I’ve discovered the I Ching with a book, it was one of those books with complicated sentences, but it was quite exotic and I found it entertaining for a while. Of course I didn’t understand much about the I Ching and I thought it would take a lifetime of studying with a teacher to get what it was about. At this point, I had almost lost interest.
Then it happened that a friend went missing and while we were waiting anxiously for news, I’ve stumbled upon a chapter of that book describing the hexagram 5. The text was saying that nothing was to be done, but there was hope because something would happen. And, I said to myself: “This is the exact situation.”.
So, suddenly it all made sense: The I Ching describes situations, the comments describe the best approach to follow. So my interest growing rapidly, I bought Richard Wilhelm’s book which helped me understand a lot of situations. At that time, I was confident that I would soon understand most of it.
But, there was a difficulty, the hexagram 4 was standing in my way:
YOUTHFUL FOLLY has success.
It is not I who seek the young fool;
The young fool seeks me.
At the first oracle I inform him.
If he asks two or three times, it is importunity.
If he importunes, I give him no information.
How did I understand that comment? Ask your question, receive the answer and leave. That principle was difficult to apply because I was still a beginner, only able to understand a few lines.
So, I’ve followed the rule, reluctantly, for about 10 years. But each time I was receiving the hexagram 8 I felt committed to break it because of this comment:
Inquire of the oracle once again
Whether you possess sublimity, constancy, and perseverance;
Then there is no blame.
So, isn’t it strange that one comment tells you “One oracle is enough!” and the other tells you “Consult the oracle again!”? Isn’t there a lack of consistency?
Progressively I released my attention toward the rule of hexagram 4 and I’ve started asking more and more questions related to the same topic. Sometimes the answer would be the hexagram 4 and I was considering that this last question could have been avoided. Also, oftentimes, it happened that I consulted once, decided that I could not understand and then figured out the meaning while I was throwing the coins for the second time.
Of course, I was not feeling very comfortable with this way of doing, the hexagram 4 was still pointing an accusing finger at me: “You shall ask only once!”. The solution came from a communications course where I’ve been taught that when a dialogue partner has said something, reword the sentence as to make sure that it was understood right. So my new strategy was to ask a question then ask if my interpretation was correct. Those are two different questions and they solve the apparent contradiction between hexagram 4 and hexagram 8. Sublimity, constancy and perseverance represent your will to solve to the question. So, after pondering, inquire of the oracle once again: if your interpretation happens to be wrong, who better than the Yi is able to tell you?
Now are we done? Not yet, what is described here only applies to competent people. It does not apply to the incompetent. Competence and incompetence are relative notions.
If you speak Chinese fluently then you are competent in Chinese, and if you don’t know a single word of Gaelic then you are incompetent in Gaelic.
Someone competent in Chinese can ask questions such as the meaning of a special word, or about an ideogram. Once given, the information is supposed to be acquired, or this person didn’t pay really attention.
Someone incompetent in Gaelic will ask questions such as “How do you say hello?” or “How to say thank you?”. This person may have difficulties and it may take a lot of repetitions until the word can be pronounced correctly. It wouldn’t be right to tell this person that once the answer has been given, there is no more to ask, would it? This situation is naturally covered by the hexagram 18, line 2:
One helps the weakest gently.
So, are we competent or incompetent in respect with the I Ching? As beginners we are incompetent, and as we progress we are treated as competent. Sometimes we are able to understand, and sometimes we are not. So, how to proceed when we don’t understand immediately, shall we declare our incompetence or ponder about it until we grasp the meaning?
When I was consulting the I Ching about the hexagram 4, I naturally asked if it was right that a question shall only be asked once. Here is the answer that I got:
Give references to the student which asks oneself questions, but delay before answering to thoughtless questions. That way the student will trust their judgment.
Delay! It’s about delay, we need to take some time to ponder about it. The comment for the line 57.1 also confirms this:
One gives the youngest ones a time frame to finish the preparation. Then, one shows them their weaknesses and answers their requests for explanation.
There are also a few other comments related to this question, I’ll let you discover them by yourself if you happen to ask the Yi about it.