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The Symbolic Language of the Yijing

YijingWhat is the Yijing? Literally, it means "Classic of Change". The characters on the right show the Chinese: the top character means "change" and the bottom character means "classic work". It is both a profound work of abstract philosophy and a practical manual for personal guidance. Thus, in the very dual nature of its use, it encapsulates the idea of Yin and Yang.

The text of the Yijing seems to originate with the Zhou dynasty around 1100BCE. In fact, sometimes the text is known as the Zhou Yi, the Changes of the Zhou. However, the binary symbols themselves are probably much older; some accounts place their origin with the legendary first emperor Fu Xi around 3000BCE. Regardless of the details of its origin, the book has been used for thousands of years as a guide in times of trouble. It was used as a source of wisdom by the early rulers of the Middle Kingdom, helping them decide the difficult issues of statecraft; and, in today's modern world, the Chinese business community all around the world continue to take its insights with great seriousness.

Binary Symbols

The symbols of Change are essentially the same as the binary code of contemporary Information Technology. Patterns of bits in a computer literally implement Yin and Yang in paths of silicon, where they are realized as Off and On. This is neither an accident nor a co-incidence. Binary encoding is the most fundamental method of representation, nothing is simpler. The insight of the ancient sages was to see this, and create a symbolic language of deep spiritual significance. Given that all significance comes from interpretation of the symbols in the mind, it is the abstract nature of the symbols that allows such a range of creative interpretation in the Yijing.

Yin and yang are fundamental to the Book of Change: these are the two primal forces that act in the universe. We have noted that Yin is receptive, dark and passive; Yang is creative, light and active. In the Yijing Yang is symbolized by a solid line, and Yin by an open, or broken, line. Gua - symbolLines are then grouped together to create composite symbols called gua in Chinese (character on the right). In English a pair of lines is called a bigram and three lines are called a trigram. Bigrams encode the seasonal changes, but do not have a major role in the traditional text. The trigrams symbolize the basic energies at work in the universe, the perceptible patterns of Yin and Yang, the three lines encoded the forms of energy that we experience.

Trigram LatticeThere are eight trigrams, and their arrangement into a cubic lattice structure is shown on the left. This lattice shows the energetic relationships between the different patterns: at the base pure Yin Receptive is the neutral context for all the other energies. This is contrasted with pure Yang at the top of the lattice Creative containing all potential. In between these two extremes are the mixed patterns of Yin and Yang. The basic Yang energies are: Shock Spark, an arousing spark, thunder; Flow Flow, axial rotation, current and eddy, water; and Bound Limit, stillness, an articulated limit, mountain. The basic Yin energies are: Open Cultivate, a buoyant reservoir, valley, a channel; Cohesion Sticking, a clear illumination, adhering, fire; and Root Root, a penetrating softness, wind.

The main symbols of the Yijing are composed of six lines, called hexagrams in English. If the trigrams represent basic energies, then the sixty four hexagrams represent compound situations placing the energy of the individual in an enclosing context. Once we have six dimensions of comparison, the internal dynamics of the hexagrams can be seen in an engaging variety of ways. For example, they can be seen as pairs of trigrams, describing an interaction between the two basic energies represented by the constituent trigrams. A clear instance of this form of interaction is the symbol Binding Greatness - this is known as Great Accumulation: the upper trigram Binding binds and controls the lower trigram Creative. In binding this great creative power, the possibility of accumulating its energy arises.

Practical Appplication

Bu - divineThe practice here is making the symbols real in the mind, and putting them into use through divination, Bu in Chinese (on the right); Bugua, more specifically, to divine using the symbols, to create a symbolic response to a particular circumstance, whether through random generation or through conscious description. The result is a pattern, described initially using three symbols: the Principle symbol, the Quanta of change, and the Resulting symbol. This symbolic response is in terms of abstract patterns that must be interpreted relative to circumstance.

Example ReadingIf, when we experience times of difficulty, we can remain centred and see through to the inner nature of the problem, then we can transform the trial into an opportunity for great accumulation.

This is the description of the expression Limping x Inner Truth = Binding Greatness, shown in graphical terms on the right. Learning to express this patterns is part of the practice of change. In this case, without a more specific context, this description remains in general terms. More concrete examples are presented in Sample Readings.

The symbols of the Book of Change describe everything in terms of patterns of Yin and Yang. Understanding those patterns can lead us to an appreciation of how we can best live in harmony with the forces that shape life. Working with Change in this was taps into a rich source of wisdom that can help us find our way through the complex world we live in. It is a way of seeing clearly into the present moment. Only from a clear appreciation of the present moment, is it possible to act appropriately. The Yijing offers us a tool to foster such insight.

On the next page, we discuss the physical aspects of the practice, and how they relate to the underlying philosophical development and its symbolic expression.


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