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The Nonduality of Motion and Rest: Sengzhao on the Change of Things

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Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP,volume 9)


In his essay “Things Do Not Move,” Sengzhao (374? − 414 CE), a prominent Chinese Buddhist philosopher, argues for the thesis that the myriad things do not move in time. This view is counter-intuitive and seems to run counter to the Mahayana Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. I assess Sengzhao’s arguments for his thesis, elucidate his stance on the change/nonchange of things, and discuss related problems. I argue that although Sengzhao is keen on showing the plausibility of the thesis, he actually views the myriad things as both changing and unchanging and upholds the nonduality of motion and rest. In fact, the nonmoving thesis follows from the discernment that things change from moment to moment without there being any enduring stuff in the process. Among philosophical works that confer a higher ontological status on nonchange over change, Sengzhao’s essay is unique and well worth pondering.


  • Sengzhao
  • Chinese Madhyamaka
  • Metaphysic
  • Motion
  • Rest

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2939-3_8
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  1. 1.

    This essay and three others were, long after Sengzhao’s death, compiled to form the main core of the treatise known as the Zhao Lun 肇論. For an acceptable English translation of the essay, see Chan 1963. Sengzhao also wrote a commentary on Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra, the Weimojie Suoshuo Jing 維摩詰所說經, which forms a significant portion of the Zhu Weimojiejing 注維摩詰經 traditionally attributed to him. In this paper, traditional Chinese Buddhist texts are cited according to the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō.

  2. 2.

    See Zhao Lun, T 45, 1858: 151b5–6 and b21–24, for the reference to Confucius and Zhuangzi. We discuss this issue in Sect. 4.

  3. 3.

    For Sengzhao, ultimate truth is formless, ineffable, and realizable only by the quiescent mind of a Buddhist sage. None of these characteristics apply to what is said to be real in the WL. Herein, in T 45, 1858: 151a28, Sengzhao regrets that people have the real before their eyes without their knowing it. This indicates that the real in the WL is available to our eyes. Thus, the Tang dynasty commentator Yuankang 元康 is not wrong when he comments that the WL “clarifies [the notion of] existence to expound the teaching of conventional truth.” See Zhaolun Shu 肇論疏, T 45, 1859: 166c16.

  4. 4.

    Nāgārjuna writes in the last verse of the 19th chapter of his Mūlamadhyamakakārikā: “If time depends on things (bhāva), where is there time apart from things? As things do not really exist, where would time exist?” See Saigusa 1985: 548.

  5. 5.

    For this claim, see Apidamo Jushe Lun 阿毘達磨俱舍論, T 29, 1558: 104b28−c29.

  6. 6.

    Zhu Weimojiejing, T 38, 1775: 347a14–17. It is here, but not in the WL, that Sengzhao speaks of the future. We shall come back to this passage in Sect. 4.

  7. 7.

    The two terms, “moment-thing” and “continuum-thing,” are coined by me, and are not present in the WL. However, Buddhist thinkers generally view a person as a psychophysical continuum, and some of them take all things to be momentary. It will be seen that this terminological distinction works quite well for our analytical exposition of Sengzhao’s stance.

  8. 8.

    A line in the Weimojie Suoshuo Jing (T 14, 475: 541b25–26) reads “just like a magical illusion or a lightning flash, things do not wait for each other and do not even abide for one moment (nian 念).” Sengzhao comments thereon: “Things are ever changing and new, like a lightning flash; they arise and perish without waiting [for things of the succeeding moment]. Sixty moments pass away in one finger snap. When things do not even abide for one moment, how can one expect them to abide any longer? As things do not abide, they are like a magical illusion. Being like a magical illusion, they are not real. Not being real, they are empty” (Zhu Weimojiejing, T 38, 1775: 356b12–15). Herein, the temporal nonabidingness of things indirectly implies their emptiness; it is in this manner that Sengzhao’s thought in the WL may be connected to the doctrine of emptiness. Still, we need to bear in mind that Sengzhao’s point in the WL is that things (qua moment-things) do not last for more than one moment, but not that things do not even abide for one moment.

  9. 9.

    Zhao Lun, T 45, 1858: 151b1–6. Immediately before this, Sengzhao writes in T 45, 1858: 151a28−b1: “People already know that past things do not come [to the present. Yet, they] hold that present things can go [to the past]. If past things do not come [to the present], where can present things go?” Elsewhere he notes that “because things do not come [from the past to the present], they do not go from the present to the past” (T 45, 1858: 151c7). It is clear that premise A3 is based analogically on premise A2.

  10. 10.

    Even if the two time periods, past and present, as conceptual constructs, are not real, it remains true from our experiential perspective that the two Obamas differ from one another while conventionally being the same person. Meanwhile, if one insists that the two Obamas are precisely identical, then, given the implausibility of C2, it would appear that present things do go to the past, which falsifies the nonmoving thesis.

  11. 11.

    In Zhu Weimojiejing, T 38, 1775: 346b28, Sengzhao distinguishes a cause (yin 因) from a causal factor (yuan 緣) by noting that a cause gives birth to an effect that follows it, while a causal factor provides assistance to an effect that exists simultaneously with it. Thus, as stated in D1, an effect and its cause do not exist simultaneously.

  12. 12.

    For Sengzhao’s paradoxical conception of the myriad things, see Ho 2013.

  13. 13.

    For more discussions on the topic, see Ho 2013. Connected with this provisional understanding of language is Sengzhao’s thesis of ontic indeterminacy to the effect that given anything X, no linguistic term can truly and conclusively be applied to X in the sense of positing a determinate form or nature therein. See also Ho 2014 for discussions of Sengzhao’s ontological stance.

  14. 14.

    It is said in T 45, 1858: 151c11–12 that “although going and staying are distinct [concepts], they refer to the same thing.”

  15. 15.

    In Sengzhao’s ontology, it seems to me, the more an item is conceptually presented or presentable, the less it is real. For a related exposition, refer to Ho 2014.

  16. 16.

    Zhao Lun, T 45, 1858: 151c2–3. As noted before, the terms “real” and “conventional” here do not stand for ultimate truth and conventional truth of the standard Mādhyamika doctrine of twofold truth. It is not uncommon for a Mādhyamika philosopher to propose a multileveled theory of twofold truth. For instance, Jizang 吉藏 (549–623 CE), the leading Chinese Mādhyamika after Sengzhao, set forth the doctrines of “three levels of two truths (sanchong erdi 三重二諦)” and “four levels of two truths (sichong erdi 四重二諦).” Therefore, we can understand moment-thing and continuum-thing to belong to, respectively, the ontologically higher (hence real) and lower (hence conventional) levels of Sengzhao’s conventional truth, which is, for him, basically the myriad things. For the further discussion of Jizang’s these doctrines, see chapter 8 of this anthology.

  17. 17.

    Zhao Lun, T 45, 1858: 151b5–6 and b21–24. Tan refers to a parable in the Zhuangzi that involves Confucius and his disciple Yan Hui 顏回 and observes that while the Zhuangzi uses the parable to illustrate the ongoing change of things, “Sengzhao uses it to justify his argument that past things stay in the past, and present things stay in the present” (Tan 2008, 200). He claims that Sengzhao criticizes the Zhuangzi’s understanding of motion. However, it is most likely that Sengzhao exploits the understanding to reinforce his nonmoving thesis.

  18. 18.

    For a recent study on this and related issues, see Liu 2010.


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Ho, Ch. (2018). The Nonduality of Motion and Rest: Sengzhao on the Change of Things. In: Wang, Y., Wawrytko, S. (eds) Dao Companion to Chinese Buddhist Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht.

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