Posts written by Bill M. Mak

[ANNOUNCEMENT] China, India, and Iran – Scientific Exchange and Cultural Contact through the First Millennium CE / 2021 NRI-AIIT-FAMES Workshop

Draft programme of the NRI-AIIT-FAMES workshop that is scheduled to take place next year, October 8-9, 2021. Beside the keynote speech by Prof. Samuel Lieu, we have a dozen of papers by both senior and young scholars who present a wide range of exciting topics, from languages, astronomy, mathematics, metallurgy, materia medica, to material culture, all related to the scientific exchange and cultural contact between China, India, and Iran through the first millennium CE.

NRI_AIIT_FAMES 2021 program (Oct 2020)



The little-known story behind the 18th-century Chinese encyclopedia and what it tells about why China is anxious about foreign aggression

In 1986 the Taiwanese published the 18th-century Chinese encyclopedia “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries,” the Siku quanshu 四庫全書, in a set of 1500 volumes, arguably the largest single collection of books in human history. After its completion, copies were distributed to the seven imperial libraries across China in 1725. Needless to say they were considered the greatest treasures of the Chinese civilisation. Sadly, throughout the 19th century, three copies were destroyed during invasion by the British, the Franco-British force, and the “Eight-nation alliance”; one copy was destroyed by the Taiping Rebellion, whose leader famously claimed to be a brother of Jesus Christ. After the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, the three remaining copies were briefly reunited in Peking and talks began to produce copies of the work. Eventually one copy fell into the hands of the Japanese invader in Manchuria, and the another captured by the Russian before the end of WWII. Imagine the anxiety of the Chinese people seeing their treasures being destroyed and pillaged one after another!

After the defeat of the nationalist one copy was brought to Taiwan and the other two eventually were returned to Peking. After overcoming many difficulties with smaller attempts for decades, the Commercial Press finally succeeded in publishing the 1500 volumes, considered a fixture of all the great libraries around the world for decades. That is of course digitalisation took over.

The digital version still has many problems and the printed version is still essential to serious researchers. No respectable libraries today would be without a set though I can certainly imagine library modernisers disagree. I am so happy to see here at the Needham Research Institute here in Cambridge, the K.P. Tin Hall has four walls completely filled with the “Four Treasuries,” along with the Buddhist and Daoist canons.

Reading the Avataṃsaka and other Mahāyāna sūtras

Last class of my “Introduction to Buddhism” course. It was a great opportunity for me personally to refresh my reading and understanding of the Great Buddhist texts in Chinese: Prajñāpāramitā 般若, Diamond Sutra 金剛, Lotus Sutra 法華, Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sutra 維摩詰, and above all, Avataṃsaka Sutra 華嚴. The cosmography and cosmology of the last Mahāyāna text are absolutely fantastic. No wonder so many Chinese intellectuals were fascinated by this work throughout the past 1500 years. But what is truly beautiful about the text is not just the fantastic description of the different worlds or galaxies, numerous like sands of Ganges, with different lifeforms and sentient beings, but the teaching of unconditional empathy, altruism, and an equanimous form of wisdom – to understand that everyone is at their own stage of development and by helping and nurturing others in a skilful way, one grows also in true Buddhist wisdom.

Most people, even Buddhist scholars I know, have never read through these important sutras. They are laborious to go through. I think those who are fluent in classical Chinese have a distinct advantage. Most of the early Mahāyāna Buddhist texts survive in their entirety only in Chinese. Moreover. once this linguistic skill is developed, the students can absorb an exceptional large body of knowledge in relatively short time. Perhaps it’s useful to read also the Tibetan version. But the next thing I hope to do with the students is to read these sutras in Sanskrit with them.佛學入門10.001 佛學入門10.002 佛學入門10.003 佛學入門10.004