Norman gives his first talk on the Sandokai at the Loon Lake Sesshin 2013. This is the second talk of the Sesshin.
Sandokai 1 – Loon Lake Sesshin 2013
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 12, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Yesterday we were talking about solitude, aloneness, togetherness, belonging, and all the different combinations and permutations between them. When you talk, you realize words are so funny. They sometimes mean one thing, and sometimes they mean another thing. We could say “alone,” and it could sound like something terrible, something really lonesome. Or, it could be something really wonderful and full of possibility. By aloneness we could mean “fullness, completion.” Aloneness could mean “oneness, unity.” It could be the same as enlightenment, fulfillment of the path. Aloneness could be the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree – happy.
But then we were saying yesterday that is just one side of it, one part of it, because aloneness is always togetherness. There is no way that anything or anyone could actually be alone and isolated. That’s what the Buddha was trying to get at when he was talking about no self, or non-self. When he was talking about emptiness, that’s what he was getting at. He was trying to say to us that nothing and no-one can ever be cut off and alone. Everything always depends on everything else. As soon as one thing appears, everything is already there. So if we want to say that aloneness is the absolute, the oneness, the complete, then we could say togetherness is the diversity, the bounty, the particularity of all the intricate parts of this immense world that supports and expresses that completeness.
This is the main point about our practice. It is the main fact of our zazen. We always say that zazen isn’t exactly meditation. I am always so impressed with my friends in Vipassana groups or Tibetan groups that have meditation and all kinds of things to do. It is so wonderful and impressive. But we don’t do that. We aren’t practicing meditation exactly. We are not employing technique, because we aren’t really trying to do something. Yes, we are encouraged to count our breath or stay with every breath. Yes, we do that. Yes, we try to sit up straight, in this noble posture, breathing evenly through the nose, quietly letting whatever comes go – every thought, every sensation, letting it come, letting it go.
So we do all that, but we don’t understand that as technique. We are just trying to be alive here. Just trying to be present with this life. We’re not trying to get it right. We are not trying to produce a particular, pre-ordained result. We’re just doing it. That’s all. To let go of thought and sensation does not mean repression or struggle. What it does mean is to allow everything; to welcome everything. To welcome something, to really welcome it freely, actually means to let it go, because that is what everything does. Everything comes and goes.
So if you really and truly say yes to something, what you are really saying is, Thank you very much, and I understand that you will soon disappear. In fact, I understand that you are disappearing even now. Thank you very much. That’s what it means to really and truly say yes to something. If you are saying, Yes, I want you to be what I want you to be, that is not a real yes, is it? A real yes is recognizing, Thank you very much. I understand you are already disappearing.
When we practice zazen, we are not making an effort to control our mind. We are just welcoming everything. We are just saying yes, yes, yes to everything that comes, even if they are things that we don’t like if they’re there. Yes, thank you very much. And then, because we are really welcoming it, and because we really are saying yes to it, because we really are accepting it as it really is, it goes away. And then something else comes. If once in awhile it happens that there is nothing much coming or going, just a quiet and profound peace, just presence, and nothing else, that’s wonderful. And we welcome that, and that means we let it go. Then something else happens.
You know, every moment of our lives, we have already been practicing this. We’ve been doing this all along. We’ve been letting go of every moment of our lives all along, so that the next moment could come. How else could we have gotten to this moment, if we had not been willing to let the last moment go? So we do this, anyway. This is life, anyway. The only difference is that when we practice zazen, then we really do it. We really, really do it. We do it fully, and we do it beautifully, even when it’s hard. We don’t pretend that there is any other way.
So this way of living is the secret of our practice. It is the main way of understanding of Soto Zen. It is the treasure of our house. It’s what Dogen transmitted through the generations to Suzuki Roshi, and Suzuki Roshi transmitted it to my teacher, and to all of us. That is the way to appreciate everything, not just the enlightened things, but everything. And to love everything just as it is. It is an immense thing to be able to love ourselves as we are, not as we should be, not as we would like to be, but as we actually are. And to love others too, not as they should be or as we’d like them to be, but as they actually are, with all of their painful behaviors and all of their confusion and misery.
For our way of practice, enlightenment seems too one-sided. It seems too special and too limited. The one thing that is not limited is just being our own life as it truly is, and we don’t even know what that is! We’ll never understand that. We’ll never appreciate it, because it is too unlimited for our minds, but the beauty is that when we practice zazen, we touch this unlimited reality with our whole body.
There is a text in our sutra book called Sandokai. The teaching of the Sandokai is what I am talking about here – The Harmony of Difference and Equality. I think about this teaching all the time. It is the essence of our way of practice. It is so marvelous to me, because it is so human.I will read you this translation in Shohaku Okumura’s book Living by Vow:
The mind of the great sage of India
Is intimately communicated between east and west.
People’s faculties may be keen or dull,
But in the path there are no “southern” or “northern” ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clearly in the light;
The branching streams flow in the darkness.
Grasping at things is basically delusion;
Merging with principle is still not enlightenment.
Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting, they also merge –
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.
Forms are basically different in material and appearance,
Sounds are fundamentally different in pleasant or harsh quality.
“Darkness” is a word for merging upper and lower;
“Light” is an expression for distinguishing pure and defiled.
The four gross elements return to their own natures
Like a baby taking to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves,
Water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and form, ear and sound;
Nose and smell, tongue and taste –
Thus in all things
The leaves spread from the root;
The whole process must return to the source;
“Noble” and “base” are only manners of speaking.
Right in light there is darkness, but don’t confront it as darkness;
Right in darkness, there is light, but don’t see it as light.
Light and dark are relative to one another
Like forward and backward steps.
All things have their function –
It is a matter of use in the appropriate situation.
Phenomena exist like box and cover joining;
Principle accords like arrow points meeting.
Hearing the words, you should understand the source;
Don’t make up standards on your own.
If you don’t understand the path as it meets your eyes,
How can you know the way as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
But if you are confused, mountains and rivers block the way.
I humbly say to those who study the mystery,
Don’t waste time.
So it begins, “The mind of the great sage of India is intimately communicated between east and west.” I was thinking about that line this morning. It’s so great to me. It says it all, right there. You could have this one line, and that would be enough. The great sage of India, of course, refers to the Buddha. The mind of the Buddha is intimately communicated. The mind of the Buddha, not the teaching of the Buddha, or the doctrine of the Buddha, or the way of the Buddha’s practice, or the way that the Buddha saw life, or the Buddha’s words, tradition, or ritual. That’s not what is communicated. The Buddha’s mind is communicated.
So then we think, We know what words are, what doctrines are, but what is mind? How can you communicate mind? What is that? It’s hard to say what mind is. Mind is consciousness? What is consciousness? A non-physical process, non-physical experience, or non-physical reality? We understand consciousness as not physical, but is that really right? So far, no one has seen, experienced, or heard of mind without some physical grounding. In Buddhism, body and consciousness don’t fundamentally differ. There is no mind body split in Buddhist thought like there typically is in Western thought.
It’s pretty hard to say what mind is. To say what something is, you would have to be not that thing – outside of it: There it is over there. You can’t get outside of mind to point to mind. We are mind, so we can’t stand outside of mind and say what it is. And we can’t even say that there is such a thing. Probably there is no such thing as a mind. Mind isn’t anything. Certainly we are not talking about the Buddha’s brain, which has long ago turned to dust.
Yet, this is the very beginning of the teaching. This mind – which we don’t know what it is or whether there is such a thing – has been intimately communicated. So mind is already a problem and so is the phrase “intimately communicated.” It is a kind of oxymoron, because intimacy, as we understand the word in Soto Zen, is exactly the opposite of communication. Intimacy means there is no communication. Literally, since communication involves at least two parties. I am communicating to you, because I have something in my mind that I want to communicate to you. That thing is not in your mind. I say something, I communicate it, and now it is in your mind too. That’s what communication means: we transmit across. We convey from one party to another.
Intimacy in Soto Zen means no communication, because there are not two parties. Maybe intimacy is a synonym for what we have been calling aloneness, complete all-inclusiveness. There is really no second party to reach out to. Everything is right here in the meeting of ear and sound, eye and object of sight, presence and presence, face to face. There is just one face in this moment of full presence. No communication is needed.
So to say that “the mind of the great sage of India is intimately communicated” is really saying that we, ourselves, as human beings – conscious, sentient, existing human beings – already share the same mind the Buddha came to appreciate through his efforts in practice realization. Since we already share this mind by being human, it is communicated to us, because it already is our mind, at the deepest, inmost center of our mind, which is already buddha-mind. The mind of the great sage of India is intimately communicated. We don’t have to go out to get it. We don’t have to see it as something external to ourselves.
Then Shitou, who is the author of the Sandokai, says: “The mind of the great sage of Indiais intimately communicated between east and west.” So he adds “east and west.” Shitou is Chinese, and Buddha was from India, and Shitou understood that China was in the middle of everything – the middle kingdom. From his point of view, the mind came to the middle from the west. It travelled from the west to the center. The intimate mind that is not communicated is always moving and can’t stay still. Just like everything else, it has to move. That’s reality.
The mind of the Buddha is not eternal and constant. This mind that you and I are – that we can’t grasp and ever know – is not eternal and constant. It isn’t an identifiable and fixed something. It is always moving. To put a Buddhist label on it, we would say space and time are empty. The mind of the great sage of India is empty. It’s moving. The Buddha moves east to west and west to east, from past to present, and present to past, which means that we are receiving the Buddha’s mind from the Buddha, and Buddha is receiving the Buddha’s mind from us. That is actually how we understand it in our lineage.
A month or two ago, here in the Mountain Rain community, there was a wonderful Jukai ceremony. I mention this because all of you in the ceremony received a lineage document that traces the path of the mind of the great sage of India, as it has been intimately communicated from India to China to Japan to North America, from the past to the present. This is indicated on the document by the red line that flows through all the buddhas and ancestors to you, from your teachers to you. I don’t know if you noticed, but then it flows back from you back to the Buddha. Because you bring Buddha to life in your life, and you re-create the past in the present. The past doesn’t stay the same. It changes as the present unfolds.
So we are not trying to practice an old tradition that we are struggling to understand and to get it right. We are also giving life to that tradition. We are creating it. Receiving it and creating it and transmitting it. We don’t like to mention this to people who come to practice in the beginning, because it is too much to digest in the beginning, when you are struggling to figure out how to sit for a few minutes without your back killing you, and your life overwhelming you. So we try not to mention this, but the truth is, that’s what we are doing here. The dharma is actually yours. It is your joy and your human heritage and also your responsibility. You receive it, because it always moves. That means that it moves in you, but also through you. You are responsible as a human being to preserve it and pass it on, because I need it for my life, and you need it for your life, and human beings need it for our human life together. We need something that is strong and solid and humane and that can honestly face the joys and sorrows of this human life.
One last thing: I haven’t said anything about the Japanese title: San do Kai. “San” means difference or diversity. Every unique, phenomenal occurrence in this world – these occurrences are infinite in number. When we say “Sentient beings are numberless,” we mean san. “Do” means the opposite: sameness or equality, in the sense of oneness, maybe ultimate reality, emptiness, buddha-nature. So in the way that we have been speaking this sesshin, san is our loneliness, our feeling of separation, our anguish. Do is the opposite; it is our ultimate togetherness, our ultimate belonging, and also we have been using the word like this, our aloneness, as distinguished from loneliness, our aloneness that is full and all-inclusive.
Two opposites: san and do. The kai means promise, agreement, or tally. It reminds me of a handshake. A handshake is one thing that is made up of two things. A handshake is made up of two hands, but also, when we make a contract or agreement, we often shake hands over it. One of the funny things about Chinese Chan is that the ancestors thought that it would be a really good idea to use language of the legal system and of the commercial system as a metaphor to talk about spiritual life. It must have struck them as cute or funny, but also practical and down-to-earth, to use metaphors of commerce. That is why they use the word kai, which is a contract, a business agreement – a business agreement between san and do! Unity and diversity have made a contract together, or a promise to each other.
I’ve lived long enough to see many, many lives in the dharma. I’ve seen lots of lives beginning; I’ve seen lots of lives ending; I’ve seen lots of journeys begun, progressing, and completed. I am more amazed and impressed than ever by how this life goes. Every life is absolutely unique. As the Sandokai says later on, we have these “designations”: somebody is important; somebody is not important; somebody is noble; somebody is base. That’s interesting and has its use in society, but a life goes way beyond that. Every life is so immense. Every life has all of life in it. Every life has intentions, known and unknown. Every life has vows, known and unknown. Every life has a destiny that is always, always realized.
Every life – I really feel this – one way or the other, goes through all the stages of a Buddha’s life, starting with a miraculous birth, then a time of restlessness born of compassion, then the need to leave home, to awaken, to communicate with others, and to pass away. That’s the Buddha’s life, and every life lives that life. We will all do all of this. Everyone will, no matter what. We don’t need to commit ourselves to spiritual practice in order to do this. We will do it anyway. The only reason why we undertake spiritual practice is to commit ourselves simply, consciously to say, Yes, yes, yes to this whole process that we will undergo anyway. We say yes to all this, and we are willing to share our life with others in love and compassion.
That is what we are doing here. That’s why we are sitting here, to understand this not with our mind, not so that we can repeat some teaching or doctrine, but with our whole body and our whole life. To come to a different stance in relation to what we have been given in this lifetime.