Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change

Master Zhongxian Wu. 'Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change: 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic Yijing (I Ching) Prediction System.' Singing Dragon, London and Philadelphia, 2009, 232 pp, $29.95. ISBN 978-1-84819-020-7.


A quick look at Amazon reviews for this book shows that westerners are still rather gullibly impressed by Chinese 'masters', as they were by Master Alfred Huang, as if mastery in taiji and qigong automatically qualified a person for mastery in the broad sweep of the other arts. What is a 'master' of qigong anyway? At least in judo and karate (and the board game of 'Go') there are dan grades that actually mean something because they're tested in combat. Well, we would expect a master of qigong to be quite good at qigong, beyond that we cannot say; as for anything else they may be quite good at we await their boast, and never assume that being a 'master' of one art implies proficiency in others. Apparently Master Wu is also quite good at playing the qin, a seven-stringed Chinese instrument. I'm willing to believe it, unheard. But now are we to believe he is also a master of Yijing?

Let it be said before I begin this review proper that the only masters I have ever been remotely impressed by are a few dead Zen ones. Zen has always been admirably tight-fisted in creating new masters (though a few Americans slipped through with feeble roots), and in that discipline being a master meant only one thing: you were confirmed as enlightened by your teacher as he had been by his teacher all the way back, in theory, to Kasyapa and the Buddha holding up a flower; you had seen through the great matter of birth and death, the 'wordless doctrine' had been successfully transmitted to you. That's mastery for you.

Sokei-an, the first Japanese Zen master in the USA, decided not to call himself a master even though he had his certificate of attainment from his own master, because he rather graciously felt that 'master' was something for other people to call you if they wished, on the basis of how you held yourself. He felt it was immodest to refer to oneself in this way. In Chinese internal and external qi cultivation practices the term 'master' is a more diffuse title, flaunted like scout badges, particularly when prefaced by the word 'Taoist' or 'fengshui'. But if we are to judge it on the basis of how they conduct themselves then usually it means they can be relied upon to lead a class of old ladies doing taiji in the park on a Sunday morning at $50 a head. They will probably have their own range of DVDs.

That item of nomenclature cleared up, let me say that Master Wu Zhongxian's book (Zhongxian Wu in reversed western format) – 'Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change: 8 Days to Mastering a Shamanic Yijing (I Ching) Prediction System' – is not a book about the Yijing at all. It is a book about the eight trigrams (bagua) with a smattering of five-phase theory, a few basic descriptions of such things as the Hetu and Luoshu, and some examples of use of a method of trigram prediction simplified to the point of superficiality, such that I am left wondering whether he might not have swotted up on the subject just to produce a book. Nothing is dealt with in depth, not a single one of the 64 hexagrams is discussed. A few things are mentioned in passing of marginal interest, but crumbs really.

The tone is mock chummy, annoying, like a New Age book. Some worthies have provided glowing testimonials praising the book's teahouse atmosphere. But it is just a put-on, there is no charm to it at all (unlike Lin Yutang's On Tea and Friendship [PDF]), on the contrary it comes across as tedious padding. Every five minutes he is asking you to appreciate with him the glorious tealeaves he has before him, almost anything not to have to expose his lack of knowledge of the Yijing any further, and after the third sip for the umpteenth time it is back to a photographically illustrated qigong exercise.

The information on the trigrams, despite the fact that this is the major strand of Yijing-related subject matter given that the Yijing itself has been dispensed with, is basic. It takes him until p 124 before he asks:

I hope the hiking you did yesterday has enhanced your energy. We need good energy for today's discussion because it might be a little intense. Are you ready to learn how to make a trigram with a number?

I don't know whether he actually expected anyone to go hiking in the woods as he instructed them in the previous chapter (the pretend previous day of the eight days in which you are going to master the Yijing), nor whether he expects them to begin their reading at three in the morning when he tells them nor whether they will sleep with their head in the direction he instructs in the imaginary teahouse. It is all too manufactured and false to think there may be anything to gain by following along with such a regimen. Well, I presume he at least hopes the reader will cheerily accept the conceit while reading and dutifully imagine tealeaves and teahouses, but frankly the writing is so bad I would prefer to open up Wang Wei or some other Chinese poet and immerse myself in this kind of landscape for real. I'd rather he just concentrated on the Yijing, what little he may have to say about it, and cut the simpering appeals to my collusion with this fluff.

And then we get to Wu's actual method of consulting the Yijing, the attenuated Yijing, the way of choosing one to eight and thereby a trigram:

1. Take a deep breath; relax your eyelids to look within. Feel your mind connect with your body. Next, think about the question or situation on which you want to consult. Then meditate on it and think about a three-digit number. When the number comes into your mind, write it down.


2. Divide this number by eight. Write down the remainder. If there is no remainder, please write down the number eight as the remainder.


3. Use the number to find the trigram using the Prenatal Trigrams Arrangement Numbers. You will get the trigram Qian/Heaven if you get a remainder number 1; number 2 is the trigram Dui/Lake; number 3 is the trigram Li/Fire; number 4 is the trigram Zhen/Thunder; number 5 is the trigram Xun/Wind; number 6 is the trigram Kan/Water; number 7 is the trigram Gen/Mountain; and number 8 is the trigram Kun/Earth. (pp 124–125)

Then he gives an example of use from his own meeting with his publisher:

In the late afternoon on November 14, 2007, I met with a publisher to talk about publishing this Yijing prediction book. She asked me, "Do you use yarrow sticks or three coins to do the prediction?" "Neither of them," I said. "What do you do?" she asked again. "I need only a three-digit number for my Yijing consultation," I said. She responded immediately, "115." It took me a couple of seconds to get the remainder number 3 after I divided 115 by 8 in my mind. Number 3 indicates the trigram Li (Fire).

The answer for her question then is the trigram for Fire. At that moment, one of the symbolic meanings of the trigram Li, the word spirit, jumped into my mind. Then I said, "Your question is related to spirituality. If you give me your question I can give you some details of the answer." "It is about a business that is related to spiritual cultivation," she confirmed. (p 125)

And that's it. The totality of the application. If there was any more to say, he doesn't say it in the book. I think we're supposed to be impressed.

Just in case you hope for mastery tucked away somewhere, another example:

Adriana gave the number 946. We divided by 8 and got the remainder number 2. The Corresponding Trigram is Dui/Lake. Then I asked, "What is your question?" She said, "Should my grandmother have surgery on her bladder?" I answered right away, "Definitely, yes." (p 127, his bold)

He justifies this by trigram correspondences, mainly because 'knife' is associated with the trigram dui, which suggested surgery to him.

Let us pass over the fact that someone who asks whether her gran should have bladder surgery obviously has a gran whose doctor has said she needs bladder surgery, and instead concentrate on pp 148–150, where a woman with a heart-valve defect who has been advised by her doctors to have heart surgery also gets the trigram dui (divined in her absence by her friend at Wu's taiji workshop). Wu didn't know this time about the woman's heart condition, the question was couched generally about her wellbeing. In this latter example he introduces the principle of waiying, 'exterior responding' or 'external resonance', which means taking a hint for your answer from any incident that occurs while you're divining. In this case he is clumsy and kicks over a burning incense coil. So his attention switches from the received dui (lake) trigram to the li (fire) trigram. He looks up and pronounces that the woman divined about has 'some problem with her Fire element, which in Chinese medicine includes the heart'. This presumably is the point at which to be amazed. But it is what he does with the information: it is suggested that the woman should hang a sword in her home as some kind of fengshui magic. The sword idea has clearly come from the knife correspondence of dui, so now he has 'knife' and 'heart' sitting in his pile. But he never considers the surgery he was so enthusiastic to endorse before.

It's all starting to look a little thin. A guessing game. Wu even refers to Yijing divination on several occasions as 'playing', yet most of his examples involve serious medical conditions.

On p 139 he includes a brief paragraph on the 'Ti Yong prediction technique'. He tells us it is needed for 'advanced Yijing predictions' in the same breath as excusing himself from discussing it by saying he hasn't got time in this eight-day course. He offers no alternative authors to refer to. (Harmen Mesker writes a little about the tigua and yonggua in his review of Lillian Too's plum blossom book, see also the glossary.) Yet despite this lack of time there soon follows another two-page spread covering a qigong exercise that he does have time for, followed by a recipe for his favourite pork stew (tough luck vegetarians, this is not a master with compassion for all sentient beings), which he tells us he likes to have with a Guinness, followed by another paragraph to tell us that after he's eaten his dinner he's going to watch 'The House of Flying Daggers', suggesting somewhat ludicrously that we watch it with him (DVD not included), before finally indulging himself with some more yackety-yack about his bedtime tea choice.

What a useless book.

On the eighth pretend day Wu introduces the 'model-less prediction process'. He gives an example of using a relevant four-digit house number to find the trigram, still dividing by eight, rather than a thought-up three-digit number (p 199). The house had been burgled and his workshop group wished to apply the technique to the situation. Following in great detail (too much to quote) on pp 200–202 is the most unbelievable garbage I have ever seen seriously put forward as an Yijing divination, and boy, have I read some garbage. Suddenly you realise, and take pity: Master Wu doesn't know, he thinks this is all good stuff. At the end he boasts:

The information I have shared with you in these eight days is less than 5 percent of what I understand about Yijing prediction.

You can actually do that calculation. If the tiny amount he has presented is 5%, then he understands nineteen times more. This is not actually very much.

I hope the time I have wasted with this book may at least be partly redeemed by saving others the trouble.