The I Ching Made Easy

Roderic Sorrell & Amy Max Sorrell, Harper SanFrancisco, 1994, 268 pages, $12.00.



The Everyday I Ching: Ancient Wisdom for Success Today

Sarah Dening, Simon & Schuster, 1995, 211 pages, £9.99.


The Great Treatise, probably paraphrasing the Tao Te Ching, tells us that 'what is easy is easy to know: what is simple is simple to follow'. One of the other meanings of the character 'I', normally translated as 'change', is 'easy'. According to some sources, the yarrow-stalk oracle was easy in comparison with the cracking of tortoiseshells. The paradox is that the I Ching's binary simplicity is capable of infinite elaboration.

The beginner may not find the I Ching quite so easy; the high philosophical tones of traditional commentaries may be too rarefied, the text's denseness too heavy for those for whom this is unfamiliar ground. And currently there appears to be a whole industry devoted to meeting this need.

There seems to me to be two main pitfalls awaiting anyone attempting to produce a 'beginner's guide to the I Ching'. The first is to oversimplify the text, dispensing with the actual line texts and the richness of the text's imagery, reducing the ancient classic to fortune-cookie wisdom.

The other pitfall, equally as deep, is to impose one's own views on the text and present them as somehow the original meaning of the I Ching. It is, of course, necessary to interpret the text for the beginner. Personal interpretations have their place, as traditionally they always have done. But, writers should always remember that the beginner will not be able to distinguish the commonly accepted interpretation from the idiosyncratic.

In my view, this is where Tradition has its most important function. Despite the scholarly debate that surrounds the original meaning of the ancient text, the received Tradition is the solid foundation upon which all subsequent endeavours should be based. It is the basic vocabulary of the system.

The beginner's first task is to learn this and how to use it. In time they may come to question that Tradition, they may even reject it, forming their own unique relationship with the I Ching. But they will have reached that point by their own efforts, not by having it imposed on them.

The responsibility on the writer of the beginner's guide is to present a Tradition which has grown, almost organically, over some thirty centuries in an easily assimilable way. They are not the authors of the I Ching, they merely explain it to a new audience. This is no easy task but Roderic & Amy Sorrell's 'I Ching Made Easy', and Sarah Dening's 'Everyday I Ching' are better examples of this growing genre.

'The I Ching Made Easy' is American in its presentation. I say 'American', but not in pejorative sense. By it I mean only that it is written in a way which is distinctively American. For example, the cover invites you to 'be your own psychic advisor using the world's oldest oracle'. Some Old World inhabitants might never get past that invitation, but this is an unpretentious book. The text offers a creditable explanation of the basic concepts of the I Ching tradition, retaining the structure of judgment and line texts, which are paraphrased into contemporary language without losing much of their original content. I could quibble over some of the trigram attributions, but won't.

The authors infuse their text with a refreshing enthusiasm without overindulging in psycho-babble. This is seen at its clearest in the examples given after each hexagram text. In addition to personal experiences with the I Ching, several examples are given of the book's predictive use. With the modern emphasis on the developmental or internal application of the I Ching, it is unusual, and quite nice, to see the I Ching being used as a prognosticatory tool. That, after all, was probably its original function.

What I found most interesting was the method of consultation recommended by the authors: the use of six coins, one of which is silver to indicate a changing line. In China, this appears to have been a means of consulting some of the more popular versions of the I Ching (see Jean-Michel Huon de Kermadec, 'Heavenly Pennies'). However, what is perhaps more intriguing is that it was a method recommended by the British occultist, Aleister Crowley. During a spell in America, sitting out the First World War, Crowley appears to have been regularly consulting the I Ching along with a small coterie of American disciples. I don't know whether this was a conscious choice by the authors, but it is intriguing that this method of consultation should be revived once again in America.

Turning now to Sarah Dening's 'Everyday I Ching', her choice of title is apt. She provides us with very clear, down-to-earth interpretations of the meanings of the hexagrams and their lines. Most of us can at least recognise the situations she outlines, and can put them into the context of our daily lives. The book strongly errs on the developmental side, with 'an opportunity for personal growth' given for each hexagram, describing its internal application.

Each hexagram chapter opens with a quotation which the author obviously hopes captures the essence of the figure. For example, Hexagram 37, The Family, is summarised by the great diarist Samuel Pepys' 'do hate to be unquiet at home'. The pity of it is that Dening omits the actual judgment and line texts. We have rather a good explanation of the text, but the text itself is missing. Nevertheless, I have to say that I have referred to this volume on a number of occasions and it has 'grounded' my interpretations.

I have already mentioned what I perceive to be the two main pitfalls facing anyone writing an introduction to the I Ching. There is, I believe, an unavoidable third one. Cheng-I's 10th century commentary on the I Ching has been hailed as one of the greatest elucidations of the text ever written. Indeed, the Wilhelm-Baynes edition of the I Ching is almost wholly based on Cheng's exegesis. Yet even this great work was criticised by the 12th century author of what was probably the first ever beginner's guide to the I Ching, Chu-hsi. Although Chu acknowledged that Cheng's work was a masterpiece, he thought that Cheng-I's failure was to limit the text to only one possible interpretation. Much the same could be said of Chu's commentary and, in fact, of any attempt to define the meaning of the I Ching.

The Great Treatise tells us that the 'the spirit is bound to no one place, nor the Changes to any one form'. The search for the meaning of the I Ching is therefore a constant process, found in the context of the unique circumstances surrounding each divination. When the Book of Changes is ossified, whether by Tradition or dry scholasticism, into a monolithic text with only one set of meanings, its fugitive spirit is lost and the oracle becomes a lifeless, dead letter.

The beginner should therefore be encouraged to strive to broaden their understanding of the I Ching, to go further than simply looking up the meaning of a particular hexagram or line in a particular edition, to form their own relationship with the ancient oracle, to move from beginner to an 'intermediate' level. There is where the real lacuna lies.

[First published in 'The Oracle: Journal of the I Ching Society' Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 1996/97), pp 22–24.]