The I ching and the Tao

by Hilary J. Barrett

The I Ching is an ancient and beautiful Chinese oracle that has been helping people and answering their questions for some 3,000 years. Reading the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching together, it seems that Lao Tzu must have known and loved the tradition of the ancient oracle. The two books spring from the same world – the same traditions, and the same way of being.

The Tao is the way. To move with it is to be in harmony with the nature of the time, fitting with it as smoothly as flowing water. This was not an abstract, metaphysical idea for the early Chinese: both in the regular cycles of farming and in the changing dynamics of contemporary politics, it was a present necessity. The ideal is simple: to follow what is right for the time.

Time is not marked quantatively – as if divided by the hands of a wrist-watch – but qualitatively, as a particular, sacred moment to be observed. This idea is brought out in the Hsiang Chuan wing of the I Ching, in which the ‘noble heir’ and occasionally the ‘former Kings’ are offered as models for how to respond to the nature of the time.

The former Kings seem to have governed through wu wei, ‘doing not-doing’. Hexagram 25 , wu wang, ‘Without entanglement’, describes how it is possible to live and act without becoming emotionally embroiled and misled, and without encountering resistance, by allowing one’s own inner initiative to be awoken by the laws of nature, like thunder in heaven.

‘Below heaven, thunder moves. Creatures and energies join together helpfully without entanglement. The former Kings used whatever throve abundantly in the season to nurture the ten thousand things.’ The Kings appear again in Hexagram 20, where they ‘observed the far reaches (of their kingdom), watching the common people in order to set up their teaching.’

In other words, the way to feed the people is found in the cycles of nature; the way to teach them is found in their own nature. In fact, through hexagrams 19 and 20, it is far from clear who is teaching and who is learning…

But trying to draw absolute ideas from the I Ching as you might from the Tao Te Ching very precisely and brilliantly misses the point. The I Ching encompasses many, many different ways of interacting with the nature of the time to follow the changing Way, which are often mutually exclusive. It is not just a book of wisdom to read, it is an oracle to talk with.

Through invoking chance in the act of consulting the oracle, we effectively ‘disentangle’ ourselves from rationalisations, and allow the underlying reality of the moment – the Tao – in.
The Taoist ideal, of a crystal-clear perception that enables you to move naturally at the right time, was shared by the very earliest users of oracles.

They did not passively ask the spirits what was going to happen, but rather whether they had their blessing for the hunt or the harvest they proposed. A customer once explained to me that she knew she wanted to make a certain change in her life, but she wanted to be sure that this was the right time for it. ‘Is that the sort of thing you can ask?’ she enquired.

I reassured her that it certainly was! Unknowingly, she was sharing in one of the oldest, deepest motives behind our consultation of the I. (So it is perhaps not surprising that she has developed a profound understanding of the I Ching. I think she has been moving with Tao all her life.)

Maybe the most basic question underlying all others is ‘what is my path?’ It contains so many questions – where am I, where am I going, how can I get there, how can I deal with these obstacles, is this the right way? These are the questions people have been bringing to the I Ching for 3,000 years or more.

Copyright H.J.Barrett 2000

About the author
I have been learning from the I Ching for many years now, and recently founded Clarity, a guaranteed I Ching consultation service whose mission is to make the I Ching’s help and insight readily and simply available to all who need it.