A Fundamental Flaw in the Trigrams

Back in the early 90’s, I was Dan Director for the US Taekwondo Union and in addition to taking care of all the Kukkiwon Dan and Poom certifications for the US, I was also tasked with promoting the martial art side of Taekwondo. To that end, I wrote an article for the Taekwondo Times on the Trigrams and the Taegeuk Forms. I had spoken on the subject several times before that and Grandmaster Ahn, the President of the USTU at the time, encouraged me to write on the subject for the Times so that more people would have access to the information. I had no idea how much of a splash that article was going to make. Within days of it being published, my phone started ringing. Everyone from color belts to grandmasters were calling me and asking questions about the Trigrams. I would even have people at tournaments walk up to me and after the, “you’re the one that wrote the article on the Trigrams,” would start asking all sorts of questions.

The interest the general body of Taekwondo practitioners showed toward them only made me want to explore them even more. So began my quest to know everything there was to know about them. I thought it was going to be a life long journey, but it was only a short walk. After a couple of year’s of reading everything I could on the Trigrams and looking at them from every point of view I could think of, I was stumped. As far as I could tell there was nothing else to learn. I thought, “I’m must be missing something,” but I didn’t know what it was. So, what is a good Taekwondo instructor to do? The only thing I could, I assigned several long projects to several of my black belts to hopefully get them to discover what I was missing. Guess what, they discovered nothing. Master Shaffer, after an entire summer of working on one problem I assigned her said, “they’re just three lines, nothing else.”. I had her make an elaborate wheel for generating Trigram combinations (the statistician in me was coming out) and she was supposed to record the results. After she had pages of Trigram combinations, she was unable to learn anything.

Years went by with no breakthroughs. Then just the other day I was sitting in Starbucks and thinking about the Trigrams. I wonder how many people have “grande extra hot lattes” in Starbucks and think about trigrams? Anyway, I was and then Andrew Wood popped into my head. Who is Andrew Wood you ask? Before MAIA or NAMPA (both martial art industry associations), Mr. Wood was the only person out there that had a program to help martial art school owners make their schools more profitable. One of his suggestions, that drastically changed how I taught Taekwondo, was to write a curriculum for a student from white belt all the way to black belt. This wasn’t just an overview, but a list of everything you would teach for every class from white belt to black belt. He suggested that anyone that was going to undertake this assignment should get a hotel room for the weekend and basically lock themselves inside until it was done. So that is exactly what I did. Back then, the Kukkiwon had a 300 class (hour) requirement for promotion to black belt from white belt. When I was finished I had 300 index cards for every class a student would take from white to black belt. Each card had not only every technique I would teach the student, but also how much time I would spend on each technique. I am so happy I did that. So what changed after I finished my 300 cards? More than you can possibly imagine (I think I’ll have that be another post).

Anyway, as I was sitting in Starbucks, thinking about Andrew Wood, I thought, “what if I started from the beginning and imagine that the Trigrams didn’t exist yet. How would I have developed them?”. So that is what I did. Started with Um (Yin) and Yang and reinvented the Trigrams. What I came up with wasn’t the same as the original Trigrams and it gave me a huge insight into the Trigrams that I had never seen before.

The Trigrams each have three lines, made up of two different lines: a solid line (yang) and a dashed line (um). As any good statistician would know, the “Fundamental Counting Rule” tells us that if event x can occur X ways and event y can occur Y ways, then both events together can occur X * Y ways. Therefore, because each of the three lines has two possibilities, there are 8 Trigrams (2 * 2 * 2 = 8). The idea behind these Trigrams is that they are supposed to reflect the Way of Nature. Unfortunately they don’t and here is why and therefore the fundamental flaw the Trigrams have.

As I am writing this post, I’m sitting in my car waiting for my wife to finish volunteering at a fundraiser. The wind is blowing and the trees are moving. They are exhibiting one of natures most basic truths: there are no right angles in nature. I don’t mean that literally. What I mean is that when the trees swing back and forth, they don’t instantly change directions form one direction to the other. Instead they move toward the one extreme and slow down as they reach it. Then without even stopping they start moving the other direction. Like they are tracing a circle. Ok, maybe more of an eclipse, but never an instant change from one direction to the other. Watch nature, watch your breathing, watch people move, everything moves in a flowing motion. Is it possible to produce a motion that doesn’t move in this circular fashion? Yes, but is it natural? No. Most people don’t breathe correctly and therefore they breathe in and then instantly breath out. This is an unnatural and inefficient way of breathing. As my Black Belts will tell you, I spend a lot of time teaching them how to breath correctly (naturally), with no sudden changes. How do you do that? Watch a baby breathe and then you will know.

So what does this have to do with the Trigrams? As I said before, the lines of the Trigrams only have two options, pure Um or pure Yang and when they change from one to the other they change instantly. This isn’t natural and is the flaw in the Trigrams. There should be a third option: the infinitesimally small transition period between um transforming into yang or yang transforming into um. The transition between the in breath and the out breath. The transition between to tree swinging one direction, in the wind, to the other direction. The rounded point in everything that undergoes change. This third option is harmony or balance.

With this transition option of balance added to pure yang and pure um, there would be 27 Trigrams instead of 8 (3 * 3 * 3 = 27). These new Trigrams are a much better representation of nature’s true nature (in my opinion). All the original Trigrams are still contained in the new 27. It is important to note that when I went through the creation process, once again using the tools I teach in statistics, the original 8 Trigrams are in exactly the same order as they were originally.

The new set of Trigrams, like the old set, have different arrangements. However, unlike the old set that only has two (earlier heaven and later heaven) arrangements, the new set has several (for future posts). Below is the evolution arrangement of the new Trigrams.  In this new set, Um is represented by a blue circle and Yang is represented by a red circle.  Balance/Harmony is represented by an unfilled circle (in this case, white).  I used circles instead of lines to better conform with the circular nature of things.  They are read in a counterclockwise circle.

Something to think about…

by Master Sean Pearson


  1. While studying for an upcoming dan test I have come across this. Very good. I am impressed with the depth of thought here and while I like your the new ~state of emerging flux~, third position I do also believe this is inferred in the basic two position model theory. I believe that each of the static two possibilities in three rows all in-turn, contain a um and a yang component. And if we were to truly do the concept justice we would have symbols for an infinite number of positions…but alas, not practical. So I will, after much respectful thought, work with the two position way. I’m kinda simple and so it works for me:)
    Now, does our taekwondo technique mirror how you describe nature’s flow of circular and ever-morphing motion? Our forms?

    1. Thanks for commenting on my post. I just spent 30 minutes replying to it and then it was cleared before I could post it. So, I apologize if this reply isn’t as well written or as long as the first.

      I totally agree with your assertion that each line of a trigram has both a um and yang component. I also partially agree with the fact that my new “model” isn’t practical due to the large number of possibilities. I too will be still using the traditional model for 99% of my Taekwondo: forms, kicks, etc. I do believe however, that there are instances where the new model will provide a much deeper insight into the specifics of what is going on. For example, in several Japanese martial arts there is a concept called mu (not the koan). It is used in two instances. The first being the distance between to opponents. The second being the “pause” between motions in a kata (form). If you take two students with identical abilities and have them do the same form, their understanding of this “pause” between motions will greatly influence that overall form. There is a lot going on in this “pause” (instant) that most students are not even aware of. There is an old Zen saying, “one instant is ten thousand years”. I would say, using the new model to look at this pause would provide a much deeper insight into what is going on. Spend some time focusing of the “pause” between the inhalation and exhalation of a breath. It is identical to what the pause between motions should be (well if the breath is correct that is).

      Thanks again for your comment. I am working on several refinements to my model and will post them as soon as I am done. I look forward to your future comments.

    2. Here are some links to other posts and web pages I have done about the trigrams (if you are interested):

      The first two links are to videos I did on the trigrams (video quality is that great in the first one):

      Video One
      Video Two

      The next two links are to a web page on Dō Meditation. The article I wrote on the Trigrams in relation to the Taegeuk forms, over 20 years ago, isn’t available on the Internet but these pages are a small part of it, in relation to the meditations on the page:

      Page 1
      Page 2


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