The I Ching

the Ba Gua

Yin-Yang Symbol & Trigrams of the I Ching

A HISTORY OF THE I CHING  (As described in the edition authored by Chris Marshall)

“The origins of the I Ching are almost lost in the mists of time but it is widely accepted that the trigrams (which are simply three lines each representing either yin–a broken line, or yang–a solid line thus forming 8 possible formations) were created by the legendary sage, Fu Hsi, around 3000 B.C. It was Fu Hsi who was credited with bringing the first code of “civilized” conduct into the world and setting down his understanding in an ethical code that was linked to the format of the trigrams. This ethical code was in the form of a number of verses, simple enough to be readily remembered which could thus be handed down orally from one generation to the next. 

The next major advance in the evolution of the I Ching came in the 12th century B.C. when King Wen wrote the first commentaries on the sixty-four hexagrams of which the I Ching consists. In the 6th century B.C., Chinese philosophy took another leap forward with the work of Confucius and Lao Tsu. Confucius was influenced strongly by Wen’s work, writing a number of commentaries on the hexagrams, and it was he who named the whole the I Ching – The Book of Changes – which has remained to his day.

Lao Tsu was also greatly influenced by the I Ching, and his book, Tao Te Ching, which is still enormously influential today, was derived almost exclusively from the I Ching.  This gave rise to a religion/philosophy called Taoism, which to this day still underpins Chinese culture and which has an influence on thinking all over the Pacific area.  It was Taoism that brought the concept of opposing, yet interdependent forces, yin and yang, to the forefront of philosophical thinking.  These two forces are constantly flowing into and away from each other, ever re-establishing their relationship, and this gave substance to the law of continual change that is central to Taoism and to the I Ching.


In order to have some comprehension of how the I Ching works and what it is saying, it is essential to try to understand the philosophy that underlies it.  It is significant that the I Ching is also known as The Book of Changes, and this is the first and most obvious clue to its philosophical origins. The ancient Chinese saw the primal energy of the cosmos as an intertwined mixture of male and female, each carrying the seed of the other, as depicted in the ubiquitous yin/yang symbol.

The ancient Chinese further believed that the cosmos was in a perpetual state of flux, motion, and change, and that it was the endless flowing the primal forces of yin and yang into and out of each other, which created the dynamics of life.  While we in the West have chosen to try to understand the mysteries of the universe through rationalism and reductionism, Eastern thought has tended more toward a unitary and intuitive approach.  The two main arms of Chinese philosophy, Taoism and Confucianism, teach the efficacy of “the middle way.”  Broadly speaking, this means understanding the inevitability of change and always being prepared to make the necessary adjustments in your life to maintain a harmonious and balanced stance.  To “go with the flow” while still retaining your own inner integrity requires a considerable strength of will (anyone who has witnessed the power and strength of the Oriental martial arts based on this philosophy  — judo, jujitsu, tai quan do, etc., can attest to this).


To answer this question effectively, it helps to look at the nature of time itself.  Our usual concept of time is linear – in other words, we see time as a straight line that disappears off into the past one way and into the future in the opposite direction, and we are at a point on that line called the present.  But if we see time as circular, then we could stand in the middle of that circle and see how the past and future are in a constant state of interaction.


It is clear that all the major religions and philosophies in the world are based on the concept of some form of “unity.” Even if we are unable to find a sense of unity in our own personal lives, by looking up to the heavens we can see a unified rhythmic pattern that we can use to inspire us.  The difference between “Heaven” and “the heavens” is perhaps not always too easy to distinguish; and “Unity” is not a static point existing in some imaginary corner of the universe, but rather a “harmony of movement encompassing all things.” Put more simply, “God” and “Heaven” can be seen in every rhythmic cycle the universe presents to us.  It could be further argued that “God” and “Heaven” are, maybe, no more than those very rhythms and cycles.

The philosophical system embodied in Taoism, and laid down in the I Ching, is based on a cycle of sixty-four possible permutations of the two polar or opposing forces, yin and yang, made up from the groups of six.  Each of these groups of six, or hexagrams, is composed of two trigrams representing the union of heaven and earth.  To quote the Hui Ming Chin, “the most marvelous effect of the Tao is the circulation in conformity with the law.  What makes the movement inexhaustible is the path.  What best regulates the speed are the rhythms.”

For more on the Universal Message of the I Ching see the Understanding Reality Course.