A very early system of symbols is found in the I Ching, considered to be an ancient text even among the Chinese themselves, who boast a very long recorded history. Among other things, the "I," as it is known, is a treatise on the practice of divination, or foretelling the future. When discussing Chinese philosophy it is difficult to avoid turning to the I Ching. In the same way that mythology sparks both the imagination and the intellect, so, too, does the "I."
For this reason, it is one of the most consulted and commented on books ever written. To those who understand it, it is certainly one of the most cherished. Although it presents the concept of an orderly, structured universe, the writings are puzzling because of their extensive reliance on very old images and metaphors. This quality not only indicates its considerable age, but is, perhaps, the source of its greatness, since these writings demand that its readers use both intuition and open-minded thinking. The writings require us to reflect on the meaning of a very basic and ancient set of ideas.
In the context of the book itself, the Chinese word "I" refers to "change." For this reason, the text is known in the English language as The Book of Changes. The word "I" also refers to the notions of "simplicity" and "ease." This suggests a deep connection with the natural world. What could be easier or more simple than a life guided by instinct?
Even though scholars believe this book to be one of the oldest in existence, it is used even today as both a tool to investigate the permutations of life and as an oracle. Research in this century has arrived at a number of conclusions about the I Ching's history, about its uses in the past, and also about its meaning.
One of the most interesting features of the book is that its creation has been something of a community effort. With the passage of centuries, devotees have added extensive commentary. The most famous of all commentators was the sage Confucius, whose writings, together with those of his contemporary Lao Tsu, formed the backbone of subsequent Chinese philosophical thought.
Confucius is believed to have added at least some of the commentaries known as the Ten Wings. These masterworks were written as supplements to the older parts of the book. The older chapters, consolidated with the newer commentaries, form a single, cohesive work that is the basis of The Book of Changes we read today.
The I Ching and Its Symbols
The I Ching and Its Symbols
We have seen how the shape of Pan Ku's shield represents the cosmic egg and how the interplay of the two cosmic forces, the yin and the yang, are represented by the black and the white halves of the Tai Chi symbol. But there are still deeper levels of meaning. The small dots, or seeds of change, which inhabit the yang and the yin portions of the Tai Chi, symbolize the dynamics of growth, development, and change. These are the ideas which preceded and encouraged the first attempts at prediction and divination.
On the next page, you will learn how to use the I Ching and its methods.