Sandokai (Talk 1 of 6)
A series of talks on Zen poem Merging of Difference and Unity
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2004
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
I think we could spend the whole months of October and November studying the Sandokai. We will be using the book, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, Zen Talks on the Sandokai by Suzuki Roshi, edited by Michael Wenger and Mel Weitzman.
Let me say some words about the author of Sandokai, Sekito Kisen, the Japanese name for the Chinese Zen monk, Shitou Xiqian. He lived from 700 to 790, which is fairly early on in the formation of Zen, or Chan in China. Sekito Kisen, or Shitou, was a disciple of Seigen Gyoshi, in the Japanese reading, and Qingyuan Xingshi in the Chinese reading. Some of you know the great Sixth Ancestor of Zen, Huineng. At the time of the Sixth Ancestor, the school of Zen seemed to crystallize, and the style that we now think of as Zen was formed by him. Before that, I suppose you could say that the first five ancestors were a sort of proto-Zen. The characteristic style of Zen wasn't present until the Sixth Ancestor.
The Sixth Ancestor had two great disciples. One of them was Seigen Gyoshi - Sekito's teacher, Qingyuan - and the other was Nangaku Ejo. From the beginning, there were two different flavors that developed from the Sixth Ancestor's style. One of them, the line of Nanyue Huairang, was the side of Zen that is very lofty and profound, brilliant, cutting and foreboding. The shouting, the shoving Zen was on the side of Nanyue Huairang, and became known as the Rinzai line - the Japanese Zen that became associated with the Samurai.
Here is what Suzuki Roshi says about the Qingyuan line, of which Sekito was a member,
The way of Seigen and Sekito has a more gentle quality than Nangaku's way. In Japan we call this the elder brother's way. Nangaku is more like the second or third son, who is often rather naughty. The elder brother may not be so able or so bright, but he is very gentle. This is our understanding when we talk about Soto and Rinzai. Sometimes Soto Zen is called memmitsu no kafu - ‘a very careful and considerate style.' Seigen's way is to find everything within himself. It is to realize the great mind that includes everything and to practice accordingly.
The point of all this is to say that Sekito is a very seminal figure, because he comes at the very beginning of this particular branch of Zen from the Sixth Ancestor. That's why this poem, the Sandokai, is so important. It sets a tone, and sets a template for the teaching for the whole history of Zen that came afterward. It's kind of amazing to think about it - this poem, that was written about the year 750, has set the tone for all of Zen that has been transmitted from China to Japan, and from Japan to the West. And it sets the tone for the kind of fundamental understanding of our school even now.
Sandokai states in poetic fashion the basic and fundamental teaching that inspires everything that comes out of the teaching of the Soto Zen School. The title Sandokai indicates the interpenetration or the merging of sameness and difference. This may sound very abstract and philosophical, but basically what it comes down to is the fact that the ordinary everyday stuff of living, which includes the material world - the world of our passions and feeling and emotions, the world of our problems, our difficulties, our sorrows, our joys - that world and the world of the most profound religious truth and religious reality are not two different things. They are completely interpenetrating, joining each other, and there is no way that there is one without the other.
So the most profound reality and the ordinary everyday things of our lives are not in any way separable. So, in a way, you could say - from the point of view of our practice and the understanding of our school - that there is no difference between religious life and secular life. Everybody, without exception, no matter how far removed they may seem from any religious sensibility, is doing the practice. This is the understanding of the school - religious life and ordinary life are inseparable, but also different. They are the same, but can also be distinguished, and the wonderful and complicated dialectic between these two things is the subtle, sometimes confusing, but always interesting teaching of the Sandokai.
San - do - kai. "San" means all the myriad and differentiated things of this world - all the ordinary things of this world, including not just material things, but also inner things such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is nothing that you could think or experience that isn't distinguished from something else. So the world of distinguishing, the world of mental states, that's the world evoked by "san." And "do" is the opposite. "Do" means oneness, the empty, profound unity of all things. That's the "do" of Sandokai. And "kai" means merging, or as Suzuki Roshi explains in his commentary, it actually comes from a root word that means "to shake hands."
It's kind of beautiful: religious life and ordinary life are shaking hands with that kind of clasp or grasp of two hands which makes one thing. When we're shaking hands, it is one thing - two sides, one thing. I think it is a beautiful image, because it inherently indicates that there is something very warm and friendly in this intimacy, in this merging of difference and unity. It's a sense of friendliness and warmth, a sense that whatever is happening, no matter how far we seem to be going astray, or no matter how dire our situations seem to be, there is a sense of friendliness, warmth, and intimacy. Everything - in some deep sense, if we appreciate the essential feeling of Sandokai - is always okay; even if it is tough, it's always fundamentally okay.
So, we are then going to practice all the religious things that we do - our zazen, our solemn services, and so on - with the same spirit as we live our everyday, ordinary lives. There's nothing holy about it or nothing special about our religious practice - it's the ordinary, everyday thing that we do. And the reverse is also true - that we practice everyday, ordinary things with the kind of respect and attention that we would give to the most important religious moments of our lives.
When you think of your own experience in Soto Zen - the kinds of instruction that is given and the feeling of the instructions - you can see that it comes from the understanding of San-do-kai as the merging of difference and unity, the merging of form and emptiness, and the merging of the mystery of life and the ordinariness of life.
The side of Qingyuan was called the Southern School, or "The Sudden School," and the other side was called the Northern School, or "The Gradual School." So there are these two kinds of Zen; one seems to be advocating a gradual awakening, refinement, and the other seems to be advocating a sudden awakening. But, of course, the point of view of Sandokai is that these two things are like shaking hands. Sudden and gradual, as Sandokai will say, are just two sides of the same coin. They are mutually supported and mutually necessary.
So that's one aspect of the poem. Perhaps one of the reasons why Sekito felt compelled to write the poem was to speak not only of the dichotomy between the sudden and the gradual of the Northern and Southern schools, but also to address the even deeper dichotomy between the oneness of reality and the multiplicity of reality.
Here is a comment by Suzuki Roshi on this question of differentiation and equality - "san" and "do." This is something that I think is a very profound and beautiful saying of Suzuki Roshi:
Differentiation is equality, and things have value because they are different. If men and women are the same, then the distinctions between men and women have no value. Because men and women are different, men are valuable as men, and women are valuable as women. To be different is to have value. In this sense, all things have equal, absolute value. Each thing has absolute value and thus is equal to everything else. We are normally involved with standards of evaluation: exchange value, material value, spiritual value, and moral value. Because you have some standard, you can say ‘He is good,' or ‘He is not so good.' The moral standard defines the value of people. But the moral standard is always changing; a virtuous person is not always virtuous. If you compare him with someone like Buddha, he is not so good. Good or bad is arrived at by some standard of evaluation. But because each thing is different, each thing has its own value. That value is absolute.
In other words, apart from the comparison of one thing from another, or using some standard to evaluate things, there is a sense that each thing, just because it exists as a specific differentiated thing, has an absolute value.
The mountain is not more valuable because it is high; the river is not less valuable because it is low. On the other hand, because the mountain is high, it is a mountain, and it has absolute value. The quality of the mountain and the quality of the river are completely different; because they are different, they have equal value; and equal value means absolute value.
For me this is a very beautiful truth, and it goes so much against our psychological reality in which we are constantly measuring ourselves - against some person, or against some standard that we have internalized, and which we got from somebody in our culture or family. We are constantly evaluating and stacking up one thing up against another, never appreciating our uniqueness and the uniqueness of each and every thing in this world. We do not appreciate that this uniqueness is exactly what makes each and every thing in this world utterly valuable and equal in its value to everything else.
This truth, I think, has never been more important to recognize, because the world is getting smaller and smaller all the time, and we are thrown into contact with more difference all the time. And so we need to appreciate the differences between peoples and ideas and things in this world. Things are different. We can't make everything the same, but to appreciate the difference as absolute value, rather than as a comparative value, is really important. Each thing is to be completely appreciated, not to be compared or evaluated, but to be completely appreciated as it is.
And, of course, there is also a time for evaluation and comparison. If you go to an auto dealer to buy a car, usually you don't close your eyes and say that the cars are all absolutely of equal value, so give me a cheap car and I will pay top dollar for it. Usually you don't do that. Usually you have to evaluate and compare. So in this world there is also a necessity for evaluation and comparison. This is the real challenge. Can we find a way to appropriately make evaluations and comparisons without ever forgetting this other side? In other words, can we live in the world of "san," the world of differentiation and evaluation, and never forget about the world of "do"? Can we choose one thing over another without having antipathy toward that which we have not chosen? Can we appreciate everything, even those things that we are not in alignment with or in agreement with?
This is really hard and this is our practice. This is the only way, actually. How else are you going to live in the world as it actually is, and be practical and do what needs to be done, without too much suffering? This is really hard. It is almost impossible. But this is our practice.
I guess I have been talking about the title all this time, and so on to the first part of the poem:The mind of the great sage of India Has intimately been communicated from west to east.
The The mind of the great sage of India is the Buddha, and it is the Buddha's mind that is being communicated. The Buddha's spirit, essence, point of view, way of living, way of being, and way of understanding are being communicated intimately from one place to another. The mind in this case is the Chinese character shin, which also means heart or consciousness. Consciousness of Buddha is being intimately communicated from west to east. Consciousness, as we have discussed before, includes thoughts and emotions and feelings - all the phenomena of the heart and mind.
Sometimes the word "intimate" is also translated as "secret" - secret in the sense that it is so intimate that it can't be spoken. Something that I can explain to you is not that intimate, because already I have externalized it. But the mind of the great sage of India is more intimate than that. It cannot be externalized. It can only be secretly, intimately, communicated from west to east. That's why in Zen the transmission is called mind-to-mind transmission, or face-to-face transmission. It is only conveyed through warm, mutual relationship. If you study something that's an external skill, you could learn that without intimate relationship or intimate communication. But the consciousness of the great sage of India can only be transmitted through warm, mutual relationship, and in a way that is beyond any external explanation. Also there is the Chinese character here that means "mutual." Although it says it is communicated from west to east, there is a sense in which the communication is so intimate that it has to be mutual. It is actually going both ways.
So, the mind of the great sage of India is, in both directions, mutually entrusted and flowing - flowing back and forth in deep, mutual trust from west to east. These lines are very beautiful and heartfelt. In English they come across as a very simple transaction - there's a mind, and it is being hauled over from here to here. But actually there are all these other dimensions - mutuality, friendship, trust, and warmth - that are hard to convey in English.
So that's enough for tonight. What I would like to do now is have you discuss how you see this essential, fundamental koan of life. How does this appear to you? How does this strike you, this teaching of san-do-kai? The thing about Sandokai, and why it appears as a koan, is that we usually get caught on one side or the other, right? We get caught in the relative world. We don't remember that the absolute world is right there. Or the opposite: We get caught in the absolute world, and as soon as the relative world appears, we suffer. In other words, we stick to one side or the other, and when we stick, it means we have resistance to the other side. If I stick to emptiness when form arises, I am resistant and I'm suffering. If I stick to form when emptiness arises, I suffer.
So let's talk about how Sandokai appears in your life and how you resist. Where is your resistance? How do you resist? Where is it that you get caught? Where is it that you suffer?