Good ends, as I have frequently to point out, can be achieved only by the employment of appropriate means. The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced
– Aldous Huxley
There is a philosophical wisdom implicit in the divinatory text
– Chung-Ying Cheng
A common concern with I Ching readings is getting what you want. You may not know what you want, within a general enquiry, and the same point applies. There is a difference between philosophical advice and finding, realising, or acting in the direction of change. This is simply understood, but the methodology is complex.
Chung-Ying Cheng in The Primary Way describes this using philosophy apparently separate from the I Ching. If he’s correct, the I Ching alone is not enough. The book assumes you know what it means, but what it means is expounded elsewhere. The words advise you consult with a mentor, take small action, use large action, be careful and unobtrusive, be vigorous and bold, do something now or wait for a better time: but you may not have the energy for these things. If you read the I Ching and find it interesting, but not especially helpful, this is for you.
Chung-Ying Cheng describes the I Ching system as the following:
Taiji (the Great Ultimate) Li (principle) Qi (vital force) Functions in Corresponding to Xiang (forms) things, relations, situations shu (numbers), ci (judgments)
This is the context when you consult the book. Beginning with metaphysics, it becomes the situation you want clarified. Taiji (or Tai Chi) is the principle of changing yang and yin seen with the black and white circular symbol. It revolves, black changing to white, white changing to black, and within the black and white sectors you find a small portion of white (yang within yin) and a small portion of black (yin within yang). The Tai Chi martial art is based on this symbol.
The forms (Xiang) numbers (shu) and judgements (ci) are separate parts of the I Ching. Depending which translation you read they may have different names, but are layers of interpretation and meaning. Numbers, not often mentioned, are a hidden system. The five elements have different numbers, seen in two diagrams called the Hetu and Luoshu. The elements correspond to trigrams.
The difference between Li and Qi (ch’i is an alternative spelling) is the critical factor for getting what you want, or arriving where you want to be. In other words why you consult the I Ching, for which formulating the question is important. Some books advise a certain kind of question cannot be asked, and you must ask in a reverential manner, neither of which is correct. You must however be clear about what and why you are asking, because it conditions the answer. If the answer confuses, you may have to reconsider the question.
Li is a Confucian term considered as correct social behaviour. But combined with the I Ching, it doesn’t have connotations of propriety or acceptability. You might live in a bad society, or have an exploitative job, for which dissatisfaction is obvious and resentment natural. Li means principle. The I Ching helps you navigate circumstances according to higher principles, not compliant social principles; although there are references to mores. For hexagram 53 Wilhelm advises:
Progress must be quite gradual, and in order to obtain such progress in public opinion and in the mores of the people, it is necessary for the personality to acquire influence and weight. This comes about through careful and constant work on one’s own moral development.
What he understood by this is not necessarily acceptable today. Wilhelm had a religious background, although that wasn’t an obstacle for learning Chinese philosophy. As an idea, we can accept how public opinion is an influential concern. Morality in some respects is a good notion, but perhaps not others. Kindness and the Indian concept of ahimsa, which means non-violence, are truths which extrapolate widely. Relationships, sexuality and marriage (which Wilhelm also refers to) are a different subject. The Tao of Sex and Love by Jolan Chang is a manual for health and enjoyment not moralism.
For Taoism, Li incorporates yang, yin, change, flexibility, balance, contemplation, and harmony with the Tao. There is a sociological Confucianism we question today where it might involve reverence and hierarchy. But principle, Li, is not confined to such a level. Harmony in society based on the Confucian Ren (virtue, benevolence, or humaneness) ultimately goes deeper. The I Ching hexagrams symbolise this dynamic with six lines of three divisions: heaven above, earth below, centre lines for humanity. We have a lower reality, also higher conscience and compassion.
Li corresponds to I Ching advice. Qi, or ch’i, is the energy for enacting the advice. The two trigram diagrams are called before-heaven and post-heaven. The first is arranged according to polarity, fire opposite water for example, which cannot be reconciled. The second diagram is a more complex process of energy circulation with five element connections. The second diagram is used in Feng Shui, which in some respects is a subsidiary I Ching practice. Certainly you can’t understand Feng Shui without the I Ching. The post-heaven diagram is used as a map for rooms, houses, and buildings.
The philosophical point about Feng Shui is not that you practice the details but recognise firstly that environments have different energies, secondly the energies change. Colours, clutter, space or confinement, decorative objects, plants and so on obviously change the feeling of a room.
Feng Shui illustrates the idea of qi to achieve li. You change the energy, to change the situation. You won’t immediately achieve the job promotion (for example) but you can apply I Ching advice which makes it likely. The I Ching describes change and process, not quick satisfactions; means more than ends. It’s a learning process, not populist self-help. There’s Taoism within it, Confucianism, and three thousand years of correlating symbols with experience.
In Chinese philosophy we are said to inherit energy in the birth process from parents and environment. This is hard to change, called pre-birth qi, as opposed to post-birth qi. The latter is more easily enhanced or healed with medicine, music, exercise, walking in nature; whatever is beneficial. We can understand pre-birth energy as constitution. The I Ching might give you fiery advice with the fire trigram Li (not the same as the Confucian principle Li) which is constitutionally difficult to practice.
We often find solace and affirmation with an I Ching reading. Like talking with a friend we feel recognised and supported on the basis of care and knowledge. They know you, like you, want the best for you, and have insights from a different perspective. But not all I Ching advice is easy, just as all situations are not easy: what matters is the truth of it.
Philosopher Chung-Ying Cheng explains this in relation to I Ching history. Theory is not the same as practice, advice is different from doing it, and the I Ching itself has evolved from divination to a book of philosophy:
The Yijing is rooted in practice and is capable of being developed and indeed has been developed as a work of Li. What is missing in earlier scholars is the recognition that there is indeed a dialectical and dynamical link between the two – practice and principle – in a continuous process of development (The Primary Way)
Concerns about getting what you want are resolved dialectically. The third consideration is how you do it. The I Ching describes moments in relation to past influence and future possibility. It’s a book of symbols as Chung-Ying Cheng explains, snapshot and possibility together:
The formation of these forms presents both an inherent structure of a concrete situation and a potential process of development.
Additionally, there is the factor of time and timing. Ancient Chinese oracles weren’t used in isolation but in conjunction with a calendar. The same applies with the I Ching. It advises you how to act, not necessarily when to do it; because they are two different factors. Speak to this person might be the plan, but that doesn’t mean today or tomorrow.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.