From Cryptic to Clear

How do you turn a cryptic Yijing text
into a clear insight?

“It’s too hard!”
Back in 2016, while on a walking art and temple tour in Georgetown City in Penang, Malaysia, I noticed in many houses and buildings the ever-familiar bagua. If I remember it correctly, I saw this particular bagua carved on a wall in an entrance of one house we passed by. It seemed to me that the ubiquity of bagua is equal to the familiarity of Chinese people in Yijing.

A carved bagua on a house wall in Penang. © Rem Tanauan

However, after asking a Malaysian Chinese tour guide if he knows about Yijing, he told me with a grimace: “Oh no, it’s too hard!” I cannot anymore recall what ensued in our conversation, but I still quite remember his tone of voice and reaction. Based on his reaction, I suppose Yijing is a tough nut to crack even for an average Chinese.

And despite its popularity in the West, Yijing is much harder for Westerners. This is why many Western “translations” of I Ching are in fact “interpretations”, according to Yijing expert Harmen Mesker. I often read the authors explaining their versions as an easier alternative (even though misleading), since the cryptic ancient texts are already stripped off. Even most sinologists find it difficult to study Yijing because of its linguistic complexity. (This is a good discussion for another blog post).

Cracking the Nut
I think people find Yijing very insightful when a particular text is literal, straightforward, and as clear as day. As far as Western comprehension is concerned, a clearly written text is almost always the letter of the law. But there are times that Yijing can be too baffling in a reading, when the text appears more cryptic than reading a piece of poetry.

I have encountered this myself within the first 2 years of my Yijing practice. Despite being cryptic at times, Yijing has also helped me to crack its own hard nut. (It is the nut and the nutcracker at the same time! How paradoxical!) So in March 08, 2016, I wrote my question:

How do I read the cryptic message?

I got Hexagram 17 Following, with Line 2 changing to Hexagram 58 Joyous. In Wilhelm-Baynes’ translation, I was struck by the Image or Wise Action of Hexagram 17. It says:

The superior man at nightfall
goes indoor for rest and recuperation.

The moment I read these lines, I found it textual and visual at the same time. I saw the image of night getting darker as the sunset ended. I also immediately realized the exact meaning of this line in response to my inquiry:

When the text is cryptic,
go inside your heart and meditate.

In preparing to write this blog post, I realized that Yijing has revealed to me 3 approaches in clarifying the cryptic, all of which have guided me well in my practice since 2016, whether I read for myself or for others.

Approach 1: Going Inside
I think this is a no-nonsense approach for a tool that facilitates deep reflection. As a person trained in inner work, spirituality, and well-being practices, reflection and meditation (in various forms) are my staple exercises. So when I started to use Yijing more and more, these exercises are already a muscle memory to me.

I related this process of “going inside” with what Yijing translators Rudolf Ritsema and Shantena Augusto Sabbadini mentioned in their introduction:

There are no rules in interpreting the texts. They do not have an intrinsic meaning, independent from you and from your question. The Chinese commentary tradition suggests that turning and rolling the words on one’s heart is the key to access the “light of gods”.

The Original I Ching Oracle, Ritsema and Sabbadini (2005), page 18

Funny, for this turning and rolling the words strikes me the image of a tambiolo or a lottery drum, which needs cranking and rolling until you randomly get the winning numbers. When Yijing is cryptic, I let the text or image tumble in my heart until I randomly get an insight. It works! One perfect example is the reading I discussed in this post.

Tambiolo, from Wikimedia commons

(By the way, I have another related and interesting discussion on this process, including the “light of gods”, but that would be for separate blog posts. Stay tuned!)

Approach 2: What Stands Out
Hexagram 17 Line 2 has perfectly revealed this next approach:

If one clings to the little boy,
one loses the strong man!

So this line serves as an interesting reminder. In most readings, Line 2 specifically represents the understanding of the issue or situation behind an inquiry. It turns out that this line describes exactly what happens when a reading becomes cryptic, which I interpret as:

Being too attached to the cryptic text
makes the insight too elusive

I even wrote the word “pesky” in my original reading. I have been sharing this story to many people and I often refer to the little child as cryptic text. Now, as of this writing, I am starting to realize that this phrase can also mean that not all parts of the text are relevant to the reading, as Harmen pointed out. According to him, in most ancient case studies of Yijing readings, diviners only focused on the most obvious and strongly significant symbols that stand out as a reading insight, leaving behind the rest of the text that did not resonate. Hence, the “strong man”.

So the key here for me is to look first for the most obvious symbols and words that convey the nearest related meanings. As always, they exactly reveal and connect to the detail of the inquiry.

Approach 3: Joyful Sharing
This is the most straightforward approach derived from this reading, specifically from Hexagram 58, Image/Wise Action. It says:

Thus the superior man joins with his friends
for discussion and practice.

Every one-on-one session I have with a client is true to the saying “It takes two to tango.” As a Yijing consultant, I interpret the text as I intuitively sense it through words and images, guided by the ancient and rich associations of symbols and stories. The client in turn will reveal the insights that to him/her surprisingly light the bulb. That synchronistic connection always blows our minds. My clients and I end up joyfully energized by the insights we have discovered together in every reading session. How can it get more exact than this?

Pillars of Practice
This particular reading has provided me with the strongest pillars of my Yijing practice. I always go back to this reading as the first guiding principles on how to understand the insights of Yijing itself. And looking back, I have come to realize that Yijing has a good sense of humor, rightly revealed in this shorthand insight that has dawned on me just now, reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s immortal axiom follow your bliss:

Just follow this, (17)
because it’s joyful! (58)


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