The I Ching Key: The Secret Computer of the Ancient Gods

John C Compton. Compton-Kowanz Publications, East Sussex, 2006, xvi + 301 pp, £32. ISBN 978-0-9554482-0-1.


This spiral-bound A4 book is Volume 1 of a three-volume set (so far) under the overall title of The I Ching Project, but is self-contained in that the second book is about the correlation between hexagrams and the genetic code (Johnson Yan, Martin Schönberger, and Katya Walter have previously written books on this topic). That's called 'The I Ching Key: The I Ching and the Genetic Code'. And the third book is called 'The I Ching Key: The Pictographic Library of the Ancient Gods'. This appears to be an ongoing project, Mr Compton has informed me:

There are new areas of research which I am interested in, particularly on a Star Gate and the Mayans and I Ching related cubism similar to the work of Sung (1934).

I generally find I have to grit my teeth a lot when reading books that have a fallback position of potboiler phraseology such as 'the secret computer of the ancient gods', it is just too von Däniken for my tastes, though I concede that there's plenty of people who appear to like this sort of stance.

Compton's long-term enquiry began after the chance discovery of an artifact – a beaten copper Tibetan bagua (eight trigrams) plaque – in a Brighton antique shop. It led him to buying the Wilhelm and Legge I Chings and the study continued fired up by his noticing that the Tibetan plaque had the trigrams in a different order to the two common circles, the Before and After Heaven arrangements. Tibetan plaques frequently show a sequence that is broadly the King Wen (aka After or Later Heaven, houtian) arrangement but with several trigrams misplaced, or with one duplicated and another missing altogether. These are usually considered to be mistakes and are not taken seriously as sequences in themselves (see, for instance, Dickinson and Moore, Trigrams and Tortoises: Sino-Tibetan Divination [PDF], 1997). But Compton wasn't willing to believe the sequence on his plaque was just a mistake, for him it became a kind of missing link and he continued regardless, for two decades, on the investigation that is the subject of this book.

Compton postulates the existence of an ancient device that used rotating disks of trigram arrangements, similar to the Enigma machine, to obtain hexagrams. While this seems a fanciful view of history, it is still an interesting starting point for an exploration, since such a machine could be constructed in the present. (Compton has made a patent application [PDF] for a linear form of such a device based on these investigations.) The idea of reading hexagrams off concentric circles of trigrams is nothing new, there are Chinese diagrams showing the Before and After Heaven sequences concentrically arranged such that it is clear that rotation will produce varying hexagrams (such as this one). Compton, however, has an interesting take on how numbers assigned to trigram lines can indicate direction of rotation, which we will come to shortly.

Though Compton is obviously keen to prove the existence of a 3000-year-old spinning trigram device for forming hexagrams, I personally dismissed that idea straight away, not least because all the evidence suggests that hexagrams predate trigrams, and there are no known graphic representations of the Before and After Heaven circular trigram arrangements before the Song dynasty (960–1279). Instead I read the book as a sort of set of design notes for building such a machine now. Compton is at times rather like a dog with a bone with his suspicion of ancient agendas and secret hidings of the truth and encoding of data from the past, but many great discoveries were made by someone who was a bit barmy so we just have to put up with that in the hope that we have another genius. And perhaps it is all to the good that a writer with complex technical matters to impart provides a little entertainment along the way by making it sound like he is back-engineering an alien device.

The book does not get off to an auspicious start. On p 13 he gives a diagram with the Later and Earlier Heaven circular arrangements inside and outside of his Tibetan 'Mandala' arrangement, but he mislabels the Earlier Heaven sequence as Later Heaven and vice versa. And there appear to be odd misunderstandings about elementary matters. On p 31, referring to the line numbers given in the text of the Yi (eg, 'nine in the second place'), he says:

It should be noted, that the specific rules of line symbolism change which have evolved from the oracle appear to be mathematically illogical. One would think that a change or transformation from Yang (represented by the number 9) to Yin (represented by the number 6) would be in a numerical sequential manner.

But moving yang (9) transforms to an unmoving yin (8), and moving yin (6) transforms to unmoving yang (7), so line change is in a numerical sequence, not that I think it's particularly important.

Another odd comment appears on p 65, concerning the notion of 'moving lines':

… we are told that the line symbols move. We are not told however in which particular direction this movement may take place. Is it vertically, up and down as many scholars would believe it to be? Or could it be somehow horizontally, sideways, left to right, or right to left? Or could it mean a diagonal sidereal movement. In actual fact, it could mean all these possible movements.

Doesn't he know that a moving line is simply one that changes? Of course he does. So why make such a meal of it?

After experimentation, Compton discovered that there were 'thirteen anomalous hexagrams' that could not be formed by his rotating trigram disks, which he placed on a 'blank display matrix board' according to their positions on the 8 × 8 hexagram finding chart at the back of Wilhelm-Baynes, the 'Key for Identifying the Hexagrams'. He writes on p 31 (his bold):

Looking more closely at the positional arrangement created by the thirteen hexagrams, I became aware of something hidden in the pattern formed on the board. I started to draw lines between each specific square. To my astonishment they revealed a geometrical design, which was a right angled triangle with square sides. The design of this triangle and the associated squares represents the geometrical proposition of Pythagoras.

He began looking to see if he could find other 'hidden designs'. A pentagon tumbled into view. Then he found Pi. He was on a roll. Next came the Golden Section, and a means to measure time, all hidden in the hexagrams. He extended his method and by means not particularly clear he began segregating his data into groups, which enabled him to colour in more and different squares on his grid, until finally on p 55 we understand completely the direction his researches have taken him:

Yes, Mr Compton has discovered a Phantom jet in the I Ching. And a radar dish or radio telescope. And a secret weapon (or jar). Apparently there are thousands of such images. I can imagine there would be. He doesn't explain the above image straight away, he just leaves it there like a beetle in the butter, gaped-mouth hanging, the bemused reader is left wondering whether he's the only one who thinks it's a Phantom jet, maybe to the author it's just a geometrical shape, particularly when he talks later about the meaning of such images being 'in the eye of the beholder' (p 103). But then it comes out, slowly, very very slowly, a shy little mouse from behind the numerous tables of apparent mathematical complexity, the magnitude of the eccentricity of this work. First through hints that the ancients could have had foreknowledge of a future more technologically advanced society, then finally, on p 126, there it is, a mouse running around the kitchen without a care in the world:

Yet more surprising is the pictographic image shown in fig 26.9, which is without any doubt the topological image and shape of a modern fighter plane. Could this be an illusion? Perhaps not! Indian myths of ancient events mention their Gods fought battles in the sky with flying chariots [ … ]

How was it possible to achieve such technology and what happened to those advanced civilisation(s) which may have acquired it? Was their civilization destroyed by war or a nuclear holocaust or were they overcome by a horrific natural disaster i.e., a great upheaval of the earth's crust that swept all their cities away? If not, where are they now? With the technology hinted here, they could have emigrated from the planet Earth.

Amazing what you can get out of the 8 × 8 hexagram grid from the back of Wilhelm.

On p 119 it becomes apparent that the very reason the book is entitled 'The I Ching Key' is because this finding chart, which he uses as a 'visual display unit', is called the 'Key for Identifying the Hexagrams' in Wilhelm-Baynes. In Blofeld the same thing is simply called the 'Table of Numbers'. Compton accords it great importance and believes its significance has been overlooked by generations of learned commentators. Concerning this table of numbers he writes, on p 151:

The Table of Numbers, otherwise known as the Key for Identifying the Hexagrams (key code matrix), has been used by scholars of the I Ching for many centuries. In all that time, no one as far as I am aware, has ever challenged its use or asked the basic questions – Where did this table originate from? How was it developed? Who arranged the original format?

He's right, there's not been much discussion of this arrangement of hexagrams. I'll attempt an answer, and stand to be corrected. I'm not sure about it but I was always under the impression that the key was made for the 1950 first edition of the Wilhelm-Baynes I Ching. It doesn't appear in the original 1924 Jena edition in German. I believe the table was developed from the simple premise that it would be a good idea to help westerners less familiar with the I Ching to locate their hexagrams by having eight trigrams at the top and eight down the side, much like the grid reference system used for finding streets in a street atlas. These trigrams are in the 'family member' order: qian, zhen, kan, gen, kun, xun, li, and dui:

The sons take their ordinal numbers from the position of the single yang line and the daughters by the position of the single yin line (they are also called eldest, middle, and youngest). Most translations since Wilhelm-Baynes have put the key in the same order (it is done differently in Whincup, Kerson Huang, and Liu Ming).

But Compton is labouring under a misapprehension if he thinks the Chinese use this table of numbers to find their hexagrams. In Chinese the hexagrams have never been numbered. Obviously using an outside row and column of trigrams to find the hexagram you already have is pointless. More sensible is to realise that both the Fuxi and Mawangdui 8 × 8 grids are already natural finding orders since for all eight hexagrams in each horizontal octet the lower trigram is the same in the Fuxi arrangement and in the Mawangdui arrangement the upper trigram is the same. In Fuxi the upper trigram of all eight hexagrams in each vertical column is also the same. Each of the eight horizontal octets of the Wilhelm 'key' contain the same hexagrams as in the Fuxi arrangement, but in a different order, because each octet has the same lower trigram. The upper trigrams in each horizontal octet of the Fuxi arrangement has the family members in this order, left to right: Mother, third son, second son, first daughter, first son, second daughter, third daughter, father. The lower trigram in each column is also in this order from top to bottom. In other words, the use of trigrams to find hexagrams is built into the Fuxi arrangement without need of additional cross-referenced trigrams. Note that the top left to bottom right diagonal in both the Fuxi arrangement and the Wilhelm-Baynes 'key' contain the eight 'pure' hexagrams, i.e., those that have the same upper and lower trigrams. You could, if you wished, make a key for identifying hexagrams from an outside row and column of trigrams referencing the Fuxi arrangement. They would go in the order left to right and top to bottom: kun, gen, kan, xun, zhen, li, dui, and qian. It's just that for some reason it wasn't done that way in the Wilhelm-Baynes translation, presumably because they were only thinking of helping people to find their hexagram quickly, not imagining the grid would be regarded as a secret arrangement. Not surprising there has been little discussion about it.

This is not to say the Wilhelm 'key' sequence cannot have some interest considered as an arrangement of hexagrams, only that it has never had any in China. Compton has built a house of cards.

But there are some good ideas in the book. The following, for instance, is a simple but powerful notation I don't recall seeing before. On p 81 he assigns the numbers 6, 7, 8, and 9 to trigram lines in sequences according to which line or lines would change or stay the same to reach the next in the sequence, as, for example, here in the Earlier Heaven sequence going from left to right, i.e., clockwise around the trigram circle:

Similarly, here is the same sequence using the anti-clockwise values:

He is able to represent rotational movement in either direction in a circle of trigrams using the traditional yaoshu, the line numbers. On his diagram of concentric trigram circles on p 13 the numbers appear to the left and right of each trigram, taking account of rotation in either direction. Obviously useful for his postulated machine, but it is a striking idea and perhaps the one he should have patented if he wanted to patent something. (I do wonder though about the ethics of personally patenting aspects of a 3000-year-old tradition of 'prior art' freely given.)

On p 87 he deduces some rules and principles of trigram movement. For example:

1. Hexagrams cannot be constructed from the trigram transition of any trigram which attempts to move or rotate in two or more than two different directions at any instantaneous moment of time.

There are three other rules, suggestive of a man who has plans to build a machine, but the relative clarity once more dwindles over the coming pages to opaque mathematical speculations I simply do not trust enough, on the basis of what I do understand, to dive in and attempt to unravel. Compton says his work 'may be difficult for the general layman to understand and comprehend' (p 191), but I'm not sure who he is addressing given that he has an 'O' level physics textbook published in 1963 as one of the books in his bibliography.

On p 195, before a hundred pages of appendices, Compton concludes in bold:

What we seek is what we find, but what we find may blow our minds!

Compton certainly sounds like he has found what he sought (whatever it was), but whether it will blow anyone else's mind is another matter. The book is sufficiently wacky to merit an audience, may have significant insights I have been unable to discern, and does have a few legitimate insights I recognised. It is, however, 'the learning of the self-taught' and would have benefited from peer-review before publication rather than after.


A note on Volume 2: The I Ching and the Genetic Code (2007)

Volume 2 proceeds in much the same vein as Volume 1, using elementary chemistry and colourful diagrams not merely to show the well-worn correlation between hexagrams and DNA codons but also to 'prove' that the ancients encoded their knowledge of DNA into the I Ching. Mr Compton writes on p 127, concerning something not particularly clear:

There is no doubt in my mind as to what this means, as here is conclusive proof and mathematical evidence which shows that the ancient Chinese scribes knew about the molecular structure of DNA and RNA.

When such is the conclusion, it hardly makes it worth anyone's while to attempt to unravel the obscure manipulations that have led to it. If you are a student of the DNA correlation to the I Ching, and already have the books by Martin Schönberger (1973 in German, 1979 in English), Johnson Yan (1991), and Katya Walter (1994), then Compton's book may well be of interest to you, regardless. It is a pity, perhaps, that anything there might be of genuine interest in his methodology is overshadowed by the patently absurd commentary he gives us about its supposed meaning. To really warm to this book and get anything out of it, I suspect you'd have to share its author's fantasies that the I Ching was created by a Chinese civilization whose genetics labs have yet to be excavated by archeologists.


The early history of the DNA/I Ching analogy

Besides the above-mentioned well-known books on the analogy between DNA codons and the I Ching hexagrams, the molecular biologist Gunther Stent, who was at Oxford in 1953 when Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the double-helix model of DNA, also mentioned it in his 1969 book 'The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress'. An interesting piece of correspondence in The Francis Crick Archive reveals what Crick himself thought of an unpublished manuscript on this subject that was sent to him in 1973 by K S Wu.

Another early proponent of the analogy was molecular biologist and artist Harvey Bialy, an acolyte of Aleister Crowley. Bialy writes on his blog:

my interest in the isomorphism between the genetic code and the i ching dates back to 1968 when gunther stent and i jointly realized that the 64 elements of which they are each composed were more than accidentally connected.

In 1974 Bialy published an essay entitled The I Ching and the Genetic Code [PDF]. In another blog post Bialy reveals a further fascinating tidbit:

it is because of a chance encounter with John Cage on an airplane in 1968 that Gunther Stent first learned of the I Ching and discovered that like the genetic code, it consisted of 64 mutationally related elements. He mentioned this to me in the mailroom of the Molecular Biology and Virus Laboratory at Berkeley shortly after, and i immediately said to him that the relationship between the two systems was considerably deeper.

A much shorter exposition of the analogy by Bialy appeared on page 374 of 'America, a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Colombian Times to the Present' (edited by Jerome Rothenberg and George Quasha, and published by Random House in 1973.) A comment from Bialy also appears on the back cover of Johnson Yan's book 'DNA and the I Ching'.

Marie-Louise von Franz notes in her essay 'Symbols of the Unus Mundus', contained in her book 'Psyche and Matter' (1992; p 44), that in 1968 she published the discovery that DNA makes use of 'a mathematical code whose fundamental numerical structure precisely corresponds to that of the I Ching hexagrams'. She references the 1968 German work 'Dialog über den Menschen: Eine Festschrift zum 75. Geburtstag von Wilhelm Bitter' (Klett. Stuttgart, 1968). She also draws attention in her note 16 to pp 22–23 of Ariane Rump's 1967 thesis on hexagram 36 as a representation of evil in the I Ching ('Die Verwundung des Hellen als Aspekt des Bösen im I Ching', Cham, Switzerland: Gut-Druck, 1967), but I have not seen this work and it is unclear from the reference whether the DNA analogy is mentioned there or not. From von Franz's further referencing of this thesis in her book 'Number and Time' I would hazard a guess that the subject matter is binary arithmetic in the I Ching. (The title of Rump's dissertation is mentioned in translation in the Hacker, Moore, Patsco bibliography as 'The Darkening of the Light as an Aspect of Evil in the I Ching' and is said to have been published by Columbia University in 1972, but was stated to be 'not available for annotation', meaning they'd never seen a copy. Possibly it doesn't exist in English as I can't find any further reference to it.)

For all people keep pointing out an analogous structure between the I Ching and DNA, no-one has yet demonstrated any practical value in the similarity, nor any deep profundity beyond surface comparison. What, after all, is it supposed to mean that there is some similarity between DNA structure and I Ching hexagrams? Most authors never really address this, save in ways that they trust will preserve their status as serious investigators. Only John Compton has thrown caution to the wind and boldly embraced what can be the only implication that can possibly be entertained. So if all it really amounts to is that the ancient Chinese already knew the structure of DNA, then why don't we just forget about this analogy right now and cease being fascinated by it, since that's obviously ridiculous. If there's some other reason why we should think it important that the I Ching and DNA share some structural similarities, it looks like no-one knows what it is.