a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
In late March of 1973, while snowed in at the Denver Airport following a week of spring skiing, I killed time at Hudson’s Booksellers, flipping through the handsome hardbound edition of the I Ching from Princeton University Press. According to the frontispiece, the Chinese characters on the gray dust jacket mean Book of Changes. The price, extravagant at the time, was $8.50, but I purchased the book anyway because the Foreword was by Karl Jung, whose ideas had intrigued me in college.
Jung’s Foreword is a lengthy piece in which he expresses his doubt as to the efficacy of the I Ching, and then promptly dispels it by a convincing demonstration of how to consult the book—asking a question, tossing three coins, and considering what the book has to say. As an alternative to coins, one could take 49 yarrow stalks, divide them into two piles, and toss the lot—rather like playing pickup sticks, I imagine—but I opted for the easier way, three humble pennies, among the change from my purchase.
The I Ching so entranced me in the years to come that I hung a shingle on my office door—Ye Olde Yin Yang Shoppe (by appointment only)—and declared the book available to all, at no fee whatsoever. This “moonlighting” began three years after I returned from Colorado, completed my doctorate, and married, leaving secondary education for the genteel poverty of university life. But those three years were well spent in getting to know the I Ching, which had enthusiastically endorsed my choice of a spouse. At the university to which my wife and I moved, I met an elderly woman who’d just come to campus from New York for a stint as our writer-in-residence. When we happened upon the topic of the I Ching one day, her comment was immediate: “It’s all over New York.” Pleased with my interest in the book, she presented me with a gift—three ancient bronze Chinese coins to replace the pennies I’d been using. The coins are about the size of a quarter, with Chinese symbols emblazoned on each side and a square hole in the center, rather like the old New York City subway tokens.
As Jung explains, the I Ching, compiled more than 3,000 years ago, encodes Chinese wisdom into 64 hexagrams—six lines that mount like a ladder from earth to heaven. Each hexagram consists of two trigrams, which are the real keys to the I Ching and its logics, representing, as they do, basic forces of nature, both weak and strong. The lines are either long like an em dash (—) or broken like two hyphens (- -). Some can “move,” depending on the coin toss. Thus an em dash can become two hyphens, or vice versa. Moving lines transform one hexagram into another, which must be pondered together with the first. If no moving lines are tossed, the initial hexagram suffices. Further, each hexagram comes with a Judgment and an Image, to be considered as well. Finally, moving lines have texts to be taken into account, depending on where they occur in the hexagram, which depends, in turn, on the person tossing the coins.
The wisdom of the I Ching, Jung says, is not to be taken lightly, nor does it reveal its guidance without effort from those who seek it. Some critics have dismissed it as a primitive Rorschach test; I consider it an accessible distillation of the wisdom of the ancients. I have been consulting the book since 1973, and it has never once disappointed me, my friends and colleagues, or my walk-in “clients.” It has never been less than astounding.
Perhaps the most serious test of the wisdom of the I Ching during my 47 years with the book came in October of 2020, when I asked what it thought about Donald Trump’s chances of re-election. Tossing the coins, I drew the hexagram Chien. Here it is, directly from the source:
This hexagram is made up of Sun (wood, penetration) above, i.e., without, and Kên (mountain, stillness) below, i.e., within. A tree on a mountain develops slowly according to the law of its being and consequently stands firmly rooted. This gives the idea of a development that proceeds gradually, step by step. The attributes of the trigrams also point to this: within is tranquility, which guards against precipitate actions, and without is penetration, which makes development and progress possible.
The development of events that leads to a girl’s following a man to his home proceeds slowly. The various formalities must be disposed of before the marriage takes place. This principle of gradual development can be applied to other situations as well; it is always applicable where it is a matter of correct relationships and co-operation, as for instance in the appointment of an official. The development must be allowed to take its proper course. Hasty action would not be wise. This is also true, finally, of any effort to exert influence on others, for here too the essential factor is a correct way of development through cultivation of one’s own personality. No influence such as that exerted by agitators has a lasting effect.
Within the personality too, development must follow the same course if lasting results are to be achieved. Gentleness that is adaptable, but at the same time penetrating, is the outer form that should proceed from inner calm. The very gradualness of the development makes it necessary to have perseverance, for perseverance alone prevents slow progress from dwindling to nothing.
The tree on the mountain is visible from afar, and its development influences the landscape of the entire region. It does not shoot up like a swamp plant; its growth proceeds gradually. Thus also the work of influencing people can be only gradual. No sudden influence or awakening is of lasting effect. Progress must be quite gradual, and in order to obtain such progress in public opinion and in the mores of the people, it is necessary for the personality to acquire influence and weight. This comes about through careful and constant work on one’s own moral development.
Ask yourself, after careful consideration of the above, is the I Ching pointing to Donald Trump or Joseph Biden? I believe it is Biden, and here’s why. The I Ching says:
I see the growth of this tree on the mountain as Biden’s 47 years in public service, as opposed to Trump’s sudden appearance like a “swamp plant.” (Ironically, Trump promised to “drain the swamp.”) Biden’s development will influence the entire country. Trump’s influence, like “that exerted by agitators,” cannot have “a lasting effect.” Biden is not a man of “hasty action.” He brings “good fortune.”
In the Judgment, the “maiden” is a provocative image. Taken literally, in Trump’s case, I think of the women he has violated over the years. In terms of the presidency, however, he is not a “maiden” but the incumbent. Biden would be a “maiden” in the White House. Thus the maiden “follows the man to his home.” The I Ching continues:
The “gentleness” and “inner calm” here are traits that certain apply to Biden far more than Trump. Biden, unlike Trump, is not a man of “precipitate actions.”
But the obvious clincher to Trump’s re-election chances lies in The Image:
In this regard, my personal opinion is in complete accord with that expressed in the following excerpt from a New York Times editorial:
Recognizing Trump’s lack of dignity and virtue and mores isn’t “rocket science.” Trump disparages science, anyway, and no doubt he’d disparage the I Ching as well, dismissing it as “fake news” from the same people responsible for the “Chinese virus.”
I find it interesting that, as of this writing, I’ve been consulting the I Ching for 47 years—the same number of years that Joe Biden has been serving our country as an elected official. Coincidence? Try crunching the numbers on that one.
Given my faith in the I Ching, I scanned the Chien hexagram in October and emailed it to ten friends, saying I intended to write this article after the election. Unbeknownst to me, after receiving my email, one of those ten, who is familiar with the I Ching, asked it a similar question — What are Biden/Harris’s chances of winning the election? — “fact checking” that he admitted to after the election. His coin tosses resulted in the hexagram T’ai. Once again, for the record, here is the I Ching:
The Receptive, which moves downward, stands above; the Creative, which moves upward, is below. Hence their influences meet and are in harmony, so that all living things bloom and prosper. This hexagram belongs to the first month (February-March), at which time the forces of nature prepare new spring.
This hexagram denotes a time in nature when heaven seems to be on earth. Heaven has placed itself beneath the earth, and so their powers unite in deep harmony. Then peace and blessings descend upon all living things. In the world of man it is a time of social harmony; those in high places show favor to the lowly, and the lowly and inferior in their turn are well disposed to the highly placed. There is an end to all feuds. Inside, at the center, in the key position, is the light principle; the dark principle is outside. Thus the light has a powerful influence, while the dark is submissive. In this way each receives its due. When the good elements of society occupy a central position and are in control, the evil elements come under their influence and change for the better. When the spirit of heaven rules in man, his animal nature also comes under its influence and takes its appropriate place.
The individual lines enter the hexagram from below and leave it again at the top. Here the small, weak, and evil elements are about to make their departure, while the great, strong, and good elements are moving up. This brings good fortune and success.
Heaven and earth are in contact and combine their influences, producing a time of universal flowering and prosperity. This stream of energy must be regulated by the ruler of men. It is done by a process of division. Thus men divide the uniform flow of time into seasons, according to the succession of natural phenomena, and mark off infinite space by the points of the compass. In this way nature and its overwhelming profusion of phenomena is bounded and controlled. On the other hand, nature must be furthered in her productiveness. This is done by adjusting the products to he right time and place, which increases the natural yield. This controlling and furthering activity of man in his relation to nature is the work of nature that rewards him.
Again I ask, is the I Ching here pointing to Trump or to Biden and Harris?
In my own consultation, I did not throw a moving line (three heads or three tails) among my six coin tosses. (The chance of throwing a moving line is roughly nine percent.) Thus the result was definitive. There were no qualifications to consider. The initial hexagram—Chien—stood. After consulting two I Ching experts online, I learned that the total number of combinations possible when throwing the coins is 4096, a figure confirmed by my older brother, who majored in Applied Math at Brown University and holds a Master’s from Purdue. However, when considering the meaning of the two trigrams that make up each hexagram, as well as that hexagram’s Judgment and Image—in light of the question asked and the interpretation of the person who asked the question and tossed the coins—the resulting “readings” are virtually infinite.
My friend tossed two moving lines, in the 4th place and at the top. This means that his initial hexagram, T’ai, will transition to Ta Yu: Possession in Great Measure, for which the Judgment is “Supreme Success,” and for which The Image states: “Thus the superior man curbs evil and furthers good, And thereby obeys the benevolent will of heaven.”
Biden or Trump? Re-read the above, and decide for yourself.
Claude Clayton Smith, Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, is the author of eight books and co-editor/translator of four others. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. He holds a DA from Carnegie-Mellon, an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, an MAT from Yale, and a BA from Wesleyan. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife of 44 years.