Thu, January 27, 2022


Christmas with the I Ching

On the eve of Christmas, Christians around the world will be celebrating family time and the birth of Jesus Christ. Travelling through Vietnam, ruled by its Communist Party, Christmas is everywhere – in the shops, hotels and restaurants. It is a nice feeling to witness universal generosity embodied Santa Claus, a time for giving and festivities.

As a Christmas present, an old friend gave me a copy of Richard Wilhem’s translation of China’s ancient I Ching (Book of Change), with a foreword by the celebrated psychologist Carl Jung. The I Ching is probably the oldest surviving text on how to deal with uncertainty.  Jung was one of the first Western scientists to recognise that if man is more affected by nature and the unpredictable behaviour of other men or women, then “every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception”.
In other words, Chinese thinking starts from a different premise than Western science of causality – which is statistical patterns that must allow for random events (what today we call Black Swans).
The earliest version of the I Ching dates back 4,500 years, when the first Eight Trigrams were formulated as an early attempt to classify ways of responding to random events. If that date is correct, the I Ching predates the Axial Age between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC, the pivotal period in which civilisation flowered in Greece, Babylon, India and China. The I Ching is considered the fount of many sources of Chinese culture, including mathematics, astronomy, historiography, music, architecture, medicine, philosophy, martial arts, political theory, art and religion. Both Taoism and Confucianism have their roots in the I Ching.
For example, the German philosopher Leibnitz (1646-1716) invented binary mathematics after being given a copy of 64 hexagrams by a French Jesuit priest working in China. Leibnitz’s binary theory, the basis of computer science, found inspiration from the I Ching’s depiction of the universe as a progression of interactions between contradicting polarities, between male and female, on and off, or zero and one.
There are three fundamental principles of change embodied in the I Ching.  The first constant is that everything changes. The second principle is change through simplification – which is the exact opposite of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that everything becomes more complex.  The third principle is that even though things change, things may not change.
 The first concept of constant change was recognised by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535-475BC), who argued that change was the fundamental essence of the universe, encapsulated in his saying “no man ever steps in the same river twice”. He also understood the unity of opposites: “the path up and down are one and the same”.
The second principle, of “simplification”, is that the universe can be reduced to very simple principles, which are easy to understand and easy to follow. That is very much the reductionism of physics that tries to find the theory of everything in simple mathematical form.
The third principle, “no change”, can be interpreted as “the more things change, the more things stay the same”. Everything is formed by opposite poles, such as order and chaos. Without order, there will be chaos, and without chaos, there cannot be order. These ideas of timeless existence and unchanging reality were also expounded by the Greek philosopher Parmenides, who conceptualised that reality is unchanging, but perceptions or senses of reality are fleeting. 
Most people think that the I Ching is a book of oracles or mystic mumbo jumbo, since one can interpret the 64 different hexagrams in very different ways. Those of us who use the I Ching ask: if life is affected by many random and unpredictable ways, how should we think about handling or facing such challenges? 
A simple answer is that there are books like the Bible that reveal the truth to the reader. But as we know, every written word is subject to interpretation, which each of us feel or assess differently depending on our individual experience. Furthermore, the more complex the situation, the more different the interpretations or options available for action or non-action.   
The I Ching is useful, at least to those of us who consult it, not for actual predictions, but the process of analysis. Firstly, every piece of information, however random or unrelated, may be relevant, because life or nature is interconnected in ways that are not always obvious.   For example, when Donald Trump won the election, every world leader scrambled to find the right connection to get through to him.   Some of them found it through Trump’s son-in-law. That is almost second nature to many Asians.
The second process embedded in the I Ching is to ask questions that you do not normally ask yourself. For example, have you considered factors that are outside your normal frame of analysis? It is fashionable to talk about elephants in the room that everyone sees but refuse to talk about, or the Black Swan event that is rare but catastrophic in outcome. The I Ching questions everything, because there are no certainties. 
The third lesson of I Ching is that we must think about the system as an interacting whole, not as compartments that do not add up.   You cannot fix a system by just surgically removing one part of it.  The human body is an interconnected whole in which pain in the toe could be symptom of an organ dysfunction. 
In 2017, Brexit and Trump’s assumption as US president will bring many more surprises and what appear as random events. My Christmas present will be often consulted, not for predictions, but on how to prepare psychologically for radical surprises.  
Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year to all.
Andrew Sheng writes on global affairs from an Asian perspective.

Published : December 22, 2016