I Ching Theory

How does the I Ching work, anyway?

Nobody knows. In his famous foreword to the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching, one of the first authoritative translations to appear in the English language, noted Swiss clinical psychiatrist and theorist C. G. Jung wrote, “The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps.”* Nevertheless, in the same essay, he did state that its operation was based on “the synchronistic connective principle,” his principle that the coincidence of meaningfully but not causally related inner and outer events (which, in the case of I Ching consultation, would be the question and the response) meant “something more than mere chance.”

*The I Ching, or Book of Changes. (1950/1967). (R. Wilhelm & C.F. Baynes, trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

quote-800x jungThe Chinese, however, have given this considerable thought. Most branches of Chinese philosophy begin with the assumption of an invisible, spiritual realm (“Heaven”) from which Earth and Man originated, and where the yin and yang forces are eternally at play. While the Chinese did not populate this realm with gods and goddesses as extensively as most of the world’s other spiritual traditions have done, they believed that people, with proper study, could understand and align themselves with certain characteristics of Heaven. To “know Heaven” was considered the highest wisdom. It also had practical value, for those who comprehend the laws of Heaven can understand life on Earth because this life unfolds according to those laws.

The I Ching, the Chinese believe, faithfully represents in microcosmic form the organization and functioning of their three-part cosmos of Heaven, Earth, and Man. It is thus considered a working model of reality that can illustrate the workings of Heaven and show their relationship to events in our visible world. The Ten Wings commentaries describe how the I Ching operates within and between these realms. Here is a representative passage:

In [the I Ching] are included the forms and the scope of everything in the heavens and on earth, so that nothing escapes it. In it all things everywhere are completed, so that nothing is missing. Therefore by means of it we can penetrate the tao of day and night, and so understand it…

—The I Ching, or Book of Changes. (1950/1967). (R. Wilhelm & C.F. Baynes, trans.).
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


The seeds of all events reside in Heaven. So, to be in relationship with Heaven means to be able to apprehend the seeds of the future, the nature of the next movement that’s “on deck,” and to respond appropriately, that is, in a way that will lend as much harmony and virtue as possible to the situation. In the view of the I Ching, there is always a stance preferred by Heaven that is more in alignment with the prevailing forces, and the “superior man” (i.e., a wise person that is frequently mentioned in the I Ching) adopts such a stance.

Therefore, if we approach the I Ching with sincere respect, it can advise us on the right stance to take at this time, on this concern. In this way, we can come to “know Heaven.”

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