Friday, August 03, 2007

Asking the right question

Many years ago, before I had even heard of Oracle the database, I studied the I Ching, a different kind of oracle. This book is one of the many products of the period in ancient Chinese history known as The Hundred Schools of Thought. Its authorship is ascribed to the legendary Yellow Emperor various legendary figures (see Chris Gait's comment below) but it is actually the collected thoughts and commentaries of various unknown seers. The text distils Taoism, Confucianism and other strands of Chinese philosophy into an esoteric instruction manual. It is organised into sixty-four chapters, each represented by a symbol consisting of six lines (hence called hexagrams). Each line is either Yin or Yang, and the different proportions of each type of line gives each hexagram its particular nature.

Consulting the I Ching requires us first to frame a question. We then employ a randomness-generating mechanism (such as flipping coins) to find which hexagram will answer our question. The commentaries on the hexagrams use imagery from nature, mythology and society to provide gnomic advice:

  • "The dragon that goes too high has regrets."
  • "When there is hoarfrost underfoot solid ice is not far off."
  • "Whoever hunts deer without the forester only loses his way in the forest."

We then have to apply these answers to our original question by translating the metaphors. So, if I am hunting a deer, who (or what) is the forester who can guide me through the forest? Perhaps I need to call off the chase until I have found a verderer.

Friends would occasionally ask me to "do" the I Ching for them, because they misunderstood the nature of the book. Although it is often described as a book of divination it is not a fortune telling device like horoscopes or tarot cards. It does not violate the principle of causality; its predictions can only come true if we behave in the way it suggests. A dragon who knows when to stop ascending will have no regrets. So I always told my friends they needed to have a question in mind before they flipped the coins (they didn't have to tell me the question, by the way). If there is no question there can be no answer.

So does it work? Well, the meaning of the answer derives from the interpretation of it in the light of the original question. A focused request such as "Should I take this new job?" is more likely to produce illumination than something vague like "Why am I unhappy?". But meaning is in the mind of the questioner. Sometimes the hexagrams seemed spookily appropriate to the question. Other times they seemed to have no relevance at all. On one occasion my interpretation of the chosen text differed sharply from the questioner's interpretation.

The I Ching has a world view and a specific definition of correct behaviour. But I don't think somebody has to be a practicing Taoist or believe in the literal existence of Yin and Yang in order to gain benefit from the book. Finding harmony between contending forces is a common idea. For example, here is an article by WTF's Alex Papadimoulis on striking the balance between hard coding and soft coding.

I don't do I Ching consultations any more. Now I just spend my time in the OTN forums instructing herberts like this and this in the art of asking questions properly. Different oracle, same old stuff.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Gait said...

I, too have a lifelong interest in the Yi Jing (I Ching), and a professional interest in Oracle. I've created a version of the Yi Jing that operates in the virtual world of Second Life, for instance (when Second Life is working), and have a small Yi Jing studies group there.

Slight historic correction, by the way. The Yellow Emperor is not associated with the Yi. According to tradition, Fu Xi created the trigrams, King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty the Judgement texts, his brother the Duke of Zhou the Line texts, and Confucius the commentaries and Wings (appendixes).
As with any 3,000 year old text, the actual authorship is considerably less certain that the attributions.

6 August 2007 05:52:00 GMT-7  
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