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Sandokai (Talk 2 of 6))

A series of talks on Zen poem "Merging of Difference and Unity" (Part Two)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Dec 01, 2004
In topic: General Topics in Buddhism
In talk two on the Sandokai, Norman speaks of the nuances between one-ness and many-ness, quoting often from Suzuki Roshi's "Branching Streams Flow in the Dark."
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Sandokai  A series of talks on Zen poem Merging of Difference and Unity (Part Two)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | December 1, 2004

Edited and abridged by Barbara Byrum         

While human faculties are sharp or dull,
The way has no Northern or Southern Ancestors. 

The line “While human faculties are sharp or dull, the way has no Northern or Southern Ancestors,” refers, I think, to the basic teachings of Zen that admit two different approaches.  You could say Northern or Southern, or it is probably more accurate to say Soto and Rinzai, using the Japanese terms.  In the Platform Sutra it looks like Southern Zen wins, and Northern Zen loses.  The Southern Zen is the sudden, sharp, brilliant Zen, which emphasizes self accomplishment and enlightenment.  The Northern Zen is the dull and gradual approach, emphasizing faith and other power, rather than self power and involves not so much attaining enlightenment by one’s own great efforts, but by trusting in the Buddha’s illumination.   

Both the Northern school and the Southern school of Zen went on for some time, and both of them actually included both these tendencies.  For instance, we think of Rinzai Zen as stressing the sudden enlightenment, and Soto Zen as emphasizing gradual polishing and gradual awakening.  But in Rinzai Zen even though there is a big push for satori, it is always said that satori is just the beginning of the path, after which you have to work for many, many years on polishing your character.  So they have both sudden and gradual.  And the same is found in Soto Zen.  You might think the sudden breakthrough is not emphasized, and that’s it’s gradual, but it is not really gradual, because gradual implies stages of development, and Soto Zen has a strong resistance to any idea of development or stages.   

Rinzai and Soto Zen are both gradual and both sudden.  Even though our way emphasizes beginner’s mind and has no stages, at the same time there’s a very high value placed on experience – years of experience and the kind of sense of mellowing in the practice. This experience is valued and validated much more than brilliance or understanding or any development.  Just hang in there and do the practice over time.   

Concerning the line “While human faculties are sharp or dull,” Suzuki Roshi wrote: 

So there is no smart person or dull person.  Either way it is not so easy.  There is some difficulty for both the smart person and the dull person.  For instance, because he is not so smart, the dull person must study hard and read one book over and over again.  A smart person forgets quite easily.  He may learn quickly, but what he learns may not stay long.  For the dull person, it takes time to remember something, but if he reads it over and over and remembers it, it will not go away so soon.  Smart or dull may not make so much difference.

I think that is the effort in Zen teachings.  I don’t think that Zen is taught by sharp and cutting and discriminating words, or even by amazing and heroic deeds.  I think that Zen teachings are conveyed by a person who is just completely willing to be themselves.  Some Zen teachers work in the field, and other Zen teachers are scholars.  There are all kinds – they teach by just hanging around and being the person they are, manifesting that, and being willing to share that life with others. 

The understanding that we are conveying is not the wisdom that we are speaking, or even the wisdom that we are doing in some identifiable way.  It is just being fully the person that we are, each one of us, and that is the dignity of our particular path, which seems so counter intuitive to everything that we have been taught.  We are supposed to do something great, distinguish ourselves.  But we are already, each one of us, distinguished enough.  We are absolutely distinguished, each one of us.  The problem is that we are not willing just to be what we are distinguished to be.  In our tradition, in our practice, everyone is given his or her dignified place.  The idea is to allow ourselves to settle into that over time.   

Then the next lines:         

The spiritual source shines clear in the light,
The branching streams flow on in the dark.

So now it gets a little complicated.  Now remember, this is the San-do-kai, difference and unity, merged.  Instead of difference and unity, we could say many-ness and oneness.  So the Sandokai, and our particularly practice, of all the styles of practicing Buddhism, is the interplay of these two things – of many-ness and oneness.  I say two things, but they are not things, and they are not even concepts.  Maybe it would be better to think of them as feelings, some kind of feeling or orientation toward life. Approaching life from the standpoint of many-ness, or approaching life from the standpoint of oneness, would be two different kinds of feelings for how you lived your life.   

What this poem says is that we need to recognize that these two seemingly different feelings –the oneness approach, which is the religious life, and the many-ness approach, which is the worldly life, might lead to different choices and to different kinds of energies being applied in worldly life.  But what the Sandokai tells us is that, in fact, these two things have to merge and are not different.  They are not opposite things.  It’s not a choice that one makes one way or the other.  It is a dynamic interplay: the ways in which these two things are one thing, and then not one thing, and then one thing again.  The dialectic between these two apparently different concepts, different sides, is what the poem is talking about.   

So, what is oneness?  Oneness is the appreciation of the empty nature of phenomena, what we were studying all the months when we were working with Nagarjuna, and to some extent when we were working with Vimilakirti Sutra.  Oneness is the recognition that all things are empty of any separate fixed identity, that all things are flowing in and out of one another, and that all things are mutually created moment by moment by each other, in an endless and beginingless interplay.  So emptiness is oneness.   

And then many-ness is the world of multiplicity, the ordinary conventional world of phenomena, in which one thing is appearing, then another thing is appearing, and then another thing is appearing.  That means not only external things, but also internal things – thoughts, emotions, feelings. 

So oneness and many-ness are really different.  And not.  There is no oneness “out there,” and there is no many-ness which is not at the same time oneness.  So everything is fine.  The religious life is already complete in the world as it is.  So there’s no problem, but then we look at our lives, and we think that there’s a problem.  We actually experience a problem.  We actually experience suffering, and we’re confused, and we need to figure out something, because otherwise we are crashing around making trouble.  No matter what the Sandokai says, there’s real trouble afoot, and we are in the middle of it, even though there is no reason for it, even though there is no problem actually.  In a way this doesn’t matter to us, because we experience a problem, and that has to be recognized and dealt with.  So that’s why even though there really isn’t any difference between oneness and many-ness, and even though the teaching that the Sandokai is talking about is already the way things are, we have to admit that there are problems that we experience.  Studying the Sandokai and doing our practice, and doing all these extreme things that we do, are just to try to get back to where we have been all along.   

Religious practice usually stresses the oneness side, and that makes sense, because that is the side we usually miss, right?  The many-ness side of life is what we are all conditioned to, and we approach life in that way.  As a counterbalance to that, the religious life is always stressing the oneness side.  So if we are inclined toward religious practice, we would very much be inclined to think that oneness is much better – it’s truer, it’s more real.  It’s more holy.  It’s more spiritual.  The burden of the Sandokai is to show us that that is faulty thinking, that that is actually not so.   

So the first thing we have to do is get beyond our obsession with many-ness and the sense that that is the only thing there is.  We have to get beyond that to oneness.  And then we have to get beyond oneness back to many-ness in the spirit of oneness, the recognition of oneness.  That is Sandokai – the merging of oneness and many-ness.   

So these lines, “The spiritual source shines clear in the light, branching streams flow on in the dark,” are beginning to set forth this dialectic between many-ness and oneness.   

In the Chinese characters you have the radical for clouds and water in the “spiritual source.”  So the suggestion is a softness like a cloud, a moist cloud gently floating in the sky.  Then the other part of the compound has a character that has in it the moon and the sun.  The moon and the sun together suggest a kind of subdued light, but not an intense, bright light – a gentle, glowing light.  So clouds and gentle light are suggested in the characters “spiritual source.” 

The next two characters suggest purity.  Spiritual source, with a suggestion of glowing, and then the idea of purity.  So something gentle and lit, but not burning lit - quiet, peaceful.  There’s a feeling of static.  You’re just there, quietly glowing, not pulsing, not doing anything, just quietly glowing.   

The whole poem is built on parallel lines, as Chinese poetry so often is.  Where you have “spiritual source,” the parallel is “branching streams,” but in Chinese, the words aren’t actually “streams.”  The words mean “branches”  in the sense of differentiations, and in Chinese the same word that is here translated as “branching streams” also means teachings, viewpoints, or sects, as in religious sects.  In other words, the contrast is between this softly glowing source, which is like a bright beacon in the sky and the proliferation of viewpoints, attitudes, and things.   

So in English they usually translate “branching streams” in order to parallel the idea of the source.  The source suggests a source of water, like the source of a brook.  So from this source spring many branching streams, but it doesn’t just mean streams; it also means viewpoints and teachings.  It is interesting that in Chinese and Japanese the idea of words, language, and teachings, is conflated with the idea of things, events, and multiplicity.  So there’s a suggestion that a word and thing are the same.  Ideas and things are not fundamentally different.   

To stick to the Chinese parallelism, you could translate like this: “The gentle source shines pure/  the proliferating branches darkened flowingly.”  It’s bad English, but that kind of preserves the contrast in Chinese.  So: source, branch, light, dark, purity, flow.   

Suzuki Roshi’s words on this part of the poem stress that the source, which is the oneness, is just there – it doesn’t do anything.  It can’t be named, it can’t be pointed out, and it can’t be distinguished.  It’s just there, and yet it’s not there “elsewhere,” because you can’t separate that source from anything.  It’s not something out there, or behind things.  It can’t be separated out from things or sorted out from things.  It is the things.  It’s kind of like gravity: We can think of gravity as a force “out there,” but without the things on which gravity is acting, there’s no gravity, because gravity is not a separate force.  You couldn’t go out and fill up a basket full of gravity, or catch some gravity and say, “Oh, here is a little piece of gravity here,” because there is no gravity apart from the things that are affected by it. 

It is the same with being.  We say that there is being, but there is no being that you could capture outside of beings that “are.”  And yet you can feel the being-ness of being, and you can feel gravity.  We can’t understand ourselves without the idea of being, and we can’t understand how we are stuck to the earth without the idea of gravity.   

So the source is not anything different from the branching streams, and yet it is not the same as the branching streams either.  So the source is always supportive, always necessary, always present, always unnamable.  

Here in the poem light is associated with oneness, which is noumena.  Noumena means “beyond change and decay.”  So light is noumena and dark is phenomena.  Light is associated with oneness, and darkness is associated with many-ness.  Light is associated with ultimate purity, and darkness with suffering, change, and decay.   

But the funny thing, and what makes the Sandokai so interesting and so complicated, and so hard to talk about, is that as the poem evolves, the images of light and dark are used in exactly the opposite way.  So later on light will suggest many-ness.  Things in the light can be seen and distinguished, and things in the dark are all the same.  So you could see how light and darkness could be used in either way.  So later on it becomes confusing, because the poem suggests that these things that are being talked about transform into each other.  Oneness transforms into many-ness and vice versa.   

There is a time to distinguish oneness and many-ness, a time to confuse oneness and many-ness, and a time for oneness and many-ness to merge and change places.  It is a lot like life.  Life is really hard to define and figure out.  One’s self is really hard to define and figure out, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we figure ourselves out and define ourselves.  I think that accounts for the great charm of Suzuki Roshi’s approach to Buddhadharma and also the impossibility of ever pinning him down.  He is always resisting hard and fast definition.  It’s always, “It could be like this.  It could be like that.”   

So, as Suzuki Roshi stresses, we sit down in zazen, and then we get up.  And we do whatever it is that we’re going to do with a sense of not entirely knowing, ever, the measure or the true meaning of what it is we are doing or who we are.  We are present to our activity, but not necessarily knowing what it is that we are doing, or who it is we are doing it.  So that is his spirit.  That is what he is always talking about.   

So let me read you his words on this topic:          

The spiritual source shines clear in the light.  The source is something wonderful, something beyond description, beyond our words.  What Buddha talked about was the source of the teaching, beyond discrimination of right or wrong.  This is important.  Whatever your mind can conceive is not the source itself.  The source is something only a Buddha knows.

And by “Buddha”  he doesn’t mean another person.  He means the knowing of the source itself, which no person can ever manifest.          

Only when you practice zazen do you have it.

So when you practice zazen, although you don’t know it, you are sitting in the middle of it, and I think that often one feels that in zazen.  You don’t think it or know it, but you feel that you are sitting in the middle of it.           

Yet whether you practice it or not, or whether you realize it or not, something exists, even before our realization of it that is the source.  It is not something you can taste.  The true source is neither tasty or tasteless. 

In the last of these four lines, Sekito says, "According with sameness is still not enlightenment.”  So to recognize the truth is not enlightenment either.  Often we feel that the truth is something we should be able to see or figure out.  But in Buddhism that is not the truth.  The truth is something beyond our ability to describe, beyond our thinking.  Truth can also mean “the wonderful source”, wonderful beyond our description.  This is the source of all being. 

By the way, when we say “being,” “being” includes our thoughts as well as the many things we see.  Usually when we say “truth,” we mean some underlying principle.  That the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, or that the earth turns in a certain direction is truth.  But in Buddhism that is not ultimate truth; it is also “being,” being that is included in big mind.  Whatever is in our mind – big or small, right or wrong – that is being.  If you think about something in terms of right or wrong you might say, “This is eternal truth.”  But for us that idea of eternal truth is also on the side of being, because it exists simply in our mind.            

If you think that you experience the truth, or if you think that you experience enlightenment, this is not the truth, this is not enlightenment, because as soon as you define and hold it, it becomes conceptual.  It becomes another thing in the world.  You might think, “I like this thing better; it’s a higher class thing,” but it is still basically no different.           

And then he says a thought I have often appreciated:                     

We do not make much distinction between things that exist outside and things that exist within ourselves.        

So the distinction is not something between the outside of me or the inside of me.  The distinction is between things and the source, which I can never think or know in any way.  And that’s the point of practice, because with practice you could say it like this: In zazen you touch with your body the source.  Even though you can’t conceptualize it or grasp it, you touch it with your whole being in zazen.  So that is the distinction that is important to the Sandokai and is important in our practice - not the distinction between inside and outside.  In fact, it becomes very liberating to recognize that there isn’t that much of a distinction between what’s inside and what’s outside.              

You may say that something exists outside of yourself, you may feel that it does, but it isn’t true.  A hasty person might say, “The river is over there,” but if you think more aboutit you will find that the river is in your mind as a kind of thought.  That things exist outside of ourselves is a dualistic, primitive, shallow understanding of things. 

So the characters of the first line, reigen myoni kokettari, refer to ri, the source of the teaching beyond words.  The true source, ri, is beyond our thinking; it is pure and stainless.  When you describe it, you put a limitation on it.  That is, you stain the truth or put a mark on it.  In the Heart Sutra it says, “no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no objects of mind,” and so forth.  That is ri

The next line reads shiha anni ruchusu – “the branching streams flow on in the dark.” Shiha means “branch stream.”  Sekito says shiha for poetic reasons: to make these two lines of the poem beautiful and to contrast shiha with reigen, “source.”  Reigen is more noumenal, and shiha is more phenomenal.  To say “noumenal” or “phenomenal” is not exactly right, but tentatively I have to say so.  That is why it is good to remember the more technical terms ri and ji here.  Ji, which is used in the third line here, refers to the phenomenal – to something you can see, hear, smell, or taste as well as to objects of thought or ideas.  Whatever can be introduced into our consciousness is ji.  Something that is beyond our consciousness – the noumenal – is ri.         

In the next lines of the poem, “Grasping at things is surely delusion/according with sameness is still not enlightenment,”  “things” and the “branching streams” mean the same thing.  The character that means “things” in this line is the same character that is written on the han, when it says, “Life and death is the great matter.”  The word for matter is the same word for thing – the great thing, the great matter.  It’s also the same word that means “business.”  So one could translate the words on the han as, “Life and death is big business.”  So this “thing” here is “business”, meaning activity, the flow of energy.           

So, the flow of energy is living.  Getting stuck on it, grabbing hold of it, even defining it, is fundamentally the essence of delusion.  The essence of delusion is trying to grab hold of or trying to stick to this ongoing flow of activity or business.         

There is nothing wrong with activity itself.  It’s not problematic in and of itself.  It’s the sticking to it – that’s the problem.  Defining it is already a kind of sticking.  Knowing something is already a kind of sticking.  That is why Suzuki Roshi says that not knowing is the intimate mind.  Sticking is the fundamental problem, and it is fundamental because the mind seems built to stick and define and know.  Naturally that’s the function of mind.  So we really do have a big problem here, because delusion seems built in to the functioning of the mind.           

The next line says, “According with sameness is still not enlightenment.”           

This is very much what we would not think, right?  According with sameness should be enlightenment, but it’s not.  Why is that?  Because to merge with oneness, to accord with sameness, would be to conceptualize oneness.  As soon as you saw a oneness apart from difference and thought, “I’m leaving the world of sticking to activity behind, and I’m merging with sameness,” – as soon as you had that feeling, you would be creating a fake sameness.                 

I do not think that these lines are saying that we shouldn’t accord with sameness, that we shouldn’t merge with the pattern.  I think we should.  In zazen we do work hard to quiet the mind and enter oneness, to have an experience of oneness, to go beyond the ordinary confusion of the mind.  That’s what we’re trying to do, so the point here is not that you should avoid that.  The point is, don’t get stuck there.  Don’t think that that is the end-all and be-all of your practice.  You have to go beyond that.  The oneness we can experience and enjoy is encouraging and important, but it is not the end of the story for our practice.  Sandokai means precisely that we have to go beyond sticking to many-ness and merging with oneness, to an ever changing meeting with whatever comes in living.  And that’s Sandokai – going beyond oneness, going beyond many-ness, while holding both of them in their proper places.           

So there is a kind of sense in which the poem is always proposing something and taking it away, proposing something, and taking it away.  And I think this is the core of Zen understanding.  It is the recognition of something and the letting it go.  The recognition of something and letting it go.  Not denying the recognition of it, but never holding onto it.