Using the I Ching

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese book whose purpose is to aid an individual in making a decision, by estimating the best attitudes to adopt and actions to take in order to fare best given the nature of present personal circumstances, and their potential for improving if one adopted the attitudes and actions recommended.

This essay will briefly describe the Wilhelm-Baynes-Jung edition of the I Ching, which is in English, then why it can be useful to help guide personal action (without mumbo-jumbo), and finally the mechanics of actually using the book.


I Ching: The Book of Changes

The I Ching is a Chinese book of divination, from the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (most likely), whose interpretation was expanded philosophically during the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to describe the dynamic balance of opposites and the inevitability of change in the phenomenal realm. Perhaps the most compelling translation of the I Ching into English appeared in print in 1950. This particular version began as a translation from the ancient Chinese into German by Richard Wilhelm guided by the Chinese scholar Lao Nai-hsüan, and was made during the years of World War I. In about 1927, Wilhelm’s friend the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung asked one of his American students, Cary F. Baynes (the former wife of Jaime de Angulo) who worked as a translator of Jung’s books into English, to translate the Wilhelm edition of the I Ching from German to English. This effort was slowed by the death of Richard Wilhelm in 1930, the death of Cary’s husband Helton Godwin Baynes in 1943, and dislocations resulting from the social turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s. The English translation was completed in 1949, and the book included an extensive forward by C. G. Jung explaining how to use the I Ching for divining the right course of action on a question of serious personal interest to the seeker.

The philosophy of the I Ching is of the organic unity and intrinsic appropriateness of the unforced unresisted phenomenal realm, or Nature, called the Tao; and the dynamic balance of opposites of every type, the ying and yang, whose ceaseless interplay give an illusion of duality, yet which dance is really just an alternation of images of the underlying eternal monism, the Tao.

The purpose of the I Ching is to guide the seeker toward a proper psychological balance for the circumstances of the moment. Such balance is essential when making the significant decisions of a lifetime. The propriety of that balance is defined by a moral code that can be characterized as Confucian combined with Taoist flexibility. The I Ching was already ancient by the time of Confucius (K’ung Fu-tzu, 551-479 BCE) and the coalescing of formalized Taoism (traditionally 6th century BCE, more likely 5th-4th century BCE), which movement identified its founding text as the Tao Te Ching, a masterful collection of poetic logically ambiguous yet conceptually clear aphorisms ascribed to legendary author Lao Tzu. Modern scholarship is uncertain about the historical authenticity of Lao Tzu, and some scholars believe the Tao Te Ching is a collective work by now unknown authors. Regardless, the Tao Te Ching is one of the finest gems of world literature, philosophy and psychology. The Confucian school of thought is one of building up systems of social organization from simple elements and rules. Taoists see society as immersed in the organic whole of a phenomenal existence of infinite fractal complexity, hence impossible to systematize by reductionism. So, the interpretative commentaries that became attached to the I Ching during the Warring States Period were primarily written by Confucians, which infused the I Ching that has come down to us, with sensible and honorable Confucian morality.

For the man or woman of today’s modern Westernized culture, more interested in utility that in airy metaphysical prattle, the I Ching can be used for practical divination by means of intuitive fuzzy logic: a way to reshuffle the imagination to see present circumstances from a fresh perspective, and then to visualize how these circumstances could change into a specifically different situation as a result of adopting a particular attitude or performing a recommended action. The answer is in the question, and both — an illusory duality — come out of you.

The section above was excerpted from a large article on Asian philosophy, see


How To Use The I Ching

The I Ching characterizes an individual’s present circumstances — specific to the question burning in the seeker’s mind — with an image made of six stacked horizontal lines: the hexagram. The lines can be of two types: “strong” (solid) or “weak” (broken), a line with a break (blank space) in the middle. Given these two types of line, it is possible to form 64 different hexagrams.

The hexagram is an image that appears “naturally” and “spontaneously” out of the the same present reality that is expressing you along with the particular quandary that is occupying your mind. Hence, by analyzing that hexagram as a generalized abstraction of your present, you might find a helpful change of perspective that could lead you to adopt new attitudes and take new actions, which would resolve the concern in your mind.

So, that is the essential value of the I Ching: it can surprise you with a shift of perspective that comes out of your own mind as it ponders the dynamics of your own living. No mumbo-jumbo is required, the modern person can use the I Ching without skepticism, as a technique of “spinning the arrow” and “throwing the dice” in your own mind to get a fresh view of your own reality.

How do you determine your hexagram of the moment? In ancient times, hexagrams might be seen to appear accidentally, such as by a bundle of straw falling at your feet and six or more pieces of straw forming a haphazard hexagram; or the cracking of a tortoise shell, from being roasted over a fire, forming the illuminated image of a hexagram. The appearance of these accidental hexagrams would occur while you were deep in thought about some personal question. Later, methods based on randomness for the intentional determination of the moment’s hexagram were developed. I will describe the three-coin method.

Select three coins; I prefer three different types of coin (e.g., US quarter, dime and nickel). Hold them in a closed hand while you think clearly about a specific personal question or decision you want guidance about. Be serious, the exercise is a pointless waste of time otherwise. In ancient times they would have said, poetically, that the “energy” (chi) and “vibrations” (tao) expressing you while you hold this clearly focused question in mind would infuse themselves into the coins warming in you fist, so they would naturally express “you” when forming the hexagram.

Now, shake the coins in your hand, and toss them in front of you (gently so they land close by and don’t fly away). For each coin that lands “heads” assign a value of 3. For each coin that lands “tails” assign a value of 2. Add these three values to determine the numerical value (or strength) of the first line. For example: three heads has the value 9, three tails has the value 6, two heads and one tail yields the value 8, one head and two tails yields 7.

Begin drawing your hexagram, this first line is at the bottom. The line is solid if it has an odd numerical value (7 or 9). The line is broken if it has a even numerical value (6 or 8). It is useful to mark the numerical value next to the line. Repeat this coin-toss process to form the second line, which is drawn above the previous line. Continue until you have a stack of six lines (the sixth line being the top line found with the sixth three-coin toss).

Now you have your hexagram. Consult the book’s interpretation of that hexagram (and the interpretations of each line in the hexagram), and think about how the images presented could be analogies of aspects of your personal situation: THINK!

From the above, you have gained an interpretation of “you now.” What about “the future”? In the conceptions systematized as the I Ching, any solid line with numerical value 9, and any broken line with numerical value 6 were considered so charged that they could spontaneously change into their opposites: solid to broken, and broken to solid. Form a second hexagram from the first, by changing solid lines of value 9 into broken lines, and changing broken lines of value 6 into solid lines, and leaving lines of values 7 or 8 as they were.

This second hexagram represents a future set of personal circumstances that is expected to evolve out of your present, particularly if you follow the recommendations described by the I Ching in its interpretations of each line in the hexagrams as well as the I Ching’s interpretation of the hexagrams as a whole. Again, the personal specifics come out of YOUR THINKING about how the poetic imagery by the I Ching would be analogous to your situation. If you do draw a hexagram that can transform into a second one, then this “change” is the kind of future-casting that the I Ching can provide.

If you treat the I Ching as a technique (something serious) rather than a game (something trivial), you will find it helpful in many instances when you want to clear your mind of confusion, and arrive at useful conclusions. The fundamental point about use of the I Ching is not “how accurate is it?” as if the I Ching were a mysterious external agency or “black box” telling your fortune, but that the I Ching is a random-process moralistic-poetic thought-triggering technique for you to apply to yourself to aid in your own self-analytical thinking.

Try it. If it helps and you like it, then you’ve gained a new tool. If you don’t find it useful, no blame, forget about it and move on.


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