The I Ching’s fourth hexagram is about young, dumb students and their older, wiser teachers. We are presented with a magnificent image from nature—a wild spring at the foot of a mountain. The mountain, representing the teacher, looms above, seasoned and still, while the spring, the student, pools below before flowing onward as all water eventually does.
As with the rolling lyrics of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, within the great cycle depicted within the I Ching, there is a proper time for everything, and when you’re young, it’s the proper time to be kind of an idiot. It’s totally okay. Go wild, seriously.
But there has to be a catch, right? Actually (perhaps sadly), there are several catches. Firstly, you can’t just accept the stupidity and stay stupid forever. You’ve got to know that you’ve got to move on eventually. Secondly, you’ve got to find a teacher, and you’ve got to open yourself up to learning from the teacher’s words of experience. Thirdly…well, thirdly, we’ll see in a moment that being young and foolish merely in itself involves all manner of complications.
Now, it’s easy when we discuss these terms to look back at one’s own youth, nodding with a knowing smile and thinking about how true all of this is (because it is). At the same time, try not to get limited by thinking of all of this so literally, for all cycles contain smaller cycles within and exist themselves within larger cycles, continuing onward into infinity. One cycle, in this case the one literally described, is the stages of human life. But within each individual human life is contained many “little lives”—am I right? You could be fifty years old right now and yet find yourself at a stage that can only be described as the beginning, the youth, of one of these little worlds we inhabit and discard. In that sense, you’re young again, and you’ll be stupid, and that’s okay. The same complications apply, too.
The six lines show us six different yet equally complicated scenarios of youthful idiocy. The first line points a camera directly at our young selves, young in that stage where we were (or are) inclined merely to “play with life” as though a game or a toy and nothing more. There’s something to be said for the simplicity and lightness associated with this, and as a metaphorical line of thinking it holds applications even for age and maturity. But because life really does involve some kind of seriousness, we all have to get serious sometime. The Book of Changes tells us that it’s best for us to do this all on our own, through nothing more mystical than self-discipline—though we are reminded that even self-discipline must not become empty or rote obligation.
In the second line, we are given a glimpse of someone in a slightly more advanced position. She has no real power outside of herself, no office or authority or status, but enough inner strength to shoulder the burdens ultimately demanded of her. She is quite strong, but able to approach those weaker than herself with a kind reserve that does not mire her down.
In the third line, we see a common mistake. A young man trying to climb the ladder is easily impressed by an admirable superior above him, but takes it too far, to the point where he loses himself in the imitation of his idol. This is wasteful and degrading. The young man loses his time and energy chasing an illusion and he even cheats himself by stunting his own growth in favor of someone else’s. It’s interesting to note, here and other places before and after, that despite the Chinese (both ancient and modern) tendency towards conformity and primacy of broader society, there is still within Chinese philosophy a deep and unique regard for the worth of the individual.
In the fourth line is another familiar temptation—the loss of oneself to fantastic imaginings and unreal distractions. This is described as always leading to humiliation. From the perspective of the teacher, an obstinate student persisting in dead-end obsessions may well be too stubborn to heed any advice at this point. The only thing to do is let the student continue onward and learn directly from the misfortune to come.
The fifth line is more hopeful. If you find yourself young and stupid but are aware of this, and, understanding the necessity to move forward and learn, you seek the truth with innocent humility (the best attribute of childishness), you will succeed in your education.
The last line, on the other hand, describes a student so bad that he absolutely must be punished, and we are given some very specific directions on the nature of punishment itself. Punishment, as seen here, should not be done out of anger or for its own sake but only for some kind of educational purpose—otherwise, it is to the detriment of both student and teacher.
The hexagram directs a couple additional pointers at any would-be teachers. Teachers must be chosen by the student, not the other way around. Once chosen, however, a teacher must answer all questions with clarity and certainty. Once such answers are given, if the student persists in obnoxious or rebellious questioning, the teacher can only effectively respond by being silent and allowing the student to come to the answer on their own.
The student, for his part, is granted one final piece of advice about being young. When a flowing spring encounters holes and dips in the rock, it fills them all, and then keeps moving onward. In the same way, when you are young, be sure to miss nothing, even if it means a little bit of foolishness. Fill all of the gaps that you come across and be thorough—but don’t stay in any of them. Like the body of water, once the hole is filled, you must continue to flow on, to meet whatever is to be encountered next.