I Ching, The Oracle is another stunningly comprehensive metaphysical reference work from author Benebell Wen. Like Holistic Tarot, though, this book is not for the feint of heart! I was primarily familiar with Wen’s work in the tarot community, where she’s known for her interest in the scholarly and occult side of things. Her books and courses are super-dense and packed with information, and though more digestible, her YouTube videos on topics such as tarot, Taoist practice, and Jungian archetypes are similarly heavily researched. In this book on the I Ching, Wen blends her strengths as a researcher and magical practitioner to present a detailed overview of the context of the Book of Changes across cultures, interspersed with practical divination and magical exercises, and provides her own translation and commentary of the Oracle. Reading this text cover-to-cover as a total newbie to the I Ching, I was somewhat overwhelmed, but at the same time fascinated and eager to dig in more slowly over time.
Going far beyond the I Ching itself, this book covers a broad swathe of East Asian worldviews, history, and mystical and scholarly context. I can’t compare it to other works or evaluate the accuracy of the material, as this is my first book on the topic, but I was impressed with the coverage, which at least seemed relatively objective, surveying different theories, schools of practice, uses, divination methods, and cultural / religious adaptations of the text. As a non-Asian reader, I both came away with a sense of why the I Ching is so important to the Asian worldview and a better understanding of the appropriateness of using this tool in Western practices.
What really struck me about the I Ching from Wen’s accounting is how it is both universal and supportive of a variety of specific views and approaches to practice. As someone with a general orientation to spirit as a force of change, connection, and truth that is constantly evolving and rediscovering itself, I’m drawn to the central principle of change that the Oracle revolves around. At the same time I’m somewhat turned off, for example, by specific interpretations of virtue that emphasize discipline and individual will, which is how I read some of the language that derives from the Confucian Ten Wings. But as Wen explains, the core of the I Ching is such that different translators can take it in radically different directions—Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, secular, and even Christian.
Some use it for mystical practice, others for highly rational questions of statecraft. Some lean into the poetry of the various versions of the text and commune with the words, while others get into the cosmology and numbers and the mathematical patterns that emerge. There’s something in it for everyone, but that also means that we all have to find our own way and personally evaluate how others interpret the I Ching. It may not be incorrect for a Westerner to work with the tool, for example, but when someone starts using it to justify a particular Christian worldview or anti-semitic interpretation of Kabbalah (looking at you, Crowley), anyone else can turn around and say “hey, here’s how the Oracle says that you’re fucking shit up.”
Wen is balancing quite a lot in this book: giving fair coverage to all these schools of thought, explaining fundamental principles such as the trigrams and Wu Xing phases of change, presenting the reader with accessible ways to work with the I Ching themselves, and of course translating and annotating the text. Parts of the book will be more relevant to readers with Asian ancestry or a Taoist magical practice, and though the general message is one of universal accessibility, it’s clear that to get to know this tool, you’re looking at a lifetime of study, practice, and ideally reading lots of different translations and perspectives.
I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have read this book just “for fun,” as I really digested the material through taking copious notes. I found Wen’s style relatively accessible, but it’s just naturally tough to structure such dense content—I found myself wanting a giant whiteboard and markers to create a Venn Diagram so I could keep track of Meaning and Principle vs. Image and Number, Taoist vs. Confucianist, Rationalist vs. Originalist, and other distinctions, not to mention the trigrams, hexagrams, and Wu Xing phases. Coming from a totally different tradition, there’s a lot to learn: the Ba Gua, the Lo Shu magic square, the basics of a five-element system, the actual divination methods, the principles of yin and yang, the history of the Zhou dynasty, lunisolar astrology, and the list goes on. If you really want to get into this book without existing knowledge, you’re going to want to read through once, then at least a second time so that you can digest the material in the context of the whole.
Of course, there’s also a lot of translation involved. My initial understanding of the I Ching was that there was no point in a non-Chinese speaker even attempting to use it for divination with integrity, since we couldn’t possibly understand the nuance and the cultural references. After reading Wen’s book, my impression is more that no one could possibly have a “complete” understanding of the I Ching, given the form of the language it was originally written down in and all the ways those texts came down over the years—though there is a lot in the text that is probably much more intuitive and familiar to those who grew up in an East Asian culture understanding at least one East Asian cosmology / mythology. Readers with this familiarity and cultural connection will also benefit most from some of the mystical practices suggested, which are grounded in specific traditions and beliefs.
While Wen does an admirable job of trying to explain some of the nuances of the Chinese, it is a little difficult to follow, particularly in the commentary on the Oracle itself, if you don’t read Chinese. She provides a helpful introductory section to some of the more common phrases you’ll encounter in the translation and what they mean, as well as various sidebars that point out important references in the hexagrams, mythological associations, and groupings of hexagrams, but as I was reading I found myself getting mixed up on what she’s referring to when discussing specific ideograms, because I couldn’t always figure out what part of the translation would be altered based on how you interpret that ideogram.
There’s a lot of bouncing around between meaning derived from the visual appearance of ideograms, etymology, history, and other translations, that can sometimes be confusing. I almost wanted the book to be two volumes, so that the commentary could actually be longer and presented in a more instructional and structured way, with more clarity on where Wen’s making a particular ideological choice in interpretation based on her own cosmology, where she deploys words in the commentary more for the poetry of the language, etc. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if a word choice or repetition was significant and derived from the text, or more about Wen wanting to offer her own language that would resonate in the same way the Oracle itself does. That said, you do get quite a lot of rich specifics around symbology and differing translations from Wen’s commentary.
At first, as I read, I was pretty sure I wasn’t personally going to be trying any of the exercises. I came to this book for some more context about a popular system, not to practice it. Wen’s description of I Ching scholarship also gave me the initial impression that using the Oracle would be a huge commitment, not a tool I could possibly just practice as one alongside others. While I have been philosophically drawn to Taoism given my own heavily change-based understanding of spirituality, I’ve generally seen it as a black and white thing: that it would be disrespectful to engage with anything Taoist as an adult without fully initiating into the tradition in some way. (I actually grew up reading the Book of Tao occasionally, as it was a favorite of my Mom’s, but without any context.) I quickly realized that I’ve perhaps been wrong about that, but even Wen’s accessible approach gave me pause. The kinds of ritualized practices she suggests are very much not how I approach divination (intentionally preparing the space, only ever storing tools a certain way, etc.), so even the simplest methods described made me think “oh, there’s no way I’d manage this more than once.”
As I continued to read, though, I kept being drawn back to the idea of working with the Oracle, wondering if I was being called to do so. Once I finished the book, I actually did end up consulting the Oracle for the first time in my own way, using the coin-toss method with my usual simple ritual for connecting with divine and deciding to assume that Spirit would not be too offended by my tossing standard quarters on a dirty rug, since that’s what was accessible to me. And I was pleasantly surprised both by the meaningful nature of the result in a familiar, intuitive sort of way, and by how it worked in a very literal sense—I’m currently being forced to live away from my home for months due to mold-related health complications, and the Oracle statement for the hexagram I drew actually had a sentence about not letting mold fester!
As a tarot reader and astrologer, but also someone who is naturally inclined to the written word, I found using the I Ching refreshing because it’s much more natural to me to interpret poetry than it is a visual image. Wen’s commentary is helpful to understand the text, especially where there are specific references to unfamiliar symbolism, but I also loved just reading the Oracle statement alone like a message from a friend. It’s striking just how much there is there—between the oracle statement, the additional image description, the line statements, changing lines, transformed hexagrams, and all the correspondences, you could literally spend years with a single hexagram.
On the other hand, that volume of information can be daunting. Given my resistance, for example, to the Confucian ideas of virtue that are present in places Wen’s translation, I’d theoretically like to consult a translation that’s a little less moralistic, but I’m not really sure where to find that, and if I did, whether I would be able to understand the interpretive choices the author was making. I personally am a little more drawn to the Image & Number tradition than to Meaning & Principle, but since this is less popular, I’m not sure that I could make my way through it without a guide.
Ultimately, I think this book a fantastic reference for folks who are looking for a comprehensive overview of the I Ching, particularly those who want to understand at a high level the different schools of thought, methods, and cultural applications. Those who are more drawn to ceremonial magic, occult studies, and ritualized practice may especially love the exercises Wen offers, which include practice in divining but also other magical practices and reflections. Wen intended this both as a scholarly work and as a grimoire, and it definitely makes good on that promise. English-speaking East Asian readers who are interested in re-connecting with their roots and don’t already have a bunch of I Ching study under their belt might be especially served by this volume.
ARC provided through NetGalley. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!