Saturday, January 29, 2011

Passages to Truth: An Investigation of I Ching and Tarot Card Fortune-Telling

High Priestess Tarot Card from the Rider-Waite Deck
Many people wonder these days what help “psychics” can really offer, how apt and precise the fortuneteller can be in predicting future events and how much influence this precognition might have on decision-making. Unfortunately, there have been many cases of misuse and misguidance in the field of fortunetelling. In today's world, everything that raises interest becomes prey to business people who develop their own marketing strategies around it. 

As a result, we get offers such as the “psychic hotline” or “Special Tarot Card readings with Madame X”, which all contribute to the loss of credibility in fortune-telling. The more the offers increase, the more people turn away from them because the only thing that seems to matter is to trick people with the aim of gaining money.
Those psychics claim to have extra-sensory perception (ESP), but they fail to validate scientific experiments, thus raising doubts in scientific minds. On the other hand, people who actually might have these special abilities remain silent since fortunetelling to them is a more personal experience tied with values and significance that simply cannot - or rather should not - be “marketed.” I regret that these abilities have been undermined throughout time. In the past, even kings and nobility used to turn to oracles because they really believed in them. But does fortune-telling as such really exist, or is it just meant to be entertainment?
In order to be able to understand these processes, which paradoxically appear to be beyond comprehension, one must be open-minded and unprejudiced. Myers (1995) has defined the scientific approach as "undergirded by curious skepticism and openminded humility" (p.11), which would mean that if any matter were argued well enough and put to a test with distinguishable results, then scientists would agree that precognition indeed does exist.
To start off, I will base my knowledge on my own experiences with Tarot cards and the I Ching - The Book of Changes, both of which I have been practicing for several years and will draw parallels of thought with some great philosophers, as well as psychologists, of our time, such as Alan Watts and Carl Gustav Jung. In describing the oracle, the knowledge of the German Tarot expert Hajo Banzhaf, and of the sinologue and translator of the I Ching, Richard Wilhelm are equally significant for this text. They have uncovered many hidden truths, one of them being the question and practice of soothsaying, which I will illustrate further and attempt to explain to the best of my knowledge.
The first step in approaching this unique phenomenon of fortunetelling is to understand what it signifies and to learn about its methods and functions. For this purpose, we have to initially ask ourselves what Tarot and I Ching actually represent. As a result, it is necessary to know about their background history and structure before we move towards the way they operate.
The origin of Tarot cards is unknown, but they were rediscovered in the 18th century by Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725-1784). It is said that Tarot might have come form Old Egypt and then imported to the West by the Jews. The theorists claim that the 22 special cards of Tarot represent the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. However, there is another theory that the cards might have come from India, since some of them show the attributes given to the God of Shiva (Hajo Banzhaf, 1993, p.8). These questions open up many suggestions and theories which only add to the mysteriousness of these cards that have been in use since ancient times.
There are various sets of cards but I will focus on the Rider Tarot set by the American occultist Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1941). The cards have been designed by the artist Pamela Colman Smith, whose initials "PCS" are in the corner of every card. This set contains 78 cards, which are divided into two "arkanas": The Great Arkana, consisting paradoxically of only 22 cards, and the Small Arkana of 56 cards.
The background history and structure of the I Ching are better known since it had been intertwined with Chinese cultural history. According to Richard Wilhelm (1923), “four holy men are cited as the authors of the Book of Changes, namely, Fu Hsi, King Wen, the Duke of Chou, and Confucius” (p.lviii). The I Ching dates back to the Book of Changes of the Hsia dynasty (2205-1766 BC), called “Lien Shan”, followed by the Shang dynasty (1766-1150 BC), entitled “Kuei Ts'ang.”
Nonetheless, those editions had not been complete yet. The first complete book originated with King Wen, and his son the Duke of Chou. According to Wilhelm, “this form of the book, entitled the Changes of Chou (Chou I), was in use as an oracle throughout the Chou period” (p.lix). The Chou dynasty is dated from 1150-249 BC. Confucius probably added the “Commentary on The Decision” to the I Ching, which completes the book as we know it today (Wilhelm, 1923, p.lviii).
The I Ching dates from 3000 years ago and has been inspired by the philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism. The I Ching has had a great influence on traditions and cultures since it has even inspired science and politics in China (Wilhelm, 1923, p.xlvii). Such a historical background shows how rich and enlightening the texts are and for how many different purposes they can serve.
The book consists of eight trigrams that are symbols for changing states. There are 64 signs, with each containing 6 lines, called hexagrams that are either positive or negative. The positive lines are called yang, to which brightness is attributed, and the negative lines are called yin, which represents darkness. Both yang and yin are unified in a circle as the contradicting “light and shadow” called TAO, which could be phrased as the universal law of everything and the solution to all contradictions.
After these previews it is important now to distinguish these oracles from other types they are commonly associated with. For example, if asked how people imagined a session with a fortuneteller, they are inclined to describe a crystal ball in a dark room with a mysterious speaker who predicts that two years from now you will receive a letter that changes your life. Now the listener has not a clue whether the information given is true or not, and he or she will have to wait the predicted amount of time to prove the fortuneteller either right or wrong.
Not so in Tarot nor I Ching. They do not merely predict fate or something that is going to happen some day in the future. The answer they provide you with are precise and begin with the immediate past or present and indicate what could happen in the future. The word could perfectly proves that it does not have to be so. As a result, it is not surprising that the I Ching is called the Book of Changes, for it is meant for the one who acts and shapes his fate rather than for passive people who sit and wait for the event to arrive. According to Wilhelm (1923), the “book of divination had to become a book of wisdom” (p.liii), when the first person did not consent to mere (passive) predictions but asked what ought to be done actively in the particular case or matter.
In fact, fortunetelling put this way expects us to go ahead and shape our destiny, meaning that actions lie in our own hands; we are responsible for the results we attain in life. Tarot cards and I Ching, which are both used as oracles, have a particular need for action. Without the following and impending act that is suggested to the reader, most of the predictions cannot and will not come true.
Thus, the oracles do not provide you with mere statements but with predictions that are dependent on and an incentive for action. To give an ordinary common place example, students terrified before an oncoming exam will not get the answer that they will obtain a good mark in the future. The predictions would be very realistic, such as, you will receive a good mark but you need to do the following to achieve it. There would be points such as studying hard, dedicating oneself, not going out etc. This example may seem banal but it simply proves the way the oracle operates.
The oracle is used to illuminate a matter. It is more a problem-solving tool and therefore should feel at home in the field of psychology. The way I associate with my oracle is perceiving it as a means of obtaining the perfect advice from the most exalted sage. The sage is not to be viewed as a real person but rather as the spirit of the book that communicates with us through the I Ching. 

This sage, however, knows perfectly well the human mind, nature, the course of time with its unforeseen incidents, and the mechanism of the universe itself. As Jung (1949) states about this process, the “method of I Ching does indeed take into account the hidden individual quality in things and men, and in one's own unconscious self as well” (p.xxviii). The sage, then, becomes the undefined and mysterious TAO.
In defining the oracles, one must inevitably ask oneself whether everyone can make use of these oracles or whether one has to be chosen for this task. In fact, the oracles place themselves above the level of ordinary sooth-saying for it is meant for the “unconscious in man to become active. All individuals are not equally fitted to consult the oracle. It requires a clear and tranquil mind, receptive to the cosmos influences hidden” (Wilhelm, 1923, p.liv).
People who consult the oracle must be in the TAO, which means that they ought to be in a relaxed, calm state of mind. As a matter of fact, a certain, fixed concentration on the oracle precedes in order to achieve harmony with the universe and then to be able to obtain a reliable answer on the subject, regardless of whether it is through pulling random cards or throwing coins. It becomes more than the action itself might suggest, for now we enter a new field that speaks to us in the form of our unconscious mind. The cards that the individual chooses in a specific moment become the means of revelation of the unconscious self in that precise momentarily state.
There is an obvious cultural discrepancy in the perception of time. The Western way of thinking is critical and analytical, divided into cause and effect. The causes of an action lead to a certain result. However, there is no possible explanation of unforeseen incidents that could occur on their own, without being caused by someone.
The Eastern culture comprehends time differently and does not proceed with a scientific, mathematical approach. The Eastern mind perceives time in a rather curious, irrational way. Time is seen as a long, endless-seeming stream of conscious awareness. Therefore, the present state of the being is the most valid state, for it is only the present on which we have influence and which we actually perceive.

As Jung states, "whatever happens in a given moment possesses inevitably the quality peculiar to that moment" (1949, p.xxiii). A moment is peculiar to itself and cannot possibly be repeated twice. There is something relatively unique in a moment that carries its own characteristics. Jung calls this peculiarity "synchronicity" (1949, p.xxiv), which means that all actions that take place in a single instant are combined simultaneously.
However, I think it better to describe it as a moment's momentum. Every moment has its own momentum since how hard you may try to repeat the moment, it becomes distorted, for not all the conditions can be consciously taken into account. For example, the same event, such as a birthday party each year might have similarities but can never be the same. You may invite the same people all over again, play the same games, yet you will never really achieve the identical momentum

There is no way that a moment can be stopped nor be prevented. The moment is a point of a river that flows towards its next momentum, and this continuing process adds on to the long stream of the river as a whole. Put another way, each moment with its inevitable character of the momentum is like a dot, and all these dots finally end up in a perceived line.
That special perception of time gives insight into the process of the oracle. The oracle perceives this momentum and traces it forth in time, showing what is necessary to be done in order to get where one eventually plans to be. The oracle delivers a map that is designed for the one who consults it, who then becomes the captain. It is the captain who makes the final decision on which path to take.
As I noted earlier, the oracle reveals the way our unconsciousness works. Up to this point, I referred to the TAO as an unknown, mysterious “tool,” being the universal law with which the phenomenon of precognition works. But now let us ignore the TAO for a moment and look at the process from a different angle, from the angle of the pure unconscious mind of the captain

Watts compares the interpretation of an oracle with the Rohrschach tests, where complex ink-blots form spontaneous images in the patient's head. Watts surmises that if the patient could “interpret his own projections upon the ink-blot, he would have some useful information about himself for the guidance of his future conduct. In view of this, we cannot dismiss the divinatory art of the I Ching as mere superstition” (1957, p.14). 

Basically, the unconscious has controlled which cards to choose, and it was the unconscious that controlled the throw of coins in a specific way to obtain the appropriate sign. It is therefore the individual mind that draws upon his or her own experiences to interpret the given answer. It is the captain's personality that determines the information given by the oracle. The map becomes useless to those who do not know how to read it.
Nevertheless, it is possible that the individual distorts the given answer in order to get the wished-for answer, for one finds it hard to accept the truth sometimes. To find the evidence for my own belief I have put the oracle to test on several occasions, and they have not disappointed me in their predictions. My trust and confidence have grown in the course of more than two decades of studying the oracle. It needs a lot of time and appreciation to find firm, solid results; they cannot be achieved by quick experiments. Since the momentum cannot be repeated twice, consulting the oracle twice about corresponding matters is not really possible. There is a saying that the master speaks only once.
The main thing is to first appreciate the oracle as an actual way of expanding one's horizons, and then, after being convinced, to accept it, not as mere superstition nor as a special kind of ESP, but as helpful, true advice that comes from the heart and contains thousands of years of wisdom and experience.


Banzhaf, Hajo (1993). Das Arbeitsbuch zum Tarot. Munich: Hugendubel.
Myers, David G. (1995). Psychology (4th ed.). New York: Worth.
Watts, Alan W. (1957). The Way of Zen. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wilhelm, Richard, & Baynes, Cary F. (1967). The I Ching or Book of Changes. New Jersey: Bollingen Foundation.

1 comment:

John Myste said...

Wow. Firstly, my skeptical nature may not allow me to give the Oracle a chance. Since you are practiced in the art, am I to assume that you could intercede on my behalf, even if my concentration and acceptance is not quite there? If so, I would be interested in this.

You would have to keep in mind that my skepticism is a little beyond mere doubt. It borders on faith, not in the "Oracle," but in her lack of ability.

I think it is possible that a wise man may mistake his own wisdom for that of a higher being. Ironically, I do acknowledge that there is small chance that the wisdom he mistakes as not his, actually is material that is thus far beyond anyone's imagination; so his mistake not be a complete error, but more of a slight diversion from the path he thinks he follows.

I do grant you that the Oracle as you understand her may be real. As I said, it is faith, not specific science, that inspires my incredulity.

It was a very good piece and says a lot about your spiritual side, which though open for all to see, still seems somewhat mysterious at time.