Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Biography of the I Ching by Richard J. Smith

The I Ching seems so different from other “classics” that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and the Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu Vedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.

According to Chinese tradition, the Yijing was based on the natural observations of the ancient sages; the cosmic order or Dao that it expressed had no Creator or Supreme Ordainer, much less a host of good and malevolent deities to exert influence in various ways. There is no jealous and angry God in it; no evil presence like Satan; no prophet, sinner, or savior; no story of floods or plagues; no tale of people swallowed up by whales or turned into pillars of salt. The Changes posits neither a purposeful beginning nor an apocalyptic end; and whereas classics such as the Bible and Qur’an insist that humans are answerable not to their own culture but to a being that transcends all culture, the Yijing takes essentially the opposite position. One might add that in the Western tradition, God reveals only what God chooses to reveal, while in traditional China, the “mind of Heaven” was considered ultimately knowable and accessible through the Changes. The “absolute gulf between God and his creatures” in the West had no counterpart in the Chinese tradition.

Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of sustain narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years – an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture. What was so appealing about the document, and why was it so influential?

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