Mark Rylance

In 1986 a young actor was struggling with a difficult decision. Should he take up a tempting offer from Steven Spielberg to appear in his forthcoming feature film “The Empire of the Sun” or accept an invitation to join the company at the National Theatre? As Mark Rylance explained recently on “Desert Island Discs” he only made his decision after consulting the ‘I Ching’ , or ‘Book of Changes" – a familiar feature on many bookshelves in the 1960’s alongside “The Prophet” by Kahil Gibran and the Desiderata… “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste etc etc”

“I turned to the ‘I Ching’ and you just ask it, ‘Where now?’ And the answer it gave if I went to the theatre was ‘Community’, and that swayed it for me. I had never experienced community on film sets.”

MARK RYLANCE Desert Island Discs 15th February 2015

The ‘I Ching’ is an ancient Chinese book dating back to 1100 BC. Although it is often described as a book of divination it more a guide to the future than a book of prophecy or revelation. When Mark Rylance asked his question – “Empire of the Sun?” or “National Theatre?” the answer ‘Community’. was a typical ‘I Ching’ response and a clear enough recommendation that he should go for the family-like atmosphere of the National Theatre rather than the temporary convergence of a film crew.


With its roots deep in 3000 years of Chinese philosophy the ‘I Ching’ is not an easy book to understand or use. In the simplest terms, you first throw sticks or coins to formulate a “hexagram” – six lines stacked one above another. While you’re doing this you hold in your mind your question. The lines forming the hexagram come in two forms – ‘broken’, with a gap in the middle, representing Yin or passive quality or ‘unbroken’ with no gap, representing Yang or active quality. Basically Yin and Yang symbolise the primary and opposing forces that make up the cosmos – male and female, light and dark, good and evil and so on. There are 64 different hexagrams, each with a different name and each representing change or movement.

Once you’ve find the hexagram relating to your question you then consult the ‘I Ching’ to discover its meaning…and this is where the real problem starts. As psychiatrist Carl Jung once wrote..

“So much is obscure about it that Western scholars have tended to dispose of it as a collection of ‘magic spells’, either too abstruse to be intelligible, or of no value whatsoever.”

The I Ching has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries. Some students say that it offers guidance for moral decision making. Others argue that it is a starting point for analysing metaphysical questions and ethical issues. Others say that you should make of it what you can…and that includes me.

Taking the unschooled approach I asked the ‘I Ching’ for an answer to a question that would be of interest to all of us who live in St Margarets…

“What effect will the Rugby World Cup have on us?”

threepenny bits

Using three coins I formulated the hexagram number 22 – ‘Pi’ which translates as ‘Grace’. It is made up of two trigrams, ‘Lee’ and ‘Gen’ and I suppose that Lee-Gen would be an accurate description of the crowds that we will see on our streets during autumn of 2015. (Some translations name the Trigrams as ‘Lee-Ken’ which is unfortunately what some of the rugby fans will be doing in the front gardens leading to the Stadium!)

Hexagram Pi

The ‘Pi’ hexagram is described as “A fire that breaks out of the secret depth of the earth and, blazing up, illuminates and beautifies the mountain. Grace is necessary in any union if it is to be well ordered and pleasing rather than disordered and chaotic.”

The initial Judgement on the hexagram continues, “Grace brings success. In small matters it is favourable to undertake something.”

I Ching book

What can we make of this? Primarily the ‘I Ching’ suggests that the World Cup will be favourable and of benefit but it is important that it is well ordered and pleasing rather than disordered and chaotic. In the commentary on the ‘Pi’ hexagram the ‘I Ching’ adds some advice … “Things should not unite abruptly and ruthlessly” which suggests that any important decisions should not be left to the last moment. If the Rugby World Cup is carefully organised with due regard to the community and everything is decided in good time then it should go well and be of benefit to all of us… and with a spot of luck that could include the proposed closing of the A316. As the great Chinese sage Fu Xi once said, “We shall see!”

Yarrow stalks for I Ching

To many people the ‘I Ching’ is a sacred book requiring appropriate respect. It should be carefully wrapped in a clean cloth, ideally silk or linen, and stored above head height in a quiet place where it will only disturbed when consulted. By tradition the sticks used for formulating the hexagrams come from the yarrow plant ‘Achillea millefolium’, which the Chinese consider to be lucky, brightening the eyes and promoting intelligence. If you use coins they should not be of a useable currency. Old 12 sided three penny ‘bits’, withdrawn as currency in 1971, are sometimes used for this purpose in the UK.

“Even to the most biased eye, it is obvious that the ‘I Ching’ represents one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one’s own character, attitude, and motives… In order to understand what such a book is all about, it is imperative to cast off certain prejudices of the Western mind.”

CARL JUNG 1875-1961

— from Martyn Day

Credit: The photograph of the Yarrow sticks Achillea millefolium is by Charlie Huang