I Ching coins 'Three Coins in the Fountain' of Life

from a 1994 lecture, I Ching: The Book of Changes and Life, by Daniel d'Quincy.


Now, let's get down to brass tacks - or brass pennies if you like, which would do quite as well under the circumstances. For we are talking here about a divining tool that consists of three ordinary little pennies.

The characteristic Chinese coins, minted with a square hole in the middle, may look exotic enough to us, but there is a deeper meaning in the fact that they are commonplace in China. For the key to all wisdom in the Chinese way of thinking is to point to the juxtaposition of opposites in all phenomena. Characteristically, for example, the most profound questions are answered with reference to the basic elements and utensils of daily life; and conversely, unthinking use of the commonplace is answered with the most subtle philosophical speculations.

Whenever you read the I ching, you must think about opposites. It calls to our attention the yin and the yang interpenetrating all beings and things. This is the light and dark of the universe, the hot and the cold, the good and the bad, the living and the dead. It is worth noting here that the word "I" out of which the title I ching is made, is a word with two mutually exclusive and opposite meanings. We also have words like this in English: we may cleave a loaf of bread in two, but become as one with spirit when we "cleave unto the Lord." In this Chinese instance, the word "I" means change, and at the same time it means the immutable, that which is permanent and unchanging. How can this be? What are we to imagine this book is about, so curiously named.

The answer is that, ultimately, the I ching reveals through its images and commentaries a universe; in other words, out of its dialectic of opposites it creates unity, and one may say, reality. For this life that we live and breathe cannot be divided into opposites without rendering it lifeless.

To put this another way, the opposites are revealed as, in themselves, having no reality. It is the flux between opposites, the incessant and eternal coming and going of yin and yang, through which creation is experienced. Here, you have in a nutshell the essential insight offered by The Book of Changes: life and the universe are created out of the union of change and time on the one hand, and permanence and the Eternal on the other.

You may see how sharply it contrasts with the Western view, in which opposites not only have a substantial reality, but are engaged in a war to the holy finish. And, while the Bible gives prophetic voice to the final victory of good over bad, the high drama of the battle as lived in the lives of Moses and Jesus, as in our own personal lives, gives pause for wonder: can it be that good won't win in the end? If we are not careful, you see, darkness and evil will destroy our civilization and there will be nothing left worth having. We become obsessed with order and rationality, you see, because we fear deep down that all we have built up with our single-minded purpose, our blood and our sweat, is imperiled by the ultimate chaos of blind and stupid chance.

And so we come to the cruel oppositions of chance and necessity. We can never reconcile them in our lives. We view with greatest horror the assassin who shoots anonymously from the tower. Better somehow to be shot by a spouse, than by an irrational nut. In the same way, we see no connection between ourselves and the cancer that strikes us.

And when we see three coins tossed repeatedly into the air, heads and tails counted on their descent, and we are told that the results have some significance beyond pure chance, it is more than we can abide. Our situation in life must surely be the result of a strict necessity. We are the result of everything that came before us, or so we think and wish; but the sum of heads and tales on three common coins is obviously the result of pure coincidence. (And vice versa, for, oddly enough, this statement seems just as true when we reverse the terms.) How can we translate between these two universes?

The I ching is the translation, or rather, one of them. Like life itself, the intelligence of this book exists between and within the categories it describes. And a great metaphor is revealed in the method by which it is consulted. For, in this method, the coherent order of its sixty-four images is bisected by the random toss of a handful of coins. Thus, chance and necessity together create understanding.

It is the same, indeed, with many of the oracles. The Tarot deck, for example, like the I ching, is not an arbitrary set of images, but a coherent and unified collection obeying a discernible logic. Yet, it must be shuffled to be consulted, and the cards are chosen face-down.

Life that is purely rational cannot be true life. Into it, some chance must be introduced, to in-form it. Many of you, like me, will find it difficult to give a little room for chance. It can be a frightening prospect indeed. People frequently tell me that they don't want to relinquish control over their lives to a book. But the I ching, in reality, is nothing more than in-formation.

For those who view the Book of Changes as a threat, I always recommend a more playful attitude. The I ching may, I think, be played with if we take the word "play" in a sufficiently limited sense. In general, in life, we needn't be so serious. Sincere will usually do.

And I will wager that, if you give that toss of the coins a chance, pardon my pun, in the spirit of curiosity and investigation, you will not be unamazed at the uncanny ability of the I ching to penetrate to the heart of the matter on which you have consulted it. It's advice you may find sage.

Of it's authors, it has been said: They determined the Tao of Heaven and called it the dark and the light. They determined the Tao of Earth, and called it the yielding and the firm. They determined the Tao of People, and called it love and rectitude.


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