Qian: The Creative Principle

I’ve been studying the I Ching, or “Book of Changes”, off and on for over a decade now. And consulting it. I’ll toss the coins to see what hexagram they correspond to and then study the text. I’ve thought about doing I Ching readings as a little sideline but have never gotten around to it. The I Ching is often called “The Oracle” but the truth is that it’s no more a soothsayer than a Ouija board or one of those 8-balls you turn over to get a smart alec answer to some question posed (I had one as a kid; the answer I always seemed to get was “Not very likely.”).

At the same time, the I Ching is incredibly complex. Based on the interaction and balance of yin and yang, the I Ching explains how life is a process of movement and change. There are 64 hexagrams (2 trigrams each) composed of six horizontal lines that are either solid (yang) or broken (yin) and may be moving (indicating cyclic reversal) or fixed. From the 64 hexagrams, there are over 4000 possible permutations. It does not divine the future, but it does distill wisdom. Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst, studied the I Ching for years. He once said that it was a challenge to

feel one’s way into such a remote and mysterious mentality as that underlying the I Ching. One cannot easily disregard such great minds as Confucius and Lao-tse . . . much less can one overlook the fact that the I Ching was their main source of inspiration.”

If you look beyond the entertainment aspect, you’ll find that the advice given by the I Ching, pertaining to patterns of movement, stillness and transformation, relate not only to the way we view our world and live in it, but also to our spiritual practice. I’ve read many times that Taoist meditation has its origins in the I Ching and based on Jung’s comment, it seems like a reasonable statement.

A solid line represents yang, the creative principle. Yang also symbolizes other principles or qualities; however, the subject today is creativity. I am defining creativity in the same way that American existential psychologist Rollo May did in his book The Courage to Create: “its authenic form – the process of bringing something new into being.”

Creativity is not the exclusive property of artists. Each of us are constantly engaged in a creative process. Mostly, in the act (or art) of creating our lives. How we create is through thoughts. Meditation and texts like the I Ching can help us initiate creative thinking by suggesting new avenues of thought for improving and enhancing our quality of life. Being creative, though, doesn’t necessarily mean being original. Creativity is often just a procedure of collecting other thoughts, concepts, and experiences we come across as we fare along the Way and learning how to apply them.

So here are some thoughts you can collect today, from the I Ching and the first hexagram Qian, the creative principle:

The power of creativity is vast and great, it is the source of all things. Clouds form, rain falls, and everything develops in their proper forms.

Qian: Pure Yang, Creativity.


Creativity is successful and sublime. Good fortune comes from perseverance in the right way.

Structure and Imagery of the Hexagram

With 6 unbroken lines, the hexagram denotes strength. Its primary image is Heaven, representing the primal creative power of the universe. Its the source of all things, and is constantly in motion. The hexagram has 4 attributes: benevolence, virtue, justice, and perseverance (wisdom).


Creativity initiates change and everything obtains its true nature. When change is used to strengthen character and achieve harmony with nature, the result is beneficial and correct. In this way, aspirations are fulfilled and harmony is established. A sage understands the relationship between beginning and end, and comprehends how the lines of the hexagram reach completion, each in their proper time.

As the text states, Qian is pure Yang, signifying movement and change; it is associated with strength and male energy, which is hard and firm. Qian is called “opening the door”, indicating new beginnings.

Creativity in this sense is the strength of mental energy, initiating energy. Strength can also mean the courage to be honest with yourself. Or, staying true to your original vision, holding on to your values. Success in both thinking and acting comes from your level of consistency and perseverance.

Yet, if in using Qian, you are unyielding, this can be dangerous. The text states that “an overbearing dragon causes regret.” In China, the dragon is regarded as a symbol for wisdom and dignity and sagehood. So, it says that a dragon must have “an understanding of end as well as beginning, of retreat as well as advance, of failure as well as success.”

The I Ching wants us to understand the path of change. In term of spiritual development, change means personal transformation. When we are strong in character, and strong enough to win over ourselves, the result is beneficial to both ourselves and others. The tao of creativity is to become skillful at transformation so that all will find their true nature and destiny, and in harmony with each other, create meaningful lives.

The creative act is an intense experience of the present, and as such, timeless.”

- Lama Govinda, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism

The other day I quoted the Tao Te Ching: “By practicing doing nothing/Everything is in harmony.” This refers to the concept of wu-wei or non-action.

When we talk about non-action, it doesn’t mean inaction. Wu-wei means natural action.

Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says “Nature uses few words.”

Of wu-wei, Wang Bi (226—249 CE), the famous interpreter of the classical Chinese texts, wrote,

The sage understands Nature perfectly. Therefore he goes along with [all things] but takes no unnatural action. He is in harmony with them but does not impose anything on them. He removes their delusions and eliminates their doubts. Hence, the people’s minds are not confused and things are contented with their own nature.

In Taoism, the sage is an ideal, representing the ultimate in human aspiration. The sage is like a buddha or bodhisattva, steeped in wisdom, guiding others. Because the sage is in harmony with the rhythm of life, the action he or she takes is not forced. In fact it seems effortless because less exertion is required. Tai Chi master Gary Khor calls wu-wei “relaxed action.”

Chinese characters for "Wu-wei"

Non-action is related to mindfulness. It is not as if we are suddenly “in harmony” with nature, as though someone had pulled a switch and voila! Wu-wei flows from mindfulness because it is actually a consciousness of harmony. Quieting the mind relaxes the body and spirit and we become more aware of life’s natural rhythms.

In terms of Buddhism, an attribute of awareness is understanding our part in the interdependency of all things. As all things are originally harmonious and natural owning to their ultimate oneness, practice of mindfulness and wu-wei teach us the way to take the right action at the right time.

The action of wu-wei is also the action of creative insight. The I Ching says “The creative is successful, advancing through correctness”.

More about the I Ching and creativity in an upcoming post.

The recent events in the Middle East remind us once again of one of the Buddha’s most important teachings: everything changes.

Change is constant, ever-present, and it can be dynamic or subtle. As physical organisms we are changing every moment, whether we seek change or not, regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “Change is so pervasive in our lives that it almost defeats description and analysis.”

Yet, the nature of change has been a subject for analysis since the very beginnings of philosophy and science.  Much of Western Philosophy’s notions about change are based on the foundations of thought built by the ancient Greeks: Heraclitus, like the Buddha, said, “All things are in flux,” that everything in the universe is constantly in a state of change. Parmenides, on the other hand, said that change is an illusion. Zeno, following Parmesides’ lead, maintained that change is impossible. Plato was concerned with change versus permanence and tried to reconcile the two. He maintained that underlying change was a continuum of unchanging essences.

One of the earliest Chinese texts was a book devoted to this subject, the I Ching, literally “Classic of Changes.” In this book, change is eternal. John Blofeld, author and translator of books on Eastern philosophy, describes it as “an Immutable Law of Change.” In the foreword to his translation of the I Ching, Blofeld wrote, “Indeed, there is much reason to assume this Law to be eternal, to suppose that universes may take form and dissolve, aeon upon aeon, without deflecting its action any more than the birth and death of mayflies.”

The Chinese philosophers, like the Greeks, surveyed the world around them and sought to understand how and why change occurs. Unlike later Western religious philosophers, though, they did not ascribe change to some supreme being, but rather to what they perceived as the natural and fundamental flow of reality. The philosophy of  the I Ching is guidebook for living in harmony with change, or “to go with the flow.”

The Chinese word I (“Yi”) means change. As Ch’u Chai and Winberg Chai state in their introduction to the 1964 edition of the James Legge translation, change has three meanings: “(1) ease and simplicity, (2) transformation and change, and (3) invariability.” All change and transformation in the universe are seen as the result of movements, particularly the movements or interactions between the two primary forces, Yin and Yang.

Most people think of the I Ching as a method of divination, a kind of fortune telling. Throw the coins or the sticks, look up the trigrams, and see what the future holds for you or find the answer to a perplexing problem. But I Ching is actually a great work of philosophy, and if approached as a system of knowledge, a book of wisdom, it can provide valuable insights into the patterns of change we all experience.

What follows are some selections from the commentaries in the I Ching dealing with the subject of change, taken from A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan:

Chapter Four – Appended remarks

The system of Change is tantamount to Heaven and Earth, and therefore can always handle and adjust the way of Heaven and Earth. Looking up, we observe the pattern of the heavens; looking down, we examine the order of the earth. Thus we know the cause of what is hidden and what is manifest. If we investigate the cycle of things, we shall understand the concepts of life and death.

Essence and material force (ch’i) are combined to become things. The wandering away of spirit (force) becomes change. From this we know that the characteristics and conditions of spiritual beings are similar to those of Heaven and Earth and therefore there is no disagreement between them. The knowledge of spirit embraces all things and its way helps all under heaven, and therefore there is no mistake. It operates freely and does not go off course. It rejoices in Nature (T’ien, Heaven) and understands destiny. Therefore there is no worry. As things are contented in their stations and earnest in practicing kindness, there can be love. It molds and encompasses all transformations of heaven and Earth without mistake, and it stoops to bring things into completion without missing any. It penetrates to knowledge of the course of day and night. Therefore spirit has no spatial restriction and Change has no physical form.

Chapter Five

The successive movement of yin and yang constitutes the Way (Tao).

Changes mean production and reproduction. Heaven means the completion of forms, and earth means to model after them. Divination means to go to the utmost of the natural course of events in order to know the future. Affairs mean to adapt and accommodate accordingly. And that which is unfathomable in the operation of yin and yang is called spirit.

Chapter Ten

Change has neither thought nor action, because it is in the state of absolute quiet and inactivity, and when acted on, it immediately penetrates all things. If it were not the most spirit-like thing in the world, how can it take part in this universal transformation?

The system of Change is that by which the sage reaches the utmost of things and examines their subtle emergence (chi, subtle activating force). Only through depth can the will of all men be penetrated; only through subtle activation can all undertakings in the world be brought to completion; and only through spirit is there speed without hurry and the destination reached without travel . . .

Chapter Twelve

The system of Change is indeed intermingled with the operations of heaven and earth. As heaven and earth take their respective positions, the system of Change is established in their midst. If heaven and earth are obliterated, there would be no means of seeing the system of Change. If the system of Change cannot be seen, then heaven and earth would almost cease to operate.

Therefore what exists before physical form, and is therefore without it, is called Tao, the Way. What exists after physical form, and is therefore with it, is called a concrete thing. That which transforms things and controls them is called change. That which extends their operation is called penetration. To take them and apply them to the people of the world is called the business of life . . .

Appended Remarks – Part 2

Chapter Five

It is said in the Change, “Full of anxious thought you come and go. Only friends will follow you and think of you.” Confucius said, “What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about? In the world, there are many different roads but the destination is the same. There are a hundred deliberations but the result is one. What is there in the world to think about or to deliberate about?”

After the sun goes, the moon comes. After the moon goes, the sun comes. The sun and moon push each other in their course and thus light appears. After the winter goes, the summer comes. After the summer goes, the winter comes. The winter and the summer push each other and thus the year is completed. To go means to contract and to come means to expand. Contraction and expansion act on each other.