Legend of the Sifter

Posted on March 15, 2005 by Jenna

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It is 539 years before the common era.

This is the story of Sage Yu.

There is much we will never know of Yu, because of woglies. There is much that is forgotten.

But we know what it is Yu saw.

Sage Yu lives in the Kingdom of Wu.

“The land is at peace,” says Sage Yu. He walks through the market. He supports himself with a wooden stick. “Yet, still, there is evil in the hearts of men.”

He raises his stick. He points at a young man who is skulking in an alley. “You!” he says.

The young man, whose name is Cha, looks startled. “Sage?”

“You intended to rob me,” Sage Yu states.

Cha looks uncomfortable. He gestures as if to minimize the sin. “A passing thought, at most. You were too illustrious!”

Yu snorts. “You were afraid I’d beat you up.”

“That is exactly so, honored sage.”

“As you were,” summarizes Yu. He walks on. He leaves the market. He walks along a mountain path to his home. His servant opens the gates, and he goes in, and he walks to the library, and he sits before the machine that is there.

Hours pass.

“Do you need light, master?” his servant asks.

Yu shakes his head.

The shadows grow long. Yu stares at the machine. Finally, he rises.

“I shall cast the I Ching,” he says.

He takes out fifty yarrow sticks. He looks at the machine again. Finally, he decides to use it.

The machine is a simple device. It is a sifter. He puts the yarrow stalks in through the slit at the top. They fall to the second level of the sifter, where they pass through two narrow slits. In this manner the machine sifts out the relative strengths of yin and yang. The machine has a small flame at its heart, allowing Sage Yu to see.

Three passes yield the first line. This is the basis for his study and the beginning of his answer.

“What is it?” asks Cha.

Yu glares around. The room is dark, so he had not seen the skulking figure of the thief before. “So you decided to rob me after all?”

“I was hungry,” says Cha. “I thought, great sages are never hungry. Maybe if I learn the I Ching and/or steal Yu’s silver, my stomach won’t grumble!”

“Sensible,” says Yu, “but I don’t have any silver. I subsist primarily on cantankerousness and wisdom.”

“Ah,” says Cha, disappointed.

“The first line,” Yu says, “is the fire of yang becoming the darkness of yin.”

Three passes yield the second line. It is pure darkness.

“The second line is the servant to the first, the attendant to the first. It is yin, as is proper.”

Cha reaches towards the machine. Yu hits his knuckles with the staff. Cha withdraws his hand, sucking on his bleeding knuckles.

“Blood’s not such a bad taste after being hungry,” says Cha. “Very salty.”

Three passes yield the third line. Yin.

“The lower trigram,” says Sage Yu, “is Thunder. Thunder shakes the earthly world, but falls into submission as the yang of its root transforms to yin.”

Three passes yield the fourth line. It burns.

“Would you like help putting that out, sage?” asks Cha.

“Inside the sifter is a bad place for a small flame,” says Yu. He looks perturbed. But he extinguishes the yarrow stalks, collects a new set, and considers. “That is yang. Stalks that catch fire are yang. Yang is fire. Yang is burning life. Thus, the fourth line, the gateway to heaven, is yang.”

“That is sensible,” says Cha.

Three passes yield the fifth line.

“Yang again,” says Cha.

The burning yarrow smokes.

“The machine is poorly calibrated,” says Yu. He thwacks the machine with his staff. It shakes. The fire dims.

“What was your question, great sage?”

Yu collects fifty more yarrow stalks. He counts them in the dim light.

“I wish to understand why human nature inclines to evil.”

“Because if a man is a thief,” says Cha, “then he must be a thief. Corrupt officials must be corrupt; bestial warriors, bestial! In such a context, what hope has a virtuous man?”

“This undervalues virtue,” says Yu. “Surely strength from righteousness and benevolence can overcome the power granted by dark inclinations.”

“Ah,” says Cha. “I see your thrust. You say, ‘it is the nature of Cha to steal, but the nature of other men to be good —so why do thieves prosper?'”

“Yes,” agrees Yu.

“It is simple,” says Cha. “We call it ‘bad’ when a man seeks badness, but we do not call it ‘good’ when a man seeks only to protect himself from badness. If I slit your throat, it will let me ransack your home, but it won’t make you any less a sage. It’s really not your goodness or your wisdom that protects you, but your vigorous attitude.”

“Perhaps,” says Yu.

He passes the yarrow sticks through the slit. He frowns.

“What is it, master?” asks Cha.

“They are not landing in piles,” says Yu.


“I am passing one yarrow stick through the sifter at a time,” says Yu. “The sticks are most certainly singular material elements. But they are landing in an interference pattern, as one might imagine waves of sound of water would do.”

“Hm,” says Cha. “This exceeds my rudimentary professional skills.”

Hesitantly, Yu collects the interference patterns of yarrow sticks and passes them through the sifter again. Yang. He passes them through the sifter a third time. It is ambiguous.

“How do you read it?” Cha asks.

“It is a forbidden trigram,” says Yu. “It stands between Lake and Heaven, not one nor the other—neither pleasure nor progress, not happiness nor righteousness. Set above thunder, this is no great matter; but above earth …”

He hesitates.

“Cha,” he says, “pass me the forbidden scroll, from the forbidden cabinet? It is behind you, and clearly labeled.”

“Do not open on penalty of death,” reads Cha. He opens the cabinet. He takes out the scroll. He hands it to Yu. He dies.

Yu consults the scroll.

“Ah,” he says. “This is the hexagram EMPTINESS.”

Never has the dualistic wave/particle nature of yarrow sticks seemed so bitter, so terrible, or so cold.