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I Ching

The I Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese text used as an oracle to find out the answers to troubling questions such as "what does the future hold for me?" The book consists of 64 hexagrams, each consisting of six broken or unbroken lines. (Sixty-four is the number of possible combinations of six broken or unbroken lines.) The lines represent the two primal cosmic principles in the universe, yin and yang. Yin (Mandarin for moon) is the passive, female principle. Yang (Mandarin for sun) is the active, masculine principle. According to legend, the Chinese emperor Fu Hsi claimed that the best state for everything in the universe is a state of harmony represented by a balance of yin and yang. Why the I Ching has six lines, however, is a mystery, since the ancient Chinese believed there were five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), five planets, five seasons, five senses, as well as five basic colors, sounds and tastes. Unsurprisingly, legend has it that, according to Fu Hsi, true harmony requires yang to be dominant. It's just the nature of things.

The hidden cosmic meanings of the hexagrams were divined many years ago by Chinese philosopher-priests in tune with the tao (Chinese for path or way). They consist of such bits of fortune cookie wisdom as: "Treading upon the tail of the tiger. It does not bite the man." Or, "the superior man discriminates between high and low."

The I Ching is consulted using coins or yarrow stalks. The latter method involves a complex divination based on dividing up bundles of yarrow stalks. Flipping coins is simpler. Each coin is assigned a number. The coins are tossed and the numbers added up to determine the hexagram. However, today you can consult the oracle either on the internet or on a CD.

It is not too difficult to understand why ancient peoples would look to random coin tosses, plant stalks, bird's entrails, the stars, lines on burnt bones, etc., to help them decide what to do next with their lives. They had no science, little knowledge of the nature of things, and not much more to guide them in this life than the teachings of superstitious mythmakers and storytellers. It is not too difficult to imagine why the mythmakers would come up with such methods of divination: you can make money from it and, if you are clever and vague enough, nobody can prove you wrong. Furthermore, you satisfy a need which many people seem to have: the need to be told what to do with their lives. The same is true today, though it may be disappointing to some graduates of Princeton University to see their alma mater's name associated with the CD-ROM version of the I Ching. Business is business. And today there is hardly any business as booming as the business of metaphysical and mystical non-sense.

See related entries on oracles and stichomancy.

The Skeptic's Dictionary
Robert Todd Carroll