Enter the Tao: Reflections on the I Ching

Enter the Tao: Reflections on the I Ching

Last week, I wrote a piece summarizing Ben Shapiro’s thoughts on the greatest hits of Western Thought as discussed in his new book, The Right Side of History.  As my brief description would imply, Shapiro does not spend any time diving into Eastern Philosophy.  This was fine for his intended purpose, but I am happy to say that after spending weeks talking about Western theology and philosophy, I am finally going to be moving into the next hemisphere (next semicircle for you flat earthers).  I have found some of the most potent and applicable wisdom in my exploration of Chinese philosophy, and I’m excited to bring some of it forward in this week’s discussion of the ancient Chinese text, the I Ching, as illuminated through the lectures of two 20th century scholars, Helmut and Richard Wilhelm.

The I Ching is, essentially, an amalgamation of Chinese philosophy, ‘a collection of texts whose authority and value the oracle seeker accepted unquestioningly’ (15).  Though the ideas and traditions informing these texts reaches back at least four millenia, the current layout was created and popularized by Confucius and King Wên during the Chou Dynasty around 1000 BCE.  The I Ching contains 64 lessons, and a fateful throw of sticks or coins decides which lesson (or two) you are meant to read.  Many of these lessons are in line with Confucian or Taoist thought, though the text itself does not endorse one philosophy in particular.  Moreover, though some ideas differ from traditional Western views, I have found that most of them are compatible with the Western notions that are most important to me—namely, that of transcendence through free will and self-improvement.

The greatest difference I could find between the I Ching and Western Judeo-Christian thought lies in the basic conception of ‘God’.  As hinted at earlier, the I Ching’s concept of God is more closely related to Lao Tzu’s idea of the Tao.  In Brian Browne Walker’s translation of the I Ching, this concept is often called ‘The Sage’ or ‘The Creative’.  It refers to, more or less, the way the universe is.  This force is not necessarily conscious, and it is not necessarily good or evil.  As Helmut Wilhelm lectures, ‘The mode of creative activity is not bound to any form; it has no fixed character and no individual limitation.  Heaven acts through the fact of its existence, not through its qualities’ (68).  This existence may appear good or bad to us, but that value judgement appertains more to the individual observer than the force itself.  The universe operates as it must, and it is up to each individual to place nature’s inherent contrasts into a broader context, utilizing them to the best of his or her abilities.

Other than the basic mythology, however, I have found many of the lessons in the I Ching to be compatible with Judeo-Christian philosophy.  For instance, both bodies of thought emphasize the value of man transcending his natural passions.  To pursue only material pleasure is to pursue illusory gains.  As Richard Wilhelm writes, ‘To be nourished by illusion is to resort to non-nourishment and, therefore, craving is created anew each time’ (272).  This pursuit may supply short-term pleasure, but it provides no sustainable meaning.  In fact, the more you give in, the more you are trapped by these ‘temptations that approach in order to lure the human being again into the phenomenal world’ (298).  By becoming more dependent on the phenomenal world, you make yourself less available to experiencing the transcendent.  Thus, these comforts fill us like concrete, condemning us to the material world.

Though pure materialism is frowned upon in the I Ching, this is not to praise outright asceticism.  It does not advise we shun all worldly pleasures, nor does it suggest that life apart from the transcendent is pure suffering.  Instead, the text implies that ‘if one maintains a harmony between the inner self and the surrounding world, the world…can do no harm’ (155).  Thus, it is not guaranteed that he who shuns the world through profound detachment who will reach maximum fulfillment; it is he who transcends the definitions of good and bad, finding joy in the experience itself.

In order to find this joy, it is necessary that we tame ourselves.  To explain this concept, Helmut Wilhelm uses imagery of horses, which ‘could be taken into service without restriction, but [keep] their natural character and, unlike the dog, [do not exchange] it for slavish dependence’ (39).  We are meant to tame ourselves to the way of the world without being completely at its mercy.  Like a horse, we must keep our independence while working within the structure we find ourselves in, working with the laws of the universe to build ourselves up.

The way to tame ourselves, according to the I Ching, is to channel the Heavenly energy present in the very fabric of life.  The I Ching presents man as ‘the mysterious being in whom the creative of the world ascends into consciousness’ (242).  We are a conscious node for the energy of the world.  As active participants in life, we can learn how to tap into this energy and use it to improve ourselves.  We do not serve ourselves through the fear and hope that come through focusing on the future—instead, it is necessary that we develop a ‘love of destiny’ (227), greeting life where we find it.  The Tao is neither good nor evil; it is a collection of light and darkness, constantly fluctuating.  A master of life observes this energy as it is presented, appreciates it for what it is, and works with it in the most efficient way he can.

This Chinese view of the Creative is not altogether different from the Judeo-Christian God insofar as it encourages individual development.  Free will is implied, though it is tempered by ‘an example and a standard outside the limits of the ego’ (121).  As in the Jewish narrative, humans exercise their free will amidst the external conditions of life in order to seek truth outside the self.  The I Ching refers to this truth as The Creative.  The Jews personify it as The Lord.  At the core of both concepts is the belief that humans can follow the example of a spiritual guide to improve themselves and their situation, and to avoid the destructive consequences of certain actions.

So far, I have discussed how the I Ching suggests we ought to live.  On the other hand, of great concern to many humans, and explored in many philosophies, is what comes next.  The view of the afterlife put forward in the I Ching may initially appear to be quite different from the Judeo-Christian mythology.  As suggested in the Wilhelm lectures, the Chinese have a much more fluid view of death than many Westerners.  Richard Wilhelm describes the belief that ‘death is not accident, for nature has set a limit to each life that corresponds both to the vitality and the rhythm of the particular life that has entered space and time’ (309).  Death is an inevitable part of the journey, and a life well-lived nourishes the Universe even through its death.  The only death truly worth mourning is that which has occurred prematurely because of inferior choices.

I have found the I Ching’s treatment of the afterlife to be far more rational than that of most modern Christians.  There is no discussion of a literal heaven or hell.  Instead, the individual lives on through the success or suffering of those whom one affected and influenced over the course of one’s life.  As Richard Wilhelm points out, ‘Each generation is entrusted… with the sacred heritage.  Each generation must enrich it and pass it on.  And only by passing on the enriched heritage, creative energies keep flowing’ (231).  A great artist, for instance, can explore ideas in new and timeless ways that help future generations understand their place in the world.  Lecturers can help countless students of the next generation understand the world in a deeper way.

In preparing for death, it is necessary to ‘[create] a state which, separated from finite existence, represents infinity’ (315).  By the time that you are about to die it is ideal to identify with the infinity you have always been a part of.  After all, you are about to dissipate into that infinity.  You may leave behind the corporeal body, never to be experienced or remembered in the same way again.  Each of us plays a part in an infinite continuum.  By death, one would ideally be comfortable with the part he or she has played.

In many ways, of course, this more rational exploration of the afterlife stands apart from the Christian mythologies, the imaginings of which have been discussed in my essays on Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy.  I would argue, however, that Jewish philosophy is relatively compatible with this worldview.  Though the Jews followed a very specific, personified Lord, the structure of belief beyond the mythology is not dissimilar.  Both agree that life is meant for seeking the best way to transcend the human condition, to be part of something greater, and to pass that success on to the next generation, who will hopefully continue the journey to create harmony and paradise on Earth.

Regardless of what spiritual tradition you find yourself in, the generally philosophical nature of the I Ching makes it an indispensable well of wisdom for anyone who chooses to consult it.  In my exploration of spiritual texts, I have found more applicable guidance in this text than in any other.  It has helped steer me into positive thought and has helped me work through some of the flaws in my own personality.  Though I’m still green in my exploration of Chinese philosophy and beliefs, I’m certainly hooked, and I hope to bring more readable wisdom to all of you in the future.  In fact, I will certainly do so for at least one more week, as I move on to discuss another ancient work of Chinese genius—Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.


Wilhelm, Helmut & Richard Wilhelm. Understanding the I Ching. Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 1988.

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