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Tarot Reflections

 March 01, 2003

Deck Review: The TAO Oracle
Mark McElroy, NTCAA*

Mark McElroy received his first Tarot deck in 1973, but began serious study of Tarot in 1997.

 While interested in the divinatory and meditative aspects of Tarot, Mark primarily uses the deck as a tool for brainstorming, enhancing creativity, and planning action. As Mark explains in his forthcoming book, Putting the Tarot to Work, "My approach to Tarot favors the practical over the mystical."

Mark works regularly with Carol Herzer's Illuminated Tarot, the Thoth deck, Robert Place's Alchemical Tarot, the Osho Zen, Paula Gibby's Blue Rose, and Julia Turk's under-appreciated Navigator's Tarot of the Mystic Sea.

Mark's personal weblog receives more than 1000 visitors per week. He can be reached through his professional web site, or by email.

*What do the letters NTCAA mean after Mark's name? No Tarot Certification At All.


I Ching, Therefore I Am

In some ways, the I Ching can be considered a more demanding oracle than the Tarot. First, it’s a book – and a difficult one at that, filled with metaphors, images, and references rooted in a history and culture alien to most Americans. Apart from a series of sixty-four six-line images called hexagrams, there are no pictures.

Consulting the I Ching takes time and effort:

  • you toss your coins or yarrow sticks
  • the patterns generate solid or broken lines
  • the lines accumulate to create a hexagram
  • the hexagram matches one in a table
  • the table leads to a specific passage
  • the passage provides a commentary on your situation.

Generating a reading – roughly the equivalent of dealing Tarot cards into a spread – can take ten to fifteen minutes … and that’s before interpretation and application begin!

Over time, many deck creators have tried to wed the Tarot’s ease of use to the I Ching’s ancient wisdom. Few have attempted true integration, because the I Ching’s sixty-four statements do not easily correspond to the Tarot’s seventy-eight card structure. (The Haindl Tarot is one example of one deck where the I Ching’s images pepper the deck’s illustrations, based on the artist’s perceptions of parallels between the oracles’ divinatory meanings.)

Making the I Ching into a Cardboard Oracle

Generally speaking, efforts to make the I Ching easy to shuffle usually produce stand-alone decks of sixty-four cards. This was the case with Richard Craze’s I Ching Book and Card Pack. Each of the elegant red and gold cards in this deck features text and characters borrowed from the I Ching. These correspond to passages in the companion book, which is a sort of My First I Ching, complete with the kind of pretty, new-age eye candy usually found in feng shui books by Lillian Too.

Kwan Lau makes more of an effort to integrate I Ching and Tarot in his aptly named I Ching Tarot … but the result would be more honestly called an I Ching deck influenced by Tarot’s form factors. Lau’s cards feature the traditional numbers and hexagrams associated with each of the sixty-four I Ching passages. But, in a move that would make Pixie Smith proud, he has also adorned each card with a pleasant illustration by Patricia Pardini.

The latest artist to attempt this sort of thing is Ma Deva Padma, who created the colorful and popular Osho Zen Tarot. In creating her Tao Oracle cards, Ma Deva Padma sets out to “make the wisdom of the I Ching more readily accessible to a wider audience by speaking the language of today.”

In the process, she makes most of the same mistakes her predecessors made – and some new ones, as well.

Form Factors: Don’t Judge the Deck by Its Cover

The Box

The cards come in a lavishly-illustrated box, featuring glossy full-color art on the front and back.

However, the cover image, taken from card 27, The Corners of the Mouth, is a particularly unfortunate choice. The painting features a young man or woman, eyes closed, mouth partially open, with an image of a blossoming tree transparently superimposed over the right cheek. At first glance, I took the wispy limbs of the tree appear to be wrinkles or prominent veins; worse, I saw the transparent blossoms as bubbles.

On the front of the box, this face is depicted in the center of an octagonal hole, surrounded by what appear to be paving stones (taken from the image for card twenty-three, Splitting Apart). Hmmm … stones, hole, closed eyes, open mouth, bubbles. My disastrous first impression: this was a painting of a drowned woman. Frankly? That impression kept me from purchasing the deck for months.

This isn’t a mistake exclusive to my own morbid imagination, either. When I finally did purchase the deck, the employee at the register lifted the box, scanned the cover art, and reacted with audible distaste. “Yikes.”

I knew what the issue was, but played dumb. “What?”

The clerk frowned. “Is she dead?”

I nodded. “I think so.”

Since then, I’ve shown the box to four other people, asking only, “What is this a picture of?”

Three of the four said, without prompting or hesitation: “A corpse?”

Fortunately, things get better inside. The companion text is a wide, rectangular tome, similar to, but thicker than, the Osho Zen book. Beneath it, in a molded plastic well, lie the cards. The pieces all fit together well; when the book and cards are in the box together, the cards stay in place. Even so, a box for the cards themselves would have been a nice touch.

The Cards

Cards are a good size, taller and wider than the Universal Waite but smaller than the largest Thoth deck. They feel expensive, having been printed on thick, durable card stock. Ma Deva Padma’s transcendent art is framed by sepia-toned borders printed with a wood-grain texture.

As expected, the faces of the cards are in vibrant color … but what is unexpected is that the backs of these cards are also printed in full color, and feature a striking, non-reversible design that encapsulates the concept of the deck as a whole. By comparison, decks featuring a two- or three- color design on the back of the cards look unfinished and cheap.

A great deal of information is packed onto each card: a color symbol, a pictogram, a traditional I Ching hexagram, a number, a title, and up to fifteen keywords. Clever layout (and the use of very tiny print, which can make for tough reading) prevents this material from competing with the artwork.

The Art

In her introduction to the work, Ma Deva Padma calls this deck “a natural progression from my first deck, the Osho Zen Tarot.”

Indeed, those familiar with the Osho Zen will recognize Padma’s style … though, as expressed in these sixty-four “portraits of the faces of change,” her work is often more subtle, more complex, and more mature. Comparisons are inevitable. Perhaps the most “Osho Zen-like” of the illustrations is the image on Card Four, Youthful Folly, which recalls the bold, solid lines of the work done for the earlier deck.


Other cards borrow from Padma’s earlier work, especially in terms of atmosphere and composition. Compare, for example, Card 63, Completion, with similar cards from the Osho Zen. Note especially the parallels between the posture of the figures and the use of confetti and streamers to communicate a celebratory theme.


Elsewhere, however, the work for this deck tends to be richer, softer, and more subtle, characterized by flowing patterns, feathered edges, and a dialogue between the concrete and the abstract.


Finally, in what I’m sure is a complete coincidence, Card 25, Innocence, provides a great reworking of what is generally considered to be the worst card in Llewellyn’s World Spirit Tarot – the awful Nixon-esque baby found on the Sun card.


This deck, as was the Osho Zen deck before it, is a testimony to the formidable artistic talents of Ma Dava Padma. Her work spans a broad range of tonalities; she is equally adept at being clever, balanced, contemplative, suggestive, subversive, confrontational, and meditative. By comparison, most illustrations found on contemporary Tarot cards are embarrassingly shallow, derivative, insipid, and uninspired.

The Larger Issue: Simplifying the I Ching

However, in the case of the Tao Oracle – and, indeed, in the case of all I Ching inspired decks – a larger issue must be addressed. To what extent is simplification of the I Ching necessary or appropriate? And when this simplification adds illustrations, appends innovations, over-simplifies the text, and discards the ancient divinatory method used to consult the oracle … to what extent is the simplified I Ching still the I Ching?


Like many before her, Ma Deva Padma hopes to make the I Ching more approachable, causing it to speak “in the language of today, both visually and in the commentaries.” There’s just one problem: beyond its hexagrams, the I Ching has never, in thousands of years, spoken visually – it’s a text. Frankly, this is a tremendous part of its appeal … and, I submit, an essential part of its oracular nature.

Don’t get me wrong: the visual nature of a Tarot reading, with its bright images, symbols, and associations, provides me with a source of never-ending fascination. In fact, I came to the Tarot in search of a visual divination medium! (My friends and family had difficulty connecting with the text of the I Ching.)

But a huge part of the authentic I Ching experience is bound up in poring over the text, working to understand its references, wrapping your head around its metaphors, and exploring how its words can be applied. The passages and their commentaries suggest endless shades of meaning; the process of comparing your situation to the spectrum of associated ideas is what makes the oracle “speak.”

Illustrations for this text would be an improvement only if they made it easier to connect with the wisdom of the text … and, sadly, this isn’t the case with the Tao Oracle. While beautiful, many of the images seem only distantly related to the concepts they are being used to illustrate; the connections between image and meaning fail to strike home with the power and insight so often associated with Padma’s illustrations for the Osho Zen deck.

In the end, despite all the Tarot-flavored claims that these images “speak … through a universal language of archetypes and symbols, revealing deeper truths by communicating in a vital yet unspoken way,” the illustrations fail to embody the richness, specific interconnections, and subtle range of meanings captured by the text of the I Ching.


As mentioned before, the I Ching contains sixty-four hexagrams, all of which are incorporated into its internal symbolic and reference system. These hexagrams are really pairs of eight unique trigrams – figures composed of three solid or broken lines.

Padma believes these figures, long renowned for their eloquent simplicity, are too difficult for modern audiences to distinguish. (Given that Tarot enthusiasts frequently commit to memory a minimum of one keyword for each of seventy-eight cards, one wonders what modern audiences with any real interest in divination can’t be bothered to memorize eight simple symbols!) In their place, she offers two competing alternative schemes: a system of eight color-coded discs, served up in yin/yang fashion at the top of each card, and a new set of eight icons she feels are more evocative than the original I Ching trigams.

To her credit, she prints these new visual systems alongside the traditional characters in her book and on her cards. More to the point, however: if the user must memorize eight of something in order to make good use of the I Ching … is he going to be better served by memorizing Ma Deva Padma’s eight new (and exclusive) color associations and icons … or the original trigrams used in every book ever written concerning the I Ching?

The Text

The Tao Oracle comes with a book of more than 300 pages which seeks to express the wisdom of the I Ching in “more approachable terms” … and, in doing so, strips the text of any mystery, poetry, or art. What remains reeks of New-Age philosophy, cliché, and the language of therapy. “You have what it takes to get what you want right now,” the text purrs. “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”

At other times, the text becomes rigid, awkward, and virtually impenetrable: “Regular maintenance and sticking to a routine support your stability by restoring balance and providing relief from pressures brought on by an overtaxed mind or an overextended lifestyle, refreshing your capacity for insight and overview.”

As a result, the text loses its oracular quality completely, becoming either obvious or obtuse.

The Divinatory Method

Finally, the mechanics of consulting the I Ching must be addressed.

As mentioned before, the I Ching contains sixty-four passages. In the divination process, the querent tosses coins or sticks to build, line by line, a hexagram. By consulting a table, the querent can associate the hexagram with a passage, and so obtain an answer. How much easier to place the sixty-four hexagrams on sixty-four cards and draw one! (And this is, in fact, the method Padma suggests on page thirty-two of her book.)

Easier? Yes … but, like the weird Tarot-influenced I Ching hybrid spreads detailed in the text, this practice is not authentic in any way. Without getting into the complicated math behind it all, here’s why pulling one of sixty-four cards isn’t the same as building your own hexagram:

When you draw one of sixty-four cards, you have an equal chance of drawing any one of the sixty-four. But the rules that govern the creation of an I Ching hexagram are more mathematically complex. The coins and sticks fall in such a way that some configurations are more likely than others; in the I Ching reading, just as in life, some outcomes occur more often. Simply drawing one card out of sixty-four doesn’t duplicate this process.

Further, the process of building an I Ching hexagram allows for the production of what are called “changing lines” – the opportunity for one hexagram to suggest or “change into” another. There’s no way that drawing one card from a pile can authentically simulate this, either. To her credit, Padma encourages users of her deck to “access the changes” by going through the authentic divination process. But if this must be done … what’s the advantage of having the hexagrams on cards to begin with?

If impressing the I Ching hexagrams onto cards doesn’t simplify the process of consulting the oracle, wouldn’t it make more sense to preserve the authentic methods of constructing the hexagrams … and just include any artwork as an illustration in a good translation of the I Ching itself?


If you are purchasing the Tao Oracle for these reasons:

  • To support Ma Deva Padma as an artist, or to acquire more of her work for your personal enjoyment
  • To encourage the publisher to produce Tarot decks with similar packaging, sturdiness, or beauty
  • To enjoy the cards as a decorative or meditative deck of sixty-four attractive or evocative illustrations
  • To investigate the effectiveness of an I Ching-themed oracular deck with little authentic connection to the original oracle
  • To round out your collection of every deck of every kind ever published

you’ll likely find the Tao Oracle worth every penny of the $25.00 cover price.

However, if you have a serious interest in learning more about the I Ching, authentic I Ching divination, or how the I Ching’s text can be used to examine events and improve your life, you’d be far better served to put this money toward an approachable translation of the text … and then invest some time and effort exploring the I Ching’s poetry and mystery for yourself.


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Tarot Reflections is a publication of the American Tarot Association - Copyright (C) 2003
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