Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Historical Schools of the I Ching

In the course of its 3000 year history as a written book, the I Ching has been in a central position in the Chinese spiritual and intellectual world.  So entire schools of thought have risen and fallen with regard to the interpretation of the I Ching.  Almost any debate we could have now, or almost any insight or realization you could have about the I Ching, will likely be echoed by the thoughts of some luminary of Chinese history.

Two of the most famous (and famously opposed) schools were the "Image and Number" School and the "Principles and Meaning" School.  These both emerged in the later part of the Han dynasty, and took diametrically opposed views about how to see the I Ching, in ways that reflect debates about it today.

The Image and Number school focused on the metaphysics and mathematics of the I Ching; on complex systems of divination, on studying the sequences of the trigrams and the hexagrams; they treated the I Ching like a secret code that had to be cracked, whose mysteries would reveal the true nature of the Universe.
At their best, they drew one into states of altered perception in ways similar to the western Qabalah properly applied; being able to see the mysteries of the hexagrams, elements, yin and yang in all phenomena and thus making the ordinary sacred.  At their worst they would get lost in metaphysical ruminations and get obsessed with pointless models that had no meaningful application to real life. They would get caught up in totally made-up models based on creating wild supposition, and would mistake the mere symbolic "filing system" for reality itself (sometimes going as far as to suggest that it was the world that was fake, and their ideas about lines that were really real).

The "principles and meaning" school, on the other hand, rejected esoteric metaphysics and advocated the direct study of the text, and seeking to understand its philosophy for practical applications to one's life.  They considered the obsession on image and number to be just pointless distraction, busywork, intellectual masturbation that leads nowhere.   They sought to remove the clutter and focus only on the core teaching value of the I Ching text itself.
At their best, they were pragmatic, remembering what the point really is, and focusing on what works.  At their worst, they were dogmatic and iconoclastic to the point of impracticality; going so far as to claim that when you "got" the basic meaning of a hexagram you didn't really need the image or number at all.  This is dumbing-it-down to the point of losing out; where the I Ching becomes less than what it has the potential to be and do for you.  The mistake is in thinking there is only one meaning to be "got".  This leads to a situation where one ultimately rejects doing any work at all (as indeed, most Confucians of this school did not actually do divination with the I Ching at all).

So both these schools, and the perspectives they represent, had their right and their wrong.  And eventually what replaced them at the time of the Song dynasty (considered by many to be the "peak" of I Ching studies) was a synthesis that tried to stick to the best of both perspectives; exemplified by the works of the great Shao Yung, Zhang Shi, and Zhu Xi.

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