Approaching the I Ching

Approaching the I Ching

By Robert Petrovich


The Book of Changes contains a fourfold tao of
the holy sages. In speaking, we should be guided by
its judgments; in action, we should be guided by its
changes; in making objects, we should be guided by
its images; in seeking an oracle, we should be guided
by its pronouncements.
Therefore the superior man, whenever he has to
make or do something, consults the Changes, and he
does so in words. It takes up his communications like
an echo; neither far nor near, neither dark nor deep
exist for it, and thus he learns of the things of the future.
—Great Treatise, chapter X.1–2

The I Ching is not a fortune-telling book. It is a book of oracles, so it should be used only for answers to important problems. It is a book of wisdom, and it can help you make the right decision in harmony with the natural laws of the cosmos. The questions you ask of the I Ching should relate to your life as a spiritual adept. The decisions given are for your betterment and the betterment of the world community. In this sense, it is a book of proper conduct, moral codes, and ethics. Consult the I Ching only for important questions and events and never for mean purposes or with selfish motives.

In the Book of Changes it is said: “He is blessed
by heaven. Good fortune. Nothing that does not further.”
The Master said: To bless means to help. Heaven
helps the man who is devoted; men help the man
who is true. He who walks in truth and is devoted in
his thinking, and furthermore reveres the worthy,
is blessed by heaven. He has good fortune, and there
is nothing that would not further.
—Great Treatise, chapter XII.1

The I Ching is a religious book, alive with a soul that puts man’s Consciousness in contact with forces outside the range of the rational mind, and it is only as reliable as the individual into whose hands it is placed. To cast a hexagram and read the commentary on that hexagram does not mean that you understand the I Ching or that it is working for you. The I Ching in the hands of an adept is one thing; the I Ching in the hands of a person who approaches it with no understanding is something else.

The I Ching teaches that a person’s first duty is to live in accordance with heavenly laws. Knowledge of these laws is always taught by a School of Light. A person who lives in accordance with heavenly law and wishes to know whether it is right or wrong to make a movement or to make a decision on an important matter may consult the I Ching.

The Master said: The Changes, what do they do?
The Changes disclose things, complete affairs, and
encompass all ways on earth—this and nothing else.
For this reason the holy sages used them to penetrate
all wills on earth and to determine all fields of action
on earth, and to settle all doubts on earth.
—Great Treatise, chapter XI.1

Nature and man can and do influence one another. Fortunes, health, and accidents are all determined by timing; so knowing when to act and how to act is important. Learning how to pace yourself and live in accordance with natural law determines how happy you are going to be, what you are going to get out of life, and what you can give back to it. This is the secret of the I Ching.

In the proper hands, the I Ching is an oracle book and a book of wisdom that can assist an individual to project his or her Consciousness into the cosmos. Its exact workings is a profound psychological study in itself. The I Ching goes beyond the range of the rational mind, ordinary consciousness, and awareness of the ego. The I Ching deals with the deep layers of the psyche. When one enters the world psyche or the world of cosmic Consciousness, one goes beyond the rational concepts of beginning, middle, and end, and one enters into a world where past, present, and future are one and the same.

The Chinese System organized heaven and earth, sun, moon, and stars into divisions of symbols and signs. The sages recognized that nature worked in a certain way; they knew how to act and when to act, and everything they did was done in accordance with the force they wanted to bring out.

The trigrams and hexagrams of the I Ching represent archetypal symbols that are allied more with intuition than with rational awareness. These symbols are coded, and although they are deciphered by the psychic faculties, the rational mind is not always able to grasp their meaning.

The I Ching, or Book of Changes, has been used for many thousands of years, and it is still being used today in both East and West. In the English-speaking West, the standard text most often used is the Wilhelm/Baynes edition. This is the translation referred to and quoted from in this supplement. Study this standard text and various other books that comment on the I Ching for a better understanding of how the System of the I Ching works.


The practice of divination in China long predates the I Ching. At the ancient site of Yin in Hunan Province, once the capital of the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 BCE), one hundred thousand pieces of inscribed bone were discovered at the turn of the twentieth century and later identified as the royal records of divination of the Shang Court. The Court of Shang divined with tortoise shells. The Chinese scholar Alfred Huang explains (Huang, p. 2): “In matters of grave import, such as seasonal sacrifice ceremonies, expeditions, royal enthronements, weddings, and hunts, and even weather, the augur would be asked to divine whether there would be good fortune or misfortune.”

The conceptual basis of the I Ching begins with original limitlessness and the principle of the One which is represented by the line. This line, which in itself represents oneness, at the same time posits the opposites: the positions above and below, right and left, front and back.

The 2 Lines
The first movement out of limitlessness is the world of polar opposites. These opposites are represented as an unbroken line called yang, and an open line called yin. Each of these two lines has two states of being, one of rest and one of movement. In the process of change, these lines transform into their opposites. The balance of these opposites is in constant flux.

The 4 pairings

The four (22) possible pairings of these two lines represent the initial interaction of the opposites, which are commonly called yin and yang.

The 8 trigrams
The four pairs of lines recombine with the primary yin and yang lines to express a further level of complexity (23). This set is called the eight trigrams.


The 64 hexagrams

The number of the eight trigrams squared (82) generate the sixty-four hexagrams. The sixty-four situations of the I Ching are each represented by a complex of six lines in which each line carries a polar tension and expresses this tension, and the sixfold combination of the polar forces defines the situation.

The Early Heaven hexagram arrangement, of unknown antiquity, follows a binary number sequence and is attributed to the legendary Fu Hsi (mid-29th century BCE).

Early Heaven Arrangement




Later Heaven Arrangement


The Later Heaven sequence remains in present use. In this sequence, the hexagrams are arranged in pairs of opposites. Overall, the Later Heaven sequence begins with the opposite pair of all yang lines (Hexagram 1) and all yin lines (Hexagram 2) and ends with perfect alteration of yin and yang lines (Hexagrams 63 and 64).

The hexagrams represent situations; the appended names characterize the situations; these names and the linear complexes to which they are appended frame the subject matter of the book. Each hexagram in the I Ching has three core texts.


The yarrow-stalk method and the coin method are the two methods most commonly used at present in the Western world.

Fifty Yarrow Sticks
The yarrow-stalk oracle became popular about three thousand years ago during the Chou dynasty .

Fifty yarrow stalks make the set used for consulting the oracle. (Exact instructions for consulting the oracle through the yarrow-stalk method are available in nearly every modern English edition of the I Ching. These modern instructions are based on the instructions given in the Great Treatise that is attributed to Confucius, chapter IX.3–6.)

Three Coins
During the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE)—more than two thousand years after the I Ching was written—a simpler way to consult the oracle was devised, using three coins. The description of the process appears in the Tang-era book The Correct Significance of Rites.


The six-wand method dispenses with biased probability and returns to the changes of the I Ching equal dignity with stability. The original wands were made of tortoise shells inlaid with ivory. There were six wands all exactly alike: one side blank and the other side inlaid. Each wand was the sign for a line, and six wands together made a hexagram when they were cast.

Why the Six-Wand Method Is Preferred
We prefer the six-wand method to consult the I Ching because it is the simplest and probably the oldest. With the six-wand method, the hexagram is cast at once in a single moment when the energy is concentrated and correct. There is no conscious mediation. The immediacy of the method cuts through all rational or subjective interference. When casting the wands, there is equal opportunity for any of the four states of a line to appear, unlike both the stalk and coin methods.

Design of the Wands
For the original materials of tortoise shell and ivory, we have substituted wood. These wands are ten inches long by one inch wide by one inch high (10″x1″x1″). Any natural wood will do. One side is blank; the other side is inlaid. Though the wooden wands are more cumbersome than coins, they are most effective. We recommend that wands be used rather than sticks or coins. Smaller wands can be made of metal. These need measure only an inch and a half in length, with an inlay of proportions similar to those of the wooden wands. Silver and copper are excellent metals, and the smaller size makes them convenient for travel. Metal wands are preferred over coins.



Preparing the Circumstances
The technique of consulting the I Ching is not complicated in itself. What is important is to make it work. When you are in possession of the wands and a copy of the I Ching, you are prepared to consult the oracle.

Approach the oracle with respect and proper ritual. When the book is not in use, it is traditional to wrap the book and the wands in silk or some other elegant cloth, and to place the wrapped book and wands on a shelf at about eye level. It is recommended to wash the hands before divination, then to unwrap the book and the wands and to spread out the wrappers before you as you would tablecloths.

All spiritual matters require us to take the first steps. Then there will be a response. The spiritual does not pursue us first. We must initiate the encounter. This is the role that ritual has served since ancient times. Ritual is a symbolic language that has to be acted out to have meaning.

In Chinese tradition, those in authority faced south when granting an audience. Thus during the consultation, you should sit near the center of the room and face north, prepared to receive the instructions of the oracle (the “authority” in this case).

Privacy is essential. Compose yourself in a clean and quiet room. Be absolutely alone. Let no one disturb you. Place the I Ching and the wands before you. It is helpful to have a vase of fresh flowers nearby with a candle and a stick of incense burning. Offer up a prayer or use a short form of meditation to attain a tranquil and reverent state of mind. During this time, formulate the question in your mind.

Preparing the Question
The I Ching should be used to receive answers to important questions. Do not use it indiscriminately. The I Ching helps you to see what forces are at work, how they can develop, and how you can relate to them.

The I Ching is a book of wisdom that can help you make the right decision in harmony with the natural laws of the universe. It is vital that the question to be asked is clear in your mind. Have a clear concept of what it is you are asking. The question needs to be presented without any form of confusion. Make the question simple and clear. The more specific your question, the more specific the answer will be. It is better not to ask for a prediction. The best inquiry is for advice. Phrase the question as an inquiry about your situation: “How can I—?” or “What will happen if—?”

There is no answer until one inquires. You must first approach and inquire in order to receive. You must initiate the encounter. Make a clear and precise formulation of your question in words and write the question down together with the date in a notebook; in other words, a diary. Below the written question, you will record the hexagram once it is cast.

In a single session, ask only one question. The oracle should not be abused by repeating the same question or by asking irreverent or trivial questions. The Commentary warns: If you approach the I Ching a second time, you will not receive an answer.


Concentrate on your question, and concentrate on addressing your question directly to the Changes (I Ching). With the mind prepared, and while in a kneeling position, pick up the wands, three in each hand, and cast them before you in such a way that all six wands are scattered before you separate from each other.

To form the hexagram, select the wand nearest you and then the wand next nearest you, one at a time, putting them in sequence, from bottom to top, until the hexagram is complete. Place the wands before you in sequence with the side facing up that appeared when they fell. Do not worry if there are two so close that you cannot easily determine which is closer to you. Consider whichever one your hand reaches out for first to be the closest.


A young yin or young yang line does not change. An old yin or old yang line is a changing line and turns into its opposite. A hexagram with all young lines is static; only the text of the statement of the hexagram with all young lines applies to you and none of the line commentaries. The oracle then takes into account only the idea represented by the hexagram as a whole, as set down in the Judgment and the Commentary on the Decision, together with the Image.

The first hexagram presents your situation at the moment. The first hexagram is the starting situation of a development that leads, by way of the situation discussed in the changing lines and their appended counsel, to the second hexagram.

As with anything, experience and time are important to achieve success with the I Ching. Properly handled, the I Ching can assist you to make right decisions in important matters. Be wary of misinterpretations. Careful and meditative readings are essential to receive the proper answers.


The I Ching is a tool for gaining wisdom and guidance. It is not a fortune telling game or a toy. To get results, you must treat it with respect and use it only for important matters.

This article was adapted and condensed from a series of seven articles that were published in The Community Communique. These articles have more details for those who want to delve deeper into the subject.

Note: We have a small number of wand sets available for sale to those who want to seriously use the I Ching. If you are interested, comment on this post and we will send you further information.

Comments ( 2 )

  • Paul M Ruzicka

    Please send info on wand sets… thanks.

    • Harold Boulette

      Hello Paul,
      I’ve past your request on to the person who handles that.