Posts Tagged ‘nan Huai-chin’

Master Nan Huai-ch’in Performs Tai Chi Ch’uan (1969)
南懷瑾先生示範太極拳 (民國58年)




In his youth, Master Nan Huai-ch’in [Nan Huaijin] was well known for his martial arts skills, skills which he retained well into his old age, as can be seen from a number of recordings available online. In early 2012, during a memorial talk, an early recording of Master Nan performing Tai Chi Ch’uan [taijiquan] was mentioned, and described as being difficult, if not impossible, to find. The speaker, Mr Zhou Xunnan, had this to say:






“Master Nan was recorded performing Tai Chi on videotape as an American student of his wished to learn and had specially asked Master Nan to come to Yehliu [for the shoot]. In those days, Yehliu was a rather desolate place, not at all like the tourist attraction it has become now. Master Nan greeted the sun rising from the sea with a Tai Chi form. He wore a long scholar’s robe and performed most beautifully. This recording must be very difficult to find in Taiwan nowadays because the only copy of this video of Master Nan demonstrating martial arts was sent to America for teaching purposes.”




However, the recording in question, has recently been placed online courtesy of the filmmaker, Tom Davenport.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/90353185″>T’ai Chi Ch’uan 1969 from Folkstreams on Vimeo.



Mr Davenport describes the history of this recording as follows:


“This film was the one of the first (if not the first film) made on T’ai Chi in the USA. In 1969, very few Americans knew anything about it. I had been in Taiwan as a Chinese language student with the East West Center at the University of Hawaii and had returned for another year there as a photographer. During that year, I met Nan Huai-Jin who was a Buddhist scholar living in Taipei, and like many others from mainland China, was a refugee who had fled there in 1949 when the communists took over China. I had become interested in Zen Buddhism (Ch’an) Buddhism — an interest and a practice that has continued since — and had met Professor Nan through another American friend who had attended a seven day Ch’an retreat with him. I was about 28 years old.


My interest in T’ai Chi at this time was mostly as a form of meditation. Americans who were interested in modern dance were also interested in T’ai Chi, and this film was picked up by the Donnell Library in New York City which was one of main collectors of new independent films. It was my first film and was funded by the John D Rockefeller III foundation.


The audio track was done by my Yale Classmate Tom Johnson, who is a minimalist composer now living in France. He was experimenting with electronic “white noise” which here sounds like the sea, and used clappers and wind chimes to punctuate the white noise.


The film was made on 16mm black and white film and shot with an old Bell and Howell camera, that was designed as combat camera during WWII. In those days, the Nationalist Chinese were fearful of a communist invasion. We shot the film on the northeast coast about a half day from Taipei. I remember that a soldier who was guarding the coast tried to stop us, but Professor Nan knew someone high-up in the military and he talked to the soldier and eventually we got permission from him.”


The location where the film was shot, Yehliu [Yeliu], in northern Taiwan, now a national park, is the site of some very distinctive rock formations. The island visible in the background is Keelung Islet.




Filmmaker Tom Davenport is the founder of Folkstreams. He began his Zen practice in the late 1960s and leads the Delaplane Zen Group in Northern Virginia.


View another short piece by Tom Davenport, ‘Bodhidharma’s Shoe’, an account of a seven-day Zen retreat.


View another recording of Master Nan demonstrating Tai Chi:

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A Lesson by Nan Huai-Chin

A Lesson by Nan Huai-Chin

[Nán Huáijǐn, 南怀瑾, 南懷瑾]



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In the modern world, thanks to Western culture, which favours the promotion of material progress, we can easily travel around the world, we have splendid houses, and we lead our lives with all modern comforts. At first sight, it would seem that we live in an era of happiness; and yet we struggle to make our way in a competitive society, we are in fear of murderous wars, and we are drowning in a sea of unquenchable desires. Thus we live in an era of great suffering unprecedented in human history. Humanity is now facing an existential crisis that springs from the contrast between material abundance and spiritual poverty.


Sometimes we may be disappointed, but let us not despair, for we have the responsibility and the opportunity to perpetuate the ancient wisdom that will enable the new generations to flourish. In order to bear on our shoulders this pillar which will carry the bridge between past and future, we must renew the ancient spirituality of the West and of the East. We must select those facets that will bring us spiritual nourishment and help us to enrich and fulfil ourselves and one another. We must promote an exchange between the two cultures so that together we can deal with this great crisis now confronting humanity.


In an attempt to solve the current problems of the world – the environment, the diminution of natural resources, world peace – as an old man of ninety who has seen much of life, I would like to propose something that seems to me universal. Let us consider a fundamental, cosmic law: that of change, of mutation.


We must acknowledge that the law of Nature, the Dharma of the cosmos, the routine of all life, is subject to this rule of mutation. In both the material and the spiritual world, there is nothing that does not change. We must seize on this principle of change and follow its course. Not only must we follow it, but we must also have the wisdom to foresee it, prepare for it, and anticipate its consequences. Taoist wisdom tells us that in the stream of life we need only go with the natural flow. If you wish to stop that flow and utilize its strength, you will lose your energy. If you try to go against the flow, you will be drowned. Taoists also tell us: “Follow the course of life, channel the current, and you will be carried in the right direction, you will profit from things without difficulty.” To those who wish to dedicate their lives to preserving Nature and improving the future of humankind, I invite you to embrace the principle of change and work out a course of action…


Lao-tzu said: “Having reached the extremity of the void, firmly anchored in quiet while ten thousand beings burst forth as one, I myself contemplate the return. People prosper at every opportunity, but they always return to their roots. To return to one’s roots is quiet.” In the change and movement of things there is quiet… It is easy to lose oneself in the change and to forget the quiet. We exhaust ourselves through pointless movements, and we use up all our natural resources, wasting our energies on all kinds of excesses, of luxuries. In order to maintain the health of body and mind, it is essential that everyone should cultivate the art of resting in quietness.

Lao-tzu said: “Have you succeeded in harmonizing your body and soul so that they move in unison and do not drift apart? Have you succeeded in breathing as deeply as possible, as flexibly as possible like a newborn babe?


Let us calm our agitation, let us find our peace again, as relaxed as a newborn babe. I suggest you try two simple methods:


• The postures of meditation can be varied in ninety different ways. What is important is not the posture but the way you look into yourself, like a mirror of what is happening in your mind. Meditation allows you to find quiet.


• The song of the mantra will also help you to connect with yourself in inner peace. Once you hear the song, you will return quite naturally to a state of calm. Whether you are high in the mountains or down in the desert, if you chant a mantra, you will acquire a serenity that will move you to tears. They will not be tears of sorrow but of blessing and of gratitude. Your whole body will open up like a flower, and your cares will disappear completely. This joy of being in solitude, in quietude, can never be bought with money.


In China, the words that signify ‘life’ are ‘sheng’ and ‘ming’. ‘Sheng’ means everything that contains life, ‘Ming’ means everything that has a soul. It is that of which the Buddha speaks: body and soul are united, are One. To what does this ‘life’ lead us? What are these values? In China there is an old saying: “Life is lighter than a feather, death is heavier than a mountain.” It is this ancient tradition that influences the countries of Asia. Asian culture puts emphasis on kingship, filial devotion, fidelity, justice, morality. We respect those who devote their lives to a good cause for humanity, to the rule of justice and peace. Life and death are thus transcended.


And yet today this fine old code is gradually disappearing in the face of modernism. Current education places emphasis on the truth of knowledge, of pragmatism, and it is dissipating traditional culture… as a result, everyone follows the daily grind of life, but forgets to really live. Most people live without living – they no longer have roots or culture. They forget the meaning of their lives, the value of their lives.


Currently, the cultures of East and West have thus been disrupted; we are fighting for survival, and we forget to actually live. It is the duty of intellectuals to save the situation. We are preoccupied with earning more and more money – that is the aim of our career. In the I Ching, the word ‘career’ means busying oneself in the service of the people, for the wellbeing of others. If everything we do is for ourselves, that is just a job. Let us never forget the true meaning of life.


Twenty years ago, when I wanted to invest in the railways of my native region of Wenzhou, I proposed four conditions to the Chinese government: “Let us retain Communism as a Utopia, let us realize Socialism through social aid, let us improve management by emulating the efficiency of Capitalism, and let us disseminate traditional Chinese culture.” I wanted to give all the profits to the villagers who lived along the railway line.


But the Chinese government did not accept these conditions. I gave them the money with the sole intention of doing something for the people, and I did not gain a penny.


Once we truly realize that the world belongs to everyone, without egotism, we shall be invincible.


Mo-tzu insisted on the development of technology. He himself was a pioneer in science and in Chinese architecture. He was a world citizen. Whenever there was a war somewhere, he would go there to protest and to try to stop it… All his life he pleaded against war and advocated love. In promoting the rule of harmony on Earth, he was a fine example for the world of today.


By relying uniquely on the development of technology, we are plunging into the abyss of misery. It is time for us to bring together the sciences, the arts, and qualities of the spirit. Our wellbeing derives from the unity of these three things, and hope springs from this unity…


– A lesson given by Nan Huai-Chin in October 2006

at the Taihu Great Learning Centre in the province of Jiangsu. 


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 Read a biographical article and bibliography of Master Nan here:

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[Nán Huáijǐn, 南怀瑾, 南懷瑾]

March 18, 1918 – September 29, 2012


Master Nan Huai-chin



Master Nan Huai-Chin, who passed away on this day two years ago according to the western calendar, was one of the most renowned and revered lay Buddhist masters in Asia. A great teacher in all three traditions of spiritual cultivation in China, namely the Confucian tradition, the Buddhist tradition and the Taoist tradition, he wrote over 40 books on these subjects. While Master Nan is regarded by many in China as one of the most influential Chán Buddhist teachers, he is little known outside the Chinese cultural sphere. Master Nan died at the age of 95 on Sept. 29th, 2012 in Suzhou, China.


For a glimpse of his experience, we note that Master Nan studied the ancient Chinese martial arts in his youth and mastered the works of Confucian and Taoist sages at the age of seventeen. Master Nan studied social welfare at Jinling University and later went on to teach at the Central Military Academy in Nanjing. In the late 1930s at the age of 21 years, he became a military commander at the border regions of Sichuan, Xikang, and Yunnan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. There, he led a local group of 30,000 men against the Japanese invasion.


In 1942, at the age of twenty-four, Master Nan went into a three-year cultivation retreat in the E-Mei Mountains, one of the four sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in China. It was there that he verified his experience against the Chinese Tripitaka and composed gathas for each of the thirty two chapters of the Diamond Sutra. In 1945, he left for Tibet to learn from Tibetan Masters and was conferred the official title of Vajra Master by the Hutuktu Kung Ka (貢噶 呼圖克圖), a high ranking tulku of the Kagyu tradition. He was also the most eminent student of the renowned lay Chan Master Yuan Huan-Xian (袁煥仙), making him an adept in both the Chan and the Tantric Buddhist traditions. Master Nan’s Dharma name was Tōngchán (通禅).


Following the revolution in China, Master Nan moved to Taiwan in 1949 where he became a well-known university professor and author. His first book, “The Sea of Chán” was published in 1956 and was the first in a line of over 40 books and related materials published in his name.


Master Nan’s books have achieved a great deal of popularity in mainland China and Taiwan. In total, more than 20 million copies of his books have been sold in Chinese-speaking countries. Some of his more popular works have gone to a 20th printing in Taiwan and his works on Confucianism are used as standard university references in the mainland and Taiwan. There is no question that his teaching has transformed many young intellectuals and is one of the main forces of genuine Buddhist resurgence in China. His books are also well respected by the academicians. According to Thomas Cleary, who has translated one of Master Nan’s books:


“There is no question that Master Nan’s work is a cut above anything else available from modern authors, either academic or sectarian, and I would like to see his work gain its rightful place in the English speaking world. … [His] studies contain broad learning in all three main traditions of Chinese thought, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although this comprehensive purview was common to the greatest minds of China since the T’ang dynasty, it is rare among scholars today.”


The following article provides further biographical and bibliographical details up until the mid-1990s.


Master Nan gave teachings on most of the major Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian texts:

Buddhist Sūtras: Śūraṅgama Sūtra, Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Heart Sūtra, Diamond Sūtra, Sūtra of Complete Enlightenment, Vimalakīrti Sūtra, Medicine Buddha Sūtra, the Yogācārabhūmi śāstra.

Taoist Classics: Tao Te Ching (Daodejing), Zhuangzi, Liezi, Can Tong Qi, Huang Di Nei Jing.

Confucian Classics: The Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, Mencius, The Yijing (I Ching, Book of Changes).


Master Nan went to the U.S.A. in 1985, and then lived in Hong Kong from 1988. Later he was invited to act as a bridge for the peace talks between Mainland China and Taiwan by both governments. He was involved in spearheading and promoting a wide array of cultural, educational and philanthropic initiatives, both in China and abroad. In 2006, Master Nan founded the 200-acre Taihu Great Learning Center (太湖大學堂) on the banks of Lake Taihu near Suzhou. The school curriculum is meant to combine the best approaches of traditional China and the West. It has unique emphases such as meditation, ethics and etiquette, traditional Chinese medical theory, and Chinese and English recitation. The name of the school is in reference to the Great Learning, one of the “Four Books” of Confucianism.



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Books by Master Nan Huai-Chin in European languages:


Master Nan’s Collected Works in Chinese


The vast majority of the books written by Master Nan have not been translated into the English language from the original Chinese. The following is an attempt at a comprehensive bibliography of the works translated into English and into French. The only other foreign language editions we are aware of (with the exception of Korean or Japanese) are the translations into various European languages of ‘Tao and Longevity’ and ‘Grass Mountain’ from the English editions as indicated below.


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Tao and Longevity - Huai-Chin Nan - English Editions

Tao & Longevity English Editions



Translated by Wen-Kuan Chu, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1984. Republished by Dongfang Publishing [东方出版社] in 2008. Originally published in 1973 by Lao Ku Books [老古出版社].

  • Tao e longevità. La trasformazione di mente e corpo’, Italian translation by Patrizia Nicoli, Astrolabio Ubaldini, 1986
  • Tao y larga vida : transformación de la mente y el cuerpo’, Spanish translation by Rafael Lassaletta, EDAF, 1990, reprinted 2001.
  • Das Tao des langen Lebens’, German translation by Katharine Cofer, verlag Hermann Bauer gmbh, 1991.
  • Tao i długowieczność : transformacja świadomości i ciała’, Polish translation by Marek Wasilewski, Zysk i S-ka Wydawnictwo, 1995.
  • Tao: Transformação da Mente e do Corpo’ Portuguese translation, Pensamento, 1995.
  • A halhatatlanság útja – A meditáció taoja, Hungarian translation, Lunarimpex, 2005.


Tao and Longevity - Huai-Chin Nan - Foreign Editions

Tao & Longevity Foreign Editions


Note: The two appendices, ‘Cultivating Samadhi and Wisdom though Ch’an’ 《修定与参禅法要》 and ‘Ch’an and Pointing at the Moon’ 《参禅指月》, together form the last chapter of the work《禅海蠡测》 ‘Chan hai li ce’ – ‘The Sea of Chan’, as yet untranslated into English. The Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Hungarian and Polish editions are based on the English translation by the late Dr. Chu Wen-Kuan [Zhu Wenguang, 朱文光], one of Master Nan’s foremost disciples.


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Grass Mountain English Edition



  • Grass Mountain: A Seven Day Intensive in Chan Training with Master Nan Huai-Chin.’ Translated by Margaret Yuan [Liu Yu-Hung, 刘雨虹] and Janis Walker, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1986.
  • Chan : siete días de práctica intensiva’, translation into Spanish from the English edition by Jorge A. Sánchez, Editorial Ibis, 1992.
  • Góra traw: siedem dni intensywnego treningu ch’an z mistrzem Nan Huai-chin’, translation into Polish from the English edition by Maciej Kanert, Dom Wydawniczy Rebis, 1996.


Grass Mountain - Nan Huai Chin - Spanish and Polish Editions

Grass Mountain Foreign Editions


Note: Consists of the translation of the transcripts of a seven-day Chan session in 1962, forming part of the series called Profiles of Zen Training, regrouping the accounts of a number of such sessions, first published in 1976 by Lao Ku Books. Includes a Chinese-English glossary.


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 Published in English in 2 volumes as follows:


Working Toward Enlightenment & To Realize Enlightenment


Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1993.


Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1994.


Note: This important work is based on a series of some 28 conferences given in 1978, and published in Chinese in 1989.

Read an excerpt from ‘Working Toward Enlightenment‘:

Read an excerpt from ‘To Realize Enlightenment‘:

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The Story of Chinese Zen English Edition



Translated by Thomas Cleary, published by Charles E. Tuttle (Tuttle Library of Enlightenment), 1995.


Note: Consists of the first part of the dual history of Chinese Zen and Taoism. The appendix on the influence of Zen and the Zen monastic system on Chinese society present in the original Chinese edition was omitted in this translation, but subsequently reproduced in ‘Basic Buddhism’ (see below). Originally published in Chinese in 1968.

Read an excerpt from ‘The Story of Chinese Zen‘:


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Basic Buddhism - Nan Huai-chin

Translated by J.C. Cleary, published by Samuel Weiser Inc., 1998. Republished by Jaico Publishing in India on a number of occasions, and by Dongfang Publishing [东方出版社] in China in 2008.



Breve História do Budismo, Portuguese (Brazil), Gryphus, 2002.


Note: Originally published in Chinese in 1987. The later Chinese-published English edition is slightly censored and lacks the chapter dealing with the history of Buddhism in Tibet, among other things (see below).

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Zen & Tao Chinese Edition



Translated by Dr. William Brown, Top Shape Publishing, 2002.


Note: Consists of the second part of the dual history of Chinese Zen and Taoism, published as an e-book.

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Diamond Sutra Explained English Edition


Translated by Pia Giammasi [Hue En, 纪雅云], Primordia, 2004.


Note: Consists of a translation of the Diamond Sutra from the Chinese of Kumarajiva, and Master Nan’s detailed commentary. The translator Pia Giammasi was a student of Master Nan’s. Based on a conference series held in 1988, and published in 1992.


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With William Bodri [包卓立], Top Shape Publishing, 2010.


Note: An expanded version of the original Chinese lecture series delivered in 1996 and published in two volumes in 2003 and 2004. Previously published as an e-book with the different title: ‘The Insider’s Guide to The World’s Best and Worst Spiritual Paths and Practices’.


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Translated by Joshua BenOr, Top Shape Publishing, 2008.


Note: An incomplete translation of this work on recent Chinese history and culture, omitting the final two chapters and the four appendices, essentially dealing with education and literature. Made freely available on William Bodri’s Meditation Expert website. The work was published under three different titles in Chinese, explaining the various renditions in English.

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Translated by Shi Hong, edited by William Bodri, Top Shape Publishing, 2008.


Master Nan & Peter Senge


Note: Translation of a series of lectures given for Peter Senge of MIT between 2003-2005. Consists of the first half of the Chinese edition, which includes the transcripts of further lectures for the ELIAS group, given in 2007. Published as an e-book.

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Other Writings:






  • Dhyana monastic system and Chinese society

Bilingual Chinese-English edition, English translation by Huang Fu 黄復. Published by 兿文印書館, Yi Wen Shu Guan, Taipei, 1964. Republished by Lao Ku Books, though minus the English text.

Note: This edition contains both the Chinese text and an English translation in the same volume. The content is identical to the chapter ‘The Zen Monastic System and Chinese Society‘ appended to ‘Basic Buddhism‘.




Zhuge Liang’s Letter to my Son


Translated by Steven Clavey, in: The Lantern: Volume VII, Issue 2 – Article #9


Note: Excerpted from the book 《禅与生命的认知初讲》 (Chan yu shengming de renshiUnderstanding Chan and Life) – a transcription of a series of lectures delivered at the Taihu Great Learning Centre in 2006, published by Dongfang Publishing, 2009. Published as an electronic article in the The Lantern, a journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine.


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Note: A partial translation of the first section of Master Nan’s seminal work on the Confucian Analects by Dr. Will Zhang, one of Master Nan’s students. Available to read online here:


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Translation of: ‘Ma-tsu, de gesprekken’ from the Dutch by Julian F. Pas; introduced, translated into Dutch and annotated by Bavo Lievens; with a preface and commentary by Nan Huai-chin. Edwin Mellen Press, 1987. The original Dutch edition was published in 1981 by Wereldvenster.


Note: Prof. Bavo Lievens, who produced the initial Dutch translation of this work, was a student of Master Nan’s, and later wrote the book ‘The Mind Experiment’ partly based on Master Nan’s teachings.


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Cundi Bodhisattva



Note: Illustrated description of the Zhunti (Cundi) Bodhisattva sadhana by Master Nan Huai-chin. Read online here:


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Master Nan penned the Foreword to Awakenings : Asian wisdom for every day, Olivier & Danielle Föllmi, Abrams, 2007. Also published in the UK as: The Wisdom of Asia: 365 days: Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Thames & Hudson, 2007.


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Heritage of Change


By W.A. Sherrill; East-West Eclectic Society (Lao Ku Books), 1972.


Master Nan – Heritage of Change Frontispiece



Note: Wallace Sherrill was a Rear-Admiral of the US Navy who lived in both mainland China and Taiwan, where he studied with Master Nan. He also co-authored 2 books on the I Ching with Dr. Chu Wen-kuan; ‘An Anthology of I Ching’, and ‘The Astrology of I Ching’. This book, on the influence of the Book of Changes on Chinese culture as well as its practical applications, contains the syllabus of courses offered by Master Nan in Fu-Jen University, and thus gives an idea of the breadth and depth of his learning. A portrait of Master Nan also serves as frontispiece. The book has been digitized and made available here:


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French Translations – Livres de Maître Nan en français:




Translated by Jean-Claude Dubois, Monica Esposito, Gabrièle Goldfuss, Vincent Durand-Dastès, preface by Catherine Despeux, Guy Trédaniel Éditeur, 1994.


Note: Consists of a series of conferences on Taoism, the Book of Changes (I Ching) and Traditional Chinese Medicine entitled 《道家《易经》与中医医理》, included in the volume 《道家、密宗与东方神秘学》 (‘Taoïsme, tantrisme et ésotérisme en Extrême-Orient,’ – ‘Taoism, Esoteric Buddhism and Oriental Mysticism’). The translation team was directed by Dr. Jean-Claude Dubois, who studied with Master Nan. Prof. Catherine Despeux [戴斯博], who wrote the preface, also studied with Master Nan.


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Translated by Sylvie Hureau-Denis, Françoise Toutain-Wang, Catherine Despeux, Shuhua Liang, Gabrièle Goldfuss, Éditions du Seuil, 1998.


Note: Consists of a translation of the first 10 of the 28 chapters of the original Chinese edition. Contrary to what one Chinese bibliography states, this translation was done from the Chinese, not from the English edition.


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Compiled and translated by Liao Yi Lin, Guy Trédaniel Éditeur, 2010


Note: Consists of a lavishly illustrated anthology of texts and poems by Master Nan, translated and commented by Liao Yi Lin. Ms. Lin studied with Master Nan in later years.


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Master Nan wrote the Preface to Eveils : 365 Pensées de sages d’Asie, Taoïsme, Confucianisme, Bouddhisme, Olivier & Danielle Föllmi, Éditions de La Martinière, 2007.

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Presented and translated by Catherine Despeux, Les Deux Océans, 2015.

Note: Transcript of a teaching on the Heart Sutra delivered during a Chan retreat in Taiwan in 1983.

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Readers of the Chinese editions should be aware of the censorship of the PRC publications: one will note that any unflattering references to the Chinese Communist Party, any references whatsoever to the Kuomintang Nationalist Party, the Chinese Civil War, the Cultural Revolution, or criticisms of modern political ideology, are entirely lacking from the PRC editions. Furthermore, the Chinese-published English editions of ‘Tao & Longevity’ and ‘Basic Buddhism’ (both Dongfang Publishing, 2008) are similarly censored; the latter omitting the sub-chapter dealing with the history of Buddhism in Tibet, and any other reference to Tibet being inevitably preceded by the word ‘China’ in the genitive case, something neither present in the original nor in the original English translation.


Given that most of Master Nan’s books in English are out of print and some command high prices on the second-hand market, we suggest using a service such as Bookfinder in order to compare prices and purchase hard-to-find titles.


Readers who notice any errors or omissions are cordially invited to contact us in order to make this bibliography as complete and as accurate as possible. Thank you. Contact: thebamboosea[@]gmail[.]com

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Su Tung-po:

Tracks in the Snow


In a previous set of articles on an illustrated Qing-dynasty memoir, 鴻雪因緣圖記 [hongxue yinyuan tuji] by Lin Qing 麟慶, we have presented a number of episodes from those memoirs, or commentaries on the book, along with the corresponding illustrations.

Yet the title of the work itself is worthy of note, being rendered variously into English as: A Wild Swan’s Trail; Tracks in the Snow; Footsteps in the Snow of a Solitary Goose; Record of a Goose Life’s Traces in the Snow; Wild swan on the snow; among many others. In fact, it is a reference to a famous poem by Su Tung-p’o [Su Dongpo], or Su Shi 蘇軾, a poet-official of the Sung [Song] dynasty, entitled « 和子由澠池懷舊 », which expresses the impermanence and ephemeral nature of a fleeting human existence.








This poem was written in reply to a poem by his brother, Tseyu [Ziyou]. Lin Yutang, in his biography, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo, says:



“The brothers often ho, or “echoed” each other’s poems; to “echo” a poem is to answer it with another one using the same rhyme words. It was a good test of poetic skill, for the rhyming had to be natural, and this was one of the accomplishments of all scholars in ancient China. People looked for surprising, or delightful, or refreshing, tunes of thought, expressed with the prescribed rhyme words, and the lines had to have natural sequence. As in a crossword puzzle, the difficulty increased the delight when the rhyming was done with ease and without effort. In one of these earliest “echo” poems, written to Tseyu, Tungpo already revealed a complete mastery. Having to write a poem where the first two rhyme words had to be “snow” and “west,” Tungpo wrote:

To what can human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild goose’s footprint on snow;

The claws’ imprint is accidentally left

But carefree, the bird flies east and west.

It remained one of Tungpo’s best poems. The flying bird was a symbol of the human spirit. In truth, the events and doings of Su Tungpo we are reading about in this book are but the accidental footprints of a great spirit, but the real Su Tungpo is a spirit, like a phantom bird, that is even now perhaps making dream journeys among the stars.”


In his commentary on Lin Qing’s book, John Minford notes the reference and translates the lines freely as:

To what can this human life be likened?

Perhaps to a wild swan treading on the snow;

it leaves a few tracks and flies on blithely into the unknown.”


In his Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, Burton Watson has translated the poem in full:


 Rhyming with Tzu-yu’s ‘At Mien-ch’ih, Recalling the Past

Wanderings of a lifetime – what do they resemble?

A winging swan that touches down on snow-soaked mud.

In the mud by chance he leaves the print of his webs,

but the swan flies away, who knows to east or west?

The old monk is dead now, become a new memorial tower;

on the crumbling wall, impossible to find our old inscriptions.

Do you recall that day, steep winding slopes,

road long, all of us tired, our lame donkeys braying?



Kenneth Rexroth renders the entire poem as:

Remembering Min Ch’e

A Letter to his Brother Su Che

What is our life on earth?

A flock of migrating geese

Rest for a moment on the snow,

Leave the print of their claws

And fly away, some East, some West.

The old monk is no more.

There is a new gravestone for him.

On the broken wall of his hut

You can’t find the poems we wrote.

There’s nothing to show we’ve ever been there.

The road was long. We were tired out.

My limping mule brayed all the way.


(“Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese”, New Directions, 1970)

One very insightful reading of Su’s poem is that of Chan Master Nan Huai-chin (Nan Huaijin, 南怀瑾), in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra (Diamond Sutra Explained):


Master Nan Huai-chin

“Su Tung-p’o wrote a famous poem which came out of his Buddhist practice:

Human existence anywhere can be likened to what?

One ought to describe it as a bird touching down

On new-fallen snow, leaving by chance a track.

When the bird flies, does it plan to go east or west?

He posed the question; the course of one human existence can be likened to what? Like a bird on a snowy day, alighting on the snow for a moment, leaving a claw print, “leaving by chance a track.” The snow continues falling after the bird flies off, covering over the print, no trace remains. After the bird has flown off, whether it be north, south, east or west, the bird is gone and no print remains.

Most people’s goals in life are to raise a family, have a career, children, grandchildren, etc. The day one’s eyes close, limbs go limp and one passes from this world – when the bird flies – does one plan to go east or west? At that point, there is no such thing. These are Su Tung-p’o’s famous lines.”



(Nan Huai-chin, “Diamond Sutra Explained, translated by Pia Giammasi, published by Primordia Media, 2004).

Lastly, there is one other version of the poem available online, translated by A. S. Kline, entitled “Remembrance”.

 To what can we compare our life on Earth?

To a flock of geese,

alighting on the snow.

Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.


That Lin Qing named his memoirs after such a poem shows his concern with leaving a “track” of some sort, on the one hand, and his sensitivity to literature – mentioned by Herbert Giles in the first post of this series – on the other. One scholar, writing about a poem by Linqing notes:


Drawing on a metaphor made famous by Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101), Linqing lamented the evanescence of life by likening his own sense of the predestined yet ever fragile bonds with human beings and places to the “goose-tracks in snow.” The phrases “xue ni 雪泥” and “hong zhua 鴻爪” meaning “snowy mud” and “goose-tracks,” respectively, are clearly inspired by Su Shi’s poem to his brother, “He Ziyou Mianci huai jiu 和子由澠池懷舊”. Here, Su uses goose-tracks left in the snow as a metaphor for the random and transient nature of life. Like the tracks left by the migrating geese on the snowy mud, humans who hurried through their life were seldom able to recognize the things, events, and relationships which they left behind. In Su’s context, “goose-tracks in the snow” are the patterns of one’s past life whose fleeting transience defies comprehension and memory. But the memory and understanding of such past things, events, and relationships was the very essence of human experience (ren sheng 人生).

– Xun Liu: Immortals and Patriarchs: The Daoist World of a Manchu Official and His Family in Nineteenth-Century China. In: Asia Major, 17.2 (2004)

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