When I was ten years old I rode my bicycle down to the library in Griffith, Indiana, walked up to the librarian and demanded a copy of The Meaning of Life, a book whose existence I had presumed, based on some vague discussions I had heard on the Sunday afternoon TV talk shows from Chicago. Local intellectuals would discuss heady matters with national intellectuals, in town promoting a new book perhaps, and drop little bombs of hope on my bewildered young mind in the form of phrases like ‘the human spirit’, ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘the meaning of life’. As a kid from a blue collar working class neighborhood, this kind of talk was a revelation to me.
But the TV people never explained very much about their high-minded banter or told me what the meaning of life was, so I assumed it was something to be learned by reading a related book, and then moved beyond, as you would move on past the story of say, Sacagawea, after a history exam.
Such a book, I imagined, must be where the adults had put all the crucial information they were keeping from me. Most of them certainly acted as if they had it hidden somewhere.
The bemused Griffith librarian, in cool certainty that no such book was available, took this as an opportunity to show me the Dewey Decimal System, and then she was herself somewhat amazed to discover that the library actually did have a book on the shelf entitled The Way of Life, which was a translation of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu.
She told me that I was too young for such a book but in my admittedly immature existential angst, I insisted that I must have it, and fairly ran off with the tome.
This was my perfect introduction to ancient Chinese philosophy and some of it was simple enough that I could grasp it right away, and all of it was beautifully powerful enough to move me in a way that mere comprehension does not touch. I still read it every year or so.
By the time I was out of high school and beginning to make a life for myself as a blues/rocker and singer/songwriter, I had heard of the I Ching, the ancient book of Chinese oracles, and had perused a copy once or twice.
In my twenties, after I was hired to write songs in LA, one of my first purchases as a nearly middle-class hipster of spiritual bent was a copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching which I then read over and over again, it was so fascinating to me.
I learned to throw the coins to make a hexagram, and set about to know my destiny. I was amazed at the subjective accuracy of the readings using the simple three coin method. But as the faint footnote of my musical career started down a path through disco disasters to a variety of stunning pop miscalculations, I sometimes became childishly, personally angry with the I Ching, even though I hardly ever really followed the advice or heeded the warnings I was given.
I put it down. I picked it back up and I looked at other translations. I decided it was not for me. I came running back in consternation.
At some point it occurred to me that the scholarly approach of all the translations I had seen was a little stilted and the language was often as abstruse as it was ancient.
I thought I should try to write a more accessible version of the book myself.
I asked the I Ching about it and received the first hexagram, with the sixth line moving. (What this means will be scribed presently, when I explain how to consult the I Ching. The sixth line is a pretty nasty line about presumptuous arrogance.
I gave up the idea but decided to ask again in a year.
That was thirty-some years ago.
Every year I asked and every year I got a resounding “No Way”, wrapped in various polite but pointedly negative imagery.
Since you have probably never heard of me before, you can well guess how my grand musical ambitions turned out, for the most part.
Actually, a lot of cool things happened for me in the music business. I wrote songs recorded by a bewildering variety of artists, from John Mellencamp and John Denver to Diana Ross and Garth Brooks. I got to play shows with personal heroes of mine like Dr. John, Townes Van Zandt and Etta James. I came achingly close to major label success as a recording artist on a few occasions and spent a lot of time riding around the country on tour buses, playing piano for guys like Lee Roy Parnell and in my own blues band. It’s just that it all never amounted to “rich and famous”, and sadly, “rich and famous” is usually the only real alternative to “broke and obscure”, in today’s show business.
So for the last ten years I have been doing what is called a Day Job or in my case, lots of day jobs, mostly in construction and home health care. I do, of course, still write songs and play music, but as I’ve gotten older, other interests, especially spiritual pursuits, have taken up more and more of my time. So I’m as likely on a given night to be poring over a spiritual essay, as I am to be looking for the local blues jam.
Along the way I studied several different spiritual traditions and learned from all of them. I became, and remain, a devotee of the great spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj, but the I Ching was also never far from the center of my universe. After work, I spent a couple of years writing a spiritual memoir and had, by this time, come to assume that I was probably never going to get a green light from the I Ching on the project of creating an American interpretation of the text.
When I had finished the memoir and it was circulating among friends, I found that I had become addicted to being a writer, and so I decided to put my question to the Oracle one more time. In response I received the fifth line of the first hexagram, which is an auspicious and very encouraging reading: in some translations it indicates worthwhile spiritual achievement.
That was good enough for me.
Before I describe this translation and explain how to throw the coins, I will tell you one other story involving the reading of the Oracle. I must admit it is an odd one, but it speaks to the spiritual hodgepodge that is increasingly our heritage in the American melting pot, and it illustrates a point regarding how to approach the I Ching, so I will include it here.
Many years ago before I became a fan of the I Ching, I was visiting Frank Fools Crow on the Pine Ridge Reservation, on the occasion of a powwow near Kyle, South Dakota. Fools Crow was a renowned medicine man, as were a number of his guests, and there was also a sizable ‘New Age’ contingent of mostly younger seekers who had come up for the weekend.
Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Yogis – all kinds of people were there, in addition to Fools Crow’s many Lakota friends and relations. I was basically a young forager at the buffet of contemporary spiritual possibility and very much impressed with Lakota spiritual practices, as well as the lively variety of other views represented at this gathering.
One guy was demanding a lot of amused attention from the old timers around Grandpa Frank’s little house. He kept asking questions of the various Wicasa Wiccan, or Medicine Men as they are more commonly called. Then he would run back to his van and throw three Chinese coins six times, doing a hasty, casual version of an I Ching reading, to see if the ancient Chinese oracle agreed with what he had just been told.
He was an anxious and rather rude young man who seemed to keep getting information that he could not abide.
I will never forget listening all night to the sound of coins bouncing against the metal floor of his vehicle, as he threw reading after reading, obsessively trying to either change or overcome the information he didn’t really want to know.
He left early the next morning, and everybody laughed about it, including me, although I did not know then that I was destined to become that same kind of obsessive-compulsive geek on occasion, after I took up regular consultation of the oracle soon afterward.
His approach was an example of wrong-mindedness on a number of levels.
Why drive out into the middle of nowhere to consult a Lakota medicine man if you are then going to test him against an English translation of a five-thousand-year-old oriental spiritual authority? It’s not like you’re doing research for MIT; you just want to find out about your future.
Why reshape your concerns again and again when you have already got the definitive response to your question?
Maybe it’s youthful error: you hope that if you can just rephrase your query in the right way, you will eventually get the answer you want.
You will not.
The truth is that we humans want our lives to work out wonderfully well, according to our preset plans and dreams, and we often blame the messenger if the news is contrary. This guy wanted so badly for things to go a certain way, that when he was told it wouldn’t happen, he was no longer throwing an I Ching reading, he was throwing a tantrum with Chinese coins.
The good news about bad news, in the case of my reaction to the I Ching, is that after about thirty or forty years of frequently not getting what I wanted from it, I gained a couple of things.
1. I learned that I was often better off not getting what I desired, especially if I was forewarned of the situation.
2. Without realizing it, I had translated much of the wisdom and most of the essential fortune-telling aspects of the book into the speech and imagery of my own mind and culture.
It is important to note here that the I Ching is very much greater than a fortune telling oracle. In my opinion it is as great a source of traditional spiritual wisdom as any text known to man. The sublime version written by Deng Ming-Dao, The Living I Ching, to name only one, ranks among the loftiest spiritual poetry I have ever read. The earlier Legge and Wilhelm/Baynes translations are also marvelous.
One should not look to trivialize or oversimplify the I Ching any more than one would the Bible or the Gitas or the Koran.
On the other hand, there is an aspect of this work that is meant to provide simple answers, and to be practically helpful to everyone, without regard to class or spiritual predilection. Everyone seeks to discover where happiness can be found and how difficulties are to be overcome.
In fact, the realization that this oracle actually does work has produced, for some folks whom I personally witnessed, the first real inkling that any kind of spiritual reality even exists.
Another important bonus of consulting the I Ching is that, since it existed long before even the earliest literature of the mainstream religions of the modern world, it cannot be reasonably thought to stand in opposition to any of them.
Confucius is widely said to have written the I Ching, but “compiled” is really more like it, as he was also thought to have visited Lao Tzu, the founding figure of Taoism, to receive his instruction at some length, and in any case, consultation with some form of the Oracles predates both figures far into the mists of prehistory.
It is also said that Lao Tzu is supposed to have lived to between 160 and 200 years of age and a lot of the stories surrounding the legend of Confucius have the ring of apocrypha as well, but what is not in doubt is that a good many of the wisdom teachings of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, are the same.
So to engage the I Ching is to take a look into some of the most ancient wisdom of the human race. It is a glimpse, however, through the dark glass of many centuries of linguistic and cultural change, and what was in an ancient time the plain imagery of thought has become, in some instances, incomprehensible.
But the Ching is systematic in its spiritual fluidity, and therefore it is possible to infer, from the whole of the system, and with the help of repetition and experience, what some of the more obscure readings may mean in any particular case.
You will not find it lacking either for philosophical depth or personal relevance.
Still the arcane language of earlier translations can be quite daunting, and there has been disagreement among scholars, even from the earliest recorded commentaries, about the real meaning of specific readings.
I speak no Chinese and am no historian, yet as I have continued to consult the I Ching using a wide variety of translations over the years, and life has presented its changes, more and more I have found myself saying: “Ah, this is what that reading really means, to me.”
So this brief adaptation of The Book of Changes has a twofold purpose, based almost entirely on a lifetime of personal study, trial and error.
The first purpose is to reinterpret the oracular imagery in language that anyone on an ordinary American street corner could easily understand and readily use.
The second purpose is to bypass, for the most part, those more philosophical, numerological and obscure commentaries on the texts.
But the I Ching is not exactly a how-to manual either, so to dispense with the original imagery and flow of thought altogether would be both foolish and disrespectful. Sometimes an ancient reference to a particular scene, custom or even a number will evoke an intuition that only the questioner would really understand, and I have tried to leave that ability intact. Such are oracles.
I have simply tried to include the kinds of information I myself have found most useful, as if I were doing a reading for a friend.
I must also add a strong recommendation to anyone who is really serious about the I Ching, that they continue to study all the related literature, including the many, much more expansive translations or interpretations of the book itself. The Carl Jung introduction to the Wilhelm/Baynes translation, is by itself worth the price of that edition.
The fact is, however, that if you are having trouble deciding whether or not to buy a certain car or take a certain job, a detailed study of the Taoist or Confucian commentaries on the answer you have drawn may not add much to your understanding.
This humble offering is meant for ordinary, everyday consultation.
After many years of head scratching and rectification of multiple translations of the sometimes contradictory, ancient instruction, and more years of neurotic, even ridiculous complication of the I Ching, I have formed an opinion about what most of the lines may mean to a contemporary western reader, in response to an ordinary question.
Like any one of the thousands of I Ching readers on street corners all over China, I necessarily bring myself, my language, my personal experience and point of view to this work.
So this is one man’s take on the Book of Changes, in ordinary language – no more, no less.