The Making of Meaning in the Yijing
Richard Bertschinger writes about his new translation and commentary
The Importance of Faith in the Yijing
I would like to introduce three great themes which I believe lie at the heart of this wonderful book, the Book of Change (I Ching, or Yijing),which I have worked at some forty years. The need for faith, the logic of Yin and Yang, and lastly a certain lightness of touch – which has to be felt to be understood. If you appreciate these three ideas, I think you know the book and all its features.
Most people know the Yi (as I shall call it) probably through the Richard Wilhelm/Baynes translation, from the German of the 1920’s – with its resounding feature of ‘perseverance furthers, supreme success’ which accompanied many of its hexagrams. I would translate the phrase yuanheng lizhen as ‘have devotion, the source of the blessings’ – because, as I have concluded, the heart of faith, an inner drive, or sincerity is the central core (if not the Confucian ideal) expressed in the book. The heart of faith gives us strength in adversity: the ability to persevere and hold on.
How I came across this Book
In 1969, I walked into old Foyles bookshop in London and climbed up those then, very-rickety stairs onto the fifth floor. Turning to the left I approached the shelves which stored the books on Eastern philosophy. Orientalism was not trendy then, as it is now and books on China were consigned to dusty corners and remote attics! There on a ledge before me, above my eye-line, I saw what I wanted and pulled the satisfyingly-heavy tome towards me.
The Confucian scriptures say: the chunzi (superior fellow) can not leave the Way for an instant, if he could leave it, it would not be the Way. And I could not put this book down for an instant! The Yi has exerted a fascination on more than 70 generations. Indeed it is not just a book; it might be called THE book – because it has a genuine right to be called the oldest book in the world. It is perhaps not appreciated that the hexagrams (six-line figures) have a direct and documented history stretching back to scratchings found on tortoise-shells and animal bones, from around 1200 BC. The Yi is a record of the oracle of the Zhou, an agrarian people, who lived along the upper reaches of the Yellow River where it flowed from the foothills of the Tibetan massif onto China’s wide northern plain.
After learning the rudiments of classical Chinese in my twenties, and meeting and working with Gia-fu Feng (Taoist master and translator, 1919-1985), I began to come to an understanding of how an honest translation might be made of this fascinating text. When I was staying at Stillpoint, his meditation lodge in Colorado, in the ‘70’s, Gia-fu came into the kitchen one morning and, walking straight up to me, unceremoniously dumped the whole manuscript into my lap. “See what you can make of these…” he chortled in his broken Chinese-American lingo. The following morning I sat in as Gia-fu spouted forth on the hexagrams to a visiting American Professor. That afternoon I felt I strong urge to get away, and walked up alone into the hills, behind the centre. Alone there I pondered on all I had seen and heard. Next morning, at group meditation, I recounted a dream – “I had retreated in the house, into a dark cellar, and in that cellar was a room, also dark and secret, and in that room, under a rich embroidered cloth, darkly patterned, I found something hidden; as I took off the cloth, a light shone out, bright, shining, an unbelievably bright, revolving light, in many hues, dazzling in its colours….”. “Ahhhh!” said Gia-fu, “The Yijing.” As the Hexagram Waiting (5) states… ‘have faith…..blessed light’.
The idea of Yin and Yang
Second of these three themes is ‘Yin and Yang’, the two reciprocating and inter-transforming forces which are yet not two – as they form the single Tao. The Tao is the Way, the Way of nature and mankind. They are two sides of a single coin. As spring pushes to summer, which reverts to autumn and winter, as night turns to day so Yin and Yang (heat and cold) are intertwined. This ability to take on change, and another’s point of view, is a critical feature of the book. With Yin-yang logic, you can have your cake and eat it! If we step away from the rigidity of Aristotelian logic and embrace the contradictions of every-day, the push-me and pull-you of the natural world with its diverse forces, we can both find our fundamental beliefs and consider another’s. But this demands a certain spiritual maturity. The ancient Chinese talk about the zhen ren, sometimes translated as ‘real person’, or true man’. In the scriptures it says “…ah yes, I have heard tell of the real men, they lifted and raised up the skies and earth, and grasped Yin and Yang in their hands.”[i]
The zhen ren can also mean the adept or realised individual, and it is usually taken to refer to the sages of old. The inescapable conclusion is that they were in touch with the real world of nature, the wild and wide world of conflicting forces – and that it was them who put down the texts of the Yi.
Yin and Yang comprise the Tao, ‘the Tao is one Yin and one Yang’, as the Great Appendix to the Yi states. Night and day, winter and summer. There is one way, and there is another way. Flexibility and change. This is the Yi.
But, if we have faith (as in fundamentalism) without appreciating Yin-yang logic, we risk the loss of our very humanness: a position without boundaries invites a crisis of unprincipled and fierce proportions. It skews Yin and Yang logic, our ‘warts and all’ flawed existence as vulnerable, soft bodies, perched precariously on a spinning ball of rock and water, as it were, through dark space….
This tolerant view has given a certain detachment to the Chinese mind. Their happy blend of scientific naturalism arose because they were using a substance logic – a language, constructed on ideographs, almost tangible; that is, not made of cold and resistant alphabetical symbols, (and hey, when we have only 26 symbols as opposed to nearly 10,000 oriental characters to represent the world, we just cannot do such a good job!). The written language became the unifying force in Chinese civilisation. Their fine arts, water-colour, porcelain, medicine (acupuncture) and silk manufacture show clearly a peculiar sensitivity to things. And it is this lightness of touch which I now want to introduce.
A Lightness of Touch
The ancient Chinese were acutely aware of the tangible – the sensitive, subtle, inter-transformative and complex. And with this sensitivity they build the Yijing. They did not hold the intellect in such esteem as the Greeks.
Having faith gives us the ground. The holism of Yin and Yang gives us perspective. Now lightness of touch allows us to move freely through the book, reading, questioning, doubting, and resolving in our own minds, as we move slowly but surely towards integration and harmony – the problem-solving mechanism which lies at the Yi’s core. This lightness of touch – is a particular quality we need to feel and sense, to appreciate. Anyone who practices Tai-chi, calligraphy or the art of Shiatsu will understand. The Yijing does not overburden us with theory. It only whispers its images, in response to our questions – images such as, ‘the calling crane in the shade’, ‘the tiger, which does not bite the man’, ‘the soaring dragon repents’, ‘the King approaches the mountain’ – the images stand as single haiku, commanding us in the gentlest possible fashion to listen, to ponder, to watch and observe our movements in a complex, ever-changing world. It speaks of sanity at times of conflict, of action to resolve difficulties, and a clear and new thinking, which in our troubled times, in our age – is so necessary. It is the message of finding, creating meaning and dialogue, striving and faith.
The origins of the Oracle
During the early history of the Yi, a question would be inscribed on a tortoise-shell or ox-bone. Then a rod would be heated and held against the bone and, when it cracked, the resulting pattern would be read by the shaman or priest-magician. Of mankind’s ancient river-civilisations only the Chinese remains intact. It is as if we are able to read the inscriptions on Stonehenge – when we interpret the Yijing. When Wilhelm made his ground-breaking translation in the 1920’s, it was not generally appreciated that this knowledge was shamanic in essence. In the Great Appendix we read: ‘our lofty ancestor Fuxi …looking up, saw the signs in the sky, and looking down, saw patterns on the earth. He saw the markings of the birds and beasts, and their suitability of place. Close by, he scrutinised his own body; afar, he scrutinised the world around him. From these observations he began to construct the Eight Trigrams and so came to an understanding of the spirit’s light and its power to classify all things.’ The Eight Trigrams, with their binary combinations of Yin and Yang, represent spiritual illumination in all its guises – and help the shaman to get a handle on a tricky, material world.
Hundreds of years later, the Han creators of the book also revered the ‘lofty sky’ and ‘shallow earth’, and addressed them as Qian (Creative) and Kun (Receptive) – the characters and shapes of the first and second hexagrams. These represent the dynamic forces of father and mother, Yang and Yin, also male and female. They were modern shorthand for the spirits in each. Other names were given to thunder and spring-time energy, running water and fire, the marsh (or low-lying lake), the wind, and mountain – and these extended, until we had 64 hexagrams. At about the time of the unification of China in 221 BCE (or probably a little before, the dates are uncertain) this revision of the text took place. With the recording of writing on bamboo, and invention of paper and the ink-brush, there was an explosion of knowledge. This was China’s classical age, a little later than that of ancient Greece. The Yijing then became one of five great classical records (or Ching/Jing), along with the histories, folk poems, documents and rites.
What emerged out of the Han was a uniquely Chinese idea of the dialogue of Yin and Yang, and reverence for nature. Uniquely it was now re-coded through Yin-yang logic (and later the Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water).
Here is an example of a Confucian-style commentary to the Creative Hexagram (1). In the diagram below the circle identifies a changing line. It stands at the end (top) of the hexagram. The old text reads: ‘Wilful dragon is seen beyond his proper haunts. Repentance.’ The Master comments: – ‘He is wealthy, but not in a proper place; he stands above, without seeing the people; the wise ones lodge under him without helping him. Hence however he moves, he will repent.’ He is referring to the line’s precarious position.
Obviously here the commanding Yang (or dragon) has mounted too high. It has turned its back on the people below (represented by the lines beneath). But the original text states only that there will be repentance; it does not explain why. Now, with Confucius’s commentary we can see the reasons. Arrogance and reaching beyond one’s position brings downfall. This is a simple human truth – and there are many more in this book.
Briefly, these texts were constructed – from old Shamanic records – to transmit the philosophy of the Han diviners. They retained an ancient reverence for the workings of natural forces, tying them to a more exact Yin-yang logic. With the invention of six moving lines and eight trigrams they created a way of handling any complexity.
This single example of the arrogant Yang shows how the Yijing works, through the projection of our feelings onto the lines. This has not always been understood in the West – which leads to an overly skewed and partial ‘western interpretation’. But if we watch the lines’ symbolism, we enter into the depths of the book. An intention, or idea, leads to an image in the mind – symbol, hexagram – which is then expressed in picture form, and can be spoken of, or even recorded. But the idea came first! Truly the author was chipping away at the origins of language. The Yi was created just as humanity took its first steps from an oral (hot) to the written (cold) tradition. The Yi stands as an example of how meaning can be held in human existence! It is testimony to the good will of the ancients.
The Making of Meaning in the Yijing
The famous Taoist scholar Wangbi (226–249 CE ) said that meaning in the Yijing text was paramount. By this he meant – to paraphrase part of his commentary – that text and images, you can forget. It is the intention behind them that is important. The words are there to point to the images, and the images to point to the meaning. The meaning comes directly from the minds of the ancients. Once you get an idea of what they thought, you can forget the imagery. In other words, whatever you see in the book – which reflects our humanity – is there. The Yi is truly a vehicle for channelling the knowledge and intention of all mankind, especially the ancients. But the message the creators of the book wanted to get over is even stranger.
Through us, as individuals, working on and delving into the Yi’s hidden (quite rightly so) ideas, we get used to working our brains, and making associations between ideas, elements, images and shapes – this is where Yin and Yang come in (open/close, hard/soft, warm/hot, above/below, like/dislike, dark/ light). Yin and Yang indicate the translational aspect of knowledge. They are all about dialogue, relationship and communication. If we want to understand this we have a three-fold duty: firstly to read the book and ponder its texts, then to scrutinise the world, and each other, and lastly a duty to speak, articulate and try to understand – but, most crucially, it is not that which we understand that is of importance, it is the act itself, the effort of making meaning. Perhaps it is innate in our ancient simian (monkey) brain that we like manipulating concepts, just as the juxtaposed thumb-game gave the chimp a chance to grasp tools, and manipulate objects. Slowly, as we grasp concepts and shape them into patterns in our minds, these shapes and patterns give meaning to our world. They allow us to touch upon, tame and ride upon our more base, primitive instincts of fight, lust, fear, love and flight and live together peacefully on the planet[ii]. I believe this is the message of the Yijing. It says it all there, in print – there is a bright future, if we can only take care. It is ultimately a Book of Peace. Its aim is only to bring about the touching of heaven and earth, the meeting of Yin and Yang, the divine marriage of the alchemists – so that we all might live in a world without undue stress, the wangdao of the old Chinese, the Age of Great Peace.
Meet the author: Richard Bertschinger has been working on this translation for 30 years. He is also a translator from the classical Chinese of The Golden Needle, (1991), The Secret of Everlasting Life (2011), and Taoist Yoga (forthcoming). He studied Tai-chi, meditation and translation with Gia-fu Feng, American-Chinese Taoist teacher until his death. He has been an acupuncturist for thirty years. He is also a bee-keeper and avid musician, enjoys walking and when not at work, wrestling with his family of four teenage boys. www.myTaoworld.comI Ching, issue 31, oracle, taoism, yin and yang