Hexagram 58, Exchange, is symbolized by two lakes pouring into another. This is a fitting background to the Image: The noble one investigates and explains knowledge to friends.

We can instantly see what the I Ching regards as important: this is the exchange of two equals. The pairing is not a lake and a stream, nor a river and an ocean. It is the joining of two lakes, two bodies of water that are equivalent.

When we exchange or share with others, there has to be equality. A lake is formed by the pooling of water. Thus the personality of the people in the exchange must be correspondingly deep, the accumulation of much wisdom, knowledge, and experience.

Two lakes are also level, placid, flat. There are no aggressive points on the surface, there are no sharp parts to the lakes. The lakes represent two people who have profound knowledge but who outwardly are smooth, level, and mirroring heaven.

When two lakes join, their waters mingle. When two lakes join, one flows into another and then the waters will flow back until the waters cannot be separated from one another: two lakes joined in exchange will eventually come to a common level. What is created is a new lake, with its own depth, its own contours, its own waterline.

Tao is frequently compared to water. This comparison is so often repeated that we may sometimes forget to look at it fresh. Two lakes join in exchange that can only be achieved by flowing back and forth—one lake cannot “conquer” the other. In the exchange, something new is formed—a single lake, double in volume and surface area. But it all started with equality, a flowing into one another, and a settling to a new depth. In this example, then, Tao is achieved by the exchange of two lakes.


The Noble One: Wind

May 1, 2011

Hexagram 57, Wind, is one of the eight hexagrams consisting of two identical trigrams. Thus, it is one of the cardinal hexagrams of the entire set of 64 Hexagrams.

Wind represents gentle but steady power. It also represents a presence that interweaves through all things, just as the wind flows everywhere. Wind also includes the image of wood. This may seem like an odd linking until one considers that wood grows slowly, so its movement is similar to wind’s gentle pressure. Wood also grows everywhere, penetrates the earth, and cracks the rock and is again compatible with what wind symbolizes.

So what are we to learn from this symbolism? The Image says, the noble one gives further instructions and takes action.

It’s important to put this in context. There are other kinds of action depicted in the I Ching. There are times when we are supposed to mount a vigorous campaign, to cross the great water. Sometimes we are even supposed to attack. At other times we are advised to wait. But here, we are supposed to formulate thoughtful plans, communicate with others, and then take action. The implication, though, is that our action cannot be a single burst, but a long and steady effort.

The image of the wind even carries to the breath of the Noble One, giving instructions. The image of the wind carries to the vigor of the Noble One, working to take action.

It’s worth noting that the actions of a Noble One in keeping with the symbol of wind have to be subtle and far-seeing. The wind never flags. Can you carry on your plans with all the constancy of the ever-moving air?

The Noble One: Traveler

April 17, 2011

What are the essential elements of being a Traveler? First, one has to be somewhat self-sufficient. While one will be eating and living among strangers, one also has to have resources. Secondly, one is open to new opportunities. In the constant movement and the lack of any permanent living place, many new possibilities will be encountered. Thirdly, one has to have direction, clarity, and insight to know what to do and to know where to go next.

Thus it may be surprising that Hexagram 56, Traveler, has an Image that is about criminal justice. Perhaps an easy way to understand this is to remember that Chinese magistrates were often assigned to different places—one story about the famous poet Su Dongpo is about his arrival in Hangzhou to be the magistrate. Another image is to think of the traveling circuit judges of old. Thus, this hexagram can refer to a judge or high official traveling to a locale and being called upon to resolve disputes or to deal with a criminal situation.

The juxtaposition of this Image with that of being a traveler becomes more focused: The noble one is clear-minded and cautious in meting out punishment and yet does not delay trial. The first part of the Image, derived from the formation of the trigrams themselves is “fire on the mountain.” In olden times, there were lookout fires on the mountains, especially on the borders. The image of someone traveling to a distant place, looking for the signal fire on the mountain melds with the idea of being a traveling judge: the judge also has to guide as clearly as a fire on the mountain.

Fire, in the I Ching, is the symbol for mental clarity. Thus, we have the “clear-minded” reference of the Image. The mountain is the symbol of stillness, of caution, contemplation, and integrity. This accounts for the caution in meting out punishment. But fire must burn at its own pace, and a mountain cannot move. Thus, we do not delay matters and we follow what we stand for.

Having the mental clarity of a bright flame and having the integrity and stability of a mountain are certainly two ideals to follow in our lives—no matter where we travel.

The Noble One: Plentiful

April 13, 2011

Hexagram 53, Plentiful has this Image:

The wise one decides lawsuits and applies punishments.

Why should a time of plenty be a time for lawsuits?

First, in times of trouble such as war or famine, lawsuits are of a lower priority. The first attention must be given to survival.

Secondly, times of plenty bring more disputes. However, when the society is stable and wealthy these conflicts must be confronted. It goes unsaid here, but too many disputes threaten the very stability that supports times of plenty.

The second half of the Image, however, makes it clear that criminal penalties are being referred to. Again, in times of plenty there will be more crime and so the Noble One has to enforce the law.

The I Ching was aimed at the ruler of a country and therefore the reminder to adjudicate lawsuits and to mete out punishment was relevant to the intended recipient of the oracle. We are fortunate to have access to the I Ching today. Applying this advice if we are not necessarily leading a country means this: in a time of plenty, we must be on guard for disputes and conflicts and, where necessary, we have to respond to transgressions against us.

Perhaps it seems strange to talk about conflict and punishment if we use the I Ching with a spiritual motivation. But the monks in ancient China had to learn martial arts because bandits attacked the monasteries. Being spiritual—and being in a time of spiritual plenty—does not make one invulnerable to attack. The Noble One must be wise enough to manage crime.


Hexagram 54, Marrying Sister, portrays a situation that is less-than-ideal. In the past, a younger sister was sometimes married to a popular ruler or chieftain along with her older sister. Naturally, the younger sister was subordinate, and sent along into a relationship not of her own choosing. There is also an allusion to being a concubine. Again, a woman is married in a subordinate and unfortunate situation. The Statement confirms this gloomy situation: “Advance: misfortune. No place will bring gain.”

Few of us will be in the literal situation of Marrying Sister, but there will be plenty of situations in which we find ourselves in similar oppressive circumstances. That’s when the Image becomes relevant and inspiring: The noble one pursues far-reaching goals while keeping aware of possible ruin.

This is one of the most valuable messages of the I Ching. When all seems against you, when you are put into the degrading situation of being a Marrying Sister, when any advancement brings misfortune and no place will bring gain, it is essential to remember that you still have your own inner determination. This you must not let go for any reason.

If you are hemmed in all around and there seems to be no advantage, then you should still have far-reaching goals. True, you have to be wary. Your situation is precarious and ruin is close at hand. Nevertheless, if you keep to your inner determination, you will be able to find the opening to your distant goals.


The noble one dwells in high moral character and reforms popular customs. This is the Image of Hexagram 53, Gradually. No one can quarrel with the need to dwell in high moral character, but what do we make of pairing gradualness with the reformation of popular customs?

The answer is that both high moral character and the reformation of popular customs must be done gradually. Nothing is gained by sudden declaration or violently forcible reform. For personal or social reform to take place, there must be a slow planting of new ideas. Then they will last.

The trigrams of this hexagram represent a tree on a mountain. For a tree to grow, especially the isolated pine in the crags of an exposed granite peak, the true power is one of gradualness. The tree can’t be transplanted there whole, nor can it acclimate properly if it were suddenly placed there. It can only survive if it grows there gradually. Having grown there gradually, though, even wind and rain storms cannot uproot it.

We are witnessing great changes in social customs now. The Internet and social media alone are effecting great, though gradual changes. The role of the I Ching in the past was to advise the rulers of the country. It was clear that the will of the people, not the ambitions of the ruler, were paramount. There are gradual changes among the social customs all the time: it is not just the noble one, but gradualness itself that reforms popular customs.


The Noble One: Stilling

March 21, 2011

Hexagram 52, Stilling is classically regarded as an allusion to meditation. The Statement is: “One stills one’s back and does not move one’s body. There is movement in one’s courtyard but one does not see one’s people.”

However, the Image seems to give a different implication: The noble one does not consider matters beyond his position. Here there is the idea of someone in action, perhaps as vigorous as the thunder of Hexagram 51, who pauses in stillness. Matters require a cessation for the moment and a consideration of one’s options. The Noble One is to examine only the possibilities of the current position. There is to be nothing gained by speculation or ambitiously far-reaching plans.

Does Hexagram 52 mean that we should not act? It’s important to distinguish this carefully. There are certainly other hexagrams that state we should not act. This is not one of them. We are only to consider what is within our position, but we are still supposed to act on them.

Taoist meditation is outwardly still but inwardly dynamic. The Taoist feels that everything in the universe moves, and therefore meditation must also move—inside. In the same way, the situation of Stillness means that we must consider all that is inside—and move nevertheless. That movement will not be discernable even to the “people in one’s courtyard,” but the effects will be far reaching.

The Noble One: Thunder

March 21, 2011

Understanding the Image of Hexagram 51 requires understanding the context of the hexagram. The Statement says, “Thunder comes frighteningly.” When one is shocked by a sudden event, one should look to oneself first. Confucius taught that when there was a problem, he first sought the error within himself.

Thus, The noble one examines his morals in fear and dread. If you are caught in a great upheaval, check to see if you are completely in the right.

Here is where we have to check the other side of the Image, a side only implied and not discussed here. What if you feel that your morals are completely in order? If you are completely sure of that, then perhaps you are the thunder. But in acting, you must make sure that you are completely scrupulous, completely moral. Only then is there no mistake.

The Noble One: Cauldron

March 7, 2011

The Chinese title for Hexagram 50 is Ding. A ding is a three-legged bronze cauldron from the Zhou dynasty (1050–770 bce). The vessel was used in preparing ceremonial meals. The three legs provided support when placed atop a cooking fire.

The ding is associated with power and dominion. In Chinese culture, possession of the ding was symbolic of the right to rule. The term “inquiring of the ding,” means the quest for power. According to legend, there was a set of nine ding, said to have been cast by King Yu of the Xia Dynasty when he first divided the land into Nine Provinces. Possession of this set of Nine Ding was regarded to be the sign of the rightful authority to rule the nation. The whereabouts of the Nine Ding are unknown. Some say that the set was already lost by the Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce). Nevertheless, the symbolism of power has remained with concepts of the ding.

In this context, the Image of Hexagram 50 takes on a special resonance: The noble one takes the principal seat to solidify his commands. Could you stoke the cauldron that feeds all people?

The implications of the ding as lasting shape (once cast, its shape does not change) and symbol of power are unmistakable. The noble one becomes like a ding—taking the principal seat, solidifying his commands. But then, the I Ching would always have us remember our responsibilities and would always have us serve the people. The noble one’s challenge, once the power of possessing the ding is achieved, is to feed all the people. It is only then that power is complete.

The Noble One: Reform

March 7, 2011

Hexagram 49, Reform, is usually translated as Revolution. However, if we think of it in that way, how do we understand the Image? The noble one orders the calendar by the seasons.

Quite clearly, what is meant is not revolution but reform of how people are governed and how people live their lives. Now, the seasons are relatively regular in comparison to human governance. They follow each other without fail, and while there might be variations in weather and temperature, the features of each season have never failed. When human affairs become disordered, the I Ching and the Taoists would have us return to the natural course of things, and, in fact, have us pattern our affairs upon them.

Hexagram 49 does not mean reform, or revolution, to replace one set of human theories with another. It means to align ourselves with the cycles of nature, to become, in effect, more natural.

For the Taoists, problems always arise when people who are out of step with nature. Therefore, reform is a matter of putting ourselves back in accord with nature.