primordial chaotic fireworks

The chaotic explosion of fireworks is something you get used to, living in China.

The Chinese invented fireworks sometime back in the Tang dynasty – around 700AD.

混沌 hundun  is the Chinese word for chaos. Literally, it means blended or muddle, and confused.

Image of fireworks from Ming dynasty novel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

混沌 hundun or Chaos also has a philosophical meaning. It stems from ancient Daoist texts and refers to the primordial unformed mass before creation.


Many years back, Fritjof Capra wrote a book called The Tao of Physics, the first of its kind to compare the theories of Eastern Religion, particularly Dao ( Tao), with modern quantum mechanics.

Nowadays, Chinese physicists have applied quantum technology to instant information exchange via satellites and the principles of entanglement , along with and animation computer technology.

In the Chinese creation myth, 盘古开天 Pangu kai tian, Pangu opens the sky. The primordial egg – which had no shape or form –  and was the unformed chaotic mass, 混沌 hundun existed before the formation of the Universe. Pangu was either born, or simply found himself asleep inside this chaos. After 800,000 years ( a touch longer than 7 days 🙂 )he woke up, finding himself in darkness. He grew slowly, then quickly, bursting out of the 混沌 hundun  until he formed the myriad things. The first written record of Pangu stems from the Three Kingdoms period, about 220 – 280AD.

The 淮南子Huainanzi - a classic text from the Han dynasty, probably dated around 131 BC, is styled in the form of debates amongst scholar officials and is a mix of philsophpy, geography and history in Pre-Han thought. Of our 混沌 hundun, it says “cavernous and undifferentiated Heaven and Earth, chaotic and inchoate 混沌 hundun, the Uncarved Block, not yet fashioned and created into things, this we call 太一 tai yi, the Grand One. (Wang, 2012, p 43)

A similiar sounding word is 馄炖 hun dun, or wonton, as in the soup.

Then there is 馄蛋,hun dan, a swear word meaning ‘bastard’. ( literally, blended egg)

So just be careful how you pronounce the words, okay?

Pangu myth source:

Wang, Robin, (2012)  Yinyang,The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).

Fritjof Capra’s classic text the Tao of Physics can be read online here


Are you zenned out right now? Are you going to zen your living spaces?

Recently I’ve noticed how the word ‘zen’ has come into the modern lexicon to mean something like “chill out ” or “make calm and decluttered”. Whilst it is common for language to ‘borrow words’ from other cultures, I admit to being surprised to find a word which hitherto meant a specific religious or spiritual school being used in such a manner. How do ‘borrowed’ words enter into a new language and morph into a lesser meaning within the space of a generation or two?

Zen  is a Japanese word, stemming from Zen Buddhism.

In Chinese, this character is pronounced chan and the school of Buddhism is known as Chan Buddhism.

looks a bit like  神

which means spirit ( at a lose translation).

The philopsophic and practical aspects of Chan – or Zen – Buddhism are quite complex, involving medative practices,  specific scriptures and ways to enlightenment. Buddhism had spread to China from it’s native India early in the first few centuries A.D., but it wasn’t until a monk called Xuanzang went for a very long walk in the Tang dynasty that it began to enter into the wider Chinese society. Xuanzang walked from Chang’an ( present day Xian), the then capital of China, to India, loaded up 600 odd Sanskrit texts on his 22 ponies and walked back to Chang’an.

He spent years in the Big Goose Pagoda, funded by the Emperor,  translating the scriptures. British film-maker Sun Shiyen, wondering what it was like to walk such a long way, and what difficulties the monk might have faced,  retraced the long journey and wrote about it in Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud. To find out how Xuanzang might have felt, read Sun’s book – it describes the journey from a modern day perspective as she ruminates on how the old master might have felt.

You might be familiar with Xuanzhong –

Xuanzang ( the Tang Monk) with Sun Wu Kong, in a movie version of Journey to the West.

he has been fictionalised in the ever-populuar “Journey to the West” books, movies, and spin-offs. In popular fiction, Monk Xuanzang is often overshadowed by Sun Wu Kong, also known as the Monkey King.

Sun Wu Kong with the Tang monk

We digress. Whilst the Tang monk Xuanzang was busy  translating Buddhist scriptures, Buddhism, sinicised, was becoming more popular. The very first Buddhists in China were actually Daoist monks, and the mix of Daoism and Buddhism formed the basis of the meditative school of Chan. ( Some link Chan history to an Indian monk, others suggest this ‘history’ was backwards written – ie developed at a later period to justify it’s ‘antiquity’. Jump forward a few centuries, Chan Buddhism entered Japan after monk Eisai, dissatisfied with Buddhism as it currently existed, visited China and brought back Chan Buddhist theory and green tea seeds.

Chan  – 禅 – became zen  – 禅 – in Japan and the tea seeds Eisai brought back developed into Japanese tea culture. Linguistically, at the time of Eisai’s trip, the Chinese word 禅 was pronounced more like djen  –  and became zen in Japan.

Zen Buddhism entered western culture in the early 1900’s via a twofold process – D T Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism was published in London in the 1920s, whilst at a similar time a Japanese Zen teacher moved to the United States to teach zen meditation. Decades later, returning soldiers from World War 2, the Korean war and the war in Vietnam brought an interest in Asian culture and the beginnings of the growth of Buddhism. Another Japanese teacher surnamed Suzuki arrived in the USA in the 1960s, and interest in Buddhism spread.

A new Zen sect called Sanbo Kyodan (Three Treasures Religious Organisation in Japanese) was formed in 1954, and it ‘welcomed non-Asian practioners’. American followers of this sect then started their own schools, which were tainted by “charismatic authority“. ( Some charismatic leaders were found guilty of abuse).

Zen, in Western thought and practice, had strayed far from it’s Japanese origins, which in turn came directly from China. Buddhism from India merged with Daoism from China to form Chan,  which migrated to Japan in the 12th century to become Zen.

With such a long history covering centuries of religious and spiritual practice in the East, “zen” entered the West and in less than a century lost much of its spiritual heritage till it entered into the lexion as nothing more than another word that meant “to chill out”.

Can philosophies and spiritual traditions which are firmly linked in one culture be understood in other cultures? Are the West and the East really so dissimilar? How can we be informed by other culture’s  ideas, philosophies and spiritual practices and remain respectful of them?

Now that the word zen  appears to have entered the English language, devoid of its origins and spiritual meanings, can it ever regain those associations?

The Monkey King and the Tang Monk were in Zhouzhang, Jiangsu, when I photographed them. References for information found in this post can be found by clicking on the links in grey font throughout the text.

on the way to dao…

Mvc-284f        On the way to the summit of Qing Cheng Shan, Daoist Mountain in Sichuan.

道 dao  means “the Way”.  A long time back, 老子 Laozi wrote in the 道德经 Dao De Jing that we couldn’t really understand the mysterious universe, so we can just call it 道  , or the Way.

The hiker, like myself, was setting out to climb 青城山 Qing Cheng Shan, the Green City Mountain, just outside Chengdu, as part of a Daoist conference held in Chengdu in 2004.

Mvc-287fFour years later, this pristine, luscious mountain was to suffer in the Wenchuan earthquake. The rumblings from this disaster could be felt from Beijing to Guangzhou, a shock to all of  China. The panda reserve at the bottom of the mountain was seriously impacted, and many Daoist temples were destroyed.

Altar to Laozi on Qingchengshan


Sadly, there is scientific evidence out which shows that depletion of the water table may have contributed to the cause of this catastrophic quake, much like the recent one in Nepal. Meanwhile, companies like Nestle continue to drill underground, below the water table, to bottle water to sell to people who have no other water source, thus contributing even more to the global water shortage.

mountain top temple, Qingchengshan


When the hiker and myself reached a mountaintop temple, it wasn’t the destination.

Daoists chat at Qingchengshan


Like these fellows, we were just on the way to Dao


The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao

the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth

named, it is the mother of all things

道可道,非常道 dao ke dao fei chang dao –

The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Daodao zi

On the Way to dao

as always, please respect these photos, taken in Qingchengshan, 2004. if you need to share, please credit this site. Thankyou.

Scatter Flowers

Flowers at Daoist Altar


In Daoist belief and ritual texts, human life is seen as ephemeral.

During funerary rites, a complex series of rituals are undertaken to release the soul and send it onwards.

 During ritual, after Breaking through the Hells, where the priests symbolically open the gates by breaking a block with a wooden cane, and gather the souls of the dead, the next rite to be performed is Scatter Flowers

Scatter Flowers

 The music to this prayer is a lilting, uplifting tune which compares human life to the life of flowers – a beautiful expression, blooming then gone.

 The priests sing the names of flowers and during the course of the rites scatter flowers which have been placed on the altar.


Fragrant flowers linger in all the ten directions


we respectfully invite the Spirit Ancestors to receive our prayers

 is the opening chant of the funerary rite Scatter Flowers and Communicate with Spirits.





the Jade Emperor

If you have read any of Kylie Chan’s fast-paced demon-chasing novels, you might have come across the Jade Emperor as a rather mysterious, omnipotent god who doesn’t listen all that much to his underlings and has a habit of ordering people he is not satisfied with to the various hells in Chinese tradition.

Kylie is in good company – the “Monkey King” or Sun Wu Kong, first made his appearance in the Chinese 16th Century Ming Dynasty novel “Journey to the West” . Although the Jade Emperor is an omnipresent, benevolent God in this book, the Monkey King is a larrikin who creates havoc in heaven.

One thing about the Chinese is they are able to laugh and make fun of the most things, including the highest of beings. The Jade Emperor, in fact, is a Daoist deity who is worshipped across China and is one of the Three Purities, the Daoist trinity.

The Jade Emperor resides in the highest echelon of Daoist religious deities. Many religions have trinities, and Daoism is no exception.

The Jade Emperor is the highest of the三清 Sānqīng – the Three Purities, who include


玉皇大帝Yù Huáng Dadi – the Jade Emperor

太清  TàiQīng. The Great Clear One

太上老君Tàishàng Lǎojū or  老子 Laozi, author of the 道德 经 Dao De Jing.

Laozi at Heavenly Crane Temple, Qingchengshan, Sichuan.

Although the San Qing, the Three Purities, have human figures, they are understood to be pure, celestial beings with limitless form. They also represent the formation of the material world though the principles of yin and yang.

The Three Purities  

Laozi in the Daodejing said

“Dao begets one, one  begets the two, the two beget three and the three beget the myriad things.”

In this way, the Taiqing god, one of the Three Purities, separates ‘pre-heaven’ celestial spirit into yin and yang, so the manifest world may emerge.

The Jade Emperor’s “birthday” or ritual celebration, occurs on the 9th day of the first month of the lunar new year – ie 9 days after the Chinese New Year. Temples across China – and Daoist temples across the world – hold rituals for the Jade Emperor on this day.

Ordinary people traditionally welcome the Jade Emperor into their homes on New Years eve, by lighting incense and making food offerings to the Jade Emperor, much the same as Christians might go to church on Christmas Day.

Most Daoist temples have an altar to worship the Three Purities.

San Qing Hall
Three Purities Altar at Beijing’s White Cloud Temple


A linguistic note:

道德 经 used to be phoneticised as Tao Te Ching, under the old Wade-Giles system of romanisation. Dao De Jing is the modern pinyin phonetic manner.

老子 Laozi used to be rendered as Lao Tsu or Lao Tzu. ( Wade Giles). That’s a bit of a mouthful, right? Wondering how to pronounce it? Laozi will do, just as it is spelt.

经 jing meaning Classic Text, is a modern character. The old character of  jing  was   經.

Note on the photos: most of the photographs in this site are mine. The photographs on this post are of sacred  altars or deities. Please respect these images.





Once Upon a Time in Penglai

Recently I was surprised by a friend who was using the word “zen” and didn’t know it’s origins in Buddhism. She thought it was just “a cool word which meant peace”.

Words enter other languages and become ‘borrowed words’ and take on new meanings in the process of cultural absorption.

The word “dao” has come into English usage relatively unharmed. It usually refers to the Chinese religion or philosophy of Daoism. The concept has become widespread in the west, with all kinds of best-sellers gracing the bookstores, from “The Tao of Pooh”, to “The Tao of Sales”, the “Tao of Vegetable Gardening” to “The Tao of Dating” and “The Tao of Travel”.

Goodness, there is even a “Tao of Twitter” and “The Tao of User Experience”!

 dao zi

In Chinese, the word is dào , which literally means “the way”.

The earliest – and still most famous – Daoist text is 老子Laozi’s 道德經 dàodéjīng.

There are a myriad translations of this classic text available online and in the bookstores.

The word and concept of 道dào, especially with respect to 道教 dàojiào, Daoist religion, needs no explanation in China.

Are the thoughts and principles of Daoism widespread in China? Census studies won’t give the answer, because the answer is intrinsically linked with how people live their lives.


Penglai Fairyland, on China’s eastern coast

Once upon a time in Penglai, I arrived late in the afternoon after a long, rickety bus-ride through rural Shandong – and headed straight to the newest restaurant, as people are want to do in China.

All over the restaurant were altars dedicated to Lu Dong Bin, one of China’s famous Eight Immortals. Waiters would come in and perfunctorily bow before Ancestor Lu’s image before delivering food, in a very casual, every-day kind of way.

Penglai is known in China as “Penglai Fairyland” – the place where the Eight Immortals crossed the sea. Lu Dong Bin, living in the Tang dynasty ( approx. 6-700 AD) and seven of his fellow Daoist practitioners, became immortal by walking on water – or crossing the sea by doing magical tricks on the waters off the coast of Penglai.

It’s the stuff of legend.

I asked the shop’s proprietor, over long-life noodles and greens with shitake mushrooms, if she believed in the literal truth of this.

Without thinking, she immediately replied, “of course” as she served more dishes.

“We all hear count Luzu as our Ancestor,” she said. “My grandparents told me the story of how he became immortal and crossed the sea at Penglai, and their grandparents told them.”

She poured green tea into the chinked china cups.

“We are all descendants of Luzu here. Of course it’s real.”

And with that, she went of to serve more customers.

To the people of Penglai, the Daoist deity Lu Dong Bin, who is revered by the       Dragon Gate school Daoists, is more than a ‘god’ – he is family, one of their town’s ancient inhabitants.


“Make sure you go to see Penglai castle,” the proprietor called out as I was leaving. “It’s Lu Dongbin’s home.”

Unknown-2蓬莱阁   Penglai Ge – Penglai Castle at Penglai, where the Eight Immortals Crossed the Sea

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