How to consult the Yijing

The Yijing is a book you come to understand not so much through reading it cover to cover but through asking it questions about your own life and concerns. It does take quite a while to become familiar with the Book of Changes, but to start you form a question, such as 'How would it work out if I did such-and-such?'. Other examples: 'Consequences of taking this new job I've been offered?', 'I'm thinking of moving house, is this a good idea at this time?' Don't use questions with a 'fork' in them, 'Should I do A or B?', since this makes it difficult to interpret the answer. Instead, consult the Yijing twice, once for each choice. Ask 'Oracle for going ahead with A' and then 'Oracle for going ahead with B', and compare the results. You could ask two questions over any matter, since it usually boils down to a choice between doing it and not doing it. Ask for an oracle for going ahead and then an oracle for not going ahead, this will usually make the best path clear. This in fact was the way the Shang divined as a standard practice.

'Oracle for…' and 'Consequences of…' are just two ways I evolved over the years to formulate questions, you can phrase the question in whatever way feels right to you. You may not get to the heart of what you want to know straight away and the oracle you receive from the Yijing may clarify that for you, leading to a more precise and honed question. You don't have to ask a question, you can simply consult the book and see what it says in the hope that it is relevant to something in your life, but in general this doesn't work as well. The clearer the question, the clearer the answer. If you ask a vague question the likelihood is that the answer will be vague or that you won't really understand it.

So first you get your question. It's a good idea to write it down on the piece of paper that you will form the hexagram on. Then you might light a stick of incense, take three coins of the same denomination, such as 2p, pass them through the incense clockwise three times (just a little ritual to begin), then you shake the three coins in your hands and drop them to the ground while mentally asking your question. This is something you do 6 times, each time you form a line of a hexagram, starting at the bottom and working upwards.

When you drop three coins there are 4 possible combinations you can get. Assign heads as 3 and tails as 2 and you get:

Old yin and old yang are about to change into their opposites (enantiodromia, the principle that things change when they reach their extremity). Old yin changes to young yang, old yang to young yin.

Some people wonder whether heads is yang or tails. In my view it is arbitrary and it doesn't matter which you choose, I have simply chosen heads to be 3 and tails to be 2, and although yang is always 3 and yin always 2 I am not saying I regard heads necessarily as yang, and if you use Chinese coins it is irrelevant anyway.

If a coin lands on its edge, propped against a chair leg for instance, take the side you can immediately see. If you drop a coin before you are ready, follow your natural spontaneity to know what to do, either let the other coins fall with it, or pick it up and place it back in your hand. When I am teaching Yijing, if a student is using the coins in my presence, and a coin 'accidentally' drops, I usually say leave it as it falls, follow it with the others; but if the student naturally reaches to pick the coin up, tightening their grasp on the others, I say go ahead, pick it up, that was your instinct on this occasion.


An unchanging young yang line (7) is solid:

An unchanging young yin (8) is broken:

A moving old yang line (9) has a circle in the middle to indicate it is a solid line about to change into a broken line:

A moving old yin line (6) has a cross in the gap to show it is about to form a solid yang line (think of it as two arrow-heads pointing at each other, coming together to join if you like):

Okay, so you have these four types of line. Now you drop the 3 coins to the ground, and form one of these lines. Then drop the coins again and form another line on top of it, etc, until you build up a hexagram of six lines from the bottom to the top. You might get this, for instance:

The totals for these lines were as follows:




This is hexagram 42, more specifically 'hexagram 42 changing in the third place'. To find out which hexagram you have received you go to the back of Wilhelm to the chart and you can look it up via the top three lines and the bottom three lines (the upper trigram and the lower trigram).

You read for your answer all of the text up to where the commentary on the lines starts, i.e. the Judgment and the Image. But in the lines you only read the 'Six in the third place'. It's 'six' because it's a moving yin line. The main answer to your question is always in the lines that change. You read them because they're changing, the changing line represents a dynamic change in the world that you can connect to via the catalyst of the text. In this example only one line changes, but all 6 can change, which gets more complex (see below).

Now, because the third line is an old yin line changing into a young yang line, a second hexagram is formed, hexagram 37, which as you see below has a solid line in the third place, the rest of the lines remaining the same. So for this consultation you would read hexagram 42 up to the lines, then just the third line, which you would regard as the answer to the question. You would read hexagram 37 as the future situation resulting from the change in the third place:

(This oracle indicates something beneficial and unforeseen coming about as a result of what at first appears to be an unfortunate situation.)


Chinese coins

You can use any coins, but later you may wish to buy three old Chinese coins from a coin shop. These have a square hole in the centre, the circle of the coin represents heaven and the square in the middle is earth. It's best to buy these from a coin shop and avoid what look like Chinese coins (sometimes strung together with red cord) in New Age shops and Chinese shops in Chinatown that sell fengshui lucky three-legged toads and suchlike. These 'coins' have never been in anyone's pocket, they are fake and will snap in half quite easily if you try to bend them.

Most coin shops have a box of cheap old Chinese coins, pick ones that aren't too worn but it doesn't matter that they're grubby since they clean up well after soaking in vinegar or, better, clean them up with Brasso. Then boil them for a little while in salt water as part of a ritual to make them your own. People may say this is to get rid of other people's energies and other such superstitious explanations, but you can believe what you like. Essentially it is a ritual to make a line between what they were and what they are now, coins for consulting the Yijing with. The coins will probably have 4 characters on one side and 2 on the other. Give one side a value of 2, the other 3, and stick to it. Later you will not even add up the sides, you'll just look and write down a line, but at first write down the numbers as well, to avoid error while you're getting used to it.

Consulting the Yijing by tossing three coins is called Wenwang ke: 'to enquire of King Wen' or 'King Wen's divination'. I have these three characters brushed on a slip of paper which I keep with the coins in a grey slate Chinese ink bowl with lid. The bowl is a square block of slate with a circular ink reservoir. I used to use it to grind Chinese stick ink into when practising calligraphy, but now I just use it for Yijing coins. The coin method is also known as the 'Forest of Fire Pearls Method' (huozhulin fa).


Does it matter what direction you face?

With the Western interest in fengshui has come an awareness that directions are important in Chinese thought. Personally, I don't think it matters what direction you face, but if you think it is important then you should face north in my considered opinion. In China the Emperor faced south. The Yijing itself has been likened to the Emperor (much as the fourth line of some hexagrams represents the minister and the fifth line the prince) so you could place the book in front of you and face the Emperor.


How to interpret changing lines

Changing lines are the most important aspect of an interpretation, because these are the points of change into the second hexagram. (When no lines change it usually indicates that the situation will stay the same for a while.) Sometimes the lines contradict what the judgment says, and if you attempt to interpret without realising just how important the lines are for providing the ultimate flavour to the interpretation then you may well misinterpret. I use my own adaptation of Zhu Xi's rules, which he published in 1186 in the fourth chapter of his 'Introduction to the study of the Changes', or Yixue qi meng. See Joseph Adler's translation of this text. My method is the same as that described by Zhu Xi, except for when three lines change:

1 line changes

this is your answer, take it to be the answer in preference to a contradictory judgment (the lines always take precedence over the judgment if there is contradiction)

2 lines change

uppermost line of the two is most important

3 change

middle most important (for Zhu Xi's original method for three changing lines, see below)

4 change

go over to the second hexagram and take the lowermost of the two lines that have not changed from the first hexagram (example below)

5 change

in the second hexagram take the line that hasn't come from a change in the first hexagram (example below)

6 change

the first hexagram's situation is entirely past or on the brink of change, the second hexagram is more important, take the judgment (hexagrams 1 and 2 have an extra line statement that is intended to be read when all six lines change)

Read all the lines that change, going upwards in the hexagram, but lay the emphasis as above, even though when four and five lines change you are emphasising a line in the second hexagram. When that many lines change the emphasis has clearly shifted to the second hexagram. When I say read all the lines that change, that's because it will give familiarity with the content of the book in actual situations and because it is a good habit in the beginning. But after you have been consulting the oracle for many years you'll probably just read where the emphasis is. (When you've used the Book of Changes a long time, you'll have it all virtually memorised and will have a good overview of all the hexagrams and will go to the emphasised text essentially to remind yourself, or you may even be so familiar with the text that you have no need to take the book off the shelf, the words already in your mind just looking at the hexagram and changing lines that you have drawn on the paper.)

If no lines change you can read the governing ruling line, if there are two then take the uppermost. But if the judgment and the ruling line contradict each other, consider asking a rephrased question, unless you have an intuitive sense of the meaning. Bear in mind when reading the governing ruler of an unchanging hexagram that this is only a likely potential for change, it is not actually a changing line. To leave an unmoving hexagram it has to be done through the lines, so the governor could be used to focus your attention on where change may be created.

These rules remove contradictory messages by guiding you to a single prognostication out of the variations on the theme. For example, in hexagram 60 in the first line not going out the door to the courtyard is without error, but in the second line not going out the gate of the courtyard is disastrous. A matter of timing. If you had those two lines changing then applying the above rules would tell you to lay emphasis on the second line. Change moves upwards in a hexagram, that's why the uppermost of a two-line change is more important. In the example quoted, the first line shows where you are, you have not yet left the courtyard and that has been fine, but now the second line has been reached, and it is time to leave, carrying on as before will not serve you though it has been fine up until now.

A good example of a contradictory and ambiguous hexagram is 54. The judgment is negative, but the fifth line is extremely positive. If you received hexagram 54 with the fifth line changing you would disregard the ominous judgment.

To ensure that the four- and five-line changes are clear, an example of each. If you receive hexagram 1 changing in the first four places, you would look at the fifth line of hexagram 20 and regard that as the answer to your question. If you receive hexagram 1 with all but the third line changing, you would look at the third line of hexagram 15.

These rules are to an extent arbitrary, but I have found them to work well in practice.


Zhu Xi’s three-line change

Zhu Xi doesn't use the line statements at all for three lines changing but rather the judgment of both hexagrams. He then provides a set of 32 charts that you need to consult to decide whether to emphasise the judgment of the first or the second hexagram.

I have never liked this method. First, because it requires the use of extraneous materials in the form of these 32 charts. Second, because I do not think it is justifiable to ignore what the lines say when three change, which surely reflect the dynamic of the change better than a kind of balancing act between the two hexagram judgments.

That said, if you wish to apply Zhu Xi's original rule for a three-line change but do not have the charts handy (they are included in Adler's book), then you may be interested to know that Ed Hacker discovered a much simpler rule that has the same effect as Zhu Xi's 32 charts but does not require them. Namely, when three lines change, if the bottom line of the hexagram is among those changing then the first hexagram's judgment should take precedence over the second. If not, you stress the second hexagram's judgment over the first. There is no rationale for this beyond the fact that it just happens to give the same result as Zhu Xi's charts.


NEXT: Some structural observations on ruling lines