On Will Buckingham’s Sixty-Four Chance Pieces: A Book of Changes, and Being a Nun in my Past Life

Will book cover

‘Travelling without arriving, seeking without expectation of finding; Will Buckingham is a writer and philosopher of great humility and talent. Profoundly spiritual, entrancingly enigmatic, this magical book is about the author’s quest to understand the ancient Chinese art of divination and ultimately himself.’ 

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, author of THE WOMAN WHO LOST CHINA, writes about Will Buckingham’s, cycle of stories from The I Ching, SIXTY FOUR CHANCE PIECES, A BOOK OF CHANGES.

It was a summer’s day that was meant to be hot but wasn’t, and I was off to Leicester to meet writer and philosopher, Will Buckingham, in a Turkish café.  I like Leicester.  It has a number of top attractions; the Creative Writing Department at De Montfort University, Halidram’s for Indian sweets, Sufi music, mangoes in season fresh from Pakistan, and the medieval Prince of The Car Park himself, King Richard III, who was recently re-buried in the Cathedral.  But the thing about Leicester, is every time I go there, I get lost.  And as I was driving round the roundabouts,  it occurred to me that reading Will’s wonderful new book Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, A Book of Changes, is like rather like going to Leicester.  You know you are going to get lost, and therein lies the joy!

The I Ching or Book of Changes is an ancient Chinese divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Parts of the book are over three thousand years old.  The divination elements of the book are made up of sixty four hexagrams constructed of broken and unbroken lines.   At some point in the past each of the hexagrams was given a line statement, a sort of name and enigmatic explanation, and over the centuries commentaries were added.  Eventually the book came to be read as a work of philosophy, a jumping off point for greater metaphysical and moral discussions.

As a student of Chinese, I remember being perplexed by The I Ching.  I retreated to the Indian Reading Room in the Bodleian Library with its inspirational views over Oxford’s dreaming spires, and read Arthur Waley’s scholarly analyses, but wasn’t much the wiser.   Then one day in Taiwan I went to see a fortune teller in a temple. He looked long and hard into my young face, threw and broke his divination sticks a number of times, spent a long time huffing and puffing over his charts, and told me that I had been a nun in my past life.  And it dawned on me that probably no one really understood The I Ching at all, not even my professors.  Furthermore, when it came to the ancient Chinese texts with their dragons, ritual bells, blood sacrifices, wandering philosophers and sage kings, the ‘thicker’ one was as a student, the better.

Will mug shot

Will Buckingham

“All very interesting,” I hear you say, “but hardly the subject matter for a good read.” But you would be wrong. The genius of Will Buckingham’s ‘novel of sorts’ is he uses each as the hexagrams as a starting point to imagine fresh possibilities and construct a series of short stories and meditations.  In so doing he creates something unique, modern, accessible, and really rather special.

Since Chance Changes has no linear format you can start to read at any point; in the beginning if you are conventional, in the middle, at the end or anywhere in between.  You can even follow the instructions on how to you use straws and coins for divination, and find a starting point that way. I keep the book by the Aga and dip in when the fancy takes me, often between putting on the hot pot, chopping up the vegetables or folding the ironing.  Thoroughly researched, richly imagined and full of humour, each of the stories is an adventure.   Every day I have a new favourite.  Today’s is The Taming Power of the Small, which tells of the small god who lives between the flowerpots on the windowsill of the author’s house.  I thought a lot about this story a few months ago when my India visa was held up by fickle gods of bureaucracy who considered I might be subversive because I had written a novel.  Perhaps it is, in fact, The I Ching that is responsible for the proliferation of bureaucracy and ministries of circumlocution worldwide?

“I do not believe him.” (The window sill god) “But you can never be certain. So whenever I pass, I make him offerings of flowers, grains of rice, small coloured pebbles, seashells and the occasional raisin.  Just in case.”

Travelling without arriving, seeking without expectation of finding; Will Buckingham is a writer and philosopher of great humility and talent. Profoundly spiritual, entrancingly enigmatic, this magical book is about the author’s quest to understand the ancient Chinese art of divination and ultimately himself.

http://willbuckingham.com/

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