Sunday, 30 September 2007

Tell it like it is

Hills near Pismo Beach, California

I’ve just come back from three weeks in California, during which time I saw a lot of people, in different contexts and circumstances, facing up to difficult realities.

The straightforward facing up to 'how things really are' is the subject of Hexagram 15. Here, Earth is raised up on top of the Mountain, to show its quality, which is to be open to everything. Earth is the Great Mother, appreciating the uniqueness of each of her myriad children; she accepts them all, without deluding herself that they are more or less or different than they are. And Mountain, below, corresponds to the season just before the Winter Solstice, when foliage (and verbiage) have fallen away to reveal the bare bones of the world.

The name of the hexagram is QIAN. The character is formed on the left, with the image of words coming out of a mouth: ‘speech, to say’. On the right, a hand, drawing together stalks of wheat, treating them all as equal.

Wilhelm and Blofeld call it Modesty; Huang calls it Humbleness. Bradford calls it Authenticity.

It’s a very favourable hexagram, perhaps the only one in which all the lines are auspicious – but its meaning is subtle, and tends to be oversimplified in many translations of the I Ching.

On the surface, it’s about modesty and humility: egolessness, following, and leading through service – and particularly service that is inherently productive and creative.

But ‘egolessness’ is often misunderstood. There are those who have an inflated view of themselves, taking themselves too seriously -- and there are also those who don’t take themselves seriously enough. There are those who declaim that the world is endlessly beautiful, and those who declare it nothing but a sewer; those who see good in everything, and others who can see no good anywhere. All these extremes are belief systems, and if we view the world through them, it results in a distortion of our perception.

Things are what they are, and when we really see them as they are, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. As Bradford Hatcher puts it,

“We hear how the world is perfect just as it is. Why must we be so extreme? Why do we even presume to speak of perfection? The world is what it is. Cash those dreams in for cash value and what you have left is much more stupendous than perfect. It moves along fine as it is with accidents, defects and all.”

The Great Image tells us:
Within the earth is a mountain.
The noble one, accordingly,
Diminishes the excessive and adds to the deficient,
Appraising things with fair allocation.

That is, the jun zi doesn’t see the world through the lens of his own prejudices, desires and aversions, but as it is. It’s an impartial discrimination: seeing – and naming – exactly what is there, without exaggerating or embellishing (the ‘excessive’), or trivializing, demonizing or denying (the deficient).

This hexagram is not about making yourself small. If it means modesty, it is modesty in the tradition of the great Chinese artists who never signed their paintings – but not because they were pretending they were not great painters.

I recently saw a biographical film about Stephane Grappelli. Everyone who knew him remarked on how sweet he was, what a lovely human being. He was a great example of Qian: immersed in the music itself, and unconcerned about whether people thought he was the greatest jazz violinist in the world, he never hit an inauthentic note in his life. He lived and played for the love of the music, for the joy it brought to him and to his audiences.

And it seems to me that the world is so full of ordinary extraordinary things, and that the meaningful connection between these things is another aspect of them, and that our personal experience of them is yet another facet of the reality of them .... that only art can even begin to reveal what is there. Perhaps Jean Cocteau had something like the same idea when he said, “The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth” ... as in this sonnet by Ursula LeGuin:

Cold north blows through hot sun.
I seek to be by doing things.
The wind does the wind; the sun is one;
I am the center of many rings,

a sphere enclosed in other spheres,
an absence in a solitude.
The sun is round, as round as years.
Is my hunger all my food?

A blue moon will rise tonight
as the sun sets across the wind.
I have done. I have done right.
Now let my being begin and sing.

The sun turns south; the wind is cold.
North and silence eat the old.

Or this haiku by Issa:

A world of dew,
and within every dewdrop

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