The Laws of Change

Jack M Balkin. New York: Schocken Books, 2002, hardback, xiii + 655 pages, $32.50. ISBN 0-8052-4199-X.


Jack Balkin is a professor of law at Yale Law School and his book, subtitled 'I Ching and the philosophy of life', comes out of his personal use of the oracle in his own life. And it's rather good. This is an I Ching that will appeal to people who like and use the Wilhelm-Baynes translation, which it is essentially a commentary on. It is equally a good choice for anyone who is beginning to get into the I Ching who is bewildered by the enormous range of books on the subject and is not sure which one to get, by which I mean get first, since anyone who gets into the I Ching usually ends up with a whole shelf of books on the subject (and if they're at all like me they throw most of them away later).

The translation itself, which doesn't include the Ten Wings (apart from THE IMAGE), is quite similar to that of Wilhelm-Baynes, but with a few of the mistakes corrected. The fish is rightly in a 'wrapper' rather than a 'tank' in line 2 of hexagram 44, but others are missed and, for instance, you are still told to 'be like the sun at midday' in the judgment of hexagram 55, all of which indicates a heavy leaning on Wilhelm with a little notetaking from a few of the more scholarly translations, such as those of Richard Lynn and Greg Whincup. I can't say I regard this as a new translation. I gather in any case that Balkin's original intention was not to provide a translation but to write a commentary on the I Ching. Of course, it is always a good idea to have the text you're commenting on in the same book, and Balkin's version serves.

There is a detailed chapter in the introduction on the history of the Book of Changes, slightly coloured by Edward Shaughnessy's input, but fairly sound. The introductory material, amounting to over 100 pages, is much better than in most versions of the Changes, although contains nothing new or original. Balkin is a little dismissive of what he sees as 'fortune-telling' and more sure than it is possible to be that all is not fated. He presents the I Ching as a book of wisdom and stimulus to the intuition, distancing himself from any hint of a belief in magic or that the oracle can predict the future. Balkin's approach is standard for a lot of people. Such opinions need not detain anyone who has expanded their consciousness beyond the limitations of the sane and reasonable.

The commentary on the hexagrams is where Balkin's book shines: it is an excellent I Ching to consult. Balkin writes about each hexagram cogently and from obvious long experience of personal use. Take this example from his commentary on the sixth line of hexagram 54, the one about empty ritual where the man stabs a sheep that has already been slaughtered and no blood flows and a woman holds out a basket with no fruits in it:

Merely going through the motions will not lead to anything important or significant. If you are internally conflicted about what you are doing, you should come to terms with this immediately and decide what it is you really want. Life is not simply a matter of keeping your options open. You should not start at one thing with the hope that something better will come along. You must be devoted to what you are doing or you are simply wasting your time.

He is 'feeling around' the meaning of the line, bringing out its ramifications. In fact, Balkin really does make it plain. Sometimes his unwillingness to depart too far from the shade of meaning Wilhelm gave the I Ching results in passages that seem like paraphrase, but in general the work succeeds in clarifying things some find obscure in Wilhelm.

Although a commentary on the I Ching is of course a personal interpretation, nonetheless I consider there to be a few errors in Balkin's take on things. In the third line of hexagram 43, for instance, the one about being 'powerful in the cheekbones', he says in no uncertain terms that this phrase means 'talking too much or talking at the wrong time'. I suppose 'cheekbones' suggests to him moving the mouth, and in turn moving it too powerfully, but this is a specious interpretation, a clever guess but divorced from Chinese idiomatic usage. In actual fact, when someone is said to be 'powerful in the cheekbones' it means they have a cruel character. It doesn't mean talking too much it means being too pushy and hard on others.

Overall though, Balkin gets it. He's thought his commentary through and grasped the essence of the Changes. The work has substance.