This is part six of a series by Jonathan Edwards on the clinical use of the Yijing in Chinese medicine.
Part 6 – Trigram Magic
We wrapped up last time with a puzzle: the pre-heaven bagua is composed of pairs of opposites (yin-yang pairs), but what is the principle governing the arrangement of the post-heaven bagua? There’s nothing symmetrical here, except that Li and Kan are opposite one another. The rest of the order appears jumbled, random—until we look through another lens.
The post-heaven bagua follows the order of the generation cycle (sheng) cycle of the five elements.
Starting at left or Easterly side, we have yang Wood (Zhen). Then, proceeding clockwise, we get yin Wood (Xun), Fire (Li), Earth (kun), yin and yang of Metal (Dui and Qian), and Water (Kan). Then, before returning to Zhen, we pass once more through Earth, this time in the form of Gen. This extra Earth looks a bit irregular, but it also makes sense since Earth governs not only the late summer season (between Fire and Metal) but all seasonal transitions. And this way the two Earth-associated trigrams stand opposite one another, forming a tilted earth axis nearly but not quite aligned with the N and S poles.
There, that was a mouth full, but hopefully you get the idea. Now why go through that little exercise? Because knowing the five element rationale for the post heaven bagua brings it to life, and it’s this arrangement which is most relevant to Chinese medicine. We rarely deal with the heavenly world of unbroken symmetries, after all, but are generally knee-deep in the mud of phase elements down here on earth. Life on earth is pretty much a post-heaven phenomenon.
Okay, one more post heaven bagua trick, and then we finally move on to some divination : Magic Squares
Esoteric belly-scratchers the world over have noticed that digits can be arranged in grids (3×3, 4×4, 5×5 and so on) in such a way that each row, column and long diagonal adds up to the same number. In the 3×3 grid, for example, the digits 1-9 can be arranged such that each line adds up to 15. There’s only one way to do it (well, one way plus the mirror image versions of that way).
I’m not going to ask you to figure it out.
To the right is the square we’re going to be working with.
Why do we care? Because this numerical arrangement provides a handy way of assigning a digit to each of the trigrams.
Overlay it on the post-heaven bagua, and each trigram ends up with a number, like so:
- 4 – Xun / 9-Li / 2-Kun
- 3-Zhen / 5-(blank) / 7-Dui
- 8-Gen / 1-Kan / 6-Qian
As you can see, the eight trigrams correspond nicely with the eight numbers around the outside of the grid. But what do we do with 5, the odd one out? Well, it’s in the middle—so we are already thinking ‘Earth.’ Anyway 5 is always the number of Earth, the ‘fifth element.’
So there we have it. Kun doubles up with both 2 and 5.
Coinless Trigram Divination
Now we’re ready to do some trigram divination without even needing to hoist a Chinese coin. Simply generating a single digit (1-9) will give us a trigram. All we need is a way to get the digit. We could roll a 10-sided die (re-rolling if we get 10), but only the true nerds amongst us will have one of those lying around (eh-hem).
Almost as simple as dice-rolling is this method: Come up with a three digit number without thinking about it, just the first one that pops into our head: 101, say. Divide by 9 (I know, I know, it’s been a while). The remainder is your digit. Here, 9 goes into 101 11 times (9 x 11 = 99) with a remainder of 2. So whatever the question was, the answer is 2, that is Kun.
There’s only one other rule: if there’s no remainder, consider that a 9, Li (so if you started with 108, there’s no remainder and you count it as Li).
Try it once or twice to get the hang of it. It’s simpler than I just made it sound.
458 = ___
236 = ___
What, you want the answers?
Like I’m going to do a bunch of division…suckers. (Gets hit with tomato…okay, okay!) 458 —> 8, Gen. And 236 —> 2, Kun. Earth and more Earth, as it happens.
Putting it all together, we can try asking an actual question.
Not a yes/no question (flip a coin!) and not a life-the-universe-and-everything question, either (we need all 64 hexagrams for that). Something of middling complexity should work nicely. Something you can relate easily to the five elements (we know how to map the trigrams onto them now) or to compass directions. For example, you could plan a road trip this way (and I have!), with the trigram giving the direction. Li? Looks like you’re heading South. (Remember, for the Chinese South is up on a map and North is down.) Or maybe Li means you’re heading to a bonfire (Li = fire), or a solstice party (Li —> Fire —> peak of yang / midsummer) or simply somewhere extraordinarily beautiful. Maybe none of the above happens—but you meet the love of your life on the tirp. That was a Li type of thing.
The trick is often that the oracle answers “the questions we lacked the wit to ask,” as James Merrill once put it.
You could plan your Sunday afternoon activity this way. “What will bring balance and harmony to my life this fine afternoon?” Kun: Shut up and be. Soak in yin. Relax and enjoy. Or Zhen: shake things up! Get moving. Do some spring cleaning! Or Li: time for music, adornment, lo-ove.
You could ask a ‘who’ question: “who is the right person for me to invite to the ball?” Gen: your little brother—or someone solid and reliable. Kun: your mom—or an earth mama type.
You can ask for auspices: “What are the auspices for driving to Mount Shasta this weekend?” Kan: dark, deep or dangerous; perhaps wintry conditions are on the way. Contrast with Dui: pleasant, enjoyable, care-free. Take the convertible (open on top like the trigram).
Let’s try one for real. No fudging, I promise.
Here’s my question: what element is most lacking in this article series? In other words, which trigram’s energy can I use an infusion of before I sit down to write?
692: It was there before I could even think. And let’s see: 692/9 = 76 remainder 8. That…didn’t take embarrassingly long or anything. Anyway, 8 is Gen. Looks like I could stand to cultivate the virtues of the mountain: steadiness, groundedness. Simplicity, maybe (are my numerological digressions confusing the issue?).
Or silence: too damn wordy.
It’s good form to acknowledge gracefully the guidance received, even if it stings (I knew I shouldn’t have asked that question…!)—and then put it into practice. Thusly.