The Theosophical Society in America

How Ancient China Came to America: The I Ching as Bible

Originally printed in the November - December  2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Wilde, Dana. "How Ancient China Came to America: The I Ching as Bible." Quest  89.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER  2001): 222-227

By Dana Wilde

Dana Wilde

AMERICA AND CHINA are as different as two cultures can be. America is young, just over two hundred years old; China has a five-thousand-year past. Their languages are startlingly alien to each other, the currents of their philosophies flow in nearly opposite directions, and their principal religious traditions could not be more distinct. And yet a friend of mine recently remarked, "The I Ching is my bible."

This remark is surprising, not only because the I Ching, or Book of Changes, developed millennia ago in the staggeringly foreign traditions of China, but also because it is not a religious text at all, at least not in any conventional Western sense. It's not scripture, and there's nothing like it in Western religion or literature.

In fact there's another surprising thing about the remark: It was not the first time I've heard it. Several highly intelligent Americans have said the same thing to me in the past few decades. The friend who introduced me to the I Ching in 1974 said it to me. A few years later a woman said it to me in exactly the same words. Another friend, one of the most acutely intelligent people I've ever known, said it to me in the mid 1980s, and later, so did my wife.

The I Ching is utterly unlike the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It tells no stories, and its text is oracular, a highly metaphorical kind of poetry that is decipherable to Westerners and most Chinese only through the detailed commentaries of both Chinese sage-scholars and Western translator-interpreters. The best known translation and commentary on the I Ching by a Westerner is the one made by Richard Wilhelm, a German scholar who lived in China during the first part of the twentieth century, and it is his translation that my friends referred to, and that I am most familiar with.

The I Ching is neither scripture nor a literary work, nor even a work of rationally coherent philosophy. It is, in fact, a three-thousand-year-old book of divination—a fact even more difficult for scientifically minded Westerners to square with traditional ideas about religious texts. When my friends say, "The I Ching is my bible,"however, they are indicating that the I Ching provides them not with predictions of the future, but with religious ideas or sensibilities in a way that replaces the Bible.

How does a well-educated American come to the conclusion that anancient Chinese book can function the way the Bible does for Jews andChristians, or the Koran does for Muslims? I'd like to give a picture of Western history that addresses this question. In a nutshell, it was cultural conditions that compelled my friends to cut their ties to traditional Western religion and seek the new in the very, very old.

The story begins two thousand years ago when Christ questioned the authority of Roman law and Middle Eastern religious leaders. But let's skip ahead about sixteen hundred years, only mentioning that during all those years most Europeans remained convinced that some sort of divine authority existed and felt compelled to recognize it. Then around AD1600, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Francis Bacon, and other Europeans began setting religious authority on its ear—often without intending to do so. That is, the methods of objective science emerged and began to reveal that when you look closely at the physical world, it's different from what traditional religions describe.

Galileo encountered serious problems with the Catholic Church when he argued that the Earth revolves around the Sun, instead of the Sun around the Earth, as the Bible indicates. The new science, or New Philosophy as it came to be known, "call'd all in doubt," to quote the English poet John Donne, and questioned the Bible's reliability and therefore the church's authority. This triggered a centuries-long moral crisis for Western culture because religious leaders were the traditional teachers of moral values. To oversimplify the situation, because of the success of science, people's confidence in religious authority diminished.

This did not happen overnight, but gradually over the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the mid 1800s, most Westerners were hanging onto their family and community habits of attending church and reading the Bible, but their attention was turning more and more to the material world and the ways science and technology could make them healthier and more comfortable. Traditional moral values taught by the church and Bible began to seem old-fashioned. Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and writers like Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert in their own ways mounted sharp attacks on the hollowness of European morality. In America, philosophers like Emerson, Thoreau, and William James asked the same questions in gentler ways. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it was clear to many people that the Western world had a serious moral crisis on its hands.

The church was losing its credibility and authority in the face of scientific findings. There was also the serious problem that the church upheld social, political, and economic values that enabled relatively small numbers of wealthy, greedy people to exploit and make profoundly miserable millions upon millions of other people. Just after the turn ofthe century, World War I (1914-1918) devastated Europe and other parts of the world. It became clear to many educated Westerners that a moral system that could result in such a disaster was bankrupt. The Christian church was seen as part of the bankrupt system, and its congregations and influence declined as the twentieth century wore on. Religion in general was condemned as superstition put to political use by businessmen, landowners, politicians, and scientists.

At the same time, some people realized that human beings' inner lives need attention. In the nineteenth century, organizations like theTheosophical Society and the Unitarian Church sought to create new, fresh forums for the nurturing of religious feeling. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a popular notion that art could replace religion. But more powerful than art in people's consciousness by this time was science itself; science began to be seen as the savior of humanity, and this view continues today. But the trouble is—and many scientists tried to warn of this—science treats the material world, not the inner life, and cannot by its nature offer any moral guidance.

A morality of economics and of politics, which manifested itself as nationalism, grew up from scientific, materialist views of humanactivity in order to provide a system of community values that would bind people together. Although the notion that economics and politics are the binding forces in people's lives persists today, the fact is that a morality of politics and economics does not work either. This is because economics and politics are not moral systems, even though people try to make them so. Moral systems underpin economics and politics.

The moral crisis was not confined to the Western world. In the nineteenth century, China itself, despite its enormous life independent of the West, had grown very brittle morally as well, and it has wrestled with the same general problems as the Western world. The twentieth century was a shockingly painful time in human history because practically every civilized country was struggling with old moral systems. Things came apart virtually everywhere.

But while moral systems have been torn down everywhere, the world has floundered in replacing them. No culture, country, or civilization can hold up for long without a system of shared values. Since World WarsI and II, the whole world has been in a state of marvelous material possibility but simultaneously a state of moral chaos. In the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans realized that old moral dicta by and large no longer applied in the modern world, and they rebelled. Young people of my generation refused to go to church. They became cynical about politicians, government, and much else.

So what does the I Ching have to do with all this? The breakdown of the old moral order and the necessity for a new order to replace it makes the I Ching's relation to American cultural history really not so obscure.

In the 1960s, many well-educated young Americans realized that something extremely important was missing from the materialist way of life. Some of the most influential statements of this feeling came from the Beat writers of the time: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder.They and others were searching for meaningful lives. In some ways they botched the job, but the important thing was that they were aware that their physical well-being did not mean they were living a "good life."They were keenly aware that their inner lives—the lives of their minds, emotions, psyches, and spirits—were as real as their bodies, and in someways more real. They realized that part of the bankruptcy of traditional Western morality was that it had given all its attention to the well-being of the body and to scientific rational intelligence, and had essentially ignored the inner life.

Young Americans of the 1960s did not trust the church, so they set out to find a life of the mind and spirit in other traditions. They looked energetically at Buddhism, Hinduism, and Middle Eastern religions and philosophies. Young black people became Muslims. White kids from suburban families became Zen Buddhists and Hindus, or at least they tried to. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made trips to America, and the Beatles followed him back to India. Alan Watts wrote enormously popular books for Americans about Buddhism. I remember being influenced by a  popularization of Hindu philosophy called Be Here Now by a Westerner who had adopted the name Baba Ram Dass.

The 1960s passed. By the late 1970s, people thought of the whole endeavor as a misguided waste of energy and a joke. Most of the young spiritual rebels of the 1960s got sick of living in the uncomfortable surroundings they associated with spiritual life and returned to the comforts of middle-class food, transportation, and money. Those who continued to seek the spiritual life, whether in books or drugs or traditional religions, came to be seen by Americans in general as cranks or misfits. The period saw a resurgence of interest in contacting dead spirits and belief in the power of crystals and mental telepathy. In 1972 I took a college course in the anthropology of magic and religion,and we read books by popular mystics like P. D. Ouspensky and so-called black magicians like Aleister Crowley. They were disturbing books. The UFO phenomenon, which is probably a manifestation of an inner condition, emerged full-blown during the 1960s. People seeking inner meaning tried different kinds of divination, including astrology, tarot cards,and—the I Ching.

I was introduced to the I Ching in this context. A friend showed me how to throw the coins to obtain the hexagrams, and we read the oracles with fascination. What we did was purely superstition, according to the dominant scientific-rational view of reality. Most well-meaningmiddle-class Americans believed science had long since debunked and disproved all superstitious nonsense about supernatural realities; even the Catholic church was the butt of jokes for many Americans because of its weird rituals with incense and chanting and drinking wine believed to be blood.

I admit I don't know exactly what to think of all this. I do know that, contrary to the jokes now told about "peace, love, and understanding" and deluded spaced-out hippies, and contrary to hard-corescientific cynicism about religion and the existence of an inner,spiritual, and moral life, the impulse during those years to find some kind of spiritual reality was intense and real. It was just that many people failed to find any evidence of it. Many people, but not all.

Those who told me that the I Ching is their bible believe they have evidence of things unseen. Tarot cards and ouija boards mainly dropped out of their lives as either unreliable or dangerous or simply fake. Some of them keep a skeptical eye on astrology. Drugs have long since left their lives as dangerous, short-lived, and largely illusory. But the I Ching remained and actually grew in importance to them. Why?

Well, the initial attraction to the I Ching involved its use as a contact with the spiritual world. You throw the coins, they symbolize lines, and you look up the arrangement of lines in the book, then read the commentary, which supposedly answers your question. Pure superstition. Except that people discovered that things were happeningin the I Ching that were not happening, or happening far less satisfactorily, in other kinds of divination. One thing was, amazingly, that the answers were right. Let me tell you a story that still startles me, even years later.

The friend who originally introduced me to the I Ching decided to make a scientific test of its objective reliability. His question was, "Is some ordering force actually at work, or is this merely total random chance?" For his test, he threw the coins randomly, challenging the I Ching to make sense. On the first throw, he ended with the oracle Wilhelm translates as "Youthful Folly"; the original text is translated thus: "It is not I who seek the young fool. The young fool seeks me. If he importunes, I give him no information." This was startling because it would be just the sort of reply you might expect a real oracle to make in response to a frivolous test of its authenticity.

But a stranger thing happened. My friend continued his test, throwing the coins three more times. Three more times he drew the oracle of "Youthful Folly." This can mean only one of two things: Either an extremely improbable and truly fantastic synchronistic coincidence occurred, or the oracle actually (generously) answered a question that should not have been asked, by warning of its foolhardiness. Four times in a row.

I have never known anyone who has used the I Ching to say it was wrong or that it misguided them. In my experience, it has never beenwrong, by which I mean that although sometimes the response is very hardto understand or seems ambiguous, I have never seen a clearlyunfavorable response in a favorable situation, or vice versa. And I havefrequently seen responses clearly borne out. The oracle has been exactand lucid about favorable and unfavorable periods of my own life,including a troubling period that began soon after a decision to forgo along-term visit to China.

So my friends' religious confidence in the I Ching began with theirexperiments in occult and mystical activities, what we now call the "NewAge" movement—the interest in occultism and mysticism that grew out ofthe 1960s into whole ranges of popularizations of Eastern religion andphilosophy, Native American mysticism, shamanism, channeling, paganism,myth enactment, psychic healing, meditation practice, past-lifehypnosis, and many other similar offshoots, including the quite bizarrealien abduction phenomenon.

The I Ching is different, though. Not only does it seem to replymeaningfully to questions, but it provides two other important things:first, clear, reasonable instructions about living a good life; andsecond, a coherent picture of the cosmos that integrates my friends'deep sense that the outer, material world and the inner, psychic worldare equally real and intimately related. This is critical. My friendssay, "The I Ching is my bible," because it provides exactly whatreligion, apart from church politics, traditionally provided: guidelinesfor living a good life, and contact with the inner or spiritual world. Apoint of moral orientation is available in the I Ching, which manypeople believe is not available in traditional Western religions or mostof the shallow New Age efforts to formulate a working spiritual life.

What's really interesting is that this point of orientation isavailable in a text from ancient China. It strongly suggests that themoral values we sense deep inside us are common to widely diversepeople. Wisdom, justice, temperance, patience, endurance, perseverance,honesty, courage, piety—virtues taught by Plato, not to mentionJesus—are present not only in Western, but also in Chinese culture. Andthey are identifiable in South Asian cultures, Middle Eastern cultures,and other cultures all around the world.

If I'm right about even part of this, it means that religion is notan evil political tool. Instead, it means that religious institutionswere used as political tools by some people who did not mean well, aswell as by some who did. Further, it means that the religious feelingattached to moral values and to the various kinds of health that arepossible for human beings is not an illusion. It is a natural experienceand need. And this implies that we share a common consciousness and acommon source.

The upshot of all this, finally, would be that after a terriblecouple of centuries—especially after what might be described as acollapse or dismantling of morality during the twentieth century—thereis now a powerful impulse on the part of people to rebuild a coherentsystem of moral values: a system that will not result in world wars. Torebuild, we collect moral value wherever we recognize it. The taskrequires great personal clarity, and cultural clarity, and powerful,unflinching honesty.

But there it is. China is building itself, a giant country of giantpossibilities that will come to ruin if no meaningful system of moralvalues underpins it. America is transforming itself too, a powerful,inventive country of enormous resources in materials and energy. But ithas to rebuild a moral system that abandons the hollowness anddestructiveness of the old morality and creates a workable, meaningfulmoral life by doing what Americans are good at: using whatever materialsare at hand—including the I Ching—to contact the divine world.


Dana Wilde recently served as a Fulbright lecturer in China, having taught literature and writing in his home state of Maine and Eastern Europe, as well as China. He has published in the Quest,Alexandria, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the North American Review, and Mystics Quarterly. His forthcoming book of essays is titled Infinities: The Inner Dimensions of Outer Space.