©Copyright 2000 Vincent Bridges
For Terence McKenna: “When it comes upon the right man, one who has inner relationship with this tao, it can forthwith be taken by him and awakened to new life.” R. Wilhelm, 1964
Around 1500 BCE, about the time the Beaker people made the last additions to Stonehenge and the Shepherd Kings (symbolized by the story of Joseph in the Bible) were conquering Egypt, a group of feudal warlords, called the Shang for the city where they originated, consolidated their control over the Yangtse valley of north-central China. The Shang created the first formal empire in China, imposing a hereditary kingship supported by a land-holding aristocracy. These noble families and their retainers formed the basis of the army which expanded the Shang kingdom to the south and the west.
By 1325 BCE, the Shang had pushed westward into plains of Chou. In the classic Book of Poetry, an ode tells how the Emperor T’an Fu led his people to Chou and founded a new city where the “turtle shell/ It says ‘Stop,’ it says ‘This is the time.’” Only a few hundred years before, the Shang had developed writing from just such oracle readings in order to petition their ancestors, which makes this is the first direct mention of the oracle in Chinese history.
But what was the oracle, and how does a turtle shell say “Stop?” To answer these questions, we must look back into the myth shrouded beginnings of Chinese culture.
There have been hominids we would recognize as human in China for over five hundred thousand years. About eight thousand years ago, the rudiments of civilization appeared. A few thousand years later, around 3,000 BCE, a sort of proto-culture developed in the upper Yangtse valley. Like so many of the proto-cultures which formed around the planet within a few hundreds years of that date, the ancient Chinese culture centered on an Immortal.
At the dawn of time, Fu Hsi, the primordial culture-bringer who invented the calendar, writing and the organization of society and whose name literally means Embodied Wisdom, tried to explain the workings of I, a word usually translated as “change.” To do this, we are told in the Great Commentary supposedly written by Confucius, he “observed the phenomena of the heavens and gazed down to observe the contours of the earth.” He also observed his own internal processes and their reflections in nature and then “went beyond this to take ideas from other things. Thus he invented the eight trigrams in order to comprehend the virtues of spiritual beings and represent the conditions of all things of creation.”
In one version of the legend, Fu Hsi sees the eight trigrams, or primal groupings of broken and unbroken lines, on the back of a turtle, which gives us a clue as to how the oracle was originally practiced. The eight trigrams describe the major concepts of the ancient Chinese eco-philosophy which all refer back to the central image of the I, or, as an early Chou author defined it, “Change: that is the unchangeable.” The word began as a pictogram of the cosmic lizard or dragon, and meant the “fixed,” or the “straight,” in the sense of the cosmic and unchanging axis of the universe. Applied to the idea of “time,” the world axis came to denote “change” in order to describe the perceived evolution of patterns and rhythms.
These patterns were conceived as the cold dark yielding forces of Yin and the hot bright expansive forces of Yang, both of which are but fluctuations in the Chi. These fluctuations give rise to the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire and earth – whose interactions in turn produce all things. These eight concepts are symbolized by the eight primal trigrams: the trigrams Heaven and Earth represent Yang and Yin, while the trigram Thunder represents the Chi. The other five, – Lake, Fire, Wind, Water and Mountain – convey the essence of the five elements, metal, fire, wood, water and earth.
Fu Hsi’s realization of the eight trigrams produces first of all a gnomic or geometric view of the universe’s expansion, from first cause to the reality event horizon symbolized by the 64 hexagrams. The One becomes two, Yin and Yang, which in turn produces four, the directions, then eight, the trigrams, and then on to sixty four, the hexagrams. This was thought of as the primal linear order, of both the trigrams and their resulting hexagrams. This can also be seen as the primal binary matrix, a sort of master set of off/on switches by which life unfolds through time by means of change.
The number sixty four is unusual in several ways. There are sixty four codons, of three nucleotide units each, used by DNA and RNA to specify the amino acids needed for protein synthesis. We can think of these codons as a taxonomy, a complete and self referencing group of symbols, that describes the possibilities of biological evolution. Interestingly enough, evidence from anthropology also suggest that sixty four is the maximum number of entities that can be contained in one folkloric unit. From this it follows that the maximum level of cultural complexity is also controlled by the law of 2 to the 6th power, or sixty four. This connection between the evolution of proteins from DNA and the development of cultural complexity from archetypal experience forms the basis of the I Ching.
While there are other ways to organize the trigrams and therefore the hexagrams, the primal linear order seems to represent some basic structure of life itself. Bio-chemists, such as Dr. Martin Schonberger in his book The I Ching & the Genetic Code, have commented on the similarity of the primal linear order and the sequence of transfer RNA needed to develop living organisms from the DNA blueprint. Fu Hsi, the Embodied Wisdom, seems to have been telling us that the wisdom is also encoded within all of us. Indeed, the archaic pictogram for the oracle resembles nothing so much as a way to align the I, or cosmic center, with the unfolded spirals of DNA derived life.
However, as the text attributed to Confucius noted, Fu Hsi went beyond the code of life. He also gave us a way to understand how our DNA fits within the larger patterns of celestial alignments and temporal development. The logical way to turn the linear, binary order of the trigrams into a circular pattern is to match pairs of opposites. This produces the primal or celestial arrangement which represents the larger patterns of time and change. We can in fact align this primal pattern to the four corners of the universe, the so- called galactic solstices and equinoxes, and thereby derive the quality of time for each trigram’s age or era.
The trigrams used to mark these large periods of time, the slow changes of the ages, can also be arranged to show the yearly cycle of natural and ecological change. This temporal arrangement begins in the spring with the appearance of the Chi trigram, Thunder, and then proceeds to develop the Chi through the year to perfection in the late winter, earth trigram Mountain, or Keeping Still, from which the Chi re-emerges in the spring.
Therefore Fu Hsi’s revelation provides us with a way to understand the evolution of the life codes, our DNA, within the organization of the space/time matrix from which reality is formed. Each arrangement of trigrams can be used to generate a sequence of the sixty four hexagrams which describes the changes, or relationships, within that level of reality. Thus, the linear or binary sequence describes the diversity of life produced through the action of tRNA, the celestial sequence describes the quality of time as the evolution of the results of action, what the Hindus call karma, and the temporal sequence describes the unfolding of the life force, the Chi, through the year and the landscape. By referring to all three, a total picture of reality emerges.
So, how was the turtle shell actually used as an oracle? The eight sections of the turtle’s shell were each assigned a trigram and then a small hole was drilled in the center of the shell. Heat was applied to the hole until cracks appeared. These cracks were then read, in terms of which trigram section was effected, and the resulting trigrams and hexagrams interpreted. These crack patterns, and their trigram derived meanings, served as the basis for some of the earliest Chinese characters.
The Shang warlords developed a form of writing from these oracular symbols and a fund of very ancient pictograms that resemble in their simplicity the pre-dynastic hieroglyphs of Egypt. In China, the written form of the language grew directly from a richly symbolic natural philosophy. Over time, this philosophy became distilled into the text of the I Ching and its commentaries. In attempting to understand the I Ching, we must constantly remember these ancient perspectives, the realizations and revelations of the Embodied Wisdom, the First August One, Fu Hsi.
The I Ching is the oldest book in the world. The basic structure developed in pre-history. Confucius, in his Great Commentary, credited the pre-historic Three August Ones and the Five August Emperors with ordering the world according to its precepts. From the Chou Li, or Book of Chou Rites dating from around 1000 BCE, we learn that the Book of the I was only one of three prophetic or divinatory books known to the ancient Chinese. The Li Chi, one of the Five Classics, informs us that turtle shells were in common usage in divination using a system derived from Fu Hsi’s trigrams. All that we can really know of its origins is that by the 12th century BCE, the oracle had taken its basic form of sixty four binary hexagrams.
Apparently, up to this point, no recognized interpretations of the patterns existed. Each practitioner was free to interpret the patterns of the hexagrams in their own way. However, around the middle of the 12th century BCE, the late Shang dynasty deposed and imprisoned one of their dependents, King Wen. While in prison, King Wen turned his attention to writing descriptions, or judgments, on the sixty four hexagrams. By careful use of the ideas revealed in his study, King Wen was able to effect his release and the re-instatement of his kingdom. Perhaps for this reason, his judgments have ever since been seen as definitive.
What exactly are they and how do they derive from the hexagrams? In many ways, this is the most enigmatic of all aspects of the I Ching. In their archetypal simplicity, these descriptions are often just a verb and a noun standing alone or with another verb and noun pair. The interpretation must add the sense of the grammar, and even then one is left with bald and cryptic statements that appear to have little in common beyond their inscrutability. The translator and interpreter must add more than grammar, he must be able to draw upon a lifetime of experience in the oracular use of the hexagrams, and beyond that must be a master of the traditions of Fu Hsi and the eight trigrams.
King Wen was all that and more. He passed his knowledge on to his son, Tan, the Prince of Chou, founder of the Chou dynasty which eventually overthrew the Shang. The Prince of Chou is credited with having passed on the wisdom of his father in his judgments on the lines of the sixty four hexagrams. These 384 descriptions form a unified field of understanding where all three perspectives on the eight trigrams and their subsequent sequences of hexagrams can be explored.
Thus, by 1000 BCE, the I Ching had taken on its classical form. Half a millennium later, Confucius devoted the later part of his life to a study of the I Ching, announcing in his Analects that if he were given extra years of life, he would spend fifty of them on the study of the I Ching. K’ung Fu-tsu, or Confucius in its Latin form, may not have written all of the Great Commentary. It was probably the work of the sages of his era, given prominence by a later association with the great K’ung. However Confucius, as an idea, is representative of the commentaries that form the final phase of the I Ching’s development, with their emphasis on correctness and social stability.
The I Ching became one of the Five Classics after the Burning of the Books in 213 BCE. The Ch’in warlord Shih Huang-ti conquered a divided China and imposed a strict modernist plan not seen again until the advent of Maoism in the 1960’s of our era. The old Classics were lost, many survived only as fragments hidden away in walls and statues. But the I Ching, as a divinatory work of obscure phrasing and social correctness, survived the literary holocaust intact. In the reformation of the culture that followed the equally meteoric collapse of the Ch’in dynasty, the I Ching took its place as one of the surviving Classics of Chinese civilization.
Curiously enough, none of the other great thinkers — Lao Tzu, Mencius, Hsun Tzu – of pre-book burning China seem to have been interested in the I Ching. Only Master K’ung recommended it, and for that he deserves to be listed as one of its authors, along with Fu Hsi, King Wen and the Prince of Chou. After the disaster of the Ch’in Empire, the new Han dynasty tried to restore the nature of the ancient Chinese civilization, and from that perspective, the I Ching became one of the Five Classics. This is the moment, the early 2nd century BCE, when the I Ching assumed the form we know today.
In the intervening two millennia before its discovery by the west, the I Ching was the focal point of the evolving strands of Chinese religious philosophy. The orthodox Confucians developed their own interpretation as did the Taoist esotericists and the Buddhist missionaries. Finally, in 1715 CE, the Ch’ing Emperor K’ang-hsi issued the Imperial Edition, from which most European translations have been taken. The Imperial Edition is very Neo-Confucian in its choice of commentaries and was produced as a way of making the ancient texts support the new Manchu Dynasty of the Ch’ing. This gives the modern I Ching a political tone, one that appeals to western ears and one that it did not have throughout most of its history.
Today, many English versions exist, the best and most widely used being the Wilhelm-Baynes-Jung edition published in the Bollingen Series of Princeton University Press. Thomas Cleary has also published much work on the Taoist and Buddhist interpretations of the I Ching. Strangely enough, one of the most esoteric and enigmatic books of the 20th century, The Architecture of Nature, written by the Master Pierre, edited by AOR and privately published in Paris in 1943, equates the hexagrams of the I Ching with subjects as diverse as Gothic architecture, the kabbalah and the symbols of alchemy and secret societies.
However, even with all the interest in the I Ching, its basic nature is only now being understood. The world’s oldest book had to wait until the advent of computer science for the depth of its message to be glimpsed. Because the world’s oldest book is also the world’s oldest super-computer, one designed to read the flow of “change” through the mechanism of “time.”
Imagine that a being from an advanced culture gave you a toy designed to both entertain you and instruct you in the workings of our reality matrix. The toy works like this: at any moment, you can freeze the flow of time into a very small slice which not only tells you the nature of the moment, but why you chose it, the ramifications of having chosen it, and three other co-ordinates of change that create the moment and the choice.
Essentially, the I Ching, the gift of Fu Hsi, is such a toy. Any means of random selection can be used – counting yarrow stalks, tossing coins or a binary computer program – to provide the hexagram which marks the quality of that moment. This hexagram is then interpreted by various methods and then related to other hexagrams to provide an inclusive and holistic perspective on the evolution of that moment in time. The value of such knowledge, however, comes from our ability to make use of it.
And this, perhaps, was the genius of King Wen. In addition to writing the enigmatic judgments, King Wen also designed a way to structure the hexagrams in pairs so that the increment of change between the pairs described the rhythmic structure of that elusive quality the now or the ever-changing present. This discovery animated the larger structures described by Fu Hsi’s trigrams so that time or change was rendered interactive. King Wen’s arrangement became the standard sequence used in most versions of the I Ching, and for millennia was the preferred way to consult the oracle. It survived because it worked. Through the King Wen arrangement, it was possible to have a dialogue with this ancient source of wisdom.
How this actually worked was a mystery until recently. Carl Jung’s study of the I Ching led to his theory of synchronicity as an acausal connecting principle, but he was unable to see how the flow of archetypes formed meaningful structures in an acausal manner. Synchronicity could be defined as a psychological event, the projection of meaning onto a background of randomness, but Jung left unanswered the question of meaning itself. Does this temporal universe inhabited by biological entities truly have a “meaning?”
Perhaps not a meaning, but at least a “destiny.” One of the commentaries on the I Ching attributed to Confucius tells us that “the future likewise develops in accordance with the fixed laws, according to calculable numbers. . . This is the thought on which the Book of Changes is based.” Another even older commentary informs us that “counting that which is going into the past depends on the forward movement. Knowing that which is to come depends on the backward movement. This is why the Book of Changes has backward moving numbers.” Clearly the early commentators and interpreters saw the I Ching as something vastly more significant than a simple oracle.
But what exactly? This question was answered by a couple of the century’s most brilliant minds. The McKenna brothers, Terence and Dennis, in their groundbreaking work, The Invisible Landscape, postulated that the King Wen arrangement contained just such a backward and forward flowing pattern of numbers, and that these numbers could be used to construct an interface with similar vital holons, or holistic hierarchies, in the organization of space/time.
The McKennas demonstrated this by overlaying the 384 lines of the sixty four hexagrams (6 x 64 = 384) on the 13 month lunar calendar (13 X 29.53 days = 383.89 days). They then used these basic units to develop a temporal lock with the solar/sunspot cycle, the Zodiacal Ages, and the length of the Great Year of precessional motion. With the same increment, sixty four, they found it was possible to assemble a 26 step model of space/time from the size/age of the universe down to Planck’s Constant. In this view, the I Ching is a fractal model of all that is, was, or will be. It is also hologramic, in that the piece, the I Ching, contains the information of the whole, the evolving universe.
Applying this realization to the structure of the King Wen arrangement produces a model of the holonic nature of evolution. If we think of the time from the emergence of life on earth to the immediate future, roughly 1.3 billion years, as one increment and then begin to divide that by 64, some interesting time periods are highlighted. Our first division, one 64th of 1.3 billion years, brings us to the high point of the mammals, 18 million years ago. The next division by 64 brings us to 275,000 BCE, the dawn of Homo Sapiens. Dividing again by 64 brings us to the high point of the ancient cultures such as the Egyptian around 2300 BCE. Another division brings us to the mid 20th century and the last 67 + years of the cycle.
According to this view, all of biological and cosmological time is approaching a point of concrescence in the near future. The McKenna brothers went looking for possible dates for this concrescence and decided that the helical rising of the winter solstice sunrise in 2012 matched the requirements. It would certainly be an event of cosmological significance that could serve as a symbol of the concrescence itself. The McKennas found that this date also matched the wave form derived from King Wen’s arrangement with historical events. The end of World War II and the atomic bomb, for instance, fell on 1945, the year of the last division, the beginning of the last 67 + years of biological and galactic evolution which completes the vast hexagram of time which began 72.25 billion years ago.
All of the information, “novelty” as the McKennas called it, that was generated in the course of the previous billions of years from the formation of the earth to the present is compressed and recapitulated in the last 67 + years. Therefore we can apply the same scale of division, creating a new hexagramic hierarchy, to this 67 + year period. Within this time period, there are 64 groups of 384 days which cover three major and six minor sunspot cycles. When the wave front of concrescence is applied to the time period, we find that the first node falls on the beginning of the last 384 day cycle. The McKennas suggested that this node marked a shift in “novelty” or information density, equal to that which occurred in 1945 CE, 2300 BCE, 275,000 BCE and so on.
The next node on the concrescence wave happens six days before the shift point and again represents the same kind of acceleration in “novelty.” The first trigram is completed at the next node, 135 minutes from ground zero, and represents another level of acceleration. Novelty continues to speed up at the next node, 127 seconds, and again at the next, 1.98 seconds, and then for the final time at .003 seconds when it accelerates to its maximum. The pattern then inverts and novelty decreases by the same incremental pattern with which it increased. Another round has begun.
The implications of this are staggering if considered from the perspective of the universe’s meaning or destiny. Perhaps sentient life developed out of the primal matrix just to be aware of this all important wave of information acceleration as it reaches concrescence. Perhaps the true value of the I Ching is to help us understand the transformative possibilities of living in a moment of rapidly accelerating time.
Terence and Dennis McKenna’s work has been validated and expanded upon by others since the first publication of The Inner Landscape in 1975. John Major Jenkins, in his definitive work on the Maya and precession, Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, credits the McKennas with having the intuition that the helical alignment with galactic center in 2012 was an important precessional marker. Jenkins’ work suggests that the Maya actually based their calendar on such galactic alignments. The work of Moira Timms, in Beyond Prophecies and Predictions and in other articles, suggests that the ancient Egyptians also aligned the Djed pillar with the center of the galaxy. In our recent book, A Monument to the End of Time, my co-author, Jay Weidner, and I demonstrated that the ancient traditions of alchemy and chiliaism in the west are also based on the precessional mysteries.
Interestingly enough, the Taoist alchemists of the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1127 CE) seemed to understand the concept of alchemical time and the transformative process at the heart of King Wen’s arrangement. In a curious mandala entitled The Cauldron, Furnace, Medicines and Firing Process, the King Wen sequence is used to describe the alchemical process. “The science of the gold pill (alchemy),” as Liu I-ming, the foremost Taoist scholar of the 19th century, tells us in his commentary on the mandala, “has the Heaven and the Earth for its cauldron and furnace, Water and Fire for its medicinal ingredients; the other sixty hexagrams, beginning with Difficulty and Darkness, are the firing process. . . The science of the gold pill (alchemy) is not outside the tao of transformation, the tao of transformation is not outside the tao of evolution of yin and yang, of heaven and earth, sun and moon.”
And so the toy, so bright and strange, given to us by an advanced culture or being turns out to be the wish fulfilling jewel of transformation. This super computer of destiny, the world’s oldest book, not only has an application in the moment, it just might be that it was designed specifically to be used at this moment as a way to understand the relentless process of information acceleration and increasing novelty. In that sense, the McKenna brothers deserve to take their place along with Master Kung, King Wen and Fu Hsi for defining this aspect of the I Ching’s wisdom.