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Wednesday, 27th January 2010


In 8th century Tang Dynasty, a Zen master went to see a patriarch, and soon bade farewell.

"Are you returning too soon?" said the patriarch.

"Fundamentally I haven't moved. How come you say it's too soon?" replied the master.

"Who knows you haven't moved?"

"Your venerable can draw a distinction."

"You clearly understand the meaning of 'no beginning' ", remarked the patriarch.

"Is there a meaning to 'no beginning' ?" asked the master.

"Why draw a distinction if there is no meaning?" said the patriarch.

"Any distinction has no meaning", replied the master.

"Wonderful! Wonderful!" exclaimed the patriarch at the master's enlightenment.

This is my poor attempt at translating a parrying of words common in Zen in China. Zen was brought in by Bodhidharma from India. It flourished and developed and became indigenous to China. The patriarch was the 6th Patriarch, Huineng
(638-713 AD), the founder of 'sudden enlightenment'. He was best known for his response when, as a junior monk at the time, he heard monks chanting the verse:

         The body is a Bodhi tree,
         the mind a standing mirror bright.
         Polish it all the times,
         And let no dust alight.

Being illiterate, he asked someone to write his own verse:

         Bodhi originally has no tree,
         and the bright mirror is no stand.
         There is nothing to start with.
         Where could dust arise?

Figure 1  6th Patriarch Huineng
Figure 1      6th Patriarch Huineng

Huineng later became the 6th Patriarch of Zen buddhism. His thoughts are reflected in the Song of Enlightenment written by one of his disciples. The mummified body of Huineng is still kept in a temple in northern Guangdong (south China), and was seen by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (see the Director's blog of 18 January 2010) who visited the temple in 1589. Ricci later introduced the story of Huineng to Europe and named him Lusu (the Sixth Patriarch).

The thoughts of Huineng must have been new to India. Subsequently the Song of Enlightenment was brought back to India in the 8th century and was revered.

Such 'reverse' transfer of buddhism thoughts was only one of many in the history of buddhism. The same can be said of the transfer of technological knowledge in history (often along the routes as the movement of buddhison thoughts). See, for example, the blog of 2 October 2009 on the story of sugar and that of 24 April 2009 on the heyday of Middle East science.

Nowadays, knowledge and information are transferred more rapidly and in many directions, across oceans and continents. In particular, the latest meteorological information is exchanged between weather centres many times a day, some even in real time. This enables these centres to issue weather forecasts and warnings in a timely and accurate manner, in their effort to ensure public safety.


a)      Ji Xianglin, 'On buddhism', 2007 (in Chinese only)
b)      Wikepedia

B.Y. Lee

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>