The I Ching, the ancient Chinese book known in English as the Book of Changes, is one of the great wonders of the world.
The origin of the I Ching, like many ancient documents of various wisdom traditions, is not crystal-clear. Texts such as this evolve over time and don’t have a single personality behind them. Four authors are seen as the main sources: Fu Xi, a chieftain from perhaps 3000 BCE, and then King Wen of the 1000s BCE and his son, the Duke of Zhou, and finally Confucious (551-479 BCE, overlapping with the birth of Socrates). So its development took place over very many generations.
The essence of the I Ching is that heaven and earth are a unity, and this means that the processes of continuous changing ARE what all life IS (hence, the Book of Changes). To recognize within ourselves the natural processes that are so evident in the world outside ourselves, and vice versa–this is the thrust of what is expounded in the I Ching. This teaching is of course in many traditions. A central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, for example, is Oseh shalom bim’romav. . . May the one who makes peace up above (the ordered movements and cycles of the planets, sun, and moon) also make peace here among US. As above, so below, as an ancient saying puts it.
But the way the I Ching explicates this truth is its genius. For one thing, it stays connected to the literalism of natural processes, rather than springing into metaphor. It doesn’t so much talk about a relationship between the human and the other-than-human; it embodies their intertwinedness. The concepts and explanations are neither literal nor metaphorical, but both.
To read the I Ching is to enter a world, and this is why it is so important and such a rich resource for the place the world is in right now in history, because it can give us a taste of real “environmental consciousness.” It can bring us (back) to an experience, a feeling, of more oneness with nature. When I read the I Ching, I feel what we have lost. We have lost a state of mind, of being, in which “caring for the environment” requires no effort of consciousness, any more than caring for our child requires an effort of consciousness. It is simply what’s done; it’s the nature of things. The feeling is similar to sitting in a beautiful spot that you have reached after a demanding hike, in which it feels like no one has ever stepped there before.
With the I Ching, you can still feel how it grew (organically!) out of preindustrial soil, that is, consciousness. An “environmentalist” consciousness, that is to say, a consciousness in which a term like “environmentalism” would have been possible, would not have come about because to conceptualize “environment” is already to feel ourselves as separate from IT. The concept, “water” would not be thought of by the fish because there is no separation for the fish between fish and water. You can still feel a layer of a primordial holism, an Edenic, so to speak, state.
The book is organized in a way that no single point of view on it can suffice as an explanation. You can look from countless perspectives at the symbols and the concepts and the interpretations that flow from them, and you see patterns and meanings from each vantage point. In this, it is again like Jewish tradition, in which it is said about the Torah: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. The implied metaphor of a gem, with facets that refract and reflect light in an infinity of flashes, applies to both textual traditions.
To cite the most fundamental and familiar teaching of the I Ching: the first two symbols (or ideographs, called gua in Chinese) are Heaven and Earth (sound familiar?). These are the primary, or “pure,” yin and yang. “The whole I Ching expounds the principle of yin and yang. Yin and Yang exist in everything. They are opposite but mutually interdependent; without yin, there would be no yang and vice versa. Sun and moon, fire and water, brightness and darkness are the most obvious examples of yin and yang,” writes pre-emininent scholar and translator, Alfred Huang.
This simplest of all dualities is also completely abstract, since it is really duality itself. It is about the most literal dualities–water and fire, say–while also about dualizing, the verb that acts, not just the nouns acted upon, and therefore it is equally about unifying. Hence the yin-yang symbol: the perfect picturing of duality within unity, or rather, unityduality, or even better, uniduity. With our modern knowledge of the living cell, we have perceivable, measurable, scientifically vouched-for evidence, our most favorite thing, of the uniduity of all life: cell division.
From the reality of twoness comes the reality of balance, or rather, twoness IS balance/imbalance. And “life in the balance,” is a fitting phrase often used of the environmental crossroads in which we live. We have battled the environment for a long time. Technology became a battle: we went from making tools with which to manipulate our environment for more convenient use (molding clay into a wheel), to wresting, or wrestling, our environment to our will. And as with any wrestling match, there is a winner and there is a loser, and we have been hell-bent on being the victor.
In contrast to this frame of mind and being, the I Ching could be said to be a book about noncompetitveness–which is not to say it sees no overcoming or being overcome. It is very much about strength and therefore weakness, but in its vision, receiving within cannot be separated healthily from thrusting forward. There is reason the male and the female are right there with heaven and earth as primary duality (though this is not to say it passes judgment on same-sex union!) Constant thrusting forward, which is the way of technological humanity, is not a natural process; it is completely out of balance.
There is a tremendous irony about this Chinese masterpiece of spirituality. The I Ching is an expression of our oneness with all of nature, but right now in history, China’s industrial development poses one of the biggest challenges to the health of nature. For Chinese cultural life to begin rediscovering the teachings of the I Ching, and for the western world to discover its wisdom, would ground and deepen our relationship to the earth/air/fire/water that sustains us and which we must sustain.
It a pity that many people who know at least of the I Ching’s existence (I am amazed by how many people have never even heard of it) associate it with what they call superstition and therefore dismiss it as silly nonsense. This is mostly because it is associated with foretelling the future, divination, and therefore with a Magic 8 Ball kind of amusement. Like all things, it can be read and used insightfully or not. It is heartening that the I Ching is taken seriously in at least some quarters of academia, as evidenced, eg, by a recent book, The I Ching: A Biography, by professor of humanities and history Richard J. Smith, published by Princeton University Press. It is part of Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books Series, which appropriately puts the I Ching in a category with the book of Genesis, the Koran, the Passover Haggadah, the Lotus Sutra, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Augustine’s Confessions, and other masterworks of spiritual traditions. http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/series/lgrb.html
The I Ching is endlessly inspiring and enchanting and the world needs its way of being.