The Twelve Sovereign Hexagrams

The Twelve Sovereign hexagrams show the waxing and waning of yang energy, which is the essence of the I Ching. Waxing of yang energy means increasing yang energy until ones reaches pure yang, truly unified energy, the presence of the Original Spirit or Original Self.

The quality of strong virtue in people is original innate knowing, the sane primal energy. This is called true yang, or the truly unified vitality, or the truly unified energy. Confucianism speaks of singleness of mind, Taoism speaks of embracing the one, Buddhism speaks of returning to the one. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #1, Heaven

The way to return to pure yang is by turning one`s attention inward. If one can sustain this without being distracted, the Original Self gradually returns,

Being gentle but balanced, turning the gaze around to inward examination, the heart pure and the mind quiet, not concentrating on externals but carefully watching over one's inner state, controlling movement by stillness, preventing fragmentation by unity, not taking in external things, impervious to outside influences, is like a wife in the kitchen, remaining chaste, invariably gaining good fortune. This is refining the self and using the path of gentility. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #37 People in the Home

Whether the Twelve Sovereign Hexagrams are matched with the twelve months of the year (upper left image) or the twelve double hours of the day (right image), the symbolism is the same.

The firing process with its advance and withdrawal, extraction and addition, increasing and decreasing, concentrates a year into a month, a month into a day, a day into an hour and an hour into one breath. -- Li Dao Chun (13th c. Taoist master, The Book of Balance and Harmony)

Although the firing process is timed with the breath, the firing process relates to the True Breath or Breath of Life.

The yang of Heaven and the Yin of Earth are like the opening and closing of a door….. breathing out and breathing in. Here  breathing out and breathing in do not refer to exhalation and inhalation through the nose, but rather to the opening and closing of the true breath, the inner pulse of life, the movement of energy and stillness of the spirit.  -- Li Dao Chun, the Book of balance and harmony

The first six of the Twelve Sovereign Hexagrams are about sustaining the firing process, sustaining one's inward gaze with a pure heart pure and a quiet mind, without letting mundane yin energy interrupt one. Hexagram #24 Return, symbolizes the return of yang energy. This refers to Creation; the creation of yang.

Creation means the beginning, the first arising of yang energy.
-- Liu Yiming, Hexagram #1 Heaven, The Taoist I Ching
Return is developmental, going out and coming in, there is no ill. When a companion comes, there is no fault. Reversing the path, Returning in seven days, it is beneficial to have a place to go.

Return means coming back. In the body of the hexagram one yang moves below a group of yins ䷗; this is the return of yang energy. The way to do it involves working in an orderly fashion (in sequence次序), restoring it gradually; one cannot restore it immediately, or even if one does restore it immediately it cannot be stabilized. It is necessary to first refine oneself and master the mind, waiting for the time to act. Therefore, reversing the path, reality returns in seven days, This path is not difficult to know, but it is difficult to practice….. from a single yang ䷗, until six yangs ䷀ are pure and complete.

When return to good is not stable, and you return again and again and lose it again and again, this is called repeated return. Yet if your nature is flexible and your will is firm, and you are single-mindedly intent on return, and you handle yourself in danger, if you can do it once you can do it a hundred times, and if you can do it a hundred times you can do it a thousand times. This is return in which one studies when at a loss and strives diligently to carry it out. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #24 Return.

Hexagram #19 Overseeing, presents the beginning of the expanding of yang energy. This refers to the development of yang.

This hexagram represents watching over the furnace, culling the elixir. But even though the two yangs are growing, yin energy is still abundant and yang energy is still weak; it is necessary to be careful to ward off danger. Don't be negligent, but don't be eager either. At the end of overseeing, from action entering into non-action, returning to pristine purity, totally good, without evil, there is nothing one is not aware of, nothing one doesn't know; following the laws of God, this is called attentive overseeing. This is really a guide to the firing process as one watches over the furnace; if students study and find out the facts in the hexagram overseeing, then they can grasp most of the process of firing the gold elixir. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #19 Overseeing.

Hexagram #11 Tranquility, represents the continued development of yang energy and also the balance of yin and yang during the firing process. During the firing process, false yin energy is burned away, while yang energy is growing stronger. However, during this process there must also be a balance of yin and yang. Here yin and yang have a different meaning.

Only when yin and yang are harmoniously combined is it possible to accomplish things. Therefore the way of tranquility is that the small goes and the great comes; it is auspicious and developmental. The small is yin and the great is yang: The small goes means yin submits, the great comes means yang is strong. With yang strong on the inside and yin submissive on the outside, the primordial gradually returns and acquired conditioning gradually melts away; thereby it is possible to reach the realm of pure yang with no yin. However, in the path of bringing about tranquility, there is a firing process, there is a course of work. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #11 Tranquility.

Hexagram #34 Great Power, also refers to the continued development or the expanding of yang energy, which requires great internal power.

The path of great power is only beneficial when it is correct. Correct means correctly oriented, reasonably ordered. Orderly power means one has inner autonomy and self-control, and the will is upright and correctly oriented, while outwardly one does not act arbitrarily and so one's conduct is upright. When the will is correct one is firm and strong and irrepressible; unmoved by ten thousand things one is inwardly vigorous and powerful. When action is correct, it is effective and decisive; able to accomplish tasks, one is outwardly vigorous and powerful. Will makes action firm, action makes will complete. There is no limit to the benefits of power applied correctly. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram # 34 Great Power.

Hexagram #43 Parting, represents the completion of development.

This hexagram represents repelling yin by yang. The energy of external influences is invited by the discriminatory consciousness; so if you want to repel external influences, nothing is better than to first part with the discriminatory consciousness. After people get mixed up in temporal conditioning, the discriminatory consciousness takes charge of affairs; thoughts and ruminations arise in a tangle, and the mind-ruler is lost in confusion. Because habituation becomes second nature over a long period of time, it cannot be abruptly removed. It is necessary to work on the matter in a serene and equanimous way, according to the time: Eventually discrimination will cease, and the original spirit will return; the human mind will sublimate and the mind of Tao will be complete — again you will see the original self. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #43 Parting.

Hexagram #1 Heaven, represents pure yang. It is the fruition of one`s effort.

This hexagram represents the advance of yang, whereby the science of building life acts with strength and uses the path of firmness. Therefore, producing things in spring is the creativity of strength. Creation means the beginning, the first arising of yang energy. Developing things in summer is the growth of strength. Development is extension, the expansion of yang energy. Maturing things in autumn is the fruition of strength. Fruition is goodness, the proper benefit of yang energy. Storing things in winter is the consummation of strength. Consummation is quiescence, the resting of yang energy. When yang energy rests quietly, all things return to their root. Such is the strength of consummation.

Creation, development, fruition, consummation, the successive movements of the four seasons, all are carried out by one strength; the one is the body, the four are the function. The body is that whereby the function is carried out, the function is that whereby the body is completed.

Creation, development, fruition, and consummation are functions of one energy. Starting from effort, you end up in spontaneity, integrating completely with natural principle: Then this is the original face of innate knowing, whereby you can share in the function of heaven, and share in the eternity of heaven. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching. Hexagram #1 Heaven.

The four lions on the right represent the strength of Creation, Development, Fruition and Consummation. The four Chinese characters on the pillar mean correct (正), law (法), long (久), and live (住). Correct law refers to the law of God, the science of building life. Living for a long time refers to the prolonged presence of the Original Spirit.

The firing process going from one yang to six pure yangs is the process of action or doing. This is followed by non-action or non-doing.

The secret of the elixir of life consists in using action in order to attain non-action. One cannot leap over everything and penetrate directly.
--The Secret of the Golden Flower
Therefore spiritual alchemy must start with doing, restoring the primordial while in the midst of the temporal, recovering one's original jewel of life. At that point one embraces the fundamental and preserves unity, traveling the path of nondoing, thereby realizing the original essence of real emptiness. What can be done for those who only know non-doing and do not know doing? -- Liu Yiming (Commentary on Understanding Reality)

Now that the Gold Elixir has been created and the Original Self has returned, one wants to stay with it as long as possible, one wants to consummate it. However, no matter the level of one`s developed, sooner or later one`s strong virtue dissipates and one is no longer able to ward of mundanity, so yin returns.

When yang culminates and mixes with yin, one cannot forestall danger; one yin subtly arises, and all the yins stir. The gold elixir, once gained, is again lost. -- Liu Yiming (The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #11 Tranquility)
After the primordial yang in people culminates, conditioned yin arises; the original spirit is obscured and discriminatory awareness does things. One drops the real and recognizes the false, using intellect mistakenly, producing all sorts of cleverness; though overtly there is light, inside is really dark. This is where darkness comes from. Once you have entered essence is disturbed and life is destabilized; in a single day you are born a thousand times and die ten thousand times, not knowing how to stop. This is most perilous. -- Liu Yiming (The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #4 darkness)

Hexagram #44 Meeting, symbolizes the return of yin energy and trying to ward of the returning yin energy, if one can.

Meeting, the woman is strong. Don't get married.

This hexagram represents warding off mundanity and preserving celestial energy; it follows on the previous hexagram increase ䷩. Increase means augmenting insufficient celestial energy; to augment what is insufficient means adding from one yang until there are six yangs, so that finally positive celestial yang is pure and complete. However, when yang culminates, yin is inevitable; one yin surreptitiously arises, and the yang energy is damaged.

The inevitability of yin, when yang culminates, is the path of the temporal, going along with creation; if one can borrow the earthly to complete the celestial, the sages' science of reverse operation to get back to the primordial, one can thereby go in and out of yin and yang without being constrained by yin and yang -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, hexagram #44 Meeting.

Hexagram #33 Withdrawal, symbolizes the withdrawal of yang energy and continued arising of yin energy.

Withdrawal means retracting. As for the qualities of the hexagram, above is Heaven ☰ strong,  and below is Mountain ☶, still: Strength is based on stillness. This hexagram represents storing yang and subduing energy. Subduing energy means to still strength and not presume upon it. The quality of strength in people is connected to the primordial true energy; after one yin comes and mates with it, yin energy gradually grows, and yang energy of course recedes. The developed person at this point knows the yin energy is active as a natural process, and can hardly be fought, and so does not set about repelling yin but first aims to preserve yang. Preserving yang means gathering in the vital spirit and stabilizing it in its place, whereby to subdue the primal energy. If you can subdue that energy, the yang energy is not injured, and the yin energy spontaneously sublimates. Thus there is a path of development within withdrawal.  -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #33 Withdrawal.

Hexagram #12 Obstruction, symbolizes yin and yang not joining.

Obstruction means blockage. Submitting to one's desires, outwardly acting adamant, negative energy is in charge, while positive energy retreats; because strength and receptivity are separated, it is called obstruction. This hexagram represents yin and yang not joining. In general, when yin and yang do not combine, true yin changes into false yin and true yang changes into false yang; the primordial is lost and false energy enters; false energy enters and true energy recedes. Denial of humanity is false energy, the superior person is true energy. To follow that conditioned yin, indulging in emotions and giving free rein to desires, without any limit, is denying humanity. At this time the practitioner of the Tao should get rid of intellectualism and gather the energy and spirit within to preserve true yang. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #12 Obstruction.  

Hexagram #20 Observation, symbolizes that one can interrupt the arising of yin, revers the path and return to yang, if one observes oneself.

This hexagram represents alert observation with clarity of mind. The achievement of attentive observation is all a matter of restoring the primordial while in the midst of the temporal, reversing the ordinary flow while in its very midst. When the yin in people is strong and the yang is weak, it is like the present hexagram's four yins arising one after another while the two yangs gradually dissolve; the strength of yang energy is going to be erased by yin energy. Attentive observation with clarity of mind reverses this weak yang so that it is not injured by yin energy. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #20 Observation.

Hexagram #23. Stripping Away, symbolizes submitting to acquired conditioning, compulsive habits, the six senses causing trouble, wandering thoughts and the seven emotions.

Stripping away is dissolving away; five yins have stripped away the yang down to one last yang. This is like when people submit to conditioned mundanity, so that it has stripped the celestial almost completely away; this momentum will inevitably lead to continued stripping, causing the body to decay. When stripping away occurs, if one can halt it and not let the celestial be completely stripped away, then use the slight remaining celestial to reestablish the universe and again set up the crucible and furnace, causing the celestial to return in time, then what has been lost can be regained, what has gone can be recovered. When the primordial is pure and conditioning is dissolved, then there is no more worry of stripping away and decay. -- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #23 Stripping Away

Hexagram #2 Earth, represents being completey immerged in false yin energy on the one hand, and to the pure yin of being submissive and receptive to yang energy on the other hand.

Earth is submissive; it means flexible, receptive humility. This hexagram represents convergence in yin, whereby the science of cultivating essence practices submission and receptivity and uses the path of flexibility. Firmness is the master of flexibility; firmness is able to govern flexibility, whereas flexibility cannot govern firmness — it just follows the firm obediently. When you act through the human mentality, the mind of Tao is buried away; following human desires, you damage the real by falsehood, losing the master by going astray. "When you act through the mind of Tao, the human mind is peaceful and quiet, obedient to natural principle, extinguishing falsehood by reality, finding the master and not straying. If people can develop understanding from confusion, make yin follow yang, use the human mind to return to the mind of Tao, use the mind of Tao to govern the human mind, finding the master after they had previously lost it, they will become illumined.
-- Liu Yiming, The Taoist I Ching, Hexagram #2 Earth.

The Twelve Sovereign Hexagrams
(Click to enlarge)

The Twelve Sovereign Hexagrams matched with the twelve double hours.
(From the secret of Everlasting Life,
Click to enlarge)

Hathor, giving the breath of life to the Pharaoh, Egyptian Museum, Cairo
(Click to enlarge)

Six Jizo Bodhisattvas representing internal companions (Meaka-Fudoson
Nankokuji Temple, Tokyo)
(Click to enlarge)

A salmon swinging against the stream,
returning to the source.

Hexagram #19 Overseeing

The Hindu gods Shiva and Shakti representing the balance of yin and yang. (18th c. Indian gouache)

Hexagram #34 Great Power

The 5th picture of the ten ox herding pictures. The human mind represented by the bull is controlled by the mind of Tao.

Hexagram #1 Heaven

Four lions at the Jing'an temple,
Shanghai, China

Fudo Myo-o — the immovable King of Light, symbolizing the firm action of the firing process. He is holding the sword of wisdom. (Unkei, 1195 AD. Jyōraku-ji Temple, Kanagawa, Japan)

Hexagram #44 Meeting

Demons representing false yin, are pulling people (yang energy) who are climbing a ladder to reach God the father, off the ladder. (Byzantine painting,14th C. AD St. Catherine's monastery) Click to enlarge

#12 Obstruction


A person without self observation, daydreaming. When one is daydreaming, one has no self-awareness; one is immerged in mundane yin energy.

Hexagram 23 Stripping Away

The mind of Tao is upside down and not able to function. ( The Hanged Man, Tarot card XII) The twelve cut off branches, have the same symbolism as the twelve lines in the hexagram Earth; the inhalation and exhalation of the six yang breaths are not functioning.