When people read the ancient Chinese classic, the I Ching, they are not always aware that what they hold in their hands is a collection of texts from different periods and unknown authors. Aside from the original I Ching text, characterised by its poetic, some would say, cryptic nature, there are the commentaries, known together as the Ten Wings.
It is the Ten Wings which lift the I Ching from being a divinatory system only to a philosophical masterpiece of Taoism.
One of the those commentaries is the Ta Chuan (Great Treatise). Attributed to Confucius, though likely to be of even greater antiquity, it forms what has become known as the heart of the I Ching and is, in my opinion, as significant a text in the Taoist canon as the Tao Te Ching and the text it seeks to illuminate: the I Ching. It explains how the I Ching came into existence; it tells us about the ancient masters who contemplated the universe and revealed its workings to us by means of images, hexagrams and words, about how to approach the Oracle and how to cultivate the kind of character that can engage with the Changes.
And it goes even further: into the structure and nature of the universe itself; of the mechanics of Tao, and how to make ourselves a creative part of it. In its majestic opening, here translated by Richard Wilhelm, the way Tao works, rather than made enigmatic, is laid bare:
Heaven is high, the earth is low; thus the creative and the receptive are determined. In correspondence with this difference between low and high, inferior and superior places are established. Movement and rest have their definite laws; according to these, firm and yielding lines are differentiated. Events follow trends, each according to its nature. Things are distinguished from one another in definite classes. In this way good fortune and misfortune come about. In the heavens phenomena take form. In this way change and transformation become manifest.
Here we are introduced to the cosmic order: the creative, in which all things exist as unrealised potential, sits in a superior position and is completed by the receptive, below it, which gives physical expression to the invisible realm. The evolution of events on earth follow patterns, which can be understood; and all directed by the firm and the yielding lines (yin and yang): the conductor of the orchestra of creation.
We are told that the process of Change is easy to know and simple to follow. That is quite a departure from the common notion of Tao as being impossible to comprehend. While Tao can never be defined, its way can — and by the ancient sages was — understood completely.
Following on, the Ta Chuan then explains how we can comprehend the myriad processes and evolving patterns around us:
Look upward, we contemplate with its help the signs in the heavens; looking down, we examine the lines of the earth. Thus we come to know the circumstances of the dark and the light. Going back to the beginnings of things and pursuing them to the end, we come to know the lessons of birth and death. The union of seed and power produces all things; the escape of the soul brings about change. Through this we come to know the conditions of outgoing and returning spirits.
In other words, the sages observed nature and saw patterns in it. They followed those patterns, which together made up infinite complexity, back to their ancient beginnings, then followed their progression back to infinity. In that way, they came to understand how Change happened the way it did. And by understanding the many processes of Change and how they interact and create anew they became masters of fate.
The Changes are what have enabled the holy sages to reach all depths and to grasp the seeds of all things. Only through what is deep can one penetrate all wills on earth. Only through the seeds can one complete all affairs on earth. Only through the divine can one hurry without haste and reach the goal without walking.
These sages used a combination of images, a system of broken and unbroken lines, and words to reveal to us what they intuited. That is their legacy: a way for us to engage with Change and become part of it.
And the Changes become part of us, too. The Ta Chuan suggests how we might cultivate a 'superior' personality: how we might quieten the mind and free the spirit; and how we might accumulate and exercise influence over events and people.
The superior man sets his person at rest before he moves; he composes his mind before he speaks . . . but if a man is brusque in his movements others will not cooperate; if he is agitated in his words, they awaken no echo in others . . . in the Changes it is said: He brings increase to no one.
This not the kind of influence that is self-serving. It is benevolent. The Ta Chuan speaks of action that is right — of virtuous conduct, and it warns against wielding the power of Change — the power of Tao — from the weak foundation of a poor character.
(If good does not accumulate, it is not enough to make a name for a man. If evil does not accumulate, it is not strong enough to destroy a man. Therefore the inferior man thinks to himself, "Goodness in small things has no value," and so neglects it. He thinks, "Small sins do no harm," and so does not give them up. Thus small sins accumulate until they can no longer be covered up, and his guilt becomes so great that it can no longer be wiped out. In the Book of Changes it is said: "His neck is fastened in the wooden cangue, so that his ears disappear. Misfortune.")
In aligning ourselves with Change and learning to harness it, not only do we gain access to the creative power of Tao but we also gain access to the greatest teacher of all: Change. The Changes reveal to us the beginning and the end of all things; they allow us to master fate and to transform ourselves into fully realised beings, and to become the Changes themselves.