Monday, June 15, 2009

The Book of Changes in Ruigoord

Last Saturday I attended the Yijing Conference, on the Book of Changes and its defining concepts of yin & yang, in Ruigoord, a hippie colony outside Amsterdam. It was a blast from the past in more than one respect.

Amsterdam used to be an attractor of hippie types from all over Europe and North America. I went there several times aged 16 to 20 to pick up the vibrations. It was already a decade past the mildly historic events of the Provo movement, but people kept on coming there to bring to it the very atmosphere that they hoped to find there. I recall visiting the boat of the Lowlands Weed Company where marihuana was selected and improved to turn it into the strong stuff now known as Nederwiet. The Aquarian activities centre De Kosmos had its own "house dealer", quality guaranteed, but its core business was all manner of "spiritual" stuff that was heady back then but today is on offer in every cultural centre in Europe, from Astrology to Zen. Real groovy. That's where I saw an announcement of a visit by Swami Hariharanada Giri who initiated people into Kriya Yoga, the beginning of the end of my seeker years.

A leftover of hippie Amsterdam is Ruigoord, a tiny village lying in a remaining slice of greenery between a line of windmills (for energy generation, not the old pîcturesque ones) and the industries expanding from the harbour. Nobody really wants to live there anymore ever since it found itself in the flight path to the nearby airport. So the place was cheap and accessible for penniless entrepreneurs in the "alternative" sector. One or two decades ago, the Ruigoord crowd had tried to prevent the industries from coming too close, so they used witchcraft rituals to keep the spirit of modernity, exploitation and pollution at bay, but in vain. Nonetheless, once you're inside the village, you could still imagine being in the middle of the premodern Dutch countryside.

But the decoration is not so Dutch. The old church now sports pictures of the Dalai Lama and paintings of Shiva. In the middle of the meadow is a huge totem pole. Gotta think global before you act local. Next to the gate is an inscription of the Vedic Gayatri Mantra, with a few spelling mistakes. No marihuana conspicuously in sight, not even in the herbal-teahouse, but some old T-shirts demanding its legalization. So, it was a good place to spend a sunny day and dig the old spirit. Moreover, I was in the fine company of an Amsterdam-based lady friend of Chinese-Indonesian origin, a teacher of Neijia gentle martial arts splendidly embodying the whole yin-yang thing.

Most speakers told us about their personal experiences with the Yijing oracle. I learned the word "enantiodromia", "change into its opposite", meaning that when yang becomes extremely yang, it turns into yin, and vice versa. Light allows you to see things, but extreme light blinds; cold water cools but ice causes burns. I don't know if practice proves it true, though: if you hate someone hard enough, do you start loving him as a consequence? Some speakers could't keep themselves from bringing in quasi-Buddhist ideas, e.g. that fear, longing and clinging cause "bad energy". But right on the Yijing mark was the lone Flemish speaker who uttered (quoted?) the maxim that "except that everything changes, everything changes". So what doesn't change? The fact that everything changes. And what's absolute? That there's no absolutes.

Simon Vinkenoog, the octogenarian poet and icon of hippie Amsterdam, had to absent himself because of illness. He was to speak about his own Yijing interpretation. He at least called it an interpretation, not a translation. Several of the speakers claimed to have made their own translations of the Yijing or of Laozi's Daodejing, but from their mispronunciation of Chinese words you could deduce some doubts about that claim. What they meant was probably that they had cobbled together some pleasing bits and pieces from existing translations. So this was the problem that I as a trained Sinologist had with this whole scene: after having studied the Chinese classics in the original and in their historical context, I can't reconcile myself anymore with most Yijing users' naive reliance on the existing interpretation, a Han dynasty (2nd c. BC) version of a then 900-year-old non-fixed "text", which in the process of translation got overlaid with Jungian mytho-psychology and feelgood psychotherapy.

Mind you, I have been there too. At 19, I assisted in founding an Aikido association, Seishindo Aikikai Leuven, and we chose as its logo the Yijing hexagram 51, Zhong Fu, "inner truth" (today I would rather translate it as "core sincerity"). Once when we had to take an important decision, we literally swore with our hands on the Book. Hey, even Chairman Mao had consulted the Yijing, so why not us progressive young men? So I really know how it feels, the trust in the Oracle. In my studies of history, this knowledge has served me very well, as omens and astrology have played a central role in numerous political deliberations and cultural-ideological developments in every known civilization. Yet, once a man is equipped with the modern outlook and takes a critical look at the mantic disciplines, he will end up finding it hard to keep the faith. At least I found it hard, e.g. when I saw how a friend of mine was encouraged by the Oracle to pursue a particular woman who nevertheless kept on rejecting him.

In particular, how can anyone put faith in the Yijing oracle once he knows that the text we now use (and I mean the Chinese standard text, let alone the mutually contradictory translations) probably diverges in every chapter from the original intent of its early Zhou dynasty author(s)? Thus, a much-used expression in the Yijing is "li zhen", "favourable (mantic) determination", "auspicious oracle". Already the Han Confucians understood it differently, not as oracular but as ethical advice. Today, it is mostly translated as "constancy is favourable". So when people get this answer when they ask the question: "Should I move to Australia?", they think it means: "Stay where you are!", when in origin it means: "Pursue the course you're contemplating."

Moreover, apart from the meaning of the text, its whole purpose has also changed. Ancient diviners tried to know the will of the Gods, and how to propitiate them. Hence the frequent references to sacrificial rituals in the Yijing, often with details about what and how to sacrifice. To the modern mind, this is doubly irrational: not only do you try to decide a question with a procedure of pure coincidence (toss of a coin, the pattern of cracks in a heated turtle's plate, direction of birds' flight, shapes in the liver of a sacrificed animal), the question itself often concerns the wishes and actions of ethereal beings whose existence remains to be proven.

Finally, the concerns of the Book's original users were very different from the pretty little worries of its modern users, who want an oracular light to shine upon their floating "relationships" and their "spiritual growth". The Zhou family that wrote or patronized the original Yijing ca. 1100 BC, was more interested in justifying its coup d'état against its suzerain, the Shang emperor. What would have made the old Duke of Zhou and his relatives laugh out loud is the modern assumption that theirs is a "Daoist" text favourable to the feminine principle. In would be more accurate to classify it as proto-Confucian (aristocratic, patriarchal, political, ethical) rather than Daoist (rooted in the artisanal classes, more appreciative of the feminine, averse to politics, mystical), and even to call it the Bible of Sexism. Later interpreters started discovering the weakness at the heart of displays of strength and the strength of the weak, the white dot in the black fish and the black dot in the white fish. But the core Yijing's view of these primeval polar opposites is simple and straightforward: the weak should bend before the strong, the woman should submit to the man. It emphatically prefigures the Confucian view that "if man is truly man and woman truly woman, the world is in order". So, ladies, know your place.

Anyway, most people at the conference had no idea of the complex and as yet still partly unclear text history of the Book of Changes. Except for one, Harmen Mesker, and his explanation of his new translation in progress, taking hexagram 48 ("the Well") as example, was thoroughly scholarly and up-to-date with the latest discoveries of the oldest Yijing manuscripts. He replaced characters with other characters attested in manuscripts, changed the division into sentences, and restored old meanings to characters obscured in the 18th-century reading on which Richard Wilhelm based his classical translation. He opined that the title character jing, "well", may have been a mask for a similar-looking character meaning "law", motivated by a need (either for the original Zhou conpirators or for an Yijing commentator/rewriter in the subsequent Zhou period, 11th-3rd c. BC) to cloak criticism of the regime in innocent-looking language. Yet he had not lost faith in the Oracle.

How he solved the problem of the doubts about the intended text? He simply took the best approximation. If two of the three oldest manuscripts give a particular character where the standard version gives another, he prefers the text of the manuscripts and alters the reading accordingly. But on that text, though still seven centuries younger than the Duke of Zhou and beset with uncertainties due to the then non-uniformity of the Chinese writing system, he does base oracle consultations. After all, he argued, people using any of the present translations, though these diverge from each other and from the original quite widely, seem to be satisfied with the results. Someone volunteered the observation that the Bible too is used as an oracle by some of its believers. Yes, he replied, "even Pietje Puk [a Dutch series of children's books featuring a postman] could serve as an oracle".

That's practical, and also likely to be welcomed by most oracle users, who resent criticism and prefer to wallow in the bubble bath of feelgood spirit beliefs. But to such people, the search for the original Yijing would thereby lose its importance: if it's all only subjective, any text that falls into your hand (probably by a benevolent cosmic coincidence) will be good enough to serve as your private guidebook. Yeah, why not? If it's all only "spiritual", distinctions don't really matter.

So that's why I liked this Harmen's work. Though not believing his research necessary for the oracular use of the Yijing, which was its originally intended purpose, his desire for finding out as much of the truth as possible proved too strong to ignore. That gives him a place in an old tradition. During the entire premodern age, oracle consultation was not a pastime of "seeker" types but a highly official matter with political consequences, and many top-ranking Chinese thinkers devoted their best energies to discovering the logic and inner necessity of the Yijing text.

Today, it's a dangerous topic for Sinologists who want to be taken seriously. In the 19th century already, organizers of academic conferences decreed that the voguish topics of "the origin of language" and "the Book of Changes" be disallowed as unfruitful and attractive of sloppy thinking. So don't tell any of my friends in academe that I went to Ruigoord.

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