Norman gives his second talk on the Sandokai to the 2013 Loon Lake Sesshin. this is the third talk of the sesshin.
Sandokai Talk 2 – Loon Lake Sesshin
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 13, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
The next line of the Sankokai:
People’s faculties may be keen or dull,
but in the path there are no Southern or Northern ancestors.
These lines are actually quite practical. People differ in their capacities, in their talents, in the way they approach things, and in how they understand things. Therefore, the teaching and the practice is different for different people. Pretty obvious, right?
But I think that there is more to it than that. The Sandokai is not saying that there is a teaching or a practice, which is then explained in different ways to suit different people – people who are keen or dull. When you read that, it sounds like, Well, the really serious teaching is for the keen people, but they figure out something to give us to keep us happy too. No, I don’t think it means that. Remember that do, the absolute, the oneness, can only appear as san, multiplicity, individuality. There is no oneness, floating out there in space somewhere, as much as we keep thinking this way.
So it is not that the teaching is presented differently to different people: serious teaching for the serious people, and then they water it down for the rest of us. The teaching actually is different according to the different styles of different people. We can distinguish: This one is smart; this one is not so smart. This one has a great understanding of the teaching; this one doesn’t. This one is a very good meditator; that one is a terrible meditator. But none of these things actually touch the buddha way, the actual path, which is fully and uniquely realized in each practitioner.
This is really an amazing idea. It means that the only place you could find the absolute truth of buddha dharma is in the practice of the individual practitioner – in my practice and yours. It is the only place you could find it. It is not in the sky. It could only appear as your practice and as my practice. The do of the dharma doesn’t exist anywhere else but in the san of each person’s practice.
I think that is what Shitou is saying here. There are various ways to practice,in fact, infinite ways, just as many as there are sentient beings, and each way is the only way. Each way is the true way and includes all the others.
The spiritual source shines clearly in the light.
The branching streams flow in the darkness.
Now Shitou is making a broad philosophical and metaphysical statement. To do it he is using this complicated, double metaphor. He’s got light and darkness going as one metaphor, and then he has an image of a stream for another metaphor – a stream, which has a source, and then from that source, many streams branch out
In this metaphor, darkness stands for do, or unity, oneness, emptiness, aloneness. (The words don’t matter; we get the idea.) Light stands for diversity, difference, individuality, form, multiplicity. The metaphor, more or less, makes sense, right? In emptiness and unity and oneness, there is no distinction or discrimination; there are no differences. There is no this and that. There is one. In the dark everything is equally dark. There is no distinguishing this from that in the dark. So dark stands for do. The only way you distinguish things from each other is when there is light, so light is san, the myriad things of the world.
In the stream/source metaphor, the source is union, emptiness, the absolute – like the source that feeds many streams. In the metaphor, you can’t see the source, because it is either deep underground, or maybe the source is at the top of the topmost peak, where no-one can ever go. So the source is deep or lofty. Anyway, it is mysterious and unknowable. But, of course, you can see the stream. It bubbles up and goes down the mountainside. In response to various obstacles and contours in the landscape, the stream takes shape and eventually branches into many streams.
The metaphor doesn’t mention it explicitly, but, of course, when you think of the metaphor, all streams flow, in the end, to the ocean, where they converge and return back to the ultimate source. Later on the Sandokai does mention that all things return to the source, to darkness, to union. Of course they do. What other possibility would there be?
It says, “The spiritual source shines clearly in the light.” Wait a minute. Wouldn’t it be the opposite of that? The source is hidden; it’s in the darkness. Why does he say that it shines clearly in the light? Yes, the source is the darkness, and it is hidden, invisible, but Shitou is saying here that you can see it everywhere, in each thing. Then he says, “The branching streams flow in the darkness.” But, wait, the branching streams are supposed to flow in the light. It’s the opposite. You can see a stream in the light, and all the meandering branches, but here Shitou is saying that you cannot see them, because they are not streams at all. They are actually the darkness.
Do – truth, unity, emptiness – is darkness. The deep, hidden truth of this darkness is right here in plain sight, and all the things we see and hear and taste: in the light, in our own thoughts, in the sensations of the body, and in every breath, and in every person that we meet. Everything is gently and constantly going beyond itself to the heart of things. Everything is gently teaching us, speaking to us, teaching us, guiding us to wisdom. That is actually going on all the time. But we are so profoundly stuck on our narrow viewpoint, that we can’t hear the music.
In Zen there is a wonderful saying, “Looking at the sky through a pipe.” The sky is there. No one is hiding the sky. There is no mask over the sky; it is there. All you have to do is open up your eyes and see it. But if you decide to look at the sky through a long, narrow pipe, you become convinced that the sky is quite small. It has only got a diameter of three inches. Painfully, painfully small. It’s true, and maybe once in awhile in sesshin you feel it, and it is one of the pleasures of sesshin. You feel that everything is speaking to you. You feel that things really are alive. You feel that things really are unlimited. You don’t need an extra, special, hidden, mystical truth. Just feel your body walking in space and time, on the earth. What bigger miracle do you want?
Next Shitou goes from this metaphysical statement about the source and light and dark to something about our mind, our psychology – applying that truth to our experience and our psychology: how we live, how we see the world. He says, Here is how we create that narrow pipe. Here is how we make the world small:
Grasping things is basically delusion.
So, that is pretty clear. We know that pretty well. Wanting things is okay; it is normal and natural. When you are thirsty, you want water, and that is as it should be. That’s a good thing. So wanting is okay, but grasping is pain. Expecting that things are going to be as you want them and holding tight to that expectation, or, maybe, even as we so often do, holding tight to what you don’t want by desperately hating it and wanting to get rid of it – which is also a kind of grasping. Wanting something to come or go, and becoming terribly upset when it doesn’t come and doesn’t go, are both grasping.
So wanting is fine, but then, in the middle of wanting, you have to let go. So, you get what you want. Sometimes you do! I expected it, I wanted it, I got it. Good, let go. I expected it, I got it, I didn’t want it. Good, let go. So when your wanting has the ease of letting go right in the middle of it, then you can appreciate wanting and see what it is. It’s such a wonderful thing. Life always is wanting. Wanting is big and happy and wonderful, and you feel grateful for everything. But grasping reduces the wide world to your small needs and desires, and then the sky is three inches wide.
This is what he is saying here, and it’s not too surprising. It’s basically what we all understand in dharma. We understand it, but living it is hard, of course. But the next line is kind of surprising. Shitou is talking about the opposite of that, what we usually think of as enlightenment, what we all think that we are trying to get from our practice. As you can already sense in the poem – it is written like a lot of Chinese poetry in parallel – each line balancing the other, usually in the opposite way. So one line is about grasping, and the next line is the opposite. It is about the letting go into enlightenment, which Shitou, in this translation, calls “merging with principle.” He is using a traditional, Chinese, philosophical term that means “hidden pattern,” just like patterned lines that run through a piece of jade. So merging with principle is the opposite of grasping: letting go of our smallness and merging with the deep fabric in the pattern in things.
Enlightenment sounds like what we are after, right? We hope for that. That’s what we want. Get me out of this miserable situation! But here Shitou is saying, “Merging with principle is still not enlightenment,” meaning not true enlightenment, or the idea of enlightenment that Shitou is advancing in the Sandokai, which would appear to be something else.
So, remember: San-do-kai: an agreement of merging of multiplicity and union, or in this context, an agreement or a merging of delusion, grasping, and enlightenment. So this is about how we practice, how we understand. It’s about us; it’s about our experience. What Shitou is saying – which might seem a little startling at first – is, I am not advocating enlightenment, which is the opposite of grasping and suffering. He’s saying, I’m not advocating enlightenment. I am certainly not advocating delusion either. I am advocating san-do-kai: the unity, the oneness, the merging of both of those. Delusion and enlightenment shaking hands, being in agreement, making a contract, a pact – together.
When I was thinking of this today, I remembered Katagiri Roshi, many years ago, saying that this is all expressed when we make gassho. He was such a charming and wonderful person. I remember very vividly Katagiri Roshi putting his palms together, carefully and meticulously, in gassho, and saying, “This hand is delusion. This hand is enlightenment. This is our practice. Putting the two together in one gesture.”
So when you put your hands together in the zendo and bow to your seat, or when you are walking by someone, and you bow to that person in passing, think of this practice of san-do-kai. You are saying, Yes, I know that this is a cushion that somebody manufactured and paid for and transported to this place, but it is also the sacred Bodhi mandala. This is literally the place where the Buddha sat. When you bow to another person, you are saying, Yes, here is another poor soul just like me, who is Buddha. In this way, we can be very realistic about one another and about ourselves, but at the same time, accord ourselves and one another the ultimate respect. Sandokai.
Actually, light and darkness is more than a metaphor, or rather, it is more of a metaphor, more of a metaphor than you think. It is literally, physically, actually the case – not just metaphorically – that the world of san, which don’t forget is also do, is the world of light. Without light, there would be no physical world at all, and there would be no consciousness. In most spiritual traditions, consciousness is referred to as light – illumination. That’s why the saints have haloes around their heads.
I am reading a book about light. I will read some short passages, to show what the theoretical people think about light. [Norman reads passages from a book, and ends with the sentence: “Our mindful awareness of the world is already implicated in the world’s reality.”]
So this brings us back to Aristotle’s living universe: the world is alive with us. It exists because we’re alive. It’s alive, because we’re alive. It brings us back to the profound Mahayana Buddhist teachings that underlie our practice. We and the universe are co-creating each other on every occasion. This does not mean that the world does not exist outside my mind. It means that we can’t tease apart, ever, at any point, my mind and this world that I inhabit. There is literally no such thing as being isolated and alone, however powerful our habit of thinking that way may be.
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.
So these lines are about this most beautiful of all relationships – the relationship between ourself and the world we live in. We interact with this world, and also, we don’t, because our whole body and mind already is the whole world. You and I are literally unique and beautiful expressions of the earth, of life. The earth has something she needs to say, and she goes ahead and says it in the shape of you and me. A complete, full expression. No interaction needed. This life is an eternal and fully complete gift at every point.
At the same time, there is constant interaction, which is more than interaction. It is complete merging, as the poem says. On every perception, on every thought, we disappear. We disappear into a tree. We disappear into one another. Our lives literally disappear into each other. There is no “my life,” or “your life,” apart from my perception, thought, and consciousness, which always has an object on each moment. The world of do, or oneness, is so various and magnificent in its many appearances. It is not that we absorb ourself in oneness, and then we don’t need to worry about the details. It is just the opposite. Every detail becomes dear and precious. There is a saying in the Talmud: “Every single blade of grass has its own private angel.”
“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.
This part of the poem is telling us: don’t get hung up on the words that we are using. It is so easy to do. San and do, darkness and light, source, stream – they are just expressions and words. We need words and expressions, because we think and we speak. Words and expressions help us to shape our world, shape our view, shape our conduct, but let’s not forget that expressions are expressions. Let’s not get confused and end up demonizing one another and ourselves for not conforming or living up to these words and expressions that we have just set up to help us.
Here he is saying not to worry about the expressions. But remember that whatever expression you use or don’t use, the whole basis of this world that we live in is always held in love, just like a baby, which naturally returns to its mother. The whole of the physical world, in all its variety, is exactly as it appears now, returning to the source, returning to the root. Every moment is always a moment of returning home. Everything you see is going home. In every act of perception and imagination, we are returning to the source, to the darkness, which is right there, as the next lines say, in the light.