deal with forthcoming situations.

It would be a simple matter to slip into the mistake of believing that one divination was superior to another. In a tarot card reading, for example, it is easy to think that drawing the Death card is a portent of misfortune. After all, the Death card often bears the illustration of a skeleton. But what is important in a hexagram reading, like the Tarot, is not the superficial appearance of the card, or the toss of the coins, but the information that the selection conveys, the interpretation that is rendered, and how the ideas can be applied in life.

So, as explained earlier, all hexagrams are inherently neutral. They indicate conditions in both the inner and outer worlds as they surround the diviner. If these indications are indeed correct, it is theoretically possible to prepare for events, regardless of what they might be, in an appropriate manner. In this way disaster may avoided, and favorable circumstances can be exploited to the maximum.

Casting the Hexagram

In the past, 50 yarrow sticks were used to perform an I Ching divination. These were selected from plants with tall, straight stalks. At that time, plants were believed to have a direct contact with the source of creation. The yarrow (Achillea millefolium), known also as milfoil or tansy, is well-known throughout the world. In ancient China, it was held in high regard as a particularly sacred plant. Its prominence may be the result of its special curative power -- it promotes blood clotting.

Since this method of divination is difficult to use, a modern method was devised that uses a set of three coins. In this system, the head of the coin represents yang and has a value of three. Tails represents yin and has a value of two. The three coins are tossed, and one of four possible combinations will result. When added together, the numbers on all three coins will total either six, seven, eight, or nine.

To cast a hexagram, toss three coins and add the values. Draw the first line according to the chart on the next page and place it at the bottom of the stack. Throw the coins five more times, making six lines in all. This is a hexagram.

To learn more about coin-casting, see the next page.

To learn more about tai chi, see:


More to Explore