Monday, 30 May 2011


Photograph by Rosa Yoskovsky

In the East Grinstead study group last week, we looked at Hexagram 22, BI, formed of Mountain over Fire.  BI is variously translated as Grace, Elegance, Adornment.  Hilary calls it “Beauty”, which I believe captures the essence of it.

Bradford's translation of the Gua Ci reads:

Adornment. Satisfaction. 
A little worthwhile to have somewhere to go.
I have always understood this hexagram as distinguishing between whether something is merely superficial show or represents an expression of inner quality. This is a danger of Fire, which can get lost in seeking ephemeral beauty, gaudy but insubstantial. Is it just decoration? Or is it an outward expression of a profound inner quality?

But last week, in our discussion, I got a new angle on it, which feels like an important insight.

Beauty happens when we are mindful of the small details. It's the minute particulars that make the difference between the simple good meal that I serve up, and the meal served by my epicurean friend who takes more trouble, prepares it with more care, and presents it in a way that delights the eye as well as the palate. BI is the care it takes to wear a freshly ironed shirt … or the perfectly laddered, layered stockings of a goth fashionista.   It's Lauren Bacall's elegantly lifted eyebrow; it's those painstaking Maori moko tattoos, of which Captain Cook wrote in 1769:

The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.
It is also the small niceties we show each other, which constitute good manners.

This reading of the meaning is more in line with Wu's translation of the Gua Ci:  

Small. Advantage having a place to go to.
Think attention to detail, like a Japanese tea ceremony. No grand heroic achievements, but the creation of beauty, simply by performing each small action with exquisite attention, care, and appreciation.

Hexagram 22's paired hexagram is 21, SHI HE (Biting Through), which is about biting the bullet, cutting the Gordian knot. It's not concerned with the fine print; it's motto is “Just do it”. In music, SHI HE is the bare bones of a simple melody. BI, in contrast, is a fugue, or a jazz improvisation, embroidering and elaborating and fleshing out those bones. In architecture, SHI HE is the boxlike monstrosities that are many British council estates; BI is Hundertwasser's fantastical (and highly functional) built communities. BI is a hand-made and burnished terra sigilata cup. It's scarlet ribbons for her hair.

While SHI HE focusses hard on a single goal, BI requires both a shorter and a longer view: both the fine focus on detail, and a sensitivity to how what you are making, or your conduct, fits in a wider context, so that it's not a carbuncle on the landscape.

There's also something in it about recognising and accepting the transience of things. Think Japan again, where it's customary to take time off work to admire the cherry blossoms, because they are beautiful, and short-lived. Like us.

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
   and softly,
     and exclaiming of their dearness,
       fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
   their eagerness
     to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
       nothing, forever?

                                 ~ from Peonies, by Mary Oliver

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