Who Care about 21?

The Dao of Dice and Spiritual Transformation



Who cares about 3 X 7 = 21 (Just do it!)

                            — Chinese proverb

I welcomed my first (Zoom) Qigong class of 2021 with this Chinese proverb, as part of my New Year’s wish for everyone to have a healthy and prosperous 2021. It is my wish that we are all able to appreciate what we have, even if just for some moments each day, and leave some worries behind us. Growing up in China, we used this saying on an almost daily basis, and in several contexts. One of the most common meanings of this catchphrase is akin to casting caution to the wind, with an added implication that we must also take direct action in order to achieve the mission, whatever the mission may be.  I believe that this meaning of BuGuanSanQiErShiYi originates from traditional Chinese gambling dice.

When I was a little child, I learned from my neighbor, our village’s expert gambler, that the moment we roll the dice, we must leave fear and worry behind and concentrate our full attention on winning. I learned to use this power of strong intention to win MaJiang 麻將 (Mah Jong) and other games. I also practiced this strength of spirit as a way to stoke my inner confidence anytime I needed to take an important action. In the west, this principle is common among world’s elite athletes and top entrepreneurs in their pursuit towards great success. LaoZi speaks of it in chapter 7 of the DaoDeJing, and it is one of the foundations of Daoist spiritual transformation practices.



Let go of your worry and you will be fulfilled 

                            — LaoZi

Dice are used in many different games as a way of bringing joy and levity into our lives. Other meanings of the proverb include “it doesn’t matter, have fun,” “go with the flow” and “do not let obstacles get in your way.” Why might this so? The numerological meaning of six, the number of numbers on dice, is flow, peace, and safety. In China, it is customary for people to say LiuLiuDaShun 六六大順 (which literally means “six six great flow”) as a way to wish each other a smooth and obstacle free journey or endeavor. It is also very common for people to decorate their cars with dice, which act as talismans for protection and safety.

So why am I talking about dice when the proverb literally translates as 3 X 7 = 21? This is because traditional Chinese dice are specifically designed around three pairs of seven dots. Let’s take a look the structure of Chinese dice: 

TouZi 骰子 – Chinese Dice

Chinese dice are six sided cubes with each side representing one of the six numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 (each face with the corresponding number of dots). The three pairs of opposite faces make up three pairings of seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5, 3 and 4. 

The six numbered arrangement of the dice is rooted in the Yijing 易經 (I Ching) numerology prediction system. As I discussed in my book Seeking the Spirit of the Book of Change (London: Singing Dragon, 2009), the modern binary number system was inspired by the Yijing. It dates from at least the early Zhou 周 Dynasty (1046 BCE – 256 BCE). The binary notation in the Yijing is typically used to interpret its divination technique and ancient Chinese cosmology. The Yijing binary system is based on the Daoist (Taoist) dualism of the Yin and Yang philosophy. 

In order to understand the Yijing numerological background of the three pairs of number seven in dice, we must to convert the BaGua 八卦 (Eight Trigrams of the Yijing) to their binary numbers and their associated base 10 number.  In the Yijing binary number system, the dashed Yin line ‑‑ is 0 and solid Yang line — is 1. A trigram has three lines. We convert the three lines of a trigram into a base 10 number using the following principles:

  • Regardless of the position, if the line is Yin, it is 0 
  • If the top line is Yang, it is 1
  • If the middle line is Yang, it is 1 X 2 = 2
  • A Yang line on the bottom is 1 X 2 X 2 = 4
  • Next, add the three numbers of the trigram you just converted together – the result is the associated base 10 trigram number.

For your convenience, I have created a Eight Trigram conversion table for you here:

Table 1: Eight Trigram number conversions

As you can see from the table, after converting these eight trigrams to base 10 numbers, we have this result: Qian/Heaven, the Father is number 7; Dui/Lake, the Younger daughter is 6; Li/Fire, the Middle daughter is 5; Zhen/Thunder, the Older son is 4; Xun/Wind, the Older daughter is 3; Kan/Water, the Middle daughter is 2; Gen/Mountain, the Younger Son is 1;  and Kun/Earth, the Mother is 0. 

The three sons and three daughters of the Eight Trigram family are associated with the six faces of dice – the parents are not. This is a hint that any traditional dice game is also a fun way to understand the Dao of Heaven (Father) and Earth (Mother). Also notice that the arrangement of the numbers on the dice follows the principle of XianTianBaGua 先天八卦, the Eight Trigram Prenatal Arrangement. Let’s take a look the XianTianBaGua diagram:

Eight Trigram Prenatal Arrangement Diagram

In the above diagram, the numbers in the inner ring, in black, are the Eight Trigram Prenatal Order Numbers, and the numbers in the outer layer, in red and next to the Chinese names, are the numbers of the related trigrams. In this diagram, if you add the two numbers of each pair of trigram opposites, you get four sevens.  The parents’ pair Qian/Heaven (7) and Kun/Mother (0) are located on the central line and represent the universal way – this is why their numbers, 7 and 0, are not put on a dice. 

The other three opposite pairs are:  the Younger son Gen/Mountain number 1 and the Younger daughter Dui/Lake number 6; the Middle son Kan/Water 2 and the Middle daughter Li/Fire 5; the Older daughter Xun/Wind 3 and the Older son Zhen/Thunder 4. The ordering of the 1 dot and 6 dots are on opposite sides of the dice, 2 dots and 5 dots are on opposite sides; 3 dots and 4 dots are on opposite sides – all designed according to the Prenatal Eight Trigram Arrangement. 

Traditionally, playing dice was about joyful connection, honesty and grace. Friends and family would gather together to play and have fun, and the “winner” would celebrate by taking everyone to a banquet! The basic rule of dice games was virtue, of following the Way of the Dao. Sadly, in modern days, this has been perverted to something that can be addictive, destructive, ruthless, and dishonest. Dice games were once a common way to teach children morals. In my hometown, it is still common to say “You are on the dice!” as praise to a teenager or a young adult, meaning they are on the right path. Conversely, “Why aren’t you on the dice?” is an expression used when someone has disgraced themselves. When we play a game, practice spiritual cultivation, and go about our daily lives, we will have no worries if we are “on the dice.” 

Careful observation of traditional Chinese dice reveals that the number 1 dot and the number 4 dots are painted red color while the other dots are painted with a dark color. This is another clue of Daoist internal cultivation principles being represented in the dice. According to the Daoist internal alchemy traditions, the dark color represents the physical body and the red color stands for the spiritual body. In order to fully achieve the benefits from your Qigong practice and experience deep spiritual transformation, we must learn to make ourselves stable physically and mentally; we also need to learn how to ignite our inner fire with our confidence, faith, and great compassion for ourselves and others. You can remember from the Eight Trigram number conversion table that the number 1 (red) dot is connected with the trigram Gen/Mountain, which is the symbol of stability, trust, faith, honesty, meditation, and is also a Qigong technique. The number 4 (red) dots embody the trigram Zhen/Thunder, which stands for new life, compassion, and LeiLongHuo 雷龍火, the Thunder Dragon Fire that holds the secret of the internal alchemical Inner Fire transformation method. In my tradition, we must master the trigrams Gen and Zhen methods in order to achieve spiritual transformation. 

At first, achieving spiritual transformation may seem like a challenging goal. Who cares about 21? BuGuanSanQiErShiYi! Set your goal and your strong intention, and you can achieve anything. For those of you who would like to read more about the cultivation methods of trigrams Gen and Zhen mentioned in this article, please stay tuned for next time.

Like this article? There is more like it on Substack, join me there!