Monday, 19 March 2012

Too Much Stuff

Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

Hexagram 28, DA GUO, is composed of Lake over Wind. Wind can also represent Wood, and in this case it does: the image is of a Lake rising over the trees.

Da, of course, means “big” or “great”. Guo means extreme, excessive, something that surpasses what is normal.  It indicates a transgression; something that goes beyond the limits of what is acceptable or sustainable.

So Da Guo is a serious transgression; it can also indicate a natural disaster.

The Gua Ci is pretty clear:
The ridgepole (i.e. the pole holding up the roof) bends
Worthwhile to have somewhere to go

In other words, the roof is about to fall on you. As Bradford says in the Rogue Commentary, there's just time to collect a few wits and get nimbly moving... and it's good to have somewhere to go.

But the prognostication is not negative. Fulfillment can come of this, if we meet the situation with an appropriate response.

The form of the hexagram itself describes the situation: one yin line at the top, another at the bottom, enclosing a solid mass of yang, and unable to contain it. It's a situation of great power, but it's unstable. You are not impotent, but things have reached breaking point. The implication is that if it goes on like this, nothing can save it, and you may just need to get out from under it.

Discussing this hexagram in the East Grinstead study group last week, the parallels with the planetary situation are striking. As Paul Gilding put it in a recent TED talk,

The Earth is full. It's full of us, it's full of our stuff, full of our waste, full of our demands. Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species, but we've created a little too much stuff. So much that our economy is now bigger than its host, our planet.... We're living beyond our means... We need about 1.5 Earths to sustain this economy. In other words, to keep operating at our current level, we need 50% more Earth than we've got. In financial terms, this would be like always spending 50% more than you earn, going further into debt every year....What this means is our economy is unsustainable. I'm not saying it's not nice or pleasant, or that it's bad for polar bears or forests, though it certainly is; what I'm saying is our approach is simply unsustainable. In other words, thanks to those pesky laws of physics, when things aren't sustainable, they stop.

In other words... the ridgepole is bending, and creaking dangerously. The trouble is, we have nowhere else to go, no other planet but this beautiful blue jewel. We simply can't jump ship. We can only go forward into our future right here, and we're all in it together.

How did it come to this? When we discussed it last week, one of the topics we returned to again and again was our addictions to that “stuff”, to the nice and pleasant lives we lead, or hope to lead. How much were we – each of us right there in that room – willing to leave behind as we make that jump into the future? What of our possessions, our comforts, our habits of passivity, distraction and denial, our souvenirs of an imaginary golden age, can we surrender before they are taken from us by force of history?

The words of the Da Xiang may take on new meaning here:
The noble young one, accordingly, 
                     stands alone and undaunted
And steps back from the world without sorrow

While Da Guo usually has the connotation of a transgression, it can also indicate someone who excels: a kind of superhero. And Hexagram 28 can actually be very positive, indicating great power – times of disaster often bring out the best in people, who find that they are able to go beyond their ordinary conception of themselves and find reserves of strength they didn’t know they had. Maybe one aspect of what is called for here is a stepping back from the demands we have put on the natural world: demands arising from an image of the good life created by those who have something to sell. We might, for example, create and participate in real and sustainable communities that can build "somewhere to go".

In his TED talk, Gilding goes on:
Of course we can't know what's going to happen. We have to live with uncertainty. But when we think about the kinds of possibilities I paint, we should feel a bit of fear. We are in danger, all of us. And we've evolved to respond to danger with fear, to motivate a powerful response, to help us bravely face a threat. But this time it's not a tiger at the cave mouth, you can't see the danger at your door, but if you look, you can see it at the door of your civilisation. That's why we need to feel our response now, while the lights are still on, because if we wait until the crisis takes hold, we may panic and hide. If we feel it now and think it through, we will realise we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, things will get ugly, and it will happen soon, certainly within our lifetime, but we are more than capable of getting through everything that's coming. You see, those people that have faith that humans can solve any problem, that technology is limitless, that markets can be a force for good, are in fact right. The only thing they're missing is that it takes a good crisis to get us going. When we feel fear, and we fear loss, we are capable of quite extraordinary things. … We are smart, in fact we really are quite amazing, but we do love a good crisis. And the good news: this one's a monster.

Paul Gilding's TED talk “The Earth is Full” can be viewed at

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Tong Ren, Da You, and the Occupy Movement

"Role Play"
Photo by Rosa Yoskovsky

Last week in the Brighton study group we looked at Hexagrams 13 and 14, as a pair.

Hexagram 13, Tong Ren, is about fellowship, community, our connections with each other. Tong means “together”: to come together; gathering together, uniting. Ren means “human”. This is about the way that people connect to form a community or a society. The emphasis is not, as in Hexagrams 7 or 8, on leadership; it is rather on the recognition of what each person is, and how they participate in the fabric of society. The Da Xiang reads “The junzi, according to kind and family, distinguishes the beings”. In other words, we differentiate or identify people; we find out who they are and how they are. But the context is inclusive, for the Gua Ci tells us:
Fellowship of men at the frontier:
Worthwhile to cross the great stream
Worthy of the junzi's persistence.
In other words, reach out to people beyond your usual borders, find out what they are like, get to know them, recognise how they are the same as you, appreciate how they are different, make meaningful connections. Realise that you are kindred spirits who can differentiate your differences and find a common thread.

Hexagram 14, Da You, by contrast, is about wealth. Da means big, or great. You means “to have”, to possess, acquire, gain; to be rich, and also to offer. In ancient times, it meant a good harvest, perhaps the most universally useful type of acquisition, and da you referred to a “best harvest”.

There is no inherent conflict between these hexagrams. In the China of the zhouyi, the pursuit and acquisition of wealth made sense only when it benefitted society. We might think of Tong Ren as the system of relationships that make up society, and Da You as the energy flowing through that system.

These two hexagrams, taken together, raise a lot of interesting questions that are profoundly relevant to our times. What do we do when we have more than we need? How to we avoid arrogance, greed, or complacency? How do we avoid inciting envy in others, or getting hooked into envy ourselves? How can we honour the complex web of life that produced the abundance? How can we use this wealth for the common good?

Although these are worthwhile questions in any age, it would appear that in our time, the system of relationships that makes up society is organised in such a way as to channel most of the energy through a very limited segment of society. Rather than being permeated with a sense of abundance, most of our society is racked with a sense of lack, of disenfranchisement, of being marginalised and alienated.

Furthermore, our social system in the “developed” world is structured so that it alienates us – from each other, from nature, and ultimately from ourselves.  This was not the dream of the Global Village.  Widespread (in some countries, almost universal) economic migration has torn apart extended families; communities barely have time to form before they are reconstituted, so that many of us have never had the experience of a “village” of people around us whom we know well enough, over enough time, that a self-organising community can emerge. Real communities, which evolve in an organic way, embedded in their natural environment, have a better chance of being organised so that each person's talents are best used, and each person's interests are best served. This takes time. Community is connection sustained over time.

The vast chasm between such an ideal and the current reality is precisely what is being highlighted by the Occupy Movement, which is expressing in the most inspiring terms the fundamental values of human connection (with both each other and the natural environment that sustains us) and the realities of scale (“think global, act local”). 

Michael Stone has described the Occupy Movement as a collective awakening to the fact that our corporations and governments are the products of human action, that they aren't serving us, and that it is in our power and in our interest to replace them. He observes that it is "not just about economics, it's about ecology and our love for what we know is valuable: community, healthcare, simple food, and time.... We are not fighting the people on Wall Street, we are fighting this whole system."

The Occupy Movement invites us to bring a fresh view to the relationship between human connection (Tong Ren) and wealth (Da You),  and to redefine wealth itself, away from the endless accumulation of goods and back to a focus on the things that genuinely make life worthwhile: community, family, satisfying work.

Friday, 11 November 2011

And that's the truth

"Hall of Mirrors"
Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

Hexagram 25, Wu Wang , is formed of Heaven over Thunder: Thunder (Action) following the way of Heaven.


Wu means “no” or “not”.
Wang indicates falseness, untruth, deceit, a lie, to be without foundation – but also reckless, foolhardy, vain, rash, disordered, out of place. LiSe suggests “thwart” as a translation, indicating anything that goes against the grain.

Thus, the meaning of Wu Wang is to be in accord with truth; to do nothing that goes against the natural order.

Huang translates it as Without Falsehood; Blofeld as Integrity, the Unexpected; Lynn as No Errancy; Wu as Without Blame, Without Error; Karcher and Hilary as Without Entanglement; Bradford as Without Pretense. LiSe calls it Natural. Other translations include Honesty, Natural Innocence, Spontaneity. Wilhelm translates it as Innocence, which only partially reflects the meaning; there is nothing childish or naïve about this hexagram.

What are these translators trying to get at, from all these different angles?

To understand this, let's revisit the meaning of the trigram Qian, Heaven. Quoting Bradford:
Qian … is the symbol of higher order(s) and nature... Although it is a grand design, it is self-organizing, lacking a designer. It is orderly and moves with direction, but lacks both purpose and plan.”

This sounds remarkably similar to David Bohm's concept of the “holomovement”, which brings together the holistic principle of "undivided wholeness" with the idea that everything is in a state of process or becoming. This wholeness is not a static oneness, but a dynamic wholeness-in-motion in which everything moves together in an interconnected process:
"In this view, there is no ultimate set of separately existent entities, out of which all is supposed to be constituted. Rather, unbroken and undivided movement is taken as a primary notion." (Bohm, 1988, p77)

That's the quantum physics version. We find the same idea expressed in a more relevantly personal way, as the central tenet of Buddhism: that all phenomena are arising together, in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect.

Our world and sense of self is a play of patterns. Any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative. This is difficult to understand from words such as selflessness or emptiness of self. In fact, my own teacher Achaan Chah said, “If you try to understand it intellectually, your head will probably explode”. However, the experience of selflessness in practice can bring us to great freedom.” (Jack Kornfield, “A Path With Heart” p200)

If this is the true nature of reality, and if the experience of it can bring us freedom, why don't more of us experience it like this?

The answer is partly biological: our animal brains interpret sensory information so as to create the illusion of a separate and more or less permanent existence; our very perceptions obscure the huge, unseen world at work behind the forms that we can see. And it is partly cultural: we (particularly in the “developed” nations) have been indoctrinated to not only believe in, but to value, autonomy and independence. The result is that we pretend we have a separate existence that must be preserved against various perils, privations and threats – and we don't even know we are pretending.

This sets us up for a fall, and the Gua Ci tells us so:
Without pretence
Most fulfilling
Worthwhile to persist
For one without integrity there will be suffering
And not much reward in having somewhere to go
(Transl. Hatcher)

One of the most strongly negative prognostications in the Yi is hui (remorse, regret). The etymology of the character is “to be many-hearted.”   Integrity (literally, “wholeness”) consists not only of being internally unified, but in realising our unity with the world.

Grasping this as a concept is one thing. Living it is quite another, and the question posed by this hexagram is: “How can we ACT in accordance with the Dao, the undivided wholeness-in-motion?”

It's a pretty safe assumption there's no easy answer, otherwise we'd all be doing it. And yet, there have been people throughout history, and in every corner of the world, who have realised and lived this truth, and we recognise them as exemplars of human wisdom.

One of them was Katagiri Roshi. Here's what he said:
All we have to do is just sit down and completely open ourselves to right now, right here, without being carried away by all the information in our head....This moment is very simple. So why not just take care of it with all your heart?”

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

In the East Grinstead study group last week, we looked at Hexagram 24, FÙ: RETURN . The form of this hexagram says it all: into Hexagram 2, KUN, the hexagram of total yin, one yang line has entered at the bottom. This is the hexagram of the first whisper of something beginning.

It is “Return”, because nothing arises out of a vacuum. There is no tabula rasa on which the moving finger writes.... rather, what goes around is coming around again.  Causes and conditions of the past are about to take form once more, and because we live not in a clockwork universe, but in one governed by organicity, that form, like a strange attractor, will be unique but recognisable.

is part of a sequence: Hexagram 23, BO (Stripping Away), represents the last bit of yang being pushed out. BO is the end: the few minutes before midnight, the day before the Winter Solstice, the last residue of the old falling (or being pushed) away. Between 23 and 24 is Hexagram 2, KUN, the fertile void from which everything arises. Hexagram 24, then, is the first subtle tendency of that arising.

The light does not appear five minutes after midnight, nor does Spring begin the day after the Winter Solstice; conception is not the same as birth. By the time we see dawn touch the sky, or the daffodils nosing up out of the earth, or hold a newborn baby, the yang is already well established.

Similarly, by the time we notice ourselves acting, that action is usually in full swing. “Exit and enter without anxiety”, the Gua Ci tells us, “Friends will arrive without fail”. In other words, the yang is on the upswing, and whatever story begins to unfold now will be elaborated, pulling other characters, plots and sub-plots, into its wake.

In “A Path With Heart”, Jack Kornfield writes: “It is not possible to change the patterns of our behavior or create new karmic conditions until we become present and awake at the beginning of the action. Otherwise it has already happened.”

It is at this point, the first quickening of our intention, that we can most easily “true” our trajectory.  But in order to do this, we must cultivate the receptivity of KUN, the alertly listening ear that notices those subtle beginnings before they grow big enough to run circles around us and chase us from behind.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Two different approaches

 Forli Castle
Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

In the Brighton study group last week, we looked at the linked pair of Hexagrams 5 (XU, Anticipation) and 6 (SONG, Contention or Arguing). They are two very different ways of dealing with a situation that isn't going in the way you would prefer.

Xu is the hexagram of patient anticipation: strength (Heaven) inside, in times of danger (Water). You are either waiting for rain (Water = clouds), or you are waiting for the rain to stop. Either way, you are waiting calmly and mindfully, rather than fretting. You don't take the cake out of the oven when it’s half-baked, or pull up your peas to see if they've sprouted. Perhaps more importantly, you maintain a broad perspective, taking in both figure and ground, focus and context, while you wait for the situation to mature. You adopt an attitude of attention and appreciation, rather than prediction and control.

This hexagram represents the person who can patiently wait for the right time for action. He doesn't get distracted or nod off; but he's also not pushing the river. He stays awake to this moment; he doesn't put his life on hold, but enjoys what this moment presents to him. While we are waiting, the DaXiang tells us, we can stay tranquil and cheerful, nourishing ourselves with food and drink, and maybe even music.

Contrasted with this is Song; here the danger (Water) is on the inside, with a show of strength (Heaven) on the outside. The character shows a person in a position of authority, responsible for the distribution and sharing of private goods, ensuring that everyone gets their fair share. There's an implication of a dispute, a civil court case, that requires resolution by someone external to it... which means the people involved in the dispute were so fixated on their preferred outcomes that they were not able to resolve it themselves.

There is a clear counterpoint between the two hexagrams. The GuaCi of both begin with Fu, which carries meanings of truth, sincerity, trustworthiness – but in “Contention” the fu is zhi – blocked or opposed. Both speak of crossing the great stream, but while “Anticipation” says it is (or will eventually be) worthwhile/fortunate, “Contention” says bluntly that it is not.

The GuaCi for “Contention” also contains a wordplay on two different characters, both pronounced zhong: one means “middle”, and it says that it's good to be vigilant in the middle; the other means “end”, and this is misfortune.

So it's saying to pay attention to the process (and its fallout), rather than being fixated on an arbitrary endpoint. It's also saying to meet halfway, not to take it to the wall – and that you may need the help of the da ren, which is often translated as “great man”, and which Bradford aptly translates as “mature human being”.

Ren does not just mean “human”, in the biological sense we tend to hold in the West. The China in which the Yijing was written, like most non-European cultures, had quite a different conception of what it is to be human. In East Asian (and indeed, many other) cultures, our humanity is not given, but acquired. That is, we become persons, and in particular human persons. To quote Peter Hershock, “Personhood is not a minimal fact, but an achievement – a mark of some degree of excellence in a particular quality of 'relationship'.”

He goes on: 
“In many societies … the primary value-orienting conduct is that of cooperation or mutual contribution. Person training – that is, training in the art of conducting ourselves as persons – emphasizes attention and appreciation. In practice, this means a valorization of virtuosity or the capacity for sensitive improvisation. By contrast, conduct in most Western societies is predominantly oriented by an intense valuation of regulation or control. Instead of personal training focusing on qualities of attention, it emphasizes will and the management of activity and experience.” (Peter Hershock, Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Perspective on the Information Age, p8)

Maybe that's why we have so many lawyers.

The DaXiang for Contention says that the JunZi, in undertaking the work, appraises beginnings. This could be interpreted in any number of ways. WangBi interpreted it as setting boundaries at the beginning to prevent contention from arising – and certainly it is true that transparent and clearly stated rules of governance can prevent a great deal of trouble.

But another possible interpretation is that this is an invitation to consider, from a non-egocentric place, how this situation arose. That is, what story is being played out here, and how can we tell it on in a way that is good – not just good for me, not just good for you, but good for the whole situation and everyone participating in it. That's what a DaRen would do – he wouldn't take sides, but would find the best way for the whole situation to go forward.

And the challenge here, of course, is that we tend to lose access to this impartiality when we are in the middle of a conflict. In fact, that's almost the definition of conflict: me v. them.

It takes a truly exceptional DaRen – the Dalai Lama springs to mind, and Aung San Suu Kyi, and Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela – to live under violent oppression and not get pulled into Contention.

Most of us – at least most of us reading this – face conflicts that are truly petty and trivial in comparison. In those moments when we're in the grip of an argument, might it be possible to cultivate an attitude of attention and appreciation, living our lives and waiting to see what will happen next?

Monday, 30 May 2011


Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

In the East Grinstead study group last week, we looked at Hexagram 22, BI, formed of Mountain over Fire.  BI is variously translated as Grace, Elegance, Adornment.  Hilary calls it “Beauty”, which I believe captures the essence of it.

Bradford's translation of the Gua Ci reads:

Adornment. Satisfaction. 
A little worthwhile to have somewhere to go.
I have always understood this hexagram as distinguishing between whether something is merely superficial show or represents an expression of inner quality. This is a danger of Fire, which can get lost in seeking ephemeral beauty, gaudy but insubstantial. Is it just decoration? Or is it an outward expression of a profound inner quality?

But last week, in our discussion, I got a new angle on it, which feels like an important insight.

Beauty happens when we are mindful of the small details. It's the minute particulars that make the difference between the simple good meal that I serve up, and the meal served by my epicurean friend who takes more trouble, prepares it with more care, and presents it in a way that delights the eye as well as the palate. BI is the care it takes to wear a freshly ironed shirt … or the perfectly laddered, layered stockings of a goth fashionista.   It's Lauren Bacall's elegantly lifted eyebrow; it's those painstaking Maori moko tattoos, of which Captain Cook wrote in 1769:

The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.
It is also the small niceties we show each other, which constitute good manners.

This reading of the meaning is more in line with Wu's translation of the Gua Ci:  

Small. Advantage having a place to go to.
Think attention to detail, like a Japanese tea ceremony. No grand heroic achievements, but the creation of beauty, simply by performing each small action with exquisite attention, care, and appreciation.

Hexagram 22's paired hexagram is 21, SHI HE (Biting Through), which is about biting the bullet, cutting the Gordian knot. It's not concerned with the fine print; it's motto is “Just do it”. In music, SHI HE is the bare bones of a simple melody. BI, in contrast, is a fugue, or a jazz improvisation, embroidering and elaborating and fleshing out those bones. In architecture, SHI HE is the boxlike monstrosities that are many British council estates; BI is Hundertwasser's fantastical (and highly functional) built communities. BI is a hand-made and burnished terra sigilata cup. It's scarlet ribbons for her hair.

While SHI HE focusses hard on a single goal, BI requires both a shorter and a longer view: both the fine focus on detail, and a sensitivity to how what you are making, or your conduct, fits in a wider context, so that it's not a carbuncle on the landscape.

There's also something in it about recognising and accepting the transience of things. Think Japan again, where it's customary to take time off work to admire the cherry blossoms, because they are beautiful, and short-lived. Like us.

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
     and exclaiming of their dearness,
       fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
   their eagerness
     to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
       nothing, forever?

                                 ~ from Peonies, by Mary Oliver

Friday, 22 April 2011

No ivory tower

Ankhor, Apsara
Photo by Rosa Yoskovsky

In the East Grinstead study group last month we looked at Hexagram 20, GUANGuan means to see, to hear, to perceive and understand. The hexagram is formed of Xun (Wind) over Kun (Earth), and has the overall form of the trigram Gen (Mountain).

There are a lot of similarities between Guan and Hexagram 52, Gen, Stillness: they are the two hexagrams of meditation, reflection, contemplation.

But Guan is not exactly the same as Gen. Gen is all about Stillness; it is the essence of stability. Guan has the deep solidity of Earth, but it also has the gentle, penetrating quality of Wind, which can go everywhere; it moves, but nothing is moving it, and it adapts to fit every situation.

Guan means to observe. It can also mean an observatory – for the stars, i.e. the movements of the Dao, or for one's own Dao: a temple or meditation hall is sometimes called dao guan. The form describes a tower, like one of the guard towers along the Great Wall, a place where one can look down “from a height”.

But this hexagram is not about looking down from a height; it's not an ivory tower.

Guan is the same word as the name of the bodhisattva Guanyin, or Guanshiyin, corresponding to the Sanskrit Avalokitasvara, or the Tibetan Tara. Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, hears the cries of everyone. She is depicted as a thousand-eyed, thousand-armed goddess, the great master of love and sympathy. But Guan Yin not only hears the cries of the world,

... she incorporates them. She quite literally feels them as her own and responds with the all-embracingness of a healing love, a love that mends what has been sundered...What Kuan Yin accomplishes with her wish-fulfilling gem is not necessarily the closing of some objective difference or distance, but the erasure of whatever has been imposed on our relations with others (our narration) to give us the illusion of discontinuity, of painful cleavage, of intractability.” (Peter Hershock, Liberating Intimacy, p104)

In other words, Guan Yin not only sees our suffering, she sees the truth behind our suffering. She dispels the illusion of our separateness, and so dispels our anguish.

When we engage in the kind of spiritual practice that turns, with open eyes, toward life as it is – when we sit down in the middle of our own lives and say “This is me. I am willing to look at what is true, what is real, and what is present”, we are Guan.

The Gua Ci tells us “Being true is as good as majestic” (Brad's translation), or “There is truth and confidence like a presence” (Hilary's translation). The word translated as “true/truth” is Fu, the same word as in the ming gua of Hexagram 61 Zhong Fu; it's a very important word in the Yijing, carrying meanings of not only veracity, but also sincerity and trustworthiness. It is a word that has very little to do with “objective” factuality, and a great deal to do with caring, watchful concern.

When we look with anything but compassionate eyes, we do a kind of violence, perpetuating "the illusion of painful cleavage".  And that is just as much true of our self-regard as in our perception of others.