Sandokai (Talk 3 of 6)
A series of talks on Zen poem "Merging of Difference and Unity" (Part Three)
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 1, 2004
Abridged and edited by Barbara ByrumAll the objects of the senses interact yet do not. Interacting brings involvement. Otherwise each keeps its place
In Buddhism there is always a return to the mechanics of perception, to an analysis of perception, because Buddhism’s thrust is essentially psychological. Buddhism always starts from “How do we experience the world?” So it’s psychological rather than theological, which asks “What is God?” Buddhism is not concerned with what is God, what is the Ultimate, or what is the Absolute. Buddhism is concerned with how we perceive and experience the world, because it is in the way that we perceive the world that we have a lot of problems, and that’s what Buddhism is addressing – those problems. Since the concern of Buddhism or Buddha or Buddhadharma is a way of dealing with our human suffering, and that means the root spiritual causes of it, not only the physical causes of it, we start with processing how we experience and think, how we make the world, and how we make the self.
There are the senses and the objects, which are mentioned in this couplet. The senses are called “gates,” although the word “gate” is not used in this translation. It is used in the Chinese, in which the senses are called “gates,” or sometimes “doors.” So there are these doors, and there are objects in the world. When the objects come in through the gates – where there is contact with the object and the gate – there is consciousness, and with that consciousness we have what we call “experiences.” And that is what our world is. In other words, we really don’t know exactly what the object is. There seems to be some object, but we really don’t know its nature. All we know is that we have this awareness. So like everything we experience, we make an image of it, and it is that image that we interact with.
This is an analysis that is frequently given in Buddhism. It is commonplace to know that the senses interact with the world. Even if we didn’t hear of Buddhism, we would know that the senses and the world are an interaction, and that there is an exchange going on. So that part we know. But it says here they don’t fully interact. They interact and they don’t interact. That’s the part that is startling. So the senses interact – they make the world, they interact with objects and with each other to make a whole experience – but at the same time, they don’t interact with objects and with each other.
So remember the whole, overarching concept here is these two viewpoints – san and do. San is the world of discrimination, differentiation, objects, concepts, and distinctions. Do is the world of oneness, darkness; where you can’t distinguish one thing from another; where there aren’t any objects, or even any experiences, because in oneness there is only oneness. There is no distinction between one experience and another, between one thing and another.
So we live in the world of san, and that’s the world of our experience, a world that will cause us, no matter what we do in that world, to suffer. And in that world the senses and their objects interact. In the Chinese characters there is this beautiful sense of the senses and objects flowing together – flowing and rotating and merging and mingling in and out of each other. So this flow and interaction takes place. But in the world of do, there is no interaction, no perception, no world, no objects. Interaction and non-interaction are going on all the time, but what we are aware of is only the interaction. However, when we see something, there’s also, at the same time that we are experiencing seeing something, there is nothing to see and no seeing. When we hear something, even though we experience the sound, at the same time there is no hearing and there is nothing to hear.
This is the same as the Heart Sutra, which says that even though we know we have eyes, ears, nose, and tongue, there are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no objects of sound, no objects of sight. It doesn’t mean that there is a kind of blankness or a “lights out,” but rather that in the world of do the senses and the objects cannot really be distinguished from one another. The sight and the object of sight are co-created. It exists as one entity. That’s how seeing takes place. Without an object there is no sight. Without a sound there is no hearing. Hearing and sound exist as one. They are not actually two different things. When the sense and the object are distinguished, there is this person who sees or hears. When the senses and the objects are not distinguished, then also there is no seeing, no hearing, no sensing, and also no person. There is nothing you could separate out and say “This is the ear, this is the sound, or this is myself.” Instead there is not a blankness or nothingness, but instead of “I ...see... that,” there is all of reality appearing on that moment, a moment that if we experienced it in its fullness would be a kind of enlightenment experience. And if we experience it as we ordinarily do, we’d say, “Oh, I heard a bird just then.”
In the world of do the whole of reality appears in overwhelming intensity on every moment of perception. If we experience it as a satori moment we might say, “No self, no person, no hearing” – just the entire universe appearing right here and now. And sometimes we do experience that. Although sesshin can be difficult, I think that one of the things that makes sesshin pleasing is that we often have that experience. If we don’t have it in a powerful way, we can have it in a more quiet way, in feeling oneness in acts of perception, or even in thinking.
So we have these two sides to every moment of perception or experience. On the one side, interaction, involvement, a world, many things flowing in and out of each other, perception, time, space, identity, problems. On the other hand, there is just this reality. Nothing else. Everything contained right here, so you don’t need anything. It’s complete. You don’t have to describe it or say anything about it, or make a big deal about it. It’s just life – complete, magnificent.
The Chinese characters here are beautifully worked out. You have the contrast between the flow of the interaction between world and senses, and where the English says, “Each thing keeps its own place,” the Chinese character actually means “to stop.” The contrast here is between the flowing, the differentiation, and total stopping. So all things interact, and at the same time, they are completely stopped. Every moment the world completely and utterly stops in “do.” We are unfamiliar with this world that we are living in. We need to learn to appreciate, and that’s the point of our practice, to sit and learn to appreciate that aspect of our life.
So I will read a few pages of Suzuki Roshi:
The text says, "All of the objects of the senses interact, and yet do not." Although [he speaks about it in a little different way, and that’s why I chose to talk about it in a different way] things are interrelated, everyone – every being can be the boss. Each one of us can be a boss because we are so closely related. If I say “Mel,” Mel is already not just Mel. He is one of Zen Center’s students, so to see Mel, is to see Zen Center. If you see Mel you see what Zen Center is. But if you think, ‘Oh he is just Mel,’ then your understanding is not good enough. You don’t know who Mel is. If you have a good understanding of things themselves, you will understand the whole world through things. Each one of us is the boss of the whole world. And when you have that understanding, you will realize things are interrelated, yet they are also independent. Each one of us is absolutely and completely independent. There is nothing to compare. You are just you.
We have to understand things in two ways. One way is to understand things as interrelated. The other way is to understand ourselves as quite independent from everything. When we include everything as ourselves, we are completely independent because there is nothing with which to compare ourselves. If there is only one thing, how can you compare anything to it? Because there is nothing to compare yourselves to, this is absolute independence – not interrelated, absolutely independent.
Now the text says, "All the objects of the senses." The senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body – are gates, and sense objects enter the gates. They are interrelated and at the same time, independent. For eyes there is something to see, for ears there is something to hear, for the nose something to smell, for the tongue something to taste, for the body, something to touch. There are five kinds of sense objects for the five kinds of sense organs. This is Buddhist common sense. Referring to them in the poem is just another way of saying 'everything." It is the same as saying "flowers and trees, birds and stars, streams and mountains," but instead we say "each sense and its objects." So the various beings we see and hear are interrelated, but at the same time, each being is absolutely independent and has its own value.
So I will skip a little bit:
"Interacting brings involvement." A bird comes from the south in spring and goes back in the fall, crossing various mountains, rivers, and oceans. In this way, things are interrelated, endlessly everywhere. “Otherwise, each keeps its place.” This means that even though the bird stays in the same place, in some lake, for instance, his home is not only the lake but also the whole world. That is how a bird lives.
That’s nice, how he just uses the bird for something very complicated, if you want to make it that way.
So, going on with the poem,Sights vary in quality and form, sounds differ as pleasing or harsh. Refined and common speech come together in the dark, clear and murky phrases are distinguished in the light.
In the aspect of do, each thing, each experience, is all inclusive – the bird lives in the entire universe, even though the bird is just at the lake. In san, the world of differentiation and perception, there’s always judgment. This is the understanding in the Buddhist analysis of perception, and I really think that is true to life, that wherever there is perception and distinction, there is always some judgment. Just to distinguish things – to say this or that – is already to say that I like this better than that, or that this is superior to that. Distinguishing things one from the other is already to have preferences.
So it says, “Sounds may be pleasing or harsh.” Sounds are either music or noise. We like the music and consider noise to be an annoyance, and one person’s music is another person’s noise. And even one’s own music is noise if you are in a bad mood, or if you have heard it too often, or you aren’t in the mood for it. These distinctions are also subject to conditions, and they are constantly flowing and changing.
In these lines we come to that interesting idea that I mentioned last time, which is such an important embedded concept in the Asian languages, and also, oddly enough, in the Hebrew language – the idea that words and things are almost the same. In some of these languages, the word for “word” and the word for “thing” are literally the same word. Depending on the context, you translate it as word or thing. So maybe these are pre-dualistic languages, or non-dualistic languages, and they have these great distinctions embedded in the languages. In the thought that flows from these cultures you have this oneness – God, or Nirvana, or something beyond any distinctions of the world – and this is contrasted with the world of multiplicity, things, words. Language is an analogue of that world.
The reason I am mentioning this is because here these lines are not just about speech. They are not only about speech and words, but they are also about all perceptions, all experiences.
“Dark” is a good image for oneness, because in the dark there’s no distinguishing anything from anything. In the dark there isn’t anything. So in the dark there’s no multiplicity, there’s no image. In the dark you don’t know if it’s a nice object, or not a very nice object. You don’t know, because all objects merge together. So there’s no distinctions, there’s no judgments. In the light, there are lots of distinctions: clear, murky, correct, incorrect, understanding and language, beautiful objects, broken things, are all distinguished in the light.
Since this is about the merging of dark and light, the merging of san and do, that means that at one and the same time we do distinguish things, and we do make judgments based on our karma and our understanding and our conditioning at the moment, and at the same time we know that there are no judgments that are fundamentally holding. So we know that our judgments and our opinions and our perceptions are simply judgments and opinions and perceptions. On this plane of san, this is not the only world, the only way things are. So we don’t think of our judgments and our opinions and our perceptions, “This is really the truth.” We think of them as our judgments, our opinions, and our perceptions. So we see san, and we also see do, and therefore we have a little bit of letting go in all of our perceptions.
I was talking with someone the other day about a national meeting of the Soto Zen priests in America. We had an afternoon devoted to a discussion of what we think the training is of a Soto Zen priest. We had all these small groups, and we all reported out. Although different words were used to describe it, there was a general agreement. Everybody had the same ideas, which makes sense – they’re all Soto Zen priests! They pretty much all had the same basic ideas about what a priest was and how a priest was made. So I remarked in the meeting, “Gee, this is really great. We’re ahead of ourselves here. We really have a general agreement, so let’s talk about it and see if we can define that agreement.” And then started the tremendous disagreement, and everybody then disagreed on everything. There was no agreement. So when you have agreement, and you start defining the agreement, it becomes hard to agree. So at the end of this long, sometimes contentious conversation, I said, “Despite all this, I still believe what I said in the beginning, that we actually agree on all this, but when it comes to defining that agreement, we get caught in our words, in our concepts, and it looks like we disagree.” And people seemed to agree with that statement. [laughter] So there was a good feeling about this disagreement, because it was true that we agreed and disagreed. So on one level we disagreed, and on another level, we completely agreed.
So the trick of our living is to define and argue where we need to in the world of “san,” the world of distinctions in which we live. At the same time, we never forget that we’re actually in accord about what’s really important, because we are all human beings that live and die, and love and want to be loved. In that we are all exactly the same, and there is fundamental agreement all the time. And so we have to operate on the level of distinctions as cleverly and honorably as possible, but never losing sight of the other side. I say the other side, but when I promote the idea of seeing both sides at the same time, I don’t mean that you have double vision. It’s hard to keep your balance with double vision because things don’t appear in a solid way. So it’s not that you have double vision. If you have double vision, if you had a concept of “san” and a concept of “do,” and you were trying to hold in mind at the same time both these concepts, that’s not what I mean by this double vision. It basically amounts to seeing whatever you’re seeing, feeling whatever you’re feeling, hearing whatever you’re hearing, with some freedom, without sticking to it all that much. It’s like when you say in an argument, “Never mind what I have said. Listen to what I mean.”
So what happened in our conversation at the meeting was that people got stuck on what they said. You get caught when you get stuck on what you said, and when you start defending what you said, or what you saw, or what you heard, and when you stopped realizing that there was something else going on. So you try not to get caught, and at the same time, you try to be very careful with what you say, and try to say what you mean, when the meaning is not exactly in the words.
If I say “san” and “do,” and I say two sides, and I delineate two concepts, this is already getting into conceptual distinctions. What the Sandokai is trying to say is exactly the opposite of conceptual, because it is saying if you really appreciate concepts and perceptions and judgments, which are themselves already conceptual, then you will see that all concepts really have as their basis something beyond concepts. So you never need to get caught up in your concepts, your images of things. You have to use them to live, to communicate, to appreciate your life and enjoy it, but not to get stuck in them. You have to always be ready to say, “Oh, I’ll let that go. It wasn’t what I really meant. That’s just what I said.”
So, finally, I’ll read a shorter passage from Suzuki Roshi where he talks about this section, where he brings up the koan of hot and cold, which is exactly to this point:
Do you know this famous koan? A monk asked as master, “It is so hot, how is it possible to escape from the heat?” The master said, “Why don’t you go to a place that is neither cold nor hot?” The disciple said, “Is there a place that is neither cold nor hot?” The master said, “When it is cold, you should be cold buddha. When it is hot, you should be hot buddha.
I don’t think the koan exactly says that. It either says that when you are cold, you should be utterly cold, or it says, when it is cold, the cold should kill you off. It is actually what it says, but for him this is an interpretative way of saying exactly the same thing. That’s what it means by “buddha.” The word “buddha” means to be completely killed off.
I like the way he says it:
When it is cold, you should be cold buddha. When it is hot, you should be hot buddha. You may think when you practice zazen you will attain a stage where it is neither cold nor hot, where there is no pleasure or suffering. You may ask if we practice zazen is it possible to have that kind of attainment? The true teacher will say, ‘When you suffer, you should suffer. When you feel good, you should feel good. Sometimes you should be a suffering buddha. Sometimes you should be a crying buddha. And sometimes you should be a very happy buddha." This happiness is not the same as the kind of happiness that people usually have.
And although he doesn’t say this, I think that it is also implied here that the suffering - and also the feeling good - is not exactly the same as the suffering or happiness or feeling good that people usually have. There is a little difference, but that little difference is significant.
"Because buddhas know both sides of reality, they have this composure. They are not disturbed by something bad, or ecstatic about something good. They have a true joy that will always be with them. The basic tone of life remains the same, and in it there are some happy melodies and some sad melodies. That is the feeling an enlightened person may have. It means that when it is hot, or when you are sad, you should be completely involved in being hot or being sad without caring for happiness. When you are happy, you should just enjoy the happiness. We can do this because we are ready for anything. Even though circumstances change suddenly, we don’t mind. Today we may be very happy, and the next day, we don’t know what will happen to us. When we are ready for what will happen tomorrow, then we can enjoy today completely. You do this not by studying in a lecture but through your practice."
So that’s pretty good if we can understand that. That’s the great virtue of Sandokai.