The I Ching – On the Nature of the Trigrams (tortoise shells, yarrow sticks, and coins)
Sometimes it seems knowledge and wisdom are in your blood giving you a sense of purpose, just as your consciousness is reflective of all you have ever seen and done. Often equated to one’s eternal chi (your breath) that connects you to the eternal. More on chi on a future entry. Understanding our role is sometimes as if our lives are only a chapter in a book. With our mind or soul having no beginning or end and we find ourselves somewhere in the middle. What will we write this time that will ultimately help to define our final entry? Why worry? If we don’t do it now – maybe next time. If we get too far afield, or are at too great a distance from our beginnings, we can often mistake ignorance for perspective.
In a later entry I want to talk about the mystic, the power of myth, and the reclusive sage and holy man, who lived in the caves that dot the mountains of China. Where they found that it is in the silence that our divinity is most revealed. In Plato’s Platonic dialogues and The Republic, every time Socrates discusses a myth, the parable of the cave emerges that tells us that we have arrived at something we can see as universal. As central to our core being. The challenge for the sage throughout history has been the paradox of remaining hidden from view verses exposed to the vagaries, the unpredictable of the world. Looking to the contentment and peace we all seek, but few of us ever find. Just as in life, there is much to read here. You don’t have to do all at once… only to be pointed in the right direction. Comforted in knowing that you can return as many times as you like.
With our only task to perceive our true identity and to experience what we find as mystical. Perhaps even as Carl Sagan in his book, Intelligent Life in the Universe said, ‘Man is the matter of the universe contemplating itself.’
I would add – why not do so with a similar sense of discovery and yearning from the mountaintop looking beyond what we think we know. With vibrations and ultimately mindfulness reflecting us as a mirror with the stars above? It becomes learning to innately proceed with the discernment that I spoke earlier and about staying above our human frailties that seems to take us there. Finding our niche, exemplified by the ever-prevailing love that is to consume us. In doing so, we become a magnet for divine ideas and wisdom defined only as our highest endeavor. What the earliest shaman always was the first to know and convey to others. Why else could we be here?
It was always the intent of the I Ching to reveal to us how to use these ideas to our best advantage. When we can see our origins in the stars, divine creation becomes us. When this presence that resides within us becomes manifest through our actions, we make universal life-affirming choices for all we do, see, and touch. We become simply an extension of the divine we define as our consciousness as our next step.
Forever looking for contentment that can only be found by looking within and identifying with what takes us there.
After my last entry, one of my readers from Greece, brought to my attention the historic Panagia Soumela Monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary and located in Trabzon on the Black sea that re-opened its doors to the public in May after three years of restoration. Literally carved into the side of a mountain in the Pontic mountain range near the Black Sea, the monastery is not only an important cultural and religious landmark, but also a tourist destination as well because of its natural beauty.
I plan to return to the mountains of China, Tibet and the I Ching, but this was a reminder that our divinity is shared by those who seek the closeness we contribute with all in nature and the divine presence, as if our mutual debt to the cosmos and transcendence – but first…
The great significance of the Sumela Monastery – also referred to as “Panagia Sumala” by Greeks – lies in the seventeen-hundred-year-old icon of the Virgin Mary, which according to the Orthodox Church was the handwork of the Apostle Luke, the Evangelist.
Ultimately, our challenge is taking care of ourselves with compassionate “self-care” that sometimes seems so vague to us and allusive. We do this by spending time with people and images of what takes us there. Thereby creating situations, even maybe remembrances, that propel us to bring out the best from within us and all we encounter.
The pinnacle for myself is Wudang Mountain – as if on the road yet to be traveled. One of the mountains I still have to climb lies in the northwestern part of Hubei, China, just south of Shiyan. It is home to a famous complex of Taoist temples and monasteries and renowned for the practice of tai chi and Taoism as the counterpart to the Shaolin monastery, that is affiliated with Chinese Chan Buddhism.
The Purple Cloud monastery at Wudang Mountain
There seems always in our lives another mountain, another pinnacle to climb that defines us that brings clarity and purpose. In practical terms, the question becomes… what are people looking at or for when they arise above the clouds to associate with deities?
To the right is the Sanhuang Basilica on Songshan Shaoshi Mountain. It was constructed in honor of the three sovereigns Fu Xi(伏羲), Shennong (神農), and the Yellow Emperor (黃帝).
Think of the ancient shaman and storyteller who could connect people to their origins – to the stars and their own divinity – rather seen as connected to one God or many and seeing ourselves in and even as the stars above.
The key has always been every person is tied intrinsically to the constellation (astrological sign) in which they are born so you can see yourself in the stars. By climbing mountains, you could connect much better with Heaven and nature that you are (as one of the ten thousand things) already connected with or to from within. In effect, viewing the world as a complete and complex “organism”.
What the I Ching did/and does is to provide the method for finding a beginning point within ourselves that connects our heart as in prayer or meditation with our essence, our soul, with our mind and the metaphysical world to what forms the basis of mysticism. The shaman was the first mystic. As we too become mystical when we attach ourselves with the light of the world. When I think of Emerson and his essays on Nature, it is easy to see him as transcendental – moving us beyond what we think we know to becoming transcendental ourselves – this is not a New Thought… except maybe for ourselves.
“om mani padme hūṃ”, mani stone carved in Tibetan script outside the Potala Palace in Llasa in the Himalaya Mountains
The Sacred Mountains of China are associated with the supreme God of Heaven and the five main cosmic deities of Chinese traditional religion. The group associated with Buddhism is referred to as the Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and those associated with Taoism are referred to as the Sacred Mountains of Taoism. Although those making the list seems to depend on the author. It is the closeness to the eternal spirit one finds on heights of mountains that people find a spiritual connection. For many, myself included, it becomes finding jewels like the Longman Grottoes near Luoyang carved in a hillside depicting the love of something unseen, but understood.
Books have been written for each of the mountains described here. What is given here is only a snapshot – or picture – describing the spiritual significance of each. All telling a story to show the connection over the centuries to our ultimate beginning, why we are here, and to convey that there is nothing to fear in taking the next step in our eternal journey above the clouds. Even said, there’s too much to talk about in this brief tour. It seems setting the stage transcends going forward and is never-ending… so I’ve decided to go to a third entry (Part 3) discussing the mountains of China and Tibet that will follow. Below are Songshan, Huashan, and the Longman Grottoes, others will follow next time.
Sacred mountains of China – Part 2:
Songshan Mountain – Mount Song is a mountain in central China’s Henan Province, along the southern bank of the Yellow River. It is known as the central mountain of the Five Great Mountains of China. This mountain has so much important history as to the development of both Buddhism and Taoism (tradition says Lao Tzu stayed here – as well as the next mountain HuaShan – sometimes I think every mountain in China seems to have been visited by the spirit of Lao Tzu…).
It is here, south of Luoyang, where Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian ideologies came together. Symbols of this tradition are the Buddhist Shaolin Temple and Songyang Temple that has honored both Taoism and Confucius over the centuries. Another example of how we have climbed mountains to get closer to our divine selves over the centuries as we look both within and outside to become one with the nature around us.
Between the two – Songshan and Huashan Mountains to the south of Luoyang lies the Longman Grottoes I visited in September 2018.
As I looked at the side of the mountain and thought of those who might have carved out of stone these caves and statutes south of Luoyang all those centuries ago, quite possibly after a long trek covering several months or even years to get here over the Silk Road or from the southwest and Chengdu where the tour continues next time.
I can only marvel at their work and their religious veracity. And what was in all likelihood their mantra – repeated over and over again with every strike of the hammer and chisel as they did their life’s work as over one hundred thousand images of the Buddha were carved here. As they repeated those four magic words over and over again with every strike of the hammer.
OM MANI PODME HUM
These words can be translated and have a universal meaning:
OM – The Jewel in the Heart of the LOTUS! The deep resonate OM is all sound and silence throughout time, the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being; when intoned with the prescribed vibrations, it evokes the ALL that is otherwise inexpressible.
The MANI is the “adamantine diamond” of the Void – the primordial, pure and indestructible essence of existence beyond all matter or even antimatter, all change, and all becoming.
PADME – In the lotus (the lotus is a symbol signifying purity due to its ability to emerge unstained from the mud) and spiritual fruition (and thus, awakening) in the world of phenomena, samsara, unfolding with spiritual progress to reveal beneath the leaves of delusion the mani-jewel of nirvana, that lies not apart from daily life but at its heart.
HUM has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted perhaps simply as a rhythmic exhortation, completing the mantra inspiring the chanter as a declaration of being (like the stone carvers here at Longman Grottoes), symbolizing the Buddha’s gesture of touching the earth at a moment of enlightenment.
As if saying all that is or was or will ever be is right here in this moment.
For myself, I am especially attracted to the mythical embodiment of the Buddha, called a Bodhisattva known as Avalokita Ishuara – who is seen as “The Lord that looked down in compassion”. He represents “the divine within” sought by mystics and has been called “The Lord that is seen within”. Maybe this is the answer as to why the Buddha is always seen smiling. Could it be as though reaching the ultimate state of heart and mind within ourselves? Perhaps living within one’s own “true nature”, the Avalokita and the Presence within each of us.
Further to the west of Luoyang is Huashan Mountain and its major peaks, that are capped with ancient temples that have been the site of prayer and sacrifice since at least the period of emperor Qin Shi Huang in 200 B.C. Famous because Lao Tzu was supposed to have resided there for a while. The top of this mountain is amazing. It’s like a plateau with five peaks. I went last year (2018) and spent two nights on top of the mountain to see the sunrise from East Peak, also called Morning Sun Peak. So much more to experience I am anxious to return.
Once called the West Mountain in ancient times it is noted for very steep and narrow trails. West Peak (also called the Lotus Flower Peak), because of the large flower shaped rock which stands in front of Cuiyun Temple; the central Peak (also called the Jade Lady Peak).
Dan at West Peak of Huashan Mountain
Legend has it that the daughter of the King Mu lived here; South Peak (also called the Wild Goose-resting Peak), towers over all other peaks on the mountains and is covered by pines and cypresses; and North Peak (also called the Cloudy Terrace Peak). From a distance, these five peaks look like a lotus flower among the mountains, hence the name of Huashan. Three highlights here for me were the Immortals (Lao Tzu in particular) Pill Furnace made famous from the Monkey King story, the shrine referred to as Heaven’s Gate (to the right), and the Zhenyue Taoist Palace. This historic location between Xian and Luoyang played a substantial role in the popularity of the mountain. There are over seventy caves dedicated to those who came to live in seclusion over the centuries and twenty Taoist Temples here.
Here in the Dazhuan, in the 5th and 6th Wings, it is assumed that they are not written in a vacuum and the earlier Wings especially The Commentary of the Decision, Wings 1 and 2, are already known and understood, and as with the remaining Wings (3 through 10), the materials from which the hexagrams have been constructed are explained.
Continuing the story is the 6th Wing Number 4… 5 through 12 that will follow with later entries describes in greater detail the central meaning of the I Ching as cultivating stillness, our chi, feng shui, and much more.
The Dazhuan 6th Wing Part II Number 4
On the Nature of the Trigrams (tortoise shells, yarrow sticks, and coins)
It is here that we go from narrative to numbers. The numbers are what make the I Ching work. Using tradition would say that you cannot get a reading without tortoise shells, yarrow sticks or coins and the only way to do it is to go through the process. However, common practice today is using three quarters…
In looking where this chapter of the Dazhuan fits with its companion in the book, Cultivating Stillness, this is a good place to cite references to all three divination techniques, tortoise shell, yarrow sticks, and coins.
Cultivating Stillness, written by Eva Wong, will be described in my next entry here so that we can pull together the Taoist concepts and I Ching that are centuries old that guide and help to take us there.
There is not space here in Number 4 of the 6th Wing, nor the intent to focus yet on the numbers. To do so would pull away from the philosophical updating of the Great Treatise. However, some descriptions to understand intent, are needed and references in other entries of the Ten Wings can do this much better. My interest has always been to return to the ways of the shaman. To see things in the light as they might have. It’s hard to image the use of how the I Ching could have been formulated all those eons ago using what we might call “today’s thinking”. They could only look to the stars and nature and how we connected to it all.
We tend to see things with what we know and understand today that may have been “beyond reasoning” of the times all those centuries ago. Wisdom has always been gained by trial and error, the times we live, cause and effect, and how man uses pragmatism to find the middle.
Since ancient times the approach has always been twofold. First, the process of connecting to the spirit world (through our heart), and second understanding man’s relationship with universal law (through our mind). What we know now through quantum physics, is that science tells us what the shaman always knew. Always guided by what we call prayer… as positive thinking and that we can change the direction of our lives as if midstream.
That energy can be two places at the same time, (how yin and yang interact, more importantly alternate, and create change) from within us. That we have one specific task – that we are to connect with and let the divine flow through us as us. Then the ability to predict what steps are to be taken so that a certain understanding occurs as to how to live and to know how to connect with and anticipate the outcome of future events. What could be defined and can be illustrated as an inner structure, image, motivation and essence that defines us.
A brief overview would be that it was the trigrams that provided the path, or way, to do this. From the earliest time of antiquity, it was the lines and how they reflected change and what was obvious if you were paying attention. They could associate change with light and dark. The sun came up and daylight came and at night it went down and it became dark. They then decided light trigrams have three sons, Ch’en, K’an, and Ken, each of which consists of two dark lines and one light line. The dark trigrams are the three daughters, Sun, Li, and Tui each of which consists of two light lines and one dark line. A yang trigram contains more yin lines while a yin trigram contains more yang lines. The difference is that a yang trigram has an odd number of strokes and a yin trigram has an even number of strokes. Why is this? How did the shaman come to this way of thinking of current events? It may sound confusing, but taken a little at a time, once seen as universal you can fit the pieces together and it makes sense. (Much more detail to follow in later entries here on the website).
It was with the tortoise shell when the wisdom of the shaman first came to light to his clan. The tortoise shell oracle is the earliest record of foretelling events and just as importantly why they occur. Also guided by nature and the sense of complimentary opposites – looking to the middle being essential as to why things happen and contradictions that lead to knowable conclusions.
With the tortoise shell the shaman would apply heat to a point on the outer shell and interpret the resulting cracks. Needing a record of the cracks, a written language soon took hold and characters representing certain fixtures found in nature soon appeared. The resulting structure could be seen and understood and an “institutional memory” of events was created and could be followed. Cause and effect were always the greatest precursor that showed the way forward. The resulting road map became what was to become the I Ching.
Later in the Shang dynasty the shell would be cut into strips after heating in the fire and symbols and common inscriptions would be added. The shaman would then interpret the will of heaven and their natural environment. The cracks in the tortoise shell would soon be seen as the intent of heaven itself. I have always wondered if the shaman (the person doing the reading) was giving advise based on institutional memory of the circumstances that would be the best decision for all involved… the cracks in the tortoise shell notwithstanding – simply the cover for doing or saying so. Even on the battlefield, decisions to go forward or retreat were often made by interpreting a reading of the tortoise shell. Readings from yarrow sticks and later coins could be much more definitive and not so open to question.
Divination techniques in early China took thousands of years of trial and error. It was a serious endeavor. Getting positive or negative readings by the diviner could lead to good or bad decisions and the deaths of thousands if the wrong reading of the tortoise shell was given. Later in the Zhou dynasty it was not uncommon for both the tortoise shell and the yarrow stalks to be used in consulting the oracle and a book kept of readings and interpretations for future reference.
When tortoise shells and the tortoise itself became endangered another more plentiful source of divination and calling the oracle was needed to read the intent of the trigrams. It was discovered that the hexagrams may be manipulated through the use of yarrow stalks. The following directions may be found in the Ten Wings. (Remember that this ancient way is over two thousand years old). Through trial and error, the method has been perfected over the centuries. Numbers don’t lie and are more difficult to dispute.
One takes fifty yarrow stalks, of which only forth nine are used. These forty-nine are then divided into two heaps (at random), and then a stalk from the right-hand heap is inserted between the ring finger and the little finger of the left hand. The left heap is counted through by fours, and the remainder (four or less) is inserted between the ring finger and the middle finger. This constitutes one change. Now one is holding in one’s hand either five or nine stalks in all. The two remaining heaps are put together, and the same process is repeated twice. These second and third times, one obtains either four or eight stalks. The five stalks of the first counting and the four of each of the succeeding counting are regarded as a unit having the numerical value three; the nine stalks of the first counting and the eight of the succeeding counting’s have the numerical value two. When three successive produce the sum 3+3+3=9, this makes the old yang, i.e., a firm line that moves. The sum 2+2+2=6 makes old yin, a yielding line that moves. Seven is the young yang, and eight is the young yin; they are not taken into account as individual lines.
Note that only the remainders after counting through fours are kept and laid upon the single stalk that was removed at the start. The piles of four are re-used for each change. The numbers of piles of four is not used in calculation; it’s the remainders that are used. The removing of all the fours is a way of calculating the remainder; those four are then re-used for the next change, so that the total number of stalks in use remains high, to keep all remainders equally probable. In terms of chances out of sixteen, the three-coin method yields 2,2,6,6 instead of 1,3,5,7 for old-yin, old yang, young-yang, young yin respectively. That is,
Traditional Probability Three Coin Probability Yin/Yang Signification Number Symbol
p=1/16 p=2/16 old yin changing into yang 6 __x__
p=/16 p=2/16 old yang yang changing into yin 9 __o__
p=5/16 p=6/16 young yang yang unchanging 7 ____
p=7/16 p=6/16 young yin yin unchanging 8 __ __
It was not uncommon for experienced practitioners to ignore the text, building the oracle from the pictures created by the lines, trigrams, and final hexagram. Each line of a hexagram determined with these methods is either stable (young) or changing (old); thus, there are four possibilities for each line, corresponding to the cycle of change from yin to yang and back again. Once a hexagram is determined, each line has been determined as either changing (old) or unchanging (young). Old yin is seen as more powerful than young yin, and old yang is more powerful than young yang. Any line in a hexagram that is old (changing) adds additional meaning to that hexagram. Taoist philosophy holds that powerful yin will eventually turn to yang (and vice versa), so a new hexagram is formed by transposing each changing yin line with a yang line, and vice versa. Thus, further insight into the process of change is gained by reading the text of this new hexagram and studying it as the result of the current change.
How the coins are tossed… First, use three coins with distinct “heads” or “tails” sides. For each of the six lines of the hexagram, beginning with the first (bottom) line and ending with the sixth (top) line. Then toss all three coins and write down the resulting line. Once six lines have been determined, the hexagram is formed.
How to determine the line from the coin toss… Following the numerical method, you assign the value three to each “heads” result, and two to each “tails” result. Odd numbered totals are represented by a solid line (yang), while even numbered totals are designated by a broken line (yin). Next total all the coin values (they will be six, seven, eight or nine). Finally determine the current line of the hexagram of the hexagram from this number: 6 = old yin, 7 = young yang, 8 = young yin and 9 = old yang.
The above helped to identify both the light and the dark. What is their nature or what defines their power and actions? The light trigrams have one ruler, or prince and two subjects or commoners. They show the way of the Tao, or superior man. The dark trigrams, or yin, have two rulers or princes, and one subject or commoner. This is the Tao, or way, of the inferior man. It was this dichotomy, or difference that over hundreds of years after Confucius, the powers that be used the State, especially in the Later Han to fuse the moral superiority of the Confucian standards into everyday life in China.
Thusly, a “superior man” followed a destiny in keeping with what was good for the “powers that be” and fitting in would be to his benefit. Although for the sage “fitting in” would never be adequate in expressing his direct connection with the universe. He was often at odds with the status quo, finding contentment with what could be as what was best for all and not simply the few.
Taoism and Chuang Tzu’s ideal of the Perfected Man would be molded in the Han dynasty to mean the superior man who followed the Mandate of Heaven, the emperor and the strict moral code of the Confucians. If one did not adhere to this strict moral code then he was in turn an inferior man and could be not in turn follow his “true nature” i.e., the Tao. This meant for the pure of heart retreating to the peace and quiet of mountains would reign instead. To the place where “cultivating stillness and the pill of immortality” could be made secure.
Also, important here was the Imperial Examination System that determined how high one could achieve merit in the Chinese bureaucracy. Chuang Tzu made fun of Confucian thought. He was famous partially for saying this idea of imperial authority… the status quo was not in keeping with the Tao or the wishes of the Perfected Man. Confucianism was the opposite. Ultimately, it would be who wrote the commentaries that would have the final say… or so they thought.
This is the fourth entry (for a total of twelve) of the Sixth Wing of the Dazhuan. The story continues as our journey in cultivating stillness. Knowing and using this induces a spiritual transformation. The lines of the I Ching, the Book of Changes becomes shorthand for transforming change that attracts the lights and energy of Heaven thereby creating a chance, an unspoken trust, to build on who we are meant to become.