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Before Hunting, 1883, by Jurij Subic.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Practice


(tan2 hua1 yi2 xian4)

a single blooming of the udumbara flower

曇花的英文是「the Dutchman’s pipe」(荷蘭人的煙斗),是一種很少開花的仙人掌科植物,它在夜晚開花,且持續的時間很短,到了黎明時分,曇花就會凋謝了。這種植物出現在成語「曇花一現」中,而此成語被用來描述有幸成功一次的人或事,這成功或許主要是因為運氣好,且無法複製。





在英語中,我們可以用「flash in the pan」(火藥池中的火花),來指出乎意料但無法複製的成功。「flash」指的是火藥被點燃後的明亮火花,「pan」指的是燧發槍的火藥池,用來擊發彈藥。扣下燧發槍的扳機時,燧石會引燃火藥池內的少量火藥,然後這火花會進一步點燃槍膛裡的火藥,推動子彈從槍管發射出去。如果這火花無法順利讓火藥點燃,那麼只會有火藥池閃過的一絲火花,而子彈卻不會發射出去。



(Last week the stock price stopped falling and started rising again. We thought it would return to its former glory, but it was just a flash in the pan. Today it is falling again.)


(It was a fleeting emotion, which disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. The expression flickered across their faces.)


a flash in the pan

The Dutchman’s pipe — tanhua (曇花) in Chinese — is a cactus that blooms only rarely, with flowers that appear at night and that last only a short time: By dawn, they will have wilted. The Chinese name 曇花 appears in 曇花一現, an idiom used to describe a person’s surprise achievement or a one-off event, occurring more through luck, that is unlikely to be repeated.

The original source of the idiom, an early Buddhist sutra, actually refers to a different flower altogether, however: the Indian fig tree, or youtan bohua (優曇缽華) to give its Chinese translation. This name also has the 曇 character.

The Sanskrit name for the Indian fig tree is the udumbara. In Buddhism, the udumbara was believed to bloom only once every 3,000 years, and therefore symbolizes an extremely rare event. In the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra (Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, often simplified in English to the Lotus Sutra), the udumbara flower is used to convey the rare appearance of the Buddha and his teachings in the world.

Chapter 27 of the Lotus Sutra tells the story of how the sons of a king in the far ancient past ask for permission to visit a buddha, because “a buddha is as hard to meet as an udumbara flower, or as the one-eyed tortoise meeting the hole in the floating log.” That last — rather obscure — simile is a reference to Chapter 15 of the early Buddhist work Samyutta Nikaya (Connected Discourses), which mentions a blind tortoise, infinite eons old, that swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once a century, and a log with only one hole, floating on the same ocean. The text asks, “What are the chances of the two meeting?” The answer, one can only presume, is “infinitesimally small,” at least within a given time period.

In Chapter 2 of the Lotus Sutra, Sariputta, a disciple of the historical Buddha, asks three times for instruction on the Buddha’s teachings before the Buddha finally relents, saying — in the Chinese translation of the sutra — 如是妙法,諸佛如來時乃說之,如優曇華時一現耳 (Such a wonderful Law as this is only preached by the buddha-tathagatas on rare occasions, just as the udumbara flower is seen but once in long periods.) It is this sentence that gives us the idiom 曇花一現. Thus, the 曇花 refers to the udumbara flower, not the Dutchman’s pipe.

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