Commentary C on an exercise in metaphorical interpretation of the Chinese Book of Changes





An activity of the Primer Group


A Special Integration Group (SIG) of the
International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS)
originally SGSR, Society for General Systems Research.




















1. Dilemma of many possible views

This Encyclopedia seeks to respond to the dilemma of the many possible views concerning the nature of sustainable human development. Usually any such view considers itself more appropriate than other competing views. Few views account for the existence of other views except as being predecessors or misguided. And yet it is the interaction of such views within a conceptual ecology which characterizes the dynamics of human society. Different views engender different styles of human development and give rise to different problems.

It therefore remains an interesting challenge to explore new ways of interrelating the network of views, especially if it is possible to embody in such an exercise features which give the whole a degree of complexity appropriate to the complexity it is intended to encompass. It is also desirable to build in features from other than western cultures.

2. Mapping the network of views

This is not a new challenge, although it may now appear more dramatic to some. An intriguing point of departure is a classic Buddhist text entitled the "Brahmajala Sutta" (The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views). This appears to be unique in endeavouring to map out as a system the complete set of fundamental viewpoints. It is the first sutta in the entire collection of the Buddha's discourses in the Pali Tipitaka. Its importance stems from its primary objective, namely the exposition of a scheme of 62 cases designed to include all possible views (past and future) on the central concern of speculative thought, the nature of the self in relation to the world. It is used as a way of establishing a context for the emergence of what amounts to an essentially more sustainable view characterized by a greater degree of insight. In systems terms, it is this higher level of insight which provides the necessary conceptual complexity to inhibit the continual generation of problems arising from less adequate perspectives (whatever vital function they may otherwise have).

3. Exploratory exercise

In using this point of departure, it should be clear that the following is merely an exploratory exercise. However, the intention here is not simply to point to an existing text born of a particular culture. What is intriguing about the text is that it is based on a relatively complex pattern with what seem to be many clues to a more systematic and fruitful way of representing that pattern. This is important because, read only as a checklist reinforcing linear patterns of thought, it is doubtful whether it could lead to any breakthroughs in response to the non-linear dilemmas of the times.

What follows is first a translation of the text. Some clues to the patterning principles are then listed. The possibility of coding the pattern using a binary representation is then discussed, especially in relation to a similar endeavour of equal antiquity originating in another non-western culture, namely the Chinese Book of Changes. Then some implications for a more challenging understanding of sustainable human development are explored.

The text reflects insights formulated 2,500 years ago. It is not the intention to be strictly faithful to it. Rather the intention is to be guided by a method which is based on a fundamental patterning principle in the text itself. The logic of that pattern is to a high degree tetra-lemmic in the sense that it provides for four logical alternatives concerning any thesis: A, not-A, A and not-A, neither A nor not-A. It will be argued that these reflect a progressive complexification of understanding to whatever domain they are applied. Applied to this exercise, it is proposed to: start with the constraints of the text (A); to ignore those constraints, treating the text metaphorically, in search of a patterning principle (not-A); to endeavour to fit the pattern to the text with any necessary adjustments (A and not-A); and then to explore the insights implied by that result, reaffirming the pattern, but unconstrained by the limitations of the particular representation (neither A nor not-A).

Such an approach is characteristic of Madhyamaka Buddhism whose dialectic has been articulated by Nagarjuna (*). There the dialectic is designed to expose the inconsistencies in all sides of any issue as a preliminary to the experiential awareness of that which transcends such dualities. The Madhyamika recognizes the four alternatives as mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. The law of the excluded middle is accepted in logico-mathematical operations, where the alternatives are finite and mutually exclusive, but not in ontological contexts where this cannot be demonstrated. It should be stressed that the exercise here is exploratory, hopefully indicating possibilities which others can use with greater insight.

4. Summary of a classic net of views

The list of points presented below is an editorial adaptation of an appendix in the English translation by Bhikku Bodhi (1978) of the Buddhist text on The All-Embracing Net of Views. This provides a checklist of the views in the order in which they are discussed in the original text and its commentaries.

Despite the text's almost mechanical precision in classifying and distinguishing some views, all of them need to be considered connotatively rather than denotatively, especially as possible metaphors for more comprehensive levels of meaning than is apparent. This is especially the case given the antiquity of the text and the difficulties of translation from a non-western language.

5. Clues to patterning principles

(a) The text explicitly identifies 62 views as constituting a complete set of inappropriate or unsustainable views. Two other views are however implicit. One is that of the ultimately sustainable "correct" view (nirvana or nibbana). The other is the state of ignorance (samsara), possibly antedating the formation of any other view, and to which all other views are a response. These could bring the total elements in the set to 64.

(b) The majority of the sub-sets of views are based on patterns of 4 or 8 elements. One is 2, one is 5, one is 7, one is 16. Using the 2 omitted elements, and repositioning the sub-set of 2, a systematic patterning could be based on 4-fold and 8-fold sets, possibly within 16-fold and 32-fold sets.

(c) As noted above a number of 4-fold sub-sets (whether or not part of a larger sub-set) are explicitly structured in terms of: A, not-A, A and not-A, neither A nor not-A. As noted, these suggest a progressive complexification beyond the constraints of Aristotelian logic, which remain, however, a sub-set of the sequence. This implies a progressively increasing challenge to comprehension, suggesting that the more "nirvanic" views might be based on elements of the pattern governed by "neither A nor not-A" (as implied by the phrase "not this, not that", traditionally associated with that state). Correspondingly, the least nirvanic views might be based on elements of the pattern governed by "A".

(d) Wherever the 4-fold sub-sets occur, with textual variants of the above logic, the progression through the sequence is the same (see 2.1). This suggests that this sequence may hold in the global organization of the pattern as well as in the detail. If this were the case, then there would be 4 major 16-fold sets. These would be based on views about: past, future, past and future, neither past nor future. The first two are explicit. The last two may be valid interpretations.

(e) The views appear to be based on three conceptual domains or levels. These cannot be labelled satisfactorily since they are categories at the highest level of abstraction. The degree of abstraction is indicated by the dualistic form they take in the text. They might be tentatively labelled as follows: materiality/immateriality or form/formlessness; space/time; subject/object or knower/known. These are natural categories for any classification of philosophies.

(f) The overall pattern might then be represented as an interplay between dualism, the 3-fold organization of domains, and the 4-fold logic.

1. Speculations about the past (Pubbantakappika)

1.1.1Eternalism (Sassatavada)

1.1.2Based on recollection of up to 100,000 past lives

1.1.3Based on recollection of up to 10 aeons of world contraction and expansion

1.1.4 Based on recollection of up to 40 such aeons

1.1.5 Based on reasoning

1.2Partial-Eternalism (Ekaccasassatavada)

1.2.1 Theism

1.2.2 Polytheism held by beings who were gods corrupted by play

1.2.3 Polytheism held by beings who were gods corrupted by mind

1.2.4 Rationalist dualism of an impermanent body and an eternal mind

1.3Extensionism: finitude and infinitude (Antanantavada)

1.3.1 View that the world is finite

1.3.2 View that the world is infinite

1.3.3 View that the world is finite in vertical direction but infinite across

1.3.4 View that the world is neither finite nor infinite

1.4Endless Equivocation (Amaravikkhepavada)

1.4.1 Held by one fearful of making a false statement

1.4.2 Held by one fearful of clinging

1.4.3 Held by one fearful of being cross-examined

1.4.4 Held by one who is dull and stupid

1.5Fortuitous Origination (Adhiccasamuppannavada)

1.5.1 Based on recollection of the arising of perception after passing away from the plane of non-percipient beings

1.5.2 Based on reasoning

2. Speculations about the Future (Aparantakappika)

2.1Percipient Immortality (Sannivada), with the self immutable after death, percipient and:

2.1.1 Material

2.1.2 Immaterial

2.1.3 Both material and immaterial

2.1.4 Neither material nor immaterial

2.1.5 Finite

2.1.6 Infinite

2.1.7 Both finite and infinite

2.1.8 Neither finite nor infinite

2.1.9 Of uniform perception

2.1.10 Of diversified perception 2.1.11Of limited perception

2.1.12Of boundless perception

2.1.13 Exclusively happy

2.1.14 Exclusively miserable

2.1.15 Both happy and miserable

2.1.16 Neither happy nor miserable

2.2Non-percipient Immortality (Asannivada), with the self immutable after death, non-percipient and:

2.2.1 Material

2.2.2 Immaterial

2.2.3 Both material and immaterial

2.2.4 Neither material nor immaterial

2.2.5 Finite

2.2.6 Infinite

2.2.7 Both finite and infinite

2.2.8 Neither finite nor infinite

2.3Neither Percipient nor Non-percipient Immortality (N'evasanninasannivada), with the self immutable after death, neither percipient nor non-percipient:

2.3.1 Material

2.3.2 Immaterial

2.3.3 Both material and immaterial

2.3.4 Neither material nor immaterial

2.3.5 Finite

2.3.6 Infinite

2.3.7 Both finite and infinite

2.3.8 Neither finite nor infinite

2.4Annihilationism (Ucchedavada)

2.4.1 Annihilation of the self composed of the four elements

2.4.2 Annihilation of the divine sense-sphere self

2.4.3 Annihilation of the divine, fine-material-sphere self

2.4.4 Annihilation of the self belonging to the base of infinite space

2.4.5 Annihilation of the self belonging to the base of infinite consciousness

2.4.6 Annihilation of the self belonging to the base of thingness

2.4.7 Annihilation of the self belonging to the base of either perception nor non-perception

2.5Nibbana Here and Now (Ditthadhammanibbanavada)

2.5.1 Nibbana here and now in the enjoyment of the five strands of sense pleasure

2.5.2 Nibbana here and now in the first jhana

2.5.3 Nibbana here and now in the second jhana

2.5.4 Nibbana here and now in the third jhana

2.5.5 Nibbana here and now in the fourth jhana


6. Possible binary coding pattern

(a) Book of Changes

In the light of the above clues, the relationship to the 64-fold pattern of the Chinese Book of Changes calls for investigation, especially since the latter is similarly ambitious in scope. Of special interest is its early use in providing insights into the dilemmas of governance of Chinese society. The relevance of this pattern to understanding sustainable policy cycles is explored in Section TP (of the 1991 edition of this Encyclopedia). The concern here is with the symbol system used to encode that pattern, not with its popular uses by those indifferent to its overall structure. It should be noted that two of the 64 elements there (denoting creativity and receptivity) have a primordial significance distinguishing them from the remaining 62. It is these two which can be suggestively associated with nirvana and samsara in the Buddhist pattern.

The Book of Changes originated as a set of linear signs for oracular pronouncements. At its simplest this took the form of an unbroken line for "Yes" and a broken line for "No", thus capturing the essence of the Aristotelian view and the excluded middle. Greater subtlety was required and the pattern was extended to a double line representation by combining the two basic possibilities, thus forming a set of four possible responses. It is these four which can be used to encode the 4-fold logic noted above.

The pattern of the Book of Changes was then further extended by adding a single broken (or unbroken) line to each of the four above. This gives the 8 possibilities, namely the 8 basic trigrams of that system. It is possible that these might prove appropriate to encoding the 8-fold sub-sets noted above.

The final extension of the pattern was by combining each of the trigrams with each other into hexagrams of six lines (broken or unbroken). It is these that are used to represent the 64 conditions of the Book of Changes.

(b) Genetic code and physical particles

Although the Book of Changes is an extremely interesting example of the use of a binary coding pattern, especially given its focus on the complex subtleties of psycho-social systems, another striking use of this same pattern is to encode the set of 64 codons of the genetic code. The binary code is of course also basic to digital computer operations, even in giving importance to sets of 64 elements. Another fundamental application of a binary system is the standard model mapping the entire range of physical particles in terms of 6 quarks in 3 pairs of 2 -- a first pair of up and down quarks, a second of charm and strange quarks and a third of bottom and top quarks (with each being harder to make than the previous pair). Each quark has an anti-matter counterpart. Mesons are two-quark particles (requiring a quark and an anti-quark, which in the case of a K-meson are an anti-strange quark and a down quark). Baryons are three-quark particles.

(c) Computer machine code

When used for computer purposes, the 64-possibilities build up from 6 "off" bit positions through a natural sequence to 6 "on" positions, thus encoding values ranging from 0 to 63. A simplistic first approximation to a pattern for the range of views would thus involve starting with a hexagram of six broken lines as representing primordial ignorance (samsara) and building up through the complete sequence to a hexagram of six unbroken lines as representing a final level of transcendental insight (corresponding to nirvana). By ignoring the first and last elements in the sequence, a correspondence could be obtained to the basic Buddhist pattern of views.

(d) Other possibilities for decoding

This binary coding pattern is the crudest solution to mapping the views onto a pattern. It ignores difficulties created by exceptions in the above text, notably the single 2-fold set, the 5-fold set and the 7-fold set. Relocating the first of these to complete the lasttwo, introducing there the two which were omitted, would lead to a second approximation.

Much more effort could however be devoted to thinking through the significance of the 4-fold logic and relating it to a representation using the 4 combinations of 2 lines (broken and unbroken). It is quite possible that insights from the Book of Changes might be helpful, especially in the case of the 4-fold Buddhist sets based on "material", "space", "perception" and "happiness" (see 2.1). Consider the following possible correspondences from that perspective:

"Earth": material, finite, uniform perception, exclusively happy "Air": immaterial, infinite, diversified perception, exclusively miserable "Water": material and immaterial, finite and infinite, limited perception, happy and miserable "Fire": neither material nor immaterial, neither finite nor infinite, boundless perception, neither happy nor miserable.

Given the level of abstraction, it is appropriate to move beyond the particular instances, labels and metaphors, especially in order to capture meanings which are considered more active at this time. Consider the following:

Space/Time: historical determinism ("past"), anticipation/vision ("future"), living in the present ("past and future"), proactive spontaneity ("neither past nor future") Subject/Object: objects without subjects, percipience without objects, subjects and objects, neither subjects nor objects.

Such an exploration could uncover ways of combining representations of the different views concerning the relationship between the three dualistic domains (materiality, objectivity, and space/time) as three pairs of two lines forming a single hexagram. These could be much more precisely linked to the views in the text. It would seem that the text contains sufficient indications to suggest that the final pattern might "lock" together in a totally unambiguous way, once the key was found. It might also provide a striking link to the insights and patterns of the Book of Changes such that each enhances the other.

As with any binary coding pattern, a finer pattern of distinctions can be obtained by adding further positions. Thus one extra would raise the number of distinctions to 128, and a second to 256.

7. Implications for sustainable human development

(a) Function of each view

It should be stressed that it is not the Buddhist approach that is being advocated here any more than that of the Book of Changes. As insights which have themselves stood the test of time, these are useful as an indication of directions to explore in identifying a pattern that can encompass the range of views of sustainable human development. The Buddhist approach has a strong bias in favour of a single view, one of the 64 in the derived pattern. It is important to understand the conditions under which the others may also appear politically desirable, whether or not importance is attached to different kinds and degrees of insight.

(b) "Lives" as cycles

The text focuses strongly on the "self" and its perceptions. The implications would also seem to be valid for collectivities. The early mention of "lives" and the several references to "immortality" are of more immediate significance when understood metaphorically. A "life" may be understood as an unbroken period of attention or concentration. Attention to any matter may be broken by any distracting or disruptive influence onto which the attention is then shifted, whether individually or collectively. "Lives" can thus be understood as successive cycles of emergent focus and decay of attention, whether as a daily cycle of activity, a programmatic cycle of a group, or the life-cycle of an organization or of some intellectual or cultural fashion. In this sense the pattern aims to transcend the limitations of short-term concerns with a singleprogramme, electoral cycle or business cycle. It is concerned with trans-cyclic sustainability. The original text could be rewritten to reflect such preoccupations.

(c) Traps on learning pathways

Degree of insight, area of insight and duration of insight are thus woven together to indicate the traps lying along the learning pathway from ignorant degradation (samsara) to insightful sustainability (nirvana).

(d) Forms of (un)sustainability

Perhaps most intriguing about the above pattern is the possibility that it represents a complete representation of forms of (un)sustainability, expressed at the most abstract level. It may be understood as both embodying and transcending the dualism which diminishes the significance of many systemic endeavours. In doing so it embodies increasing degrees of complexity through the later terms of the tetra-lemmic logic thus indicating the challenge to understanding and the learning process. It is as much a learning pathway (or "curriculum") as an explanation, thus denying superficial comprehension.

(e) Representation of the pattern

Having acquired a sense of the pattern, there is value in exploring ways of representing it so as to highlight features implicit in its structure which are of significance for sustainability:

"Mountain" Model: Here the pattern is projected onto a tetrahedron so that the upper apex represents the sustainable condition (6 unbroken lines). The three edges leading up to it are used to represent the three dualistic domains (materiality/immateriality, knower/known, space/time). On each of those edges are four "islands of stability", indicated by the sequence of four values of the tetra-lemmic logic. This then gives the final lemma (neither A nor not-A) at the common apex and the first lemma (A) at the lower end of each edge (2 broken lines in each case). Each of the views is then defined by a triangular plane between those three edges. The initial view (ignorance) being given by the plane defining the bottom of the tetrahedron. The degree of unsustainability might then be represented by the slope of any plane (off which a coherent sphere of attention would eventually roll). Seemingly sustainable views would be those in which the plane was parallel to the base, corresponding to an equivalent degree of insight on all three dimensions. As a metaphorical mountain, the challenge is to ensure that planes are increasingly distant from the base and reduced in area, culminating in the apex position. Note that a form of sustainability may be achieved by repeatedly alternating between views (constantly correcting the tendency for a coherent sphere of attention to roll off any plane).

"Container (or Fortress)" Model: The 6 (broken or unbroken) lines used to signify any particular view may be used to construct a tetrahedron, one line per edge. In this case there would be 64ways in which the bordering edges could be defined. As a metaphorical container or fortress, the most vulnerable would be that in which the lines were all broken. The most sustainable (and least vulnerable) would be that in which the lines were all unbroken. Again a form of sustainability might be achieved by repeatedly alternating between views.

(f) Forms of intelligence

At the level of abstraction at which the 3-fold domains are defined, these may might well be understood as incorporating the distinctions currently made between three distinct and overarching intelligences (as noted by Howard Gardner):

object-related: ability to manipulate objects in the environment (bodily-kinaesthetic), recognize and imagine spatial relations among objects (spatial), and reason logically about things and their relations (logico-mathematical); object-free: competence in the sphere of language and music, which may not designate aspects of the physical environment at all; personal: intra-personal and inter-personal ability to assess emotional states, recognize strengths and weaknesses.

It is understood that these are developed somewhat independently by any individual. In the case of a group these might correspond to the functions of: human relations, savy *

(g) Experiential stages

Similarly the progression of tetra-lemmic stages might also incorporate more experiential dimensions such as: sense of identity, encounter with otherness (opposing views or some "shadow" aspect in the Jungian sense), working relationship with otherness (toleration, etc), transcendence of the conflictual dynamics with otherness (proactive tolerance, creative detachment, etc). They may also be related to Erikson's life stages (see *). Clearly the terms cannot make apparent the different levels of experiential significance associated with any such phases, which may be encountered and repeated at more profound levels of understanding. The corresponding insights at the group level merit exploration, for it is these that determine the emergence of more mature attitudes to effective cooperation between opposing factions.

(h) Requisite discipline to restrain problem generation

As far as achieving sustainable human development is concerned, the Buddhist pattern has direct practical implications. All effort in Buddhism is directed towards shifting understanding "upwards" in terms of the mountain model. Specific concern is given to clarification of understanding with regard to each of the four phases in the tetra-lemmic sequence. Furthermore there is specific recognition of what root problems are engendered by lack of clarification in each case. The Buddhist focus emphasizes individual meditation and discipline as the key to the successive phases of such clarification and identifies the problems in terms of personal weaknesses. But the same pattern may presumably be used to explore the collective implications, specifically to determine the kinds of discipline required to restrain tendencies to problem generation. Little attention has as yet been given to the stages of maturation of group insight through which longer-term, trans-cyclic programmes can be sustained.

(i) Bridge from the intellectual to the experiential

In contrast with western uses of the dialectic method, the tetra-lemmic approach provides a bridge from the intellectual operation of the dialectic to the experiential. It provides a way of questioning any view, including the approach itself. It distinguishes between the questionability of all views as products of involvement in a complex environment and levels of experience unmediated by such products. "Phenomenologically, one's world expands, not only incorporating the discursive as part and parcel of man's existence, but also including the nondiscursive vastness to which our categories do not and cannot come close to touching. The categories do not approximate reality, not because they are too simple, but because they are the products of particular perceptual-conceptual conditions." (MacDowell, p 9). From such a perspective it is valuable: to take account of all views; to consider all as inadequate; to accept both these positions together; and to consider that neither of these positions is adequate.

(j) Requisite variety and detachment from particulars

This 4-fold methodological perspective engenders a complex and subtle response both to the conditions of the world and to recommendations for human development. This would appear to embody the necessary complexity through which a sustainable dynamic can acquire meaningful credibility. It is therefore a subtle response to the absolutist viewpoints from which most approaches to human development derive. It both acknowledges their value and provides a freedom from their limitations, without necessarily becoming entrapped in nihilism or relativism that are themselves accepted as other views. It encourages and ensures full recognition of the value of choosing from various frameworks in order to deal with the phenomenal world. Relativism is thus only a possible characteristic of the realm of cognition but not of the experiential realm which transcends it and to which no categories apply. These two realms are held to be two aspects of the same reality, neither being more real than the other, since that distinction derives from human thought. Mundane reality is the real or transcendental reality on which concepts have been superimposed, whether through unconscious habit or, preferably, whenever pragmatically necessary. Wisdom is thus detachment from the need to cling to the elements of analysis, such as "mundane", "transcendental", "nirvana" or "wisdom".

(k) Sustainability through alternation between particulars

It may be that ultimately sustainability can only be achieved by appropriate alternation between all 64 views, weaving them into an appropriate ecology, without privileging any one view. For it is clear that in a complex psycho-social system, islands of what might be considered developmental regression and exaggeration will continually emerge and disappear in response to local conditions and environmental pressures (as is the case for any individual). But it is the pattern which connects these diverse perspectives. It is on the nature of that pattern, as a generator of viewpoints, that some focus is required. As with the genetic code or the periodic table of chemical elements, it is through that pattern that the diversity of perspectives emerges. Any new insight is thus subject to factionalization, with the possibility of 64 competing views, thus undermining the coherence of any response unless the connecting pattern is used to provide a context.

(l) Possibility of other patterns

Although the pattern explored here emphasizes 64 elements, there are undoubtedly other such patterns which can be usefully explored, whether with fewer or more elements and possibly lending themselves to other pattern logics. The point however is not the particular pattern used but much more the implications of any such pattern for sustainable development. To be of any significance it is necessary that the pattern be sufficiently complex to encode the diversity of concepts concerning sustainable development. To be of value it must facilitate the transcendence of the relatively sterile dynamics associated with polarized dialogues about sustainable development.


Earlier version in 2nd edition of Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1986) Comments to Union of International Associations (Brussels, Nov 1996): Metaphor

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