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[Zhang Wenzhi] Philosophy of Life in the Zhouyi (Book of Changes) 2009-12-1


Zhang Wenzhi

(Center for Zhouyi & Ancient Chinese Philosophy, Shandong University , Jinan 250100, China )

Abstract: The Zhouyi (Book of Changes) plays an important role in Chinese philosophy and has been exerting profound influence upon traditional Chinese culture. Both Confucianism and Daoism are closely related to the Zhouyi , which is made up of two main components: one is the Text; the other is the Commentaries ( Yi Zhuan or also called Ten Wings, traditionally credited to Confucius). It was through Yi Zhuan 's systematic and creative interpretation that transformed the Zhouyi as a book of divination into a classic of philosophy and wisdom. The core of the philosophy in Yi Zhuan is the philosophy of life, which adheres to the unity of heaven and human and has always been influencing Confucianism and Daoism in the past dynasties. Influenced by Yi Zhuan , traditional Chinese culture also focuses on the unity of the physical existence and metaphysical existence of individuals, even on the dynamic of the universe as a living organism. The Zhouyi considers the cosmos an organic body, which is always producing and reproducing in the interactions between Yin and Yang . This cosmology regards hexagram Qian ( ) symbolizing the heaven and hexagram Kun ( ) symbolizing the earth as the originating basis, human being an important member in the Three Powers (of heaven, earth, and human). This thought of Yi Zhuan emphasizes the subjective position of human. Yet, to completely exert his subject function, human must advance in virtue, cultivate all the sphere of his duty, and accumulate goodness to completely develop his nature, with sincerity being the media, in order to realize a virtuous unity with heaven. In addition, man should act timely in order to realize a natural unity with heaven by conforming to the rhythm of the nature. The former aspect is inherited and promoted by Confucianism, whereas the latter is adopted by, among other Chinese natural sciences, religious Daoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine in later dynasties. The thought of unity of the heaven and earth in the Zhouyi differs great from the dualism predominating in the West, whereas it has great affinities with the Process Thought marginalized in the west. Though scientific thought based on the Western dualism has greatly improved the development of productivity, the problems such as the separation between human body and mind and pollution caused by this thought should not be neglected. The thought of unity of the heaven and earth in the Zhouyi could make a more than trivial contribution to the compensation of the drawbacks of the scientific thought.

Key words: Zhouyi ; philosophy of life; influence; Confucianism; Daoism; process thought

I. Preface

The relationship between the heaven and human is a basic issue in Chinese philosophy, as Shao Yong 邵雍 , one of the Five Sirs of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), says: “A thought that does not relate to the relationship between the heaven and human can not be called a thought.” A main idea in Chinese philosophy, an aspect which distinctively differs from the Western philosophy, regards the whole universe as a living organism, whereas human is just an important component of it. As Mr. Fang Dongmei 方东美 , an eminent modern New Confucian scholar, says, “Chinese like substitute ‘nature' for ‘cosmos'. The ‘nature' (cosmos) in Chinese mind is different from the Westerners'. It is not of material, nor mechanic, nor an empirical object which can be cut apart (or conquered), but a living residence for the entire existing world, a process of the myriad of things' changes by their natural regulations and rhythm, and a realm within which all things are integrated into one.” The philosophy of life with the unity of heaven and human as a basic idea in the Zhouyi 《周易》 plays a significant role in Chinese philosophy. The life philosophies in both Confucianism and Daoism, and even Buddhism are closely related to the life philosophy in the Zhouyi . The Zhouyi includes two components: Jing 经 , the ancient Text which is composed of the hexagrams and lines as well as statement affiliated to the hexagrams and lines, and Zhuan 传 , the Commentaries (also called the Ten Wings) which is made up of Tuan (Judgment) (I and II), Xiang (Image) (I and II), Xi Ci (Great Treatise) (I and II), Wen Yan , Shuo Gua , Xu Gua , Za Gua . Yi Zhuan was the earliest classic extant which systematically interpreted the ancient Text. The Yi jing referred to in the Han dynasty had integrated the Text and Commentaries into one entity. Since then, these two components had become an organic entity. The variety of the interpretations to the Zhouyi made by the Yi -ologists of later dynasties further enriched its contents, making the Zhouyi be an ever-novel and vital classic and even be correlated to Chinese astrology, geomancy, music, alchemy refinery, and so on. All these aspects are related to the philosophy of life conceived in the Zhouyi , which is discussed in this paper.

II. “Producing and Reproducing” the Foremost Important Character of the Cosmic Life

In regard to the mainstream of Chinese philosophy, no matter it belongs to Confucianism, Daoism, or Buddhism, it tends to regard the whole universe as an organic living body. Though in Chinese history there had appeared some philosophers such as Xun zi 荀子 (c. 313-238 B.C.) and Han Yu 韩愈 (768-824) who adhere to the separation of the heaven and human, their thought had never predominated over the mainstream, whereas the thought insisting on the unity of the heaven and human represented by Mencius's 孟子 (c. 372-289 B.C.) thought later turned out to be the mainstream of Confucian philosophy. Daoism pays more attention to the natural unity of the heaven and human. The vision that considers the whole cosmos (including the heaven, earth, human, and the multitude of things) an organic living body is closely related the concept of the unity of the heaven and earth. Yet, the idea that regards the whole universe as a constantly producing organism is represented by the idea explicated in Yi Zhuan .

“The great virtue of the heaven and earth is creativity.” In the opinion of the author(s) of Yi Zhuan , creativity is the first important character. The whole living body of the cosmos is constantly under a state of “creating”, resulting from the interaction between Yin and Yang . The author(s) of the Yi Zhuan regard(s) Qian 乾 ( ) symbolizing heaven and Kun 坤 ( ) symbolizing earth as pole of Yang and that of Yin respectively. Qian as pure Yang and Kun as pure Yin produce the multitude of things through interaction. Though Qian and Kun, Yin and Yang are opposite to each other, they also attract and depend on each other. If the heaven symbolized by Qian and the earth symbolized by Kun do not constantly interact, things will not be constantly created.

Though “creativity” results from the interaction between Qian and Kun, the author(s) of the Yi Zhuan attach(es) more importance to the function of Qian and Yang. It says in the Tuan of Qian: “How great the originality of Qian is! All things owe to it their beginnings.” Yet, Kun or Yin exerts its function just through cooperating Qian or Yang. In other words, Qian or Yang governs the beginning of all things, Kun or Yin governs the completion of all things. The originality of Qian if the primary dynamic for the creation of the myriad of things, based on which “the nature of the variety of things is corrected,” whereas the originality of Kun is just a womb, based on which “all things can be well under way.”

Through transformation, hexagram Qian could communicate the other 63 hexagrams. That is to say, the heaven could produce all things. From the vision of Yi Zhuan , it can be seen that, after the things are created under the dynamic force of the originality of Qian, the influence or stimulus-response between the things also become a dynamic for further producing of things. There is a hexagram called Xian ( ) (the 31 st hexagram in the received version of the Zhouyi ) in the Zhouyi . This hexagram is composed of two trigrams: the upper hexagram is called Dui ( ) symbolizing a maid, the lower trigram is called Gen ( ) symbolizing a young man. The whole image of the hexagram shows that a young man is seeking love from a maid. The Yi Zhuan further extended: “Xian means influence. The upper is softness and the lower is hardness. These two kinds of Qi (vital forces) stimulate and response to each other …the heaven and earth produce all things through interaction and the peace under heaven results from the sage's influence on commoners from the heart. Through observing the stimulus-response, the circumstance of all things can be seen!” Furthermore, in the opinion of the author(s) of the Yi Zhuan , the diviner's judgments also result from his envisioning of responding to the stimulus from the heaven and earth.

The author(s) of Yi Zhuan hold(s) that, the task of the sages is to perceive and carrying on this stimulus-response theory. Only in this way can the sages “penetrate into the will under heaven”, “accomplish all causes under heaven”, and “judge and solve all doubts under heaven” , as well as lead the world under heaven to peace by influencing others. Certainly, here the “peace” does not only mean no war, but also refers to a peaceful state of one's mind.

In addition, according to Yi Zhuan , the ideal existing state for the life of cosmos is the balance of Yin and Yang, and the middle way is the best way for the life.

III. “Unity of the heaven and human”, “great harmony” the “ought” state for the transformation of the cosmos

Through a systematic interpretation to the ancient Text of the Zhouyi , Yi Zhuan reveals a mode of existence for the cosmic life, i.e. unity of heaven and human. Though the ancient Text of the Zhouyi had shaken off both the cult of “God” popular in the Shang dynasty and the veneration to the “Mandate of Heaven” by the Zhou people in the earlier period of the Zhou dynasty and thus stressed the subjective position of human, yet, the ancient Text, especially Yi Zhuan did not put human in a governing position of the cosmic life. On the contrary, Zhouyi upholds human conducts ought to be in alignment with the cosmic life. Besides, Yi Zhuan opens a special thinking mode: to establish the Dao (Way) of human by the Dao (Way) of heaven, and establish humanities by the pattern of the heaven.

This thinking mode derives from a distinctive of feature of the Yi jing . It is well know that Yi jing , here only referring to the ancient Text, is made up of two components: one is the hexagrams; the other is the hexagram and line statements. It is obvious these two components are correlated, that is to say, the statements have some connection to the images of a hexagram and its lines. Yi Zhuan exposed this character and established particular mode of the Yi : image-number generates the meaning-pattern, whereas the meaning-pattern is the exposition of the meanings of the image-number.

According to the Yi Zhuan , a trigram or hexagram also symbolizes the Dao of Three Powers of heaven, earth, and human. For a trigram, the top line correspond to heaven, the mid line to human, and the bottom line to earth; for a hexagram, the bottom line and the second line correspond to earth, the third line and fourth line to human, and the fifth line and top line to heaven. In the opinion of the author(s) of the Yi Zhuan , heaven, earth, and human can communicate each other. To perceive the Dao of the Three Powers is to attain to the unity of heaven (including earth) and human. The author(s) of the Yi Zhuan insist(s) that man should follow the Dao of heaven and attain to the realm of “being in harmony, in his attributes, with heaven and earth; in his brightness, with the sun and moon; in his orderly procedure, with the four seasons; and in his relation to what is fortunate and what is calamitous, in harmony with the spirit-like operations (of Providence)”, under the state of which man can be unified with the heaven and earth and the cosmos will be more vitalized and hence more advantageous to the development of human. By the Yi Zhuan , this state ought to be attained to by each person. This thinking mode had exerted significant influence upon Confucianism, Daoism, Traditional Chinese Medicine, astrology, and so on.

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the heaven has two meanings: one connotes “virtuous heaven”; the other means “natural heaven”. The former is mostly adhered to by Confucianism and the latter mostly by Daoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Chinese sciences. But most of the schools adhere to the unity of heaven and human, no matter which heaven they believe in.

VI. “Advancing in Virtue” and “Everything's Nature Being Corrected” Virtuous Unity of Heaven and Human

In Yi Zhuan , the heaven is a virtuous existence. But when the heaven has the sense of time, it is a natural existence. The heaven as a virtuous existence was mainly adopted by Confucianism. As Yi Zhuan is filled with the thought of virtue, it had been esteemed by Confucian scholars of each dynasty. As previously mentioned, Yi Zhuan opened a thinking mode of “establishing the Dao (Way) of human by the Dao of heaven”: “We look at the ornamental figures of the heaven, and thereby ascertain the changes of the seasons; we look at the ornamental observations of society and understand how the processes of transformations are accomplished all under heaven.” This is to say, man should follow the Dao of heaven.

It is obvious that Yi Zhuan attaches much importance to virtue and advises us to constantly accumulate virtue and goodness so as to achieve propitiousness, which, according to Yi Zhuan , was not achieved by divination but by the advancing in virtue. In this way Yi Zhuan transforms the Yi jing as a book of divination to a book of wisdom. The idea of stressing virtue coincides with the emphasis of virtue by Confucius exposed in the silk manuscript of Yi Zhuan excavated at Mawangdui, Changsha City , Hunan province. This idea was inherited by later generation Confucianists.

Through accumulating virtue and goodness, man can attain the unity with heaven. What is this assertion's theoretic basis? According to Yi Zhuan , human innate nature of goodness correlates to the virtue of heaven, accordingly it corresponds to the Dao of heaven. In this way, heaven and human are innately correlated. Only if man has completely developed his “original mind” and enlarged his goodness, can he perceive the Dao of heaven, and hence can he perceive and correct his innate nature, and hence can he perceive his destiny.

V. “Being in Harmony with the Conditions of the Time” Natural Unity of Heaven and Human

The Zhouyi not only tresses virtuous unity of heaven and human, but also pays attention to a natural unity of heaven and human, under the state of which the heaven is regarded a “natural” heaven. Shou Gua had correlated the eight trigrams to the eight directions, eight seasonal points, as well as five elements, namely, it is called Gua qi theory. Later, in the Yi learning, the twelve waxing and waning hexagrams of Fu ( ), Lin ( ), Tai ( ), Da Zhuang ( ), Guai ( ), Qian ( ), Gou ( ), Dun ( ), Pi ( ), Guan ( ), Bo ( ), and Kun ( ) were correlated to the twelve lunar months of November, December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, and October respectively, in order to illustrate the waxing and waning of vital force of Yin and Yang in a year. In religious Daoism, these twelve hexagrams are correlated to twelve 2-hours to illustrate the alternation of Yin and Yang in a day so as to establish its alchemy refinery theory. This idea was also adopted by Traditional Chinese Medicine.

VI. Conclusion

The Zhouyi consider the whole cosmos (heaven, earth, and human) a living and creating organism, in which the theory of the Dao of the Three Powers (of heaven, earth, and human) exerted significant influence on traditional Chinese thinking mode. Confucianism pays more attention to the humanism conceived in the Zhouyi and mostly adopted the idea of virtuous unity of heaven and human, whereas religious Daoism, which pursue immortality, and Traditional Chinese Medicine, which seek a dynamic balance between Yin and Yang, mostly adopted the idea of natural unity of heaven and human from the Zhouyi . (After the Northern Song Dynasty, influenced by Buddhism and neo-Confucianism, the religious Daoism turned from pure physical refinery to the cultivation of both physical body and metaphysical human nature, manifesting a tendency of combination of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.) The idea of that “those families which accumulate goodness will certainly have successive propitiousness and those families which accumulate evilness will certainly have successive catastrophe and the discourse on the relationship between language, image, and the idea in the Zhouyi supplied a theoretic basis for the transmission and transformation of Buddhism in China. In the Zhouyi, the whole cosmos is not only a natural existence, but also an existence of value, whereas human is just a member of it. Only human has attained to the unity — a natural unity or a virtuous unity, and even both of them — , can his individual life be fully realized. The idea of the unity between heaven and human is much different from the dominant dualistic Western philosophy which separates the subject from the object, whereas it has remarkable affinities with Though the Process Thought initiated by Alfred North Withehead, which is marginalized in the West. The dualism led to the development of Western science, which gained status for the West, while “the failure of Chinese traditional philosophy to stimulate comparable developments in China led to loss of self-confidence and prestige” . Many Chinese ascribed the poverty and decadency to traditional Chinese culture, especially in the Cultural Revolution, traditional Chinese culture including the Zhouyi was subjected to depression, which led an occasional breaking up of the transmission of traditional Chinese culture. Undoubtedly, modernization based on science and technology have greatly promoted the development of our material life, yet, on the other hand, the success of modernization also led to the loss of traditional value system, “whereas historically the main function of education was the transmission of values, now much of education prides itself … in being value free” . Moreover, the drawbacks brought by science based on the Western dualism in the separation of man's body from mind, environmental pollution, and the waste of non-regenerating sources are also very surprising. How to solve these problems, I think traditional Chinese philosophy and process thought can make not a trivial contribution. According to the Zhouyi , the whole cosmos is in a ceaseless creation, therefore, the emergence and transmission of the Western science and technology in China also resulted from this creativity. But, during this period, Western science thought put human in a higher position over the heaven and earth, disturbed the rhyme of the cosmic creativity, and overturned the relationship between human and the natural world, thus human will inevitably be punished by the nature. Once we recognize this, we should change our orientation of thought from only relying on sciences to studying traditional and process thought, examine every new science and technology in perspective of the unity of heaven and human, depart from the advantages to entire human even the whole cosmic organism, in order to attain to both a natural and virtuous unity of heaven and human and actively participate in the holistic cosmic transformation to maintain a dynamic balance of it. Only in this way can we realize the goal of great harmony.

See Shao Yong, Guan wu wai pian 《观物外篇》 .

Liu Dajun (ed.), Zhouyi Studies (English Version) 3:1 (2005).

See Xi Ci (II).

See Tuan of Qian .

See Tuan of Kun .

See Tuan of Xian .

See Xi Ci (I).

See Tuan of Bi (the 22 nd hexagram in the received version of the Zhouyi ).

John B. Cobb, Jr., “Chinese Philosophy and Process Thought”, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32:2 (June 2005), p. 164.

John B. Cobb, Jr., “Chinese Philosophy and Process Thought”, Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32:2 (June 2005), p. 165.

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