Ready for a change this spring? Take a look at the ancient Book of Changes, better known as the I Ching. Today, we are recommending an artful new edition, The Little Book of Changes: A Pocket I Ching, rendered for a general English-language readership by Peter Crisp for Mandala Publishing.
You certainly won’t be alone in reaching for this text. The I Ching is now so popular in the West that Amazon lists more than 2,000 books with “I Ching” in the title.
So, why pay attention to any particular edition of the 3,000-year-old classic? We are recommending Crisp’s edition, because it is a handy little introduction that tucks easily into a pocket and is fun to explore in idle moments in one’s otherwise busy day.
Just how popular is I Ching in the West?
Elements of the divination system are far more widely seen and heard than understood. Remember all of the weird-looking symbols for the Dharma Initiative on the hit TV show, LOST? They borrowed from the I Ching. Enjoy science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Douglas Adams? Then you’ve run across some I Ching references. George Harrison toyed with it. Wonder Woman dabbled in it. Pink Floyd’s 1967 song, Chapter 24, is a free-form rendering of the 24th “chapter” or “reading” in the I Ching. Feeling ready for a change? Both Pink Floyd and the actual I Ching declare that change is good—and is absolutely inescapable in our cosmos—so we might as well get ready for more of it.
Beyond pop culture, the I Ching’s influence in the West rests largely on the heavy-duty influence of psychologist Carl Jung. It’s hard to find a recent version of the classic texts without some reference to Jung, who discovered the I Ching himself in the 1920s and frequently used it as a teaching illustration of non-Western discernment.
In the 1940s, Jung wrote a famous introduction to an English rendering of the I Ching—an introduction now widely excerpted across the Internet and in Peter Crisp’s handy new paperback as well. If you track down a complete version of Jung’s lengthy introduction in a library or in an online database, you’ll likely be offended at some of Jung’s biased claims about Asian culture. Jung freely admits that he doesn’t know the Chinese language and has never traveled to China, so perhaps we can forgive his sweeping ignorance. (Want an example? In one passage, Jung claims that the Chinese have never understood science—buying into Western assumptions that Asians are mired in what Jung calls “primitive superstition.”)
What makes Jung’s explorations of the I Ching worth revisiting—at least the quotable portion of Jung’s text—is that he really did want Westerners to break free from their linear thinking. In the I Ching, Jung found a system that is packed with what amounts to time-tested, thought-provoking poetry. When he tried it himself, he found that the I Ching breaks through Western notions that wisdom depends on step-by-step logic. So, Jung occasionally demonstrated the system in public talks. He encouraged people to try reflections based on the I Ching’s cryptic signs and phrases that might open new spiritual connections.
Jung’s introduction to the I Ching—as judiciously quoted in Crisp’s paperback—is an argument that’s not easy to dismiss. To this day, millions of men and women across Asia use a complex array of divination techniques to reduce stress and sort out crucial decisions about their lives.
The last time I visited Asia, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I filmed a short video clip at the centuries-old Longshan Temple in Taipei. This world-famous house of worship contains shrines and small centers for spiritual practices from several different Asian traditions. The video clip, below, shows a woman casting curved pieces of wood called Jiaobei on the temple floor as part of a divination system called Kau Cim. The wooden pieces have a flat side and a curved side. Watching how they land in several throws either confirms or calls into question the messages the woman randomly draws from a sheaf of tall, slender sticks held in a large metal vase.
In Peter Crisp’s version of the I Ching, he recommends that readers start by casting a handful of coins, then make notes on the patterns as they land to help choose the appropriate page of the I Ching. Of course, these specifics are different than the Longshan casting of Jiaobei, but the principles are similar. Carl Jung himself chose the coin-casting method that Crisp explains to readers.
Does it seem odd to recommend such a book to an American audience that is, by definition, overwhelmingly Christian? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I think it’s an inexpensive and insightful snapshot into Asian spiritual culture—essentially the same argument that Jung made. After all, the influence of Asian culture is rising all around us. In these turbulent times, we might as well toss a few coins, flip a few pages—and see if these 3,000-year-old lines might spark a fresh appreciation of change.
No video screen in your version of this story? You can jump to YouTube to watch it there. .
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.