Norman gives his third and last talk on the Sandokai to the 2013 Loon Lake Sesshin. This is the fourth and final talk of the Sesshin.
Sandokai 3 – Talk 4 Loon Lake Sesshin 2013
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 14, 2013
Transcribed and edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
In Soto Zen, the teaching of Sandokai became fairly elaborate. By the time of Dogen in the 13th century, it had become codified, but for Dogen, it all came down to one simple but very important point: practice and enlightenment are the same thing. You are not practicing for enlightenment. Practice is enlightenment. Enlightenment is practice. Path and goal are simultaneously the same. Every moment of practice is a moment of Buddha. There is nowhere to go, because you are already there. Life is a journey home. We start off at home, and then we feel compelled to leave home, so that we can return home. But, actually, we have been home the whole time. We practice not to make this be so, but because it is so. For Dogen, practice-enlightenment is one word. Practice-enlightenment is devotion. It is gratitude. It is joy.
We left off yesterday with the wonderful lines in the poem about the four elements returning to their mother, and the whole process returning to the source, which means that everything is always returning. That is do: everything is in union. Everything is one. You already are one with everything. That is our actual condition from the start.
The next line of the poem says: “Noble and base are only manners of speaking.” In other words, since we are one with everything, that oneness is our ground. Then, from that ground, we’re going to necessarily construct an edifice of difference, which we will do with our perception and our language and our concepts. Noble and base are only manners of speaking. This idea of words or expressions or manners of speaking seems to be pretty important in Sandokai. We saw it already earlier, where Shitou says, “light in an expression [for distinguishing pure and defiled]” And “darkness is a word [for merging upper and lower].” This is also referring to words and expressions. Here it says “noble and base,” but it stands for all our distinctions and judgments.
Judgments are a current, important topic of conversation in our world. A lot of people say, Oh, I am so judgmental. It’s driving me crazy. My mother is judgmental. My spouse is judgmental and driving me crazy. Actually, I have never heard a judge say this. [Laughter] I know several judges, and they very seldom speak about being judgmental. But a lot of other people, who are not judges, feel that they themselves, or others that they know, are very judgmental. They think this is bad, and they want to get over it. Here Shitou is saying that all of our distinctions are judgments. Every difference is ultimately only a difference of words. It is only a way of speaking. This idea goes back to a deep thought in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy that everything is literally just a description, a designation, a concept.
Since everything is do, all san is just a manner of speaking, so it all doesn’t really need to be so painful. Tree or house or cow are only manners of speaking. Noble and base, ugly and beautiful, are just manners of speaking. This doesn’t mean that these things are unimportant. It just means that they are not real entities. They are just manners of speaking. When you know this, then your judgments and distinctions are not what we would call “judgmental.” Because when you know distinctions as distinctions, this means that you haven’t lost track of the essential unity that is the ground of all those distinctions. This means that you haven’t lost track of love. When we say that we are judgmental, or someone else is judgmental, that is actually what we mean, right? They have lost track of love.
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.
Now we are back to our darkness and light metaphor, which is a metaphor, but it is also more than a metaphor. It is the physical reality of our universe. At the end of the poem, Shitou says, “those who study the mystery.” We are the mystery of light and darkness. It’s not poetic. It’s not spiritual – as if spiritual were something else. It is just our actual life. Life, death, light, dark, space, time – reality. We don’t know what reality is, and it will always remain hidden from us – in plain sight. As human beings, we always have to ask, What is real? The answer to that question is our life, which is our practice, which is our constantly asking that question.
Light is darkness, but don’t act as if it is. Because we are in the light, we have to act with clarity and kindness in a world of light. If we think the world is dark, and we act in darkness, then we are mistaking a designated darkness, a word, a concept, for the real darkness, which isn’t dark. Darkness is – as long as we are in the light – light.
The next line says the same thing, only in the reverse, to fill out the parallel lines, in the proper form of a Chinese poem. Darkness is light, but when everything is dark, act darkly. Don’t bring up the light. At that time, it would be an exaggeration, an imposition. We could, maybe, make a good analogy to sesshin. When there is deep concentration and total disappearing in your sitting, let that be the case completely. Don’t rush in and say, Oh, look! How still I am now! I’m not thinking at all! [Laughter] That’s seeing light in the darkness, and immediately, the darkness is gone. When there is a wonderful stillness, when there’s total letting go, enjoy it, because, of course, soon it is gone.
Each thing has its function.
Every mood, every state of mind, every emotion, every perception, every activity, is given to us for a reason in its time. Our practice is not to designate some as good or bad, some as enlightened, some as deluded, and, therefore, to strive to produce the ones that are good and eliminate all the others. Our practice is rather to embrace the function of each thing in its time.
So we are learning in our practice how to live, not how to meditate. How to live. How to move in and out of darkness and light, in harmony with things; going fast when it is time to go fast; going slow when it is time to go slow; being loud, being quiet; coming forward, stepping back, as the occasion calls for us to do.
This line, “Light and dark are relative to one another like forward and backward steps,” is not a good translation, I think, and doesn’t capture the point here. The real idea here is not like a forward step, stepping forward, or a backward step stepping backwards, but like the forward foot and the backward foot, when you are walking. When you are walking, there is one foot in front, and one foot behind.
So Shitou is comparing the dynamic interplay between san and do to the actual physical process of walking, which involves trusting and falling and constantly moving, which is a pretty good description of our life: trusting and falling and constantly moving. As you walk along, there is always a front foot and a back foot. One foot is the front foot, and one foot is the back foot. But which is which? Is this foot the one that is the front foot, or is it that foot which is the front foot? Well, it keeps changing. The back foot becomes the front foot; the front foot becomes the back foot. Both feet are the front foot and the back foot. At any given moment, one is in front, and the other is in back, but as soon as you notice that, immediately it is the opposite. This shifting is what we call walking. San and do work in our life just like this. San is do, and do is san. Time just goes on. At any given moment, san is do, and do is san.
It’s astonishing, isn’t it, that all human beings, whether they are from Borneo or Canada or New Zealand, all walk the same way, because, this is how we are made. Similarly, all this talk of san, do, kai might appear needlessly confusing and abstract, and, yet, we all live it, in exactly the same way, wherever we go, because that is the way we are. It is quite natural.
Probably some of you have heard me say this before, and actually at this point in time, some of you have heard everything that I have ever said before or will say. Thank you for continuing to listen politely. I am expecting any day now that people will take up knitting, and when I give a talk, people will be knitting, or sewing okesas, so that they won’t be entirely wasting their time!
Anyway, what are the most difficult things in life? The absolute, most difficult things. Being born and dying. These are the most difficult things anybody can do. They must be so difficult; they must require enormous courage and strength and ability. It is certainly harder to be born and die than it is to run a marathon, or climb to the top of a mountain, or figure out the equation for the theory of relativity. It must be much more difficult to be born and to die. And yet, 100% of human beings can accomplish these really difficult things. Everybody here, myself included, has been successfully born. Congratulations to you and to your mothers! You have all been successfully born. Everybody here will successfully die. No one will say, You know what? I’m just not up for this! I don’t think I can do it. It’s too hard for me. Other people, yes, but I can’t do it. We may say that, but we will do it anyway.And this is Sandokai. Coming from darkness to light, and from light to darkness, at once. This is how we are. It is truly amazing.
Phenomena exist like box and lid 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.
That’s how the poem ends: “Phenomena exist like box and lid joining; principle accords like arrow points meeting.” Again, these words might seem too confusing or too complicated. I think it means that san and do perfectly fit each other, just like a cover fits a box, or like two arrows, shot into the air simultaneously from two different places, somehow miraculously meet exactly in midair and fall to earth. This seems unlikely, almost impossible, and yet, it would happen each and every time exactly perfectly. Just like walking and just like being born and dying. So complicated, so unlikely, and yet, it works every time.
It continues, “Don’t make up standards on your own.” You hear that and you think, Oh, I should give up my own standards and take somebody else’s standards, maybe like Buddhist standards, and let go of my own ideas. I don’t think it means that. All ideas, all virtues, all teachings, are standards, and all standards end up being tyrannical. We complain about various hierarchs and bosses and oppressive regimes, but the biggest tyrant of all is oneself and one’s fixed ideas and habits, whether they are Buddhist or not. When you understand the source, it means that you have let go of all standards, especially your own. Then your teacher is life, and everyone you face, and your path is kindness.
As Shitou says, You should understand this and embrace it. Then you will always know what to do and where to go, even when you don’t. You have a path and a way of life. The rest is just the details. Your whole life, through you, will always be somewhere, and you will always be doing something. How could that not be the case?
Progress is not a matter of far or near. There is nowhere to get to; you never have to be confused; and you never have to be worried. Everything is always walking and going in the right direction. But if you start to worry and start to second guess yourself, then, yes, as the poem says, it can really feel that mountains and rivers are blocking your way. Whichever way you turn, you are blocked by a steep mountain and a rushing river. And that happens to us, because we can’t help it. We do worry, and we do second guess ourselves.
When we find ourselves blocked by a big mountain or a rushing river, let the dizzying heights and bracing, rushing water wash over you. It’s okay. Just keep on going with your practice, and that will pass, and then you will be alright.
Finally, in the poem, Shitou says, and I will say it to you, I do deeply respect you noble dharma brothers and sisters for taking up this impossible mystery of living and dying. You are here, because you have done that. For some reason, you have not been content – any one of you – to continue to go on, mindlessly meandering around in circles in the tragic world. You have decided to take up the true burden of being a human being. I really do see that, and I really do appreciate it and respect it. Each one of you is literally awesome.
Since, as Shitou says, that is the case, there is only one thing to say in the end: “Don’t waste time.” Don’t waste time. Keep on with your practice. Never, never, ever give up. Anyway, it’s impossible to give up, isn’t it, because you have all come too far already by now. I do appreciate your practice, and all that you do. It is a blessing to practice together.
With any luck, we can sit sesshin again together some day, possibly. We don’t know, but maybe. I hope so. If not, it doesn’t matter. The practice goes on. The journey continues.
Thank you very much.