The I Ching – coins vs sticks

Some weeks ago I finally sat down to learn how to consult the I Ching (or the Ji Ying if you prefer) using yarrow stalks. Or rather, yarrow stalk substitutes. Turns out it’s the wrong time of year; nothing resembling yarrow grows in my garden and even if there, I’m not really patient enough to wait for the stalks to dry out. So, this being a Time Before The Virus Came, I trudged around Hammersmith High Street until I found boxes of wooden pick-up sticks on sale in a branch of Tiger. Two boxes = fifty fake yarrow stalks and a bunch of spares.*

I’ve been a devotee of the Richard Wilhelm version for a long time but I recently stumbled across the giant red brick that is “The Original I Ching Oracle” published by the Eranos Foundation which, aside from positively vibrating with scholarship, has a beautifully clear explanation of the mechanics of consulting the I Ching with fifty sticks as opposed to three coins. 

With coins, the querent tosses three coins assigning a value of three to each coin that lands heads up and two to tails. A score of 7 (or 9) generates a ‘yang’ or unbroken line.  A total of 8 (or 6) refers to a broken (yin) line. The first line is the bottom of a hexagram. The ideograph is then built up from the ‘ground’ with the process repeated a further five times, generating one of 64 possible variations.  Forgive me for not going into any greater detail – there are any number of ‘how to’s scattered across the web

With sticks, the principle is still the same – carry out a consistent process to deliver a more or less random output of the number 6, 7, 8 or 9. By repeating six times, a hexagram is built up from line one at the bottom to line six at the top. One of the translators of the Eranos I Ching has put the full description of the process online.

What difference does it make? For one thing, it slows the whole process of consulting this enchanting book down. Establishing a question, holding it in one’s mind, generating a hexagram to look up – it all becomes a precise, dance-like ritual. It stills the busy mind, clarifies and deepens whatever enquiry I might intend to ask and puts me in the kind of space where I’m prepared to listen carefully. It generates an opening.

Is there an equivalent for the tarot? One analogue might be the complex series of shuffles, cuts, counts and deals that MacGregor Mathers set out for the Golden Dawn.

But there’s a key difference. In building an I Ching hexagram line by line, you are literally constructing an image of the universe at a specific moment in time and space from the most fundamental materials imaginable – light and dark, ones and zeros, positive and negative. I feel that the reverse is true of some methods of Tarot card selection and patterning, that single, infinitely rich sets of heterogenous symbols are broken down and simplified. 

However, both tools – or books – demand seriousness. They might be playful but they never play games (unless one is foolish enough to play games with them). The main lesson of the question of sticks versus disks (as it were) is the need for stillness, slowness and to take advantage of whatever method might generate the silvery clarity of the scryer’s mirror**. 

*I could have bought some on Etsy but that really felt like I would have been cheating.

**Though if you sometimes have to get up in a rush and pull a single card for a clue or thread to follow through the day – that’s something the Tarot is  fairly forgiving of. Within reason.)

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