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The I-Ching, Book of Changes, is an ancient book of Chinese origin. Along with the Bible and the Koran, it is one of the most translated and studied books on the planet. The Book of Changes is the epitome of Chinese philosophy, founded on transcendental Taoist understandings and modified by Confucian logic. It is studied for its pragmatic yet esoteric wisdom and consulted as an oracle for its solutions to life's problems. It is a book of 64 readings, each chapter made up of a different 6 line Hexagram. The readings include commentaries and advice on all the different archetypal life experiences a person or group may live through.

The Book’s origin is credited to the legendary emperor and sage Fu Hsi, who lived approximately 5-8000 years ago. It was he who first found and understood a “line symbol system” inscribed on the shell of a mysterious tortoise. Fu Hsi recognized the importance of the 8 Trigram symbols and how they represented Reality on all levels. It is interesting that other ancient cultures in the world also used various types of “line symbol systems” for representing primal and universal values.

The next important date in history was during the Shang dynasty, 1766-1121 BCE. King Wen was imprisoned for a good while and worked hard on understanding the I-Ching and organizing it into a particular framework. His son, the Duke of Chou continued his work by writing commentaries on each of the 384 Lines of the Hexagrams. All of the books published are known as the “King Wen version” of the I-Ching. The other arrangements and understandings of the 64 Hexagrams are apparently lost to history. The King Wen version is all that’s survived, but when studying the I-Ching as a philosophical system, it is important to read it in other chapter patterns according to current traditional systems (See T. Cleary; I-Ching Mandalas).

The last important date in I-Ching history is during the time of Confucius (Kung Fu-tze), 551-479 BCE. He studied the Book of Changes very diligently and wrote a commentary on it. Most of the books published today include his commentary (or possibly his students) as part of the text. As in the general Chinese culture of the past few thousand years, the Confucian ideas have overlaid all aspects of the I-Ching. Many of the concepts in the Book appear to be Confucian, but underneath at a core level are actually Taoist.

The I-Ching is based on the Taoist concept of the Universe. This cosmology starts with the idea that the beginning of all creation, or the Absolute of reality is unknown. This unknown is called the Tao (pronounced “dow”), which in English is translated as “The Way.” This avoids the common idea of a divine being as being the creator, though it doesn’t comment about it, and thus sidesteps the usual theologic battlegrounds. The “Way” is a mystery; it is unspeakable and beyond human thought, it can only be experienced in the present moment.

The Tao is usually represented by this symbol: called the Tai Ji Tu.

The circle contains the basic universal polarity of yin (dark area) and yang (light area) and shows the continual motion of change. The Taoist formula of creation is this: The Tao is also the Wu Ji, or ultimate nothingness/formlessness, symbolized by the empty circle: . The Wu Ji contains within it the Tai Ji, or supreme ultimate: The Tai Ji, being the source of time and space is the source of the two universal forces, yin and yang. As the Tai Ji separates into yin and yang then all of creation is formed from their interaction. Another description of the formula is that the Tao produces the One, the One gives birth to the Two (yin and yang), the Two interact giving birth to the ten thousand things (all reality and phenomena).

The concept of yin and yang is about understanding polarity, dualism and complementarity. In western philosophy as currently practiced, there is only a duality of good and evil. It is absolute and well known. The Chinese concept (and other eastern teachings) state that duality is only one aspect of the polarity of all life. While different cultures have legal and moral codes that stipulate good and bad, on a deeper universal level, the balance of duality is always in flux. The principle of yin and yang is that everything is comprised of both aspects in varying proportions. Nothing is solely a yin or yang thing, it is always some relative combination. Every thing or activity has an opposite polarity, every yin has its yang.

Yin and yang eventually and always change into one another, just as life continually changes around us. This happens in the galactic world, the natural world, the social world and inside our body (as noted and treated by Chinese Medicine). Instead of being defined states, the two forces are complementary and will always find expression. In physics, this is known as: “each action has an equal and opposite reaction.” The goal of life is to balance our inner selves, our way of daily life and relationship to the Tao by balancing the polar forces of yin and yang in all aspects of our being. Through study, meditation, concious movement (Tai Ji Chuan, Qi Gong) and experience with teachers, the inner world becomes simpler and the outer world more calm. The 10,000 thoughts and phenomena go back to their source as the Tao is found in daily awareness.

To the Taoist, true virtue comes from experiencing the Tao in the moment as a balanced being. During those relatively enlightened moments thinking, feeling and action are correct, according to the flow of the Universe and in harmony with it. (Until this becomes real for each individual, there are many legal, moral and religious codes that keep personal behavior in check.)

The I-Ching is based on these basic Taoist principles. It is written from the viewpoint of the Enlightened sage who needs to re-find the Tao flow in their life. The Book uses the yin and yang idea in the form of 2 types of lines. The yang line is solid : , and the yin line is broken: . These lines are doubled to form the 4 Duograms: . The ancient Taoist sages then added another line to the duograms which results in the 8 Trigrams that Fu Hsi found on the tortoise. The final permutation was multiplying the 8 Trigrams together resulting in 64 Hexagrams. [In western mathematical terms this yin-yang system is called a binary system. The inventor of the binary system, Liebnitz, found out about the I-Ching and how it predated him by a few thousand years from a Jesuit priest friend who busy trying to convert the Chinese.]

The Trigrams are symbolic of the 8 primal forces of the universe. The 64 Hexagrams represent all the possible outcomes of these forces interacting with each other. In the I-Ching, the Hexagrams are all the possible themes in how the Tao “moves” and manifests in the larger universe, the human social world and the earthly natural world. The Hexagrams are the underlying matrix of the world of form.

The I-Ching has 64 chapters explaining the Hexagrams and their meanings. Each Hexagram is made up of 6 Lines, so commentaries on each Line are part of the reading. The 64 Hexagrams are the possible situations that might arise from the endless changing of yin and yang. Through this changing, individual Lines may change in value from yin to yang or yang to yin. The Hexagram will then change into another one. In this way there is a ceaseless movement of life from one situation to another. [Why only 64 Hexagrams? Possibly the answer is that the next permutation leads to serious complexity and with the ability of any Hexagram to turn into another, there are plenty of options for finding reality and getting in harmony with the flow of the Tao.]

In the Asian world, all of the greatest minds through history have made a study of the I-Ching. Many key decisions in war, business, love, and any other field that requires deep understanding and strategic thinking, have been made based on guidance from the I-Ching. The basic Taoist concepts are the same for the I-Ching, Chinese medicine, Taoist inner cultivation and meditation techniques, Feng Shui (the art of harmonious placement) and martial arts. When a student in any of these fields desires to get to the deepest level of attainment, they all have to finally study the I-Ching.

In the Western world, the I-Ching has only been known and used for about 100 years. Deep study of it has been hampered by limited texts until recently. Those who use the Book credit many “correct” life changing decisions based on it. It has been a doorway for many students of life into deeper levels of conciousness and awareness.

As the world moves into a faster rate of change and chaos, the Book of Changes only grows in importance for guidance and wisdom. The principles of change never vary, history always repeats itself. The application of wisdom based on the interactions of time and space (yin and yang) can only help to illuminate the way through a world made crazy by conceptual thinking, post modern philosophies, rampant greed and unchecked power. But no matter how difficult the time, there is always a deeper flow of Reality that beckons us to merge with it and find our way with the fewest bumps and greatest harmony.


Confucian philosophy is a large part of the I-Ching. It is laid over the Taoist world view and brought into focus in the commentaries on the Hexagrams. Confucian teaching stress the the importance of "relationships," including social, family, government and spiritual. There are ideal relationships between family members, government officials themselves and with citizens, and between the forces of Heaven, Humanity and Earth. In China the Confucian teachings became a cultural standard until modern era, and even now, still has a hold on most of the Asian world. In the I-Ching, advice is given to the enquirer as if they were in a situation that needed to be put back into the ideal Confucian type of specific relationship.

There is also a strain of Buddhist thought running in the I-Ching, but it is so close to the Taoist that it is not crucial to discriminate it here (see the Buddist I-Ching by T. Cleary). These teachings are more about personal evolution to the highest level of sage accomplishment and service to society. What is most important is that all types of Chinese philosophers and spiritual teachers of the Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist teachings studied and applied the wisdom of the I-Ching in their daily life and public teaching.


In the I-Ching there is one other concept that needs to be mentioned. There is another way of categorizing reality known as the 5 Elemental Phases, or 5 States of Change (Wu Hsing). The 5 EP’s are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water and are considered organized and repeating patterns or cycles. All of the natural world, our body parts and the larger cosmos are divided into specific Phases all sharing the same energy patterns. As yin and yang move throught the cycle of change in the Tai Ji Tu the energy or Qi (also spelled Chi and pronounced Chee) goes through 5 different Phases. The whole cycle is the growth of life from sprouting seed to flowers to new seed returning to the ground; or from the new baby on through to old age and death.

The 5 EP’s are woven into the fabric of the I-Ching and are mixed into the readings. The 5 EP’s are contained within the 8 Trigrams (the Trigram theory is older than the 5 EP) in the following way:

The Elemental Phase (EP) of Water is Kan

the EP. of Fire is Li

the EP. of Earth is Kun and Ken

the EP. of Metal is Chien and Tui

and the EP. of Wood is Chen and Sun .

In a sense, the Trigrams could be considered as “the 8 Elements.” This is most important for Chinese Medical doctors and acupuncturists using the I-Ching in their practice for diagnosing the most difficult patients or for finding the most powerful points.

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I-Ching