I will be attending a poetry workshop next weekend with the poet Li-Young Lee as part of a free literary conference at the Poetry Center in Paterson, New Jersey. He requested that if attendees have a copy of the I Ching, they bring it along with three pennies. I have a guess at what he intends to do.
I first encountered the I Ching when I was a college student. A friend showed me the “Book of Changes” which is an ancient Chinese divination text. It is the oldest of the Chinese classics, going back more than two and a half millennia. She told me that it could be used to have my questions answered and for guidance. She showed me how to cast sticks (coins are also used) which are then interpreted using the book. I can see that process being used as a poetry prompt.
Though the I Ching is an influential text read throughout the world and it provides inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art, I am sure that most people in the U.S. have not heard of it or used it, and would lump it dismissively in with horoscopes and Tarot cards.
But the I Ching is the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East. Eventually it made its way to the West and it was influential in the Western understanding of Eastern thought.
This post is not meant to be an explanation of how to use the I Ching. There are many websites and books about that, but I’ll give you an overview because the poetry prompt sent me back to my copy and coins.
You may have noticed that I haven’t posted here for a few weeks. As it has before, Life got serious and writing was set aside for me in April and for some of this month. I put that divination prompt together with the issues in my life and did some casting of coins and looking for some answers.
Whether you use sticks or coins (or even an I Ching app on your phone – which just seems wrong), the casting leads you to construct a hexagram – a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines.
I asked my question, cast my six coins and got hexagram 43 (shown here) which is named 夬 (guài) or “displacement.” Giving the hexagrams numbers is a modern adaptation. There are 64 possible hexagrams.
Each hexagram is made up of two trigrams. The trigrams are grouped by 8 categories: earth, heaven, lake, wind, fire, water, thunder and mountain. The top three lines of the hexagram are one trigram, and the bottom three another.
I find that the interpretation of the lines vary quite a bit depending on the edition of the I Ching you consult. The #43 hexagram not only means “displacement” but also means “resoluteness”, “parting”, and “break-through”. Its inner trigram is ☰ (乾 qián) force = (天) heaven, and its outer trigram is ☱ (兌 duì) open = (澤) swamp.
Does that answer my question? No. Then again, I am no expert on this process. And it is all about the interpretation. After all, it is the Book of Changes.
My college friend had told me that I shouldn’t use the I Ching for prognostication. It’s not for foretelling or prophesying future events. Don’t ask “How will I do on my exam tomorrow?” She told me to ask a question that had an answer “within me.” Ask something like “Should I start dating this girl who is teaching me about the I Ching?” The coins would point the way to the answer.
But seriously, using the I Ching seems similar to using other forms of prognostication. I also learned about the Nordic runes. The rune stones are from a place far from the I Ching but these stones from Northern European cultures and the pagan Norse world of gods and goddesses, giants, dwarves, warriors, and wizards seemed to work better for me than the I Ching.
So, I also cast the runes this week and consulted the book of runes. A three rune spread that represents the past, present, and future.
The past is EHWAZ, E, the Sacred Horse. My rune was reversed, meaning sudden unexpected change that is not wanted
The present rune is RAIDHO, R, the Journey and yes I am on a kind of journey right now. An unexpected and unwanted journey. It is physical and not physical. It is about healing something that needs healing.
My future rune is blank. That seems empty but the blank rune is Odin’s Rune and it means anything is possible. But the blank rune was a modern addition. I would like to believe anything is possible right now, but I cast another stone.
This fourth stone was DAGAZ , D, Dawn – a rune that cannot be reversed. This indicates a new day. A breakthrough, like hexagram 43. That is an answer that makes sense. All three runes make sense.
You can cast the I Ching or the runes or whatever method you prefer, and you can ask your question, but they are just pointers. The answers are within. She was correct.