This is part four of a series by Jonathan Edwards on the clinical use of the Yijing in Chinese medicine.
Part 4 – Bagua: The Yijing’s Bones
Welcome back to this rapidly-mutating series on divination in the clinic. To recap the action so far, we began in the first article by introducing divination as a forgotten or marginalized clinical skill ripe for revival. When we asked the Yijing itself about its clinical potential, we received Hexagrams 31 (influence) and 49 (metamorphosis): these symbols speak of transforming and transformative relationships.
It might as well be saying: ‘Rabbit hole ahead. Proceed at your own risk!’
In the second article, we examined a couple of hurdles to divining effectively, in the clinic or anywhere else: the issues of belief and of interpretation. Suspend disbelief, we suggested, and stay open to what unfolds; as for interpretation, try leaving aside the fat books of commentary in lieu of a direct relationship with the Yijing’s core symbols. May as well go to the source.
Then, in the same post, we looked at what we should and should not expect divination to be. It’s not a shortcut, a quick fix, or a tool to be used according to our whims. It is a powerful means of accessing higher guidance (whether that be the collective unconscious, ancestral spirits, the Daoist immortals, or quantum weirdness).
It can take us past our limits, but first we must brush up against those limits on our own.
Then last time we took a scenic detour in order to play with some non-hexagram based divination methods. This, I hope, not only provided an opportunity to sharpen our intuitive faculties and to tap into the magic of synchronicity, but also allowed us to do something essential to successful divination, namely to play.
The history of divination systems is intimately tied to that of games, as is still reflected in phrases like the Portuguese jogar os buzios (“to play the cowries”, in reference to cowrie-shell divination). Some of our most well-known board games have their roots in ritual and divinatory techniques, and vice versa. The point here is that a relaxed, open, and playful attitude is a great boon in divination. It’s also a lot easier to learn something when it’s approached as a sort of game—a sacred game, if you will.
Today we make our first pass at the trigrams, also known as the ba gua: the eight glyphs that form the architecture for the Yijing’s 64 hexagrams.
But before we get to eight, we begin with two: good old yin and yang.
The Yijing is a binary system, like modern computer code. Actually, you can take the analogy pretty far. Its bits, those 1’s and 0’s, are represented by yang and yin lines:
Yang lines are whole: ———-
Yin lines are broken: —- —-
The Yijing’s symbols are all composed of permutations of these two basic line types.
The trigrams are packets of three such lines. There are 2 cubed = 8 possible permutations. These eight are traditionally represented in a circle.
This arrangement of the trigrams is known as the Pre-Heaven bagua or Early Heaven bagua. The trigrams are read from inside out, by the way, as if you were standing in the center of the circle looking out at them. The inner-most line of each is the first line, which is also the bottom line. Trigrams and hexagrams are read from the bottom up.
The Pre-Heaven bagua presents the trigrams in a neat, symmetrical form: each trigram is opposite its complementary trigram (that is, the one you get by swapping each yin line for a yang and each yang line for a yin).
Now there’s no getting around learning the trigrams, and they can be maddeningly slippery (how are you supposed to remember that yin-yang-yang is Wind, and yang-yang-yin is Lake…? etc.) Getting to know them is our first project, and it’s really not so bad.
For starters, take the trigrams composed of pure yang and pure yin lines, respectively:
These are called Qian and Kun: Heaven and Earth. It’s not hard to remember which is which, since Heaven and Earth form an archetypal yin-yang pair. As if to remind us of this, the Pre-Heaven bagua places Qian and Kun at the top and bottom of the circle where they form a vertical axis. Heaven above, Earth below.
In terms of trigrams 101, it’s more than good enough for now if we know their names, their composition (in terms of lines), and a few of their basic qualities.
- Being pure yang, Qian is masculine, bright, sharp, clear, subtle. It is the father of the trigrams.
- Being pure yin, Kun is feminine, dark, soft, cloudy, dense. It is the mother of the trigrams.
Can’t you see them? Look. They’re in lo-ove.
And from their blessed union come the rest of the trigrams, and the Ten Thousand Things.
From here on, things get a little more complicated. There’s no more “pure” yin or yang; the two are going to be jumbled together and we may as well get used to it.
Speaking of which, here comes the next couple, a volatile and mysterious pair: Kan and Li are strutting down the gangway.
Fiery Li’s strutting her stuff out front, decked out in her finest red sequined dress, while her introverted partner Kan is brooding along in a dark suit. They’re an odd couple, all right: who’d have thought Fire and Water would go together? But, then again, of course they do.
Look at them more closely: there’s more here than meets the eye. In the midst of all that flashy yang, Ms. Li is guarding a soft interior: inside she’s all yin. And for all his watery ways, Monsieur Kan is built around a red-hot yang core. There’s something cooking in those depths.
Maybe that’s what attracts them to one another: neither is quite what they seem.
Could be a volatile wedding night.
That’s four trigrams down, and four to go.
Of course there’s plenty more depth to every one of these symbols, but basic familiarity is the place to start. For the next level of intimacy, the information in the Shuo Gua (available in translation by NCNM’s own Michael Givens) is foundational and rich. And don’t underestimate the value of meditating on/with the trigrams. Start with the one that calls to you; let it choose you. Get curious about what lies behind the door of those three lines. And enter…
We’ll meet Zhen, Xun, Gen and Dui, and start exploring the other important arrangement of the trigrams, the Post-Heaven Bagua. Then we’ll have the basis we need for some trigram divination. Who said hexagrams get to have all the fun?
Sources for trigram information
Michael Givens. Uttering the Names: A Four-Fold Translation of the Shuo Gua.
Zhongxian Wu. Seeking the Spirit of The Book of Change.