I Ching Diary: biting the bullet

I Ching Hexagram 21 Biting

How to deal with someone who is acting against principles that underlie the harmony of the group or who is threatening the unity of the nation through their criminal actions?

The answer according to hexagram 21 is “biting” (噬嗑/shì kè) the bullet or in more prosaic terms to take swift and decisive action against them. Combining the lower trigram representing quake or thunder (震/zhèn) with the upper trigram representing radiance or fire (離 /lí), the hexagram advises you to apply the appropriate penalties or laws to nip the bad behavior in the bud but to temper them with understanding and mercy. If you punish a person too severely, this will only lead to greater resentment from the offender and increase the likelihood of committing even worse crimes in the future in protest against the perceived injustice they have suffered.

By modern-day standards, even the mildest punishments in ancient China were harsh. The judgment for line 1, the first changing line in my hexagram, declares without apparent irony that: “The feet are shackled. The toes are destroyed. No harm.” In other words, having had his first taste of the might of the justice system, the offender will never want to commit a crime again.

The judgment for line 2, the second changing line in my hexagram, is even harsher, proclaiming that: “The flesh is bitten. The nose is destroyed. No harm.” Presumably such a severe but, according to the law at least, fair punishment will be sufficient to reform a repeat offender.

The need to make sure that the punishment is fit and proper is emphasized in the judgment for line 5, the third changing line in my hexagram, which states: “Dried meat is bitten. Gold is found. Steadfast. Danger. No harm.” Gold symbolizes illumination. In other words, the right verdict and punishment have been delivered and the “danger” of punishing the offender too harshly has been averted.

Naturally, there are some repeat offenders who obstinately refuse to learn the lessons of their previous punishments. In the judgment of line 6, the final changing line in my hexagram, such reprobates are destined to carry a cangue, a heavy wooden collar or pillory, on their shoulders with their “ears destroyed” because of their unwillingness or inability to listen to the advice of others and follow the correct path. This represents a calamity not just for the offender but also the legal system that still has to manage him. Sometimes even biting the bullet doesn’t achieve the desired results no matter how carefully you implement the corrective actions!

I Ching Hexagram 47 Confinement

Having hacked my way through the brutalities of the ancient Chinese judicial system thanks to throwing so many sixes and nines in my original coin toss, I wasn’t exactly in the mood to contemplate the implications of what hexagram 21 was telling me about my future. Not that I needed to, in any case, because when I converted the changing lines to their opposites, hexagram 47 presented me with the horrifying answer!

Combining the lower trigram representing the abyss or gorge (坎/kǎn) and by extension water 水/ shuǐ) with the upper trigram representing open (兌/duì) or lake (澤/zé), the hexagram means confinement, oppression, or exhaustion (困/kùn). Although it specifically refers to the unjust confinement of good men by bad men, this didn’t provide me with any comfort at all.

Fortunately, the accompanying commentary helped lift at least part of my gloom with its commonsense advice to stay strong even in the most difficult of times. This may sound rather trite, but when it comes to teachers, adversity is the best by far. It tells you who you really are.

Note: I have quoted the translations from the excellent “Note: I have quoted the translations from the excellent “I Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Oracle and Book of Wisdom” by Jon Minford.

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