Zhouyi :: The Heart of the Yijing

Liu Ming. 'CHANGING: Zhouyi :: The Heart of the Yijing.' Da Yuan Circle, Oakland CA, 2005, 169 pp, $30. ISBN 0-9767512-0-8. ['CHANGING' is on the cover as if part of the title, but the author's website gives the title as 'Zhouyi :: The Heart of the Yijing']


I have had this rather good privately published translation and commentary by Liu Ming (born Charles Belyea in 1947) on my shelf for a couple of years now, ever since Harmen Mesker drew my attention to it, and I have been intending to review it since then. But it has taken a while in part because I wanted to see how it fared in actual practical consultation. I can happily report that it has grown into a favourite, regularly consulted, having sufficient originality and concision to appeal to me time after time, and, sometimes, provide the right tone when other versions didn't. I am surprised that it is so little known. But, that said, I have to say I'm rather attracted to the idea that one of the better books on the Yijing hasn't gone out of its way to publicise itself when so many poor books on the topic are constantly falling off bookshop shelves everywhere and hyped to the hilt.

Liu Ming runs the Da Yuan Circle (formerly 'Orthodox Daoism in America' or ODA), which is self-described as:

a loosely formed group of people that have gathered around Liu Ming and participate in assemblies, rituals, workshops and classes. The circle began to form in the early 1980s not long after Liu Ming emerged from a long retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Liu Ming is a Euro-American Daoist who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to his website: 'His students understand him to be a trance-medium.' He has also been a student of Zen, Tantric Buddhism, and a practitioner of meditation for forty years. His translation of the Zhouyi (judgment and lines) is fairly accurate and as terse as the original and sometimes even terser, dropping words. But I don't find these odd omissions too bothering actually because the rest is done carefully and in knowledge. For example, he misses out the 'light' or 'lights' or 'brilliance' of the state in hexagram 20/4:

When observing a State, it is best to be the guest of the lord.

That should be 'the lights of the state'. Now I don't happen to agree with this particular omission myself, since I think the 'lights' are the crucial matter, in that the line may refer to either an astronomical observation (comet, meteors, and suchlike) or some other light phenomenon that is taken as an omen (such as the 'Bodhisattva Lights' of Wutaishan, described so amazingly by John Blofeld in his autobiography 'The Wheel of Life', pp 149–150, after personally witnessing them).

In some other lines he shortens what the Chinese says, and isn't literal. Here for example in hexagram 18/6 he puts across the practical meaning succinctly but misses out the aloof flavour:

Serve neither king nor lord. Withdraw.

The Chinese of the Zhouyi doesn't say 'withdraw' there, it says 'serve something much loftier'. These occasional departures from the Chinese I find quite curious, since in general the translation is pretty sharp. I can only assume they are deliberate. For instance, the top line of hexagram 18 was actually used as a justification for hermits not to enter courtly life and instead withdraw into seclusion in the mountains. The editors of the Song dynasty Imperial encyclopedia Taiping yulan began the section on hermits by quoting this line, appearing to give official sanction to eremitism (see the interesting section on this in Tze-Ki Hon's 2004 book 'The Yijing and Chinese Politics', pp 63–66 [review in PDF]). So withdrawal is in tune with the meaning of the line, even though it is not quite what the Chinese says.

In reading Liu Ming's translation one can come across surprises that are interesting to think about in themselves. Such as 'insufficient soil' in hexagram 29/5:

The pit is not filled. Insufficient soil. No harm

What indeed is the pit not full of? Many assume water, up to the rim but not overflowing. To what extent is this impression justified? Sometimes the simplest phrases in the Yi are capable of completely different interpretations to the ones we have taken for granted for decades. If we want to get to grips with what the phrases mean, we can rarely afford to settle on a single interpretation for too long and should take into account viable alternative ideas. Though soil is not mentioned in the Chinese, neither is water. And what about 'walking backwards' in hexagram 30/1:

Ceremoniously walking backwards. Offering respect. No misfortune.

'Treading reverently' could be right, others see it as a crosswise step. Liu Ming's interpretation is as good. Some of Liu Ming's ideas come from his reading of recent scholarly works in English (the Chinese text used was that found in Liu Dajun), but are given his own phrasing. There's a few oddities that can't really be justified, such as hexagram 49/3:

Military expeditions succeed. Danger. Three skins.

'Three skins' is the oddity, but there is an error here I've just noticed too, the Chinese does not say 'Military expeditions succeed', on the contrary it says, using his form of words: 'Military expeditions disastrous' (it is in the second line where a military expedition is 'auspicious'). Unless he means to suggest that military expeditions will ultimately succeed. Still, that would be a rather risky telescoping down of the situation. And in the top line, where the same two characters occur, he translates them correctly: 'Disastrous to lead military expeditions.'

There are similarly a few 'facts' put forward that may be out of the air, such as on p 49, referring to the title-tag of hexagram 17:

Sui is a ritual form of tracking and hunting (pursuit) used for divination.

He gives a reference for this statement in his notes at the back of the book, but it leads to a dead end. Presumably he got this information somewhere, or he has overstated.

The flaws of the book are excusable though on the strength of the rest. The best aspect of the work is the sense that he has used the oracle himself for many years and is adding his own insights (sometimes from meditation practice and Chinese medicine) to the few sentences of commentary he appends to each line. For instance, take this wonderfully stark comment on hexagram 54/6 (translation part in bold):

The bride has an empty dowry basket. The groom makes a bloodless sacrifice. Nothing is of benefit.


Selfish and indulgent conduct on all sides obstructs success. Fickle emotions overrule good sense. Realism suddenly returns to throw a harsh light on seduction and fantasy – all is lost.

I like that 'Realism suddenly returns …'. He captures the experience of this line, that of being brought up sharp. And how about this sensible understanding of hexagram 63/2:

A hair ornament is lost. Not chasing after it; it is recovered in seven days.


Small losses at the beginning of a journey should not distract you or halt your progress. Stay focused. What is lost is returned or recovered "further down the stream".

It is good to pick up on the tendency to become distracted from one's main objective in that line. Most commentaries focus solely on the more obvious 'promise' that the lost item will be found in due course. Some misinterpret the 'not chasing after it' as an injunction to wait twiddling one's thumbs for seven days when actually what it is really about is pressing on regardless and not getting into a delaying detour prompted by the unexpected loss. Sometimes Liu Ming has precisely the practical suggestion that other versions lack.

The book is attractively laid out in black, grey, and brown; it is well bound in hardback with a blue linen finish and gold text, oddly though without a dust jacket. The type size is a little on the small side, I suppose because the designer wanted to fit each hexagram on a double-page spread. As there is nothing by way of sample pages to be found on the web from this book, not even on the author's own website, and you're unlikely to encounter it in a bookshop, I have uploaded an example scan showing hexagram 8. As can be seen, the judgment translation and the line translation/commentary are on the verso, while on the recto are sections of overview commentary entitled: 'Image', 'Auspices', 'Comment', and 'Other Correspondences'. Under 'Other Correspondences' he gives medical disharmonies and prognosis, but states on pp 9–10:

No one should, under any circumstances, use divination to determine a medical diagnosis. At best the disharmonies and prognosis information reveals another facet of each hexagram, nothing more.

Contrast this standpoint with Wu Zhongxian's frivolous use of trigrams (not even hexagrams) to approve surgery.

I recommend Liu Ming's work. I have found useful and pleasing ideas in it over a long period of reflection, such that it has become one of a handful of books I always look at when consulting the oracle myself.


A little about Liu Ming

Biographical Information on Liu Ming is hard to come across, but I did find a couple of pages (pp 270–271) about him in 'Chinese Religions in Contemporary Societies' (2006), edited by James Miller. Here we learn that he went, as Charles Belyea, to study in Taiwan in 1977, where he took Mahayana vows in the Tibetan tradition. While in Taiwan he apparently studied with a Daoist hermit who initiated him into the Liu family tradition, which claims an unbroken lineage for 115 generations. So he could remain in the tradition, Belyea was adopted into the family and given the name Liu Ming. He returned to the United States in 1980 and began giving classes based on his Daoist experiences, which he called 'dragon training'.

Liu Ming sees the popular Daoism expounded by the likes of Mantak Chia and Hua-ching Ni (named in Miller's book but not named directly by Liu Ming) as just cultural appropriation in the service of a liberal protestant ethic, its most recent guise being 'New Age spirituality' in which many modern Daoist teachers in the west are just selling Daoism to the middle classes as a self-help technique. This is a viewpoint I completely agree with. On p 271 part of a question-and-answer session from the ODA journal 'Frost Bell' is quoted with a fine answer from Liu Ming:

Q: Many Americans now view spiritual practice as a healing device. So many people in the modern west feel abused, injured, diseased and betrayed. Can Daoism address these issues?


A: No.

A small amount of information can also be found in Louis Komjathy's essay Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America [PDF]. In a Yoga Journal [PDF] interview from May/June 1995 we learn more about his meeting with the Daoist hermit in Taiwan. And he says some refreshingly honest things, such as this:

My own teachers were a muddled bunch. I'd be embarrassed if they all showed up here – just socially embarrassed, never mind spiritually.

Liu Ming gives classes at his loft in Oakland, sometimes on the Zhouyi, and has also offered Zhouyi/Yijing divination sessions. The form of meditation taught is stated to be zuowang, or 'sitting and forgetting', which is described well in a poem by Bai Juyi that I have translated, Winter Night.


Addendum – There was a 16-page biographical article on Liu Ming in 'Journal of Daoist Studies' 1 (2008) by Scott P Phillips: Portrait of an American Daoist [PDF].