Saturday, December 20, 2008


A friend from many years ago always sends out a seasonal greeting that is remarkable enough that I post them for a long time or even put frames on them and keep them up. This year he sent a verse from the I Ching that celebrates Change. fu/ “The Turning Point” is how he attributes it.

If I’ve got the right hexagram, it reads thus:
The time of darkness is past.
The winter solstice
brings the victory of light.
After a time of decay
comes the turning point.
The powerful light
that has been banished returns.

Scanning my bookshelves turned up five translations of the I Ching: One by Thomas Cleary issued by Shambala in 1992; one a “new” translation by R.B. Blakney, issued in 1955; a Brit version by D.C. Lau first published in 1963; a self-published, undated, calligraphed translation by Jacob Trapp, the UU mystic, which I bought at Ghost Ranch in 1985; and the translation by Ursula LeGuin, published by Shambala in 1997.

None of the translations I own are like my friend’s version quoted above. Most of them are variations like this from LeGuin:
The wise have no mind of their own,
finding it in the minds
of ordinary people.

They’re good to good people
and they’re good to bad people.
Power is goodness.

They trust people of good faith
and they trust people of bad faith.
Power is trust.

They mingle their life with the world,
they mix their mind up with the world.
Ordinary people look after them.
Wise souls are children.

Forty-nine seems to have more to do with Obama and inauguration than with the Solstice. Maybe my friend knows that. The Cleary version has the most intriguing secondary comments. He says: “Change is symbolized by water and fire extinguishing and evaporationg each other. Two women living together but at cross-purposes represent change. [!!!] It proves true on the day it is finished, when the change has happened, when it is believed. If it is civilized and pleasing, very successful because it is right, and the change is appropriate, then the regret disappears. As heaven and earth change, the four seasons take place.”

Maybe two “women” really means two political powers or the bi-cameral nature of the House and Senate.

Later Cleary says as commentary, “Great people change like tigers. . . their patterns are clearly evident.” But “cultured people change like leopards, ordinary people change their outward appearances . . . That cultured people change like leopards means their patterns are intricate. That ordinary people change their outward appearances means they conform to the leaders they follow.”

In 1991 when the superintendent at Heart Butte had forced me out and I was literally “low” with my Lisa computer plugged into the basement of my mother’s house because the outlet for her washing machine was the only three-prong socket in the house, I had a little software program that would “forecast” the future -- or at least give me good advice -- by randomly offering me I Ching translations. It took me through some dark times. One can use pennies or sticks or other means to make the I Ching hexagrams into fortune telling, but that’s not a true use. It’s about like opening the Bible at random and putting your finger down with your eyes closed, then trying to figure out the verse your finger is touching.

The “true” use of compendiums of wisdom is reflection. My mother always had two: a formal Bible-based “thought for the day” and her dream book, which was highly dubious and nearly destroyed by reading, but which she absolutely refused to replace. After many decades, it had become true because she dreamed on its terms. My own inclination -- supported by a Div School education -- is to read a bit of wisdom and then turn it on its head to see if that might also be true. Many times it is. So I record my dreams, but argue with them. That’s more like the classical approach to the I Ching.

And I suspect it’s closer to the way Obama thinks. He doesn’t seem to be working from the same immutable “laws” of the “sheik in the desert” sort of philosophy that’s thrown this country into shadows while it spent our treasure (both money and ideals) on battles with what were perceived to be rival sheiks.

Cass Sunstein, whom I used to pass in the hallway at the U of Chicago Law School and who is now an advisor to Obama, talks about the “infrastructure of decisions.” What are ALL the alternatives, consequences, defaults of what is to be decided? Clearly he’s a leopard.

The only accrued manuscript of wisdom that I value more than the I Ching is the incomplete record of Heraclitus, who says EVERYTHING is change. If you want to change the world, change yourself. Since you are connected to everything, everything will change. I live on a cultural ecotone between a culture of change (the Blackfeet way) and a culture of resistance to change (the Valier way, which is not just about being white and Christian, but also about being grain farmers). Because this is also a weather ecotone where a few weeks ago we were setting records for mild temperatures and today we’re looking at a record for bitter cold, it pays to be a leopard, sometimes pays literally though the complexity of economic decision infrastructure here can drive anyone to fortune-tellers.

But sometimes change is forced upon us. We are all like little children who cling to the familiar, feeling that survival is at stake and maybe it is. Not all little children survive and not all can be saved. But if the time of darkness has passed, maybe more of them can be brought into the light, maybe there are parts of the decision infrastructure that we can see anew.

My “problem” with the I Ching is that I’m always getting distracted to a different hexagram. Here’s leGuin’s version of Eighty: Freedom.

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating, take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses, devoted to their customs.
The next little country might be so close
the people could hear cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

Might this be Valier? Or is it Browning?

No comments: