Advance in the I Ching

The icon that appears in your internet browser for this web site is a symbol for Tai, or Advance. Advance is the eleventh hexagram of the I Ching, one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts. Our word advance originates from the Latin word abante, which literally means “in front of.” In Latin, ab means “away from,” and ante means “before.” The word advance means moving away from what was before. In modern English, advance can have many meanings:

  1. To move or bring forward.
  2. To improve.
  3. To bring forward in time.
  4. To move or to go forward; proceed.
  5. To increase in quantity, value, price, etc.
  6. To improve or make progress.
  7. Forward movement; progress in space.
  8. Having gone beyond others or beyond the average.

Each hexagram of the I Ching is formed from the combination of two trigrams, or gua, which are comprised of three separate lines, each line representing either yin or yang. The interplay of yin and yang is represented by the Taijitu (the “diagram of the supreme ultimate”), which graphically displays the dynamic interplay of complementary opposites interacting within a greater whole. The diagram illustrates that the interaction between yin and yang is fluid, and the smaller circles indicate that yin and yang each contain the seed of the other.

In the I Ching, yin is traditionally represented by broken lines and yang is represented by solid lines. A hexagram is created beginning from the bottom and working upwards, the first three lines forming the lower trigram, and the second three lines forming the upper trigram. Each trigram represents certain qualities, which may be properly or improperly balanced. The lower trigram represents the inner state of the person; the upper trigram represents the outer state of the person, or their current situation.

is formed with the lower, or inner, trigram of Heaven (Qian) and the upper, or outer, trigram of Earth (Kun). Heaven, represented by three solid lines, is pure yang. When properly balanced, Heaven represents strength, firmness, and creativity; when imbalanced, Heaven indicates force, aggression, and arbitrariness. Earth, represented by three broken lines, is pure yin. When properly balanced, Earth represents submission, receptivity, and flexibility; imbalanced, Earth indicates weakness, a lack of autonomy, and dependency.

The Chinese designation for this hexagram, Tai, is one of the most favorable words in the Chinese language. Tai indicates a condition of being more than great, and originally meant “more than” or “most.” Tai has been translated as tranquility or peace, and suggests progressing, proceeding, advancing. The last suggestion is the inspiration for our theme – advance.

Strength and flexibility are the essence of yang and yin. Heaven epitomizes pure strength, and earth pure flexibility. When imbalanced, too much strength is applied outwardly, and there is aggression and rigidity; and too much flexibility occurs within, producing weakness and dependency. External strength combined with internal weakness results in many obstructions in our lives. Tranquility, or advance, arises from mastering strong energy within while applying a flexible nature outwardly, strictly governing oneself while being generous when dealing with others. This leads to an open mind and a more noble character, making advance possible.

Each hexagram of the I Ching can also be represented by an ideograph – a picture that conveys the essence of its message. The ideograph for Tai consists of two parts. The upper portion, representing greatness, depicts a human being standing with arms and legs wide open. Underneath is running water, proceeding forward unimpeded. The message we can derive from this hexagram, which is also an inspiration for our theme, is:

the small goes, the great comes

The small is yin. The great is yang. “The small goes” because yin submits. “The great comes” because yang is strong. Thus, it is possible to accomplish great things when the flexibility of yin and the strength of yang are harmoniously combined and kept balanced. With the strength of yang on the inside and the flexibility of yin on the outside, staying true to our core principles yet keeping an open mind, we learn to govern ourselves and make great progress toward our goals. Tai represents heaven and earth moving together in harmony. Successful activity needs strength and flexibility to be unified. This is tranquility. This is peace.

Of course, this goal is a process — a process of advancing and withdrawing, acquiring and consolidating, taking two steps forward and one step backward, all with proper timing. The I Ching provides some advice for successfully traversing this path.

  • All the activities of our lives are interconnected. What happens in one sphere of our life affects all of the others. While each distinct activity of our lives needs to be separated from the rest in order to be examined and improved, we need to keep in mind that all of our activities are related and form the totality of who we are. We can maintain a harmonious life balance by being mindful of how each individual part relates to the whole.
  • To be truly effective we need to cultivate the ability to be totally involved in the activity we are carrying on at any one moment. Concentrate completely on one activity at a time, and do not allow concerns in other areas of life to distract from the task at hand. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this ability “flow.” This is the essence of mindfulness.
  • Do not seek to impress others, or yourself. Passages from the great wisdom literature, including the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita, teach us to do our work for the sake of the work, and not for any anticipated benefit. And once our work is done, we should simply let it go. “Pride goes before destruction.” Modesty brings longer-lasting inner rewards.
  • Do not seek to influence others, or to change them for what you may think is “the better.” We have a natural propensity to “fix” people, to correct what we perceive to be their faults, to control them, to make them more like we want them to be. Rather than make both others and ourselves unhappy, we need to recognize and appreciate our differences, and accept everyone for who and what they are, just as we would like them to accept us for who and what we are.
  • Realizing the interconnection and oneness of nature, our natural social interactions should embody kindness and generosity. In an age of increasing globalization that fosters the interactions of diverse cultures, there is a genuine need for open and mutual communication and, as we face the unique challenges that confront civilization as a whole, cooperation must triumph over selfishness.
  • Nature proceeds in cycles. Attempting to alter what is inevitable impedes progress and causes inner strife. Life is change. Extremes gravitate toward their opposites. Resolve first to adapt, then to embrace, change rather than resist it. The easiest way to embrace change is to adopt an attitude of equanimity, to be flexible on the outside — by keeping an open mind.
  • As we learn from Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything. There is a time to strive and advance; there is a time to ease up and consolidate. If we act at the proper time, and in the proper measure, being strong when it is appropriate, and being flexible when it is appropriate, then advance and tranquility are possible.

So we move forward according to the principles of Tai — balancing our inner core principles with the flexibility of an open mind — to examine life and advance from what was before.

© 2012 WS Nadolny

There are many fine translations and commentaries on the I Ching. For the reader interested in exploring the subtle messages of the text, The Taoist I Ching (Shambhala Classics) by Thomas Cleary is highly recommended. To explore this ancient oracle in more depth, The Complete I Ching by Taoist Master Alfred Huang is an excellent reference.