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 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.”
knew what the issue was, but played dumb. “What?”
The clerk frowned. “Is she dead?”
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
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.
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.
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
patterns, feathered edges, and a dialogue between the concrete and the
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
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 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
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
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
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
To encourage the
publisher to produce Tarot decks with similar packaging, sturdiness, or
To enjoy the cards
as a decorative or meditative deck of sixty-four attractive or evocative
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
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.