An essay on the four timeless hexagrams of the I Ching
Within the sequence of 64 symbols in the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, four stand out as being special. They represent the archetypal concepts of Heaven & Earth, Yáng & Yīn. Together they provide timeless wisdom on how to remain uniquely authentic in the midst of eternal change.
And one peculiar point I see,
As one of many ones of me
As truth is gathered, I rearrange,
Inside out, outside in,
Inside out, outside in,
I’m now halfway through my 64-week journey with the I Ching. Thirty-two weeks ago, I woke up one Monday morning with the sudden inspiration to spend each day reading, contemplating, and embodying the wisdom of the Book of Changes. The project started very differently to what it is for me now, although even back then I knew that it would evolve and change week after week, for that is the nature of the Dào, as described by the I Ching.
Today, I completed my work with the Upper Canon, which comprises the first 30 hexagrams as sequenced by King Wén, the progenitor of the ancient Zhōu Dynasty back in the 11th Century BCE. I began my journey a couple of days after the June solstice (June 25th). As I write this, the Lunar New Year is just 3 days away. I feel the timing is auspicious.
It is said that the hexagrams of the Upper Canon demonstrate the wisdom of all matters as they pertain to 天 Tiān, Heaven. It suggests that these 30 symbols — and the texts and commentaries associated with them — concern themselves with sacred matters; matters that are archetypal in nature, and would be experienced at every level of existence.
The Upper Canon is bookended by four important hexagrams, which I will describe briefly in this article. Known as the 永恆四卦 yǒnghéng sìguà (the four timeless symbols), they stand outside of the time which the remainder 34 symbols exist in. They form the foundation of later Taoist cosmology, and are integral in understanding Yīnyàng theory and the entire ancient Chinese epistemological paradigm, which Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism, Mohism, Chinese shamanism, Chinese Buddhism, linguistics, medicine, astrology, and the developments of Chinese science and technology owe their existence to.
To understand these ideas is to grasp (as much as one can) the 易Yì (the changes/transformations of everything in existence) and how they happen. It implies the understanding of the nature of 氣 Qì as the effect, substance, or measure of change.
If you lose your way,
Try to find your way;
If you lose your way,
Never find your space.
You might find yourself crawling
Between heaven and earth
— Midnight Oil
Ancient Chinese cosmology 101
There is a primordial state — pure and untouched by the ravages of time and entropy. It is referred to as 先天 xiāntiān, ‘prior, former, or pre-Heaven’. It is any quality that is innate or a priori, and is also used in TCM to refer to the individual’s state either before birth or conception (there are different ideas on this, and depends on one presupposes a non-material existence or not).
In this state, the archetypal polarities are represented by the trigrams (also known as the primary gua) ☰ Qián and ☷ Kūn. In the Primordial Sequence of the trigrams, they form the North–South poles, with the remaking six trigrams becoming variants of a mixing of yīn and yàng lines as secondary polarities. This is described in Section 3 of the 說卦 Shuō Guà — the 8th Wing of the Confucian commentaries on the I Ching.
But of course if there is an ‘earlier Heaven’ then there must also be a ‘later Heaven’, otherwise why name it as such. This is indicative of the paradigm, where there is always the relative polarity to everything that is in existence; even existence has its polarity in non-existence, which was explicitly mentioned in the later Dao De Jing.
This is then referred to as the Temporal State, or 後天 hòutiān, ‘later or post-Heaven’, and describes anything that is acquired or a posteriori. There is the sense that there is something not-quite-pure or original about this state. It exists in normal, or real time as we experience it, once entropy has begun its natural process on what was once primordial and pure.
The alchemical process
It became the goal of Taoist alchemy to understand where one was in the Temporal State, so that the layers of conditioning could be unravelled to get one back to a pristine, unconditioned state.
In the Temporal State, the north–south polarity is represented by ☵ Kǎn and ☲ Lí, having replaced ☰ Qián and ☷ Kūn respectively. The process was contemporaneous and twofold:
- The essence of ☰ Qián (represented by his unbroken middle line — ) mingled with ☷ Kūn to create ☲ Lí.
- The essence of ☷ Kūn (represented her middle broken line – – ) mingled with ☰ Qián to create ☵ Kan.
In Taoist alchemy, the metaphor of removing the middle lines from ☵ Kǎn and ☲ Lí and putting them back into their original trigrams to form ☰ Qián and ☷ Kūn is a metaphor for the process of shedding the layers of acquired (temporal) conditioning in order to return to one’s true (primordial) nature, before it was influenced by nature / nurture.
And we came up on a bee-keeper,
And he said "Did you know they can change it all?"
You want alchemy.
— Kate Bush
The four timeless symbols
The hexagrams of the I Ching are formed by combining two of the eight primary trigrams (8×8 = 64 possible combinations). The four timeless hexagrams are simply iterations of the four cardinal trigrams: ☰ Qián,☷ Kūn, ☵ Kan, and ☲ Lí.
乾 QIÁN is the first hexagram and opens the entire sequence, which is appropriate given its meaning is “the initiating”. The image is constructed by doubling the trigram ☰, and represents all aspects of Yáng (Heaven). It is the image of empty space and infinite possibilities. This vast emptiness is what is required for something to start. Imagine needing to start a project; action is not the first step, but instead brainstorming all the potentials, and then considering their possible outcomes. This can be called tàiyáng (greater yang).
坤 KŪN is the second hexagram and is also considered to open the entire sequence. However its meaning comes from the inevitable following on from QIÁN in sequence, and its name means “the responding”. The doubling of the trigram ☷ signifies all aspects of Yīn (Earth), and exists to respond to the initiating energy of QIÁN. It essentially represents all the actions of ‘responding’ to an energy, a suggestion, a plan. It’s linked to Earth, because it is the manifestation of what was imagined to begin with in QIÁN. This is tàiyīn (greater yin)
Together, these hexagrams represent Yīnyáng, and the Tàijí symbol (specifically the black and white teardrop shapes). As the opening hexagrams of the I Ching, they form the ‘parents’, with all other hexagrams being combinations created by mixing the broken and unbroken lines of these two symbols.
坎 KǍN is the 29th hexagram, and is formed from the doubling of the trigram ☵. It is associated with the element water (specifically rushing or flowing water) and the moon. The image however is of an abyss or ravine, or darkness: a state of entrapment that we can find ourselves stuck in. The wisdom of this hexagram outlines the advice and approaches to getting ourselves out of such dangerous situations (which I have already written about extensively in my previous post on the Year of the Earth Dog, and my review of that year. This is shàoyáng (lesser yang).
離 LÍ is the 30th hexagram and the image is constructed by the repeating of the trigram ☲. Associated with the element fire and the sun, it represents clarity, illumination, and the radiance that brings together (hence an often translated title as “the clinging”, in the sense of adhering to something. The idea of two things being paired together is linked with the idea of being able to perceive clearly the nature of the relationship between subject and object. Thus, a much needed quality to have when attempting to accomplish anything in the world. This is shàoyīn (lesser yin).
Both these hexagrams — darkness and light — are formed as the temporal manifestations of their ‘primordial parents’, initiation and response. They are timeless because in every other moment (the remaining 60 hexagrams) we can find ourselves experiencing either possibilities, responding to the situation, entrapment in darkness, or the clarity about the nature of our attachment to something.
The lines (broken or unbroken) that comprise the structure of the other 60 hexagrams come in four combinations, described as tàiyáng, tàiyīn, shàoyáng, and shàoyīn. That is, they are either stable and unchanging (greater yin/yang), or they are mutable, unstable, and about to change to their polarised state (lesser yin/yang). Each of these four states are represented by these four timeless hexagrams.
You better turn around and blow your kiss hello to life eternal.
— Jeff Buckley
It is by this way that we can use the I Ching to understand the quality of the present moment, and the possible future moments that will emerge from it. The text and its framework was designed to provide advice as to how to adapt to any given moment and how it may change.
The four timeless hexagrams are providing us with the key ingredients of this understanding. We either initiate an action or respond to it; we are separated from others (and ourselves) in darkness or we we connect with others in relationship. These four ingredients, combined together in various measure, provide the essence of every moment we find ourselves in.
The Upper Canon explains the archetypes (according to the ancient Chinese understanding) of how the universe itself works. The first 30 hexagrams — underlined by the four timeless hexagrams — give us the structure of how we experience reality on a bigger-picture level. Heaven was considered an exemplar for human behaviour, and by modelling our ourselves, our values, and our virtues on Heaven it was said that we would become the “superior/accomplished person”.
As it states in the Tao Te Ching:
人法地，地法天，天法道，道法自然。Rén fǎ Dì, Dì fǎ Tiān, Tiān fǎ Dào, Dào fǎ zìrán.
Humans [follow] the method of Earth, Earth [follows] the method of Heaven, Heaven [follows] the method of the Way, the Way [follows] the method of it-self-so-ing [its true nature].Tao Te Ching, chapter 25 (my translation)
Our true nature is unique to us, and is how we ‘human’ (as a verb), in the same way that the Earth ‘earths’, Heaven ‘heavens’, and the Dào ‘daos’. This is what is meant by the term 自然 zìrán: to simply be oneself, completely naturally and authentically. And because we have these higher-level exemplars, we don’t have to try and be sacred (like Heaven), and we don’t have to try and be always changing (like the Dào), because when we embrace our true nature, we will be, and effortlessly so.
For me, the lesson of the Upper Canon is that the 30 hexagrams contained therein are what I can expect to happen all the time in life. They describe the archetypal themes that I and everyone else encounter. The four timeless hexagrams teach me how to manoeuvre through the changes and these situations that I find myself in all the time.
As I sit on the threshold of the new Lunar Year and begin to journey through the Year of the Earth Pig, I feel particularly equipped to adapt to any situation that may arise. Having spent the last 32 (I had two weeks off during that time) weeks learning to perceive and embody the wisdom of the Upper Canon, I feel confident that I can weave through what may emerge and use it to benefit my development as better human being.
I hope there is something in all of this for you to take away and benefit from. Here’s to that!
It's been a long, long time coming,
And I know,
Change is gonna come.
— Greta Van Fleet