Studying an ancient trail


Now that we’ve closed the books on 2017, I’ll mention one of my highlights for the year: After a great deal of searching I found a teacher to help me study an ancient Chinese book of wisdom known as the I Ching. That search was, on its own, quite an adventure.

A few of my friends have since become interested in the work. This is due largely to the influence it had on famous Western minds such as the doctor Carl Jung and the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz.

I’d like to say more about this later in 2018. There’s no point in following a trail, though, if we lose sight of why we found it to begin with. With that in mind, I’m going to refresh our minds with excerpts from a 2016 article I ran, “Finding an ancient trail,” which was about the I Ching:

A flight between China and Saipan takes about four hours. Today we’ll take a journey that spans about 3,000 years, back to when an ancient work called the I Ching was compiled.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1642-1727) was a German mathematician. History has stuffed him in Isaac Newton’s shadow, but I thought Leibniz deserved more than a mere flicker of attention. He’s a bedrock of that great Western invention, calculus, but some of his observations had a distinctly Eastern perspective.

Among his possessions was a diagram from the I Ching. If you take a look at a Korean flag, which isn’t hard to do on Saipan, you’ll notice four three-lined arrangements around the center of the flag. These “trigrams” are rooted in ancient Chinese symbology, and, when stacked up into six-line “hexagrams,” they are the basis of the I Ching.

Intrigued? I was. So I started looking for a book on the I Ching.

At this point, another German enters the picture, one Richard Wilhelm (1873-1930). Herr Wilhelm lived in China for a span of years. Wilhelm translated the Chinese I Ching into German, the German was translated into English by Cary Baynes, and this Chinese-to-German-to-English tome was published by the Princeton University Press.

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) wrote a foreword to the book. Herr Doktor Jung and Wilhelm were apparently pals.

Jung is still a household name—well, depending on the household, I guess. His foreword to Wilhelm’s I Ching was not the only material Jung wrote about Chinese philosophy. One such book that Jung wrote is titled Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. It’s also published by Princeton University Press. I had an opportunity to thumb through the book earlier this week, but I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading it.

Anyway, with names like Jung and Leibniz in the fan club, it’s safe to say that the I Ching has real star power in the West.

The I Ching was a method of “divination,” which is a fancy word for fortune-telling. But it looks to me like the I Ching really dispenses advice for specific contexts, as opposed to spitting out blind prognostications like a machine at a carnival. Although you arrive at the contexts via a random walk (by, for example, flipping coins), the analysis of the contexts has a lot of old-school wisdom. For me, that’s where the juice is.

I’ll pick a random example: the context of a traveler or wanderer. Many people on Saipan have worked afield, so that’s a good situation to consider.

So here’s some I Ching advice: “If the wanderer busies himself with trivial things, he draws down misfortune upon himself.”

Wilhelm expounds on this, explaining that a wanderer should be humble and should avoid jokes and bufoonery, which will lead to being regarded with contempt. I think we’ve all seen examples of this, where travelers think they’re more clever than they really are, and, while the locals might politely smile at the loudmouth from afar, things aren’t so rosy under this calm surface.

Anyway, that sort of context, and the wisdom that’s attached to it, gives you a sense of what I’ll call the I Ching’s output. I find these tidbits of wisdom, and Wilhelm’s explanations, very interesting and highly practical.

As for the methods used to generate the output, well, that gets esoteric and you could probably invest an entire career studying that stuff. It’s rooted in the nature of natural elements (mountains, thunder, etc.) and how they interact with each other. These are what’s depicted in the hexagrams.

I’m still working my way through Wilhelm’s book. I’m also trying to find an expert to help me answer a few questions I have about the subject, so I’ll just have to see how that goes.

It’s sure an interesting trail, though, which connects the ancient Chinese wisdom to Germans like Leibniz and Wilhelm, to Dr. Jung in Switzerland, to the Korean flags that you can see on Saipan, and to the thoughts that entertain a guy who’s sitting in a beach chair.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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