Red Rocks Zen Circle — Spring Retreat 2018

A Series of Dharma Talks on the Sandokai

given by Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Day 1

Good morning everyone. This retreat we are focusing on a chant known as The Identity of the Relative and Absolute, or the Sandokai.  This is an important Zen verse that is chanted in many centers and monasteries every day.

The Sandokai was written by Shitou, one of our most important Zen ancestors, in 8th century China, the period known as a golden age of Zen.  It is wonderful to think that such a poem has survived this period of time, about 1200 years, and that we join so many generations of Zen practitioners in chanting it together.  The Sandokai has been discussed and analyzed for centuries, as in 44 lines it distills fundamental Zen teachings.  It is Taoist in flavor, and speaks not to our logical mind, but rather to our wisdom mind, so we’ll be looking at that over the next few days and trying to bring some of these teachings to light.

Before we look at the Sandokai itself, let’s look a bit at its author, Shitou.  You may remember that Shitou is the author of another poem we were chanting last year, called The Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage.  That poem begins “I’ve built a grass hut, where there’s nothing of value.”  In that poem he also encourages us to “Open your hands, and walk innocent.”  He’s a fine old teacher, living in the mountains, and his own writings as well as the stories about him show someone gentle and calm with a penetrating wisdom.  Here’s a teaching anecdote about Shitou that tells us something about him:

A monk asked Shitou, “What is the essential meaning of Buddha-Dharma?”  Those of you who do koan study know that this is a frequently-asked question, and one that different masters have answered in some very different ways, in trying to help their students see something.

Shitou said, “No gaining, no knowing.”

The monk said, ” Can you say anything further?”

Shitou said, ” The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds.”

So Shitou says that it’s about not knowing, or what Suzuki Roshi would call Beginner’s Mind.  It’s a mind that is fresh and open to experience, that is simply clear and aware.  And, Shitou says, it’s about no gaining, which means we practice to learn to be fully here, just the way things are, breath by breath ….and are not carried away by the ego’s ideas of getting something or achieving something. We are agendaless … opening our hands and walking, innocent.

So in the dialogue, when the monk asks Shitou to say something further, Shitou just replies,” The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds”.  We might think, in this analogy of clouds and sky, that the clouds are the obstruction, but Shitou says it the other way.  The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds. There is the open space of our true nature, which is agenda-less, which is pure awareness, and it does not obstruct our day to day functioning, the clouds that come and go, that take form and then dissipate again.  These clouds include things such as our thoughts and our emotions.  Our true nature does not obstruct the elements of our everyday life, and the elements of our everyday life do not obstruct our Buddha Nature.

We have talked before about Zen’s Taoist influences on Chinese Zen, or Ch’an  …. how in the centuries when Buddhist teachings first come to China, they blend with the existing Taoist culture.  The Sandokai is a primary example of this.  This title, the Sandokai, or what we are translating as The Identity of the Relative and Absolute, was the title of an earlier Taoist text that Shitou would certainly have been familiar with.

In the Shitou verse, the first two lines reference “the great sage of India”, the Buddha, but aside from that, the other 42 lines could be entirely Taoist.  Yet it is revered as a Buddhist text.  Suzuki Roshi had a wonderful comment on this.  He said, “What is the difference between Taoist teachings and Buddhist teachings?   There are many similarities.  When a Buddhist reads the Sandokai it is a Buddhist text, and when a Taoist reads it, it is a Taoist text.”  So what that points to is a wisdom teaching that is older and more universal than being strictly Buddhist.

When Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, my teacher at Village Zendo in New York City, has spoken on the Sandokai, she has highlighted some of the fundamental Taoist principles that are the sub-strata of the verse.  It’s worth looking at a few of these as we explore what Shitou is telling us.

o One of these fundamental Taoist principles is “wu wei”, or flow, with its connotation of effortless doing, the doing without a do-er.  When you are in the flow, then things happen naturally, organically.  Washing our breakfast bowls is just wash, wash.  Walking is just step, step.

There is a famous exchange between Shitou and his student Yakusan that illuminates this.  Yakusan was practicing zazen, and one day Shitou asked him, “What are you doing?”

-Yakusan said, “I’m not doing anything at all.”

– Shitou said, “Well in that case, you are sitting idly.”

– Yakusan said, “If I were sitting idly, I’d be doing something.”

– Shitou then asks: “you say that you aren’t doing anything. What is this ‘not doing’?”

– Yakusan said, “Not even the thousand sages know. ”

Not even the sages “know”, because knowing involves someone who knows, so knowing in this context can be a kind of sticking.  Yakusan and Shitou are pointing to this flow of life, the moment-to-moment free unfolding.  The not-knowing mind is the mind that is intimate with this flow. Thus the Tao Te Ching says:  “Thus the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything. Things arise and she lets them come, things disappear and he lets them go. Practice non-doing and everything will fall into place.”

o Another important theme, prominent in Taoist schools at the time of Shitou, emphasized the vast inter-connectedness of all things.  Nothing is independent with a fixed self, all things are deeply connected and all things influence each other.  All things depend on one another for their very existence.  This of course is foundational to Buddhism.

o Another important and related theme is one of non-obstruction.  Things do not obstruct one another.  The clouds do not obstruct the sky, the sky does not obstruct the clouds.  Our human nature does not obstruct our Buddha nature.  Our Buddha nature does not obstruct our human nature.  We will see how these themes of inter-connection and non-obstruction manifest as we get into Shitou’s verse.

o Another important element has to do with seeing through seeming dichotomies, or polarities, such as the one and the many; light/dark; sameness/difference;  and which today might include wave/particle.  This is Taoism.  Here are some of the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, the classic text of Taoism:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The un-nameable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Free from desire, you see the mystery.

Yet mystery and manifestations arise from the same source.

When people see some things as good, other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.

high and low depend on each other.

Before and after follow each other.

In the Tao Te Ching, and the Sandokai, polarities are seen as different aspects of the same system.  Polarities or opposites such as north/south or high/low, mutually arise and are inseparable from each other.  This has been described as “an explicit duality that expresses an implicit unity.”  These ways of speaking have their place and their usefulness in our everyday life, but ultimately they are unreal, and the sages, the wise ones, see through them to their ultimate unity.

-And finally, in these main perspectives underlying the Sandokai, we have the ideas of principal and phenomena, which Zen will call the Absolute and the Relative, or Emptiness and Form.  The analogy of wave and water is often used for this.  Water is the Absolute, the Principal, Emptiness …. and the wave is the Relative, the Form it takes.  Wave and water can be talked about separately, but they are in reality inseparable.  This is a key aspect of the Sandokai, which is about exploring this relationship between Form and Emptiness.

Another analogy on Form and Emptiness is used by Roshi Shohaku Okumura, the contemporary Zen teacher, to describe this Form and Emptiness, or as he calls it, the Many and the One: “If I hold up my hand, you might see it as a hand.  And yet you can also see it as five fingers.  one hand has five fingers, and there is no hand beyond these five fingers. Within this collection of five fingers, each finger differs in shape, function and shape.  Each is independent, and yet when we call them a hand, the individuality of each finger disappears. Five fingers and one hand are the same thing;  two aspects of one reality. In our human lives we are exactly this same merging of difference and unity.  From one perspective we are independent, but at the same time we are completely inter-dependent.  Two perspectives on a single reality.”  This is exactly what the Sandokai is exploring — this relationship, or identity, between Form and Emptiness.

Which leads us to the title of the Shitou verse: the Sandokai.  Let’s look at this word.

– “San” means difference or diversity.  When we chant “Sentient beings are numberless”, this is the many forms, the many beings.

– “Do” means sameness.  Oneness.  Emptiness.

– “Kai” is coming together, or an agreement. There is a connotation of two hands shaking, of two things coming together.  When two hands shake is that one or two?  Suzuki Roshi points out that the kanji for this has the connotation of friendship, like when you are shaking hands with a dear friend, you feel the two of you are one.  He says that as with a handshake, “In the same way this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, because they are originally one.”

In our White Plum lineage, the usual translation of the word Sandokai is “The Identity of Relative and Absolute.”  In other words, the identity of Form and the identity, the what-it-is, of  Emptiness.  It’s a title that invites us to look at how we understand the Relative and Absolute, or we could say Manyness and Oneness.  This word” Identity” came from Maezumi Roshi,  Apparently with the translation he was trying to avoid the idea of there being two separate things, some “thing” that we call the Relative and something separate that we call the Absolute.  So he used this word “Identity” to point towards the fact that they are not two.

In the Suzuki Roshi lineage, they translate the title as The Harmony of Difference and Sameness.  So that word Harmony is right up-front, telling us that the many and the one are not in conflict with each other, but are deeply connected and harmonious.  Another translation calls it the Merging of Difference and Sameness.

So here’s an important question.   Why, in Zen, do we study this?  Why is there so much emphasis on the Relative and Absolute?  Why do we chant these sutras or verses as if they were religious texts, when they do not seem to be religious, at least not as we understand religion in the Western religious paradigm?

If take a step back ….  in the Judeo/Christian tradition, many of the ancient and sacred texts are about the nature of God, about man’s relationship to God, and the afterlife.  In our Zen tradition, some of the most revered texts and sutras are pieces such as the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Platform Sutra, the Sandokai — and all are about the Relative and the Absolute, the relationship between them, and how we can live our lives in a way that reflects our understanding of this.  These teachings are the spiritual bedrock of Zen.  That our lives are individual and our lives are profoundly, intimately connected with everything else, in a world of flow and change. To be able to manifest both our own unique life, to take responsibility for that life and for our actions;  and at the same time, to live in a way that manifests a lived sense of our deep connection with all things, our understanding of the non-dual nature of reality.  It is to have an understanding of the Tao, this flowing elemental reality in which we are all embedded.

Well, that seems to be as far as we will get this morning on the Sandokai.  We only got to the title! But I think the background and context is important for us to have as we try to explore this verse. We will resume tomorrow and get into the text.  So as we sit today, here are some words from Norman Fischer on the Sandokai to remember:  “You could say that through the body, in zazen, you touch the source.  The source can never be grasped, but it can be touched with your whole being in zazen. ”  So let’s bring our whole being to our zazen today, and to all our activities.  now we’ll stand and chant another great teaching on form and emptiness, the Heart Sutra.

Day 2:

Good morning everyone.  Here we are on our second full day of the retreat.  Sometimes we are settling into the retreat on the second day and the mind is quieting.  Other times we can feel restless, tired, the body not used to so much sitting, the concentration feeling scattered.  However it is for you today, it’s important to be patient and gentle, just staying with the practice of turning the gaze inward, being with the breath, sensation and sounds.   In the world of thought it is always speedy and complicated and all about us.  It is  relief to open the hand of thought, to let things slow down, to come into the body, and to simply be with each breath, each moment.

So yesterday we were looking at some background on the Sandokai, especially the strong Taoist element in Chinese Zen.  There is a poet and translator of the Chinese Taoist poetic tradition, David Hinton, who has some interesting perspectives on this that I wanted to share with you.  This is from an interview with David Hinton in “The Sun” magazine.  He says this:

“Chinese spirituality was about inhabiting this world as fully as possible.  What is our culture today about?  I don’t know.  I guess it is about consumption and sports and the video screen.  It skitters along on the surface of life  ….. In the West we understand the self as a sealed-off entity, something fundamentally separate from the world.  We want permanence, an immortal soul that allows us to escape death.  But the idea that there is no permanent self is a big part of Taoism and Zen.  The self isn’t permanent, it is always moving … ….and it isn’t going to continue existing after you die.  The minute you buy into the idea that some part of you will hang around, you’ve removed yourself from this world of trees and clouds and birds. ”

With this theme of constant movement, Hinton goes on to say:  “A thought arising and disappearing is the same as a green shoot coming up through the soil, blossoming, and decaying back into the earth.  And the same as a mountain range grinding up out of the ground, soaring into the sky, and then disappearing grain by grain as erosion erases it back into nothingness.  The thought comes and goes in five seconds and the mountain range takes 500 million years to rise and fall, but it’s the same movement.  Your mind’s movements are no different than a cloud’s movements or the turning seasons.  ”

Your mind’s movements are no different than a cloud’s.  Perhaps we can sit with that awareness today …. that thoughts are not a problem impeding our meditation, they are just movements of mind arising and passing, like the breeze and the clouds in the sky.

The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck has her own way of expressing this. She says, “We are rather like whirlpools in the river of life.  Though for short periods the whirlpool seems to be distinguishable as a separate event, the water in the whirlpools is just the river itself.  The stability of a whirlpool is only temporary.  Eventually the energy that was a particular whirlpool fades out and the water passes on.  We’d rather not think of our lives in this way, however.  The fact is, though, that we take form for a while and then when conditions are appropriate, we fade out.  There’s nothing wrong with fading out, it’s a natural part of the process.  However we want to think that this little whirlpool that we are isn’t part of the stream.  We want to see ourselves as permanent and stable.  Over the years we have trained ourselves to create stagnant pools, to protect ourselves.  This is our false accomplishment.  Out of this comes all of our troubles and our separation from life.  We don’t know how to be intimate, to be the stream of life.  Zen practice is the slow reversal of this.”

Joko says that we have forgotten how to be part of the stream of life, and it’s often  true.  Although we are surrounded by this moving stream.  All around us, the world is unfolding just in its way.  Day to night, winter to spring, rain to sunshine, animals and plants appear and have their life and then disappear.  All of this naturally unfolds.  You look at a century plant sending up those amazing stalks, this amazing life force at the end of their lives.  They aren’t resisting the end of their individual lives.  And then they decay and eventually topple over, and life goes back to the source.  Only we humans resist this as we do.  So allowing ourselves to be part of this elemental flow of life is a big part of the teaching of the Sandokai.


So let’s start now to look at some of the actual verse.  It begins, “The mind of the great sage of India was intimately conveyed from West to East.  Among human beings are wise ones and fools but in the way there is no northern or southern ancestor.”

The great sage of India was, of course, the Buddha.  Shitou says the great awakened mind of the Buddha has been intimately conveyed.  And still is being intimately conveyed.  From the West in India to the East in China, and continuing today to the Americas.  Intimately conveyed.  So you may recall that in Zen Master Dogen’s Bendowa, which we just studied, Dogen writes extensively about this transmission of the wondrous dharma.  That somehow, women and men in very different cultures, different centuries, can share the same awakened mind as Shakyamuni Buddha.  That you are just uniquely you, and Shitou is just uniquely Shitou, but when we sit zazen, that our minds are no different, that the open presence underneath is the same. So there is this intimate transmission.  Intimate meaning not two, that we are one with it.

This is Buddha’s Big Mind, that includes everything.  It is this mind that we cultivate when we sit zazen.  Suzuki Roshi says this:  “Buddha’s big mind is like the great sky.  Whatever kind of bird flies through, the sky is not perturbed.  This is the mind transmitted from Buddha to us.”

Suzuki goes on to say:  “When we sit, your great mind is just there sitting.  We observe things without saying good or bad.  We enjoy things but have no special attachment to them.  We have full appreciation at the time, that’s all. ”

Shitou points out that this intimate mind is moving.  West to East.  Maybe now also East to West.  Moving through time as well.  It is not constant or fixed.  Part of the constant flow of change.

We can see this vividly in a koan from the Blue Cliff Record, when the monk Ruiyan asks his teacher Yantou:  “What is the fundamental constant principle?”   In other words, what is the deepest truth, what is the solid ground I can base my life on?   From that question, we can see that Ruiyan is searching.  He has seen suffering, perhaps he feels adrift, he is drawn to find the real truth of this life.  So he is asking his teacher, what is it?  And his teacher answers:  “Moving!”  Moving.  With one word, he parries Ruiyan’s static question. This ‘moving’ is closely related to not knowing.  When we think we know something, it is a kind of sticking.  I know this is what this food should taste like.  I know this is the way it is supposed to be.  I don’t want to be aging so I will try to hold that off by everything possible, so I can keep things as they are right now.  But real living is not sticking, it is to be in the flow of energy, life, reality unfolding.  We align ourselves with this, to live wisely and harmoniously with what is.

In the next line of the Sandokai — among human beings are wise ones and fools but in the way there is no northern or southern ancestor — Shitou points out that yes there are differences — some we call wise and some we call fools, some we say are tall and some we say are short — but these dichotomies are just relative.  A horse is big compared to a dog, but not compared with an elephant.  So each thing has its own value. Zen teachings encourage us to see that from the standpoint of the Absolute, each thing has its own unique value, and this value is absolute.  So a horse and a dog are of course not the same. A horse is valuable as a horse & a dog is valuable as a dog. We can’t say which is superior.Their value is unique to each.

The next line, closely related, says that, “In the way there is no northern or southern ancestor . This refers to a doctrinal dispute in China at that time, with the northern school emphasizing a slow, gradual approach to awakening, based on years of study and zazen, and the southern school emphasizing sudden awakening, that each of us can wake up to the moment right now.  This debate has gone on in Zen for centuries.  Shitou says that in The Way, there is no right or wrong, no right way in the north or wrong way in the south.   In The Way, to use the Okumura analogy of the hand, we see the full hand, and we are not so concerned about each individual finger wanting to be right.  The hand works as one.

Now we come to an important and intriguing part of the poem.  “The subtle source is clear and bright, the tributary streams flow in the darkness.”  So here Shitou begins to show us some faces of the one and the many.  And he’s using two metaphors:  light and dark, and source and streams.

Scholars tell us that the kanji used here for “subtle source” is “clouds and water”.  The kanji for this also has a connotation of purity.  So there is softness, like a pure floating cloud.  Quiet and peaceful.  Stillness.  This subtle source.

The other aspect is the branching streams — this is manyness, differentiation.  It also includes things like different teachings, different viewpoints, the proliferation of things about the oneness.

As we read yesterday in the Tao De Ching:  the source, the Do of the San-Do-Kai, is mysterious and unknowable.  But we are able to see the streams. Streams have a form. They are the many.  And to finish the metaphor, streams eventually flow to the sea, where they converge and return back to the source.  All things return to Do, to oneness.  Later in the poem it says, the four elements return to their natures like a child to its mother.  (These are the classic four elements of wind, fire, water and earth that all things are said to be composed of.  They are elemental energies found in Taoism and in some other spiritual traditions as well.)

You may recall Suzuki Roshi’s wonderful metaphor in “Zen Mind Beginners Mind” about our life as the drop of water in the river of life … going over the waterfall …. returning to the source.  He says:  “I went to Yosemite National Park and saw some huge waterfalls.  The water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams.  And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain.  It seems to me that our human life may be like this. We have many difficult experiences in our life.But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river.  After birth we are separated from this oneness, as the water falling from the waterfall is separated by the wind and rocks. When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear.  But whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water.  How glad the water must be to return to the original river.”

So in the early phase of the Sandokai, light is associated with oneness, and the branching streams, the many, flow in the darkness.  But one of the things that makes the Sandokai so multi-layered and rich to study, and sometimes difficult to understand, is that later in the verse Shitou will reverse these metaphors.  Later he will write that  “the dark makes all words one;   the brightness distinguishes good and bad phrases.”  Here darkness is the Do, the oneness.  On a dark night, we can’t see the many differences.  But in the light, we can distinguish good and bad, tall and short.  I will say that traditionally, in Japanese Zen, darkness is more associated with the Absolute.  Darkness and coldness are qualities often associated with this.  The mystery that cannot be known, cannot be perceived directly, is darkness.

And, I believe it is possible that Shitou reverses these metaphors intentionally, to keep us from sticking.  And perhaps to show that these polarities of light and dark each contain each other.  He says that light and darkness are a pair, or a unity,like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

Later in the poem, in one of the more mysterious lines, Shitou tells us that “within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness.  And that within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light.” Shitou is still exploring this relationship between Form and Emptiness.

In researching the Sandokai, I have read a number of interpretations of these two particular lines, none of which felt quite right to me.  But I believe that we could say this:  when we are in the world of the Relative, we do not need to try to understand — that is, to fix or conceptualize — what the Absolute is.  It is already there, but don’t try to understand it through thought or grasp it through thought.  And within Emptiness or darkness there is light, or Form, but we don’t have to look for it, search for it.  Ultimately the harmony of Form and Emptiness is something we can only know experientially.  Zazen in particular is a way for us to touch the source through the body, sitting.  Here is Shohaku Okumura:

“Just sitting is itself merging of difference and unity.  With this body and mind we sit in both individuality and universality.   We simply keep our body straight, breathe quietly, and let go of thought.  This is our zazen based on Dogen’s teachings.  With this zazen individuality is not lost.  My sitting is mine alone.  And yet within this sitting we let go of thought which means to let go of our egocentricity. Practice is my personal practice which manifests the universal reality of life. In zazen we completely express difference and unity, individuality and universality. ”

~  So we’ll take a pause here for the day.

Day 3:

So yesterday we looked at a number of key teachings which are introduced in the first lines of the Sandokai …. about intimate mind …. about the constant flow or movement of life … and about the Relative and Absolute, or Form and Emptiness, as expressed by the metaphors of  light and dark, source and streams.

Now we come to another important line of the Sandokai:   “To be attached to things is delusion, to encounter the Absolute is not yet enlightenment.”

So, we can pretty easily understand the first line here.  Shitou is reminding us that to grasp onto things and think they are permanent is delusion.  To grasp onto things, or people, or ideas  ….. to grasp onto the with our thoughts about them, our concepts about them …. is delusion. To be attached to our own strong sense of a fixed and solid self is delusion.

Then this next line:  “to encounter the Absolute is not yet enlightenment.”

So most of us come into Zen practice with a pretty good handle on the Relative, or the world of Form.  We have operated on that level most of our lives.  Zen practice is, in part, about opening up to the other aspect, the aspect of Emptiness, of flow, of seeing things from a perspective of wholeness, that all things inter-connect and are without a solid fixed identity.

At the same time, in actual Zen training, the Absolute aspect alone can be seen as too one-sided, too special. It is sometimes called the ghost cave, if one gets too attached to seeing things only from the standpoint of the Absolute. One attitude might be a little like a Zen stoner …. “hey man, everything’s perfect as it is, I’m just living in the flow, it’s all emptiness, why do anything.”  Shitou is saying very clearly, this is not Enlightenment. (!)

So when we come into practice we often are eager to experience this Oneness.  It becomes a thing we want to get.  But the Absolute is not a thing — it is really a perspective, a way of seeing and experiencing our life.  And as practice matures, we are less interested in striving for special spiritual experiences.  A maturing practitioner realizes both sides, of Form and Emptiness, and we are learning how to live from that standpoint, to see the reality of life from both sides.  As Shitou says, an insight into the Absolute by itself  is not the Big Enlightenment.  A good number of  the koans involve a teacher trying to wake up the student to see the other side, if they have gotten too fixated on either the side of Form or the side of Emptiness.

So if you’re like me, you may read all of these things about the Absolute or Emptiness and wonder if you will ever experience that.  If you ever have experienced that.  Well, you have.  For most of us it’s not like there is suddenly going to be a great thunderclap in the heavens or fireworks in the sky.  Our tasting the Absolute can take different forms, as we are all different people.

-It could be quite ordinary.  It could be an experience where we experience not having the strong ego presence.  For example, just walking down a road, feet walking, birds chirping, but empty, light and free.  No sense of the “me” who is walking, there is only the walking.

– It could be a sudden flash of understanding that our memories, our history, our thoughts — the things that make up a sense of a solid “me” — drop away into insignificance and there is just the moment of now.

– It could be hearing the bell ring and feeling yourself as the bell — no separation at all.

-It could be a profound realization of how deeply our life is inter-connected with all that is, that even the eyes that look out and see are not really our own, that there is a deeper seeing taking place.

-It could be a vivid sense of time, that all time seems to be right now, this now moment.

– It could be coming to live, not in a dramatic way but gradually, with a deep sense of open-heartedness and connectivity with all that is, because we recognize our intimacy with it.

No matter what form this takes, the point the Sandokai is making is that flashes of the Absolute are not considered a fully awakened, mature mind of The Way.  It is this integration of Absolute and Relative that he points us towards, which is why there is so much emphasis on understanding the connection or harmony between these two perspectives.

The other lines of the poem continue to explore this relationship between Form and Emptiness, and to express, in different ways, that the very nature of our life and of our experience is both independent and inter-connected, inter-dependent with all of life.  Shitou writes that  “each and all the subjective and objective spheres are related, and at the same time, independent.  Related, and yet working differently.”

He goes on to say that “Though each keeps it own place, form makes the character and position different.”  We all have different history, karma, personalities, talents.  Each person has a unique place.  Each form is different and unique, and its value cannot be compared with anything else.

Later in the Sandokai, Shitou uses vivid imagery as to how immaculately and perfectly Emptiness and Form relate to each other.  “Ordinary life fits the Absolute as a box and its lid;  the Absolute works together with the Relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air.”

Each of these analogies is about the way Form and Emptiness exist and work together, like a box and cover joining.  There is no Emptiness other than Form.  I am both a unique separate Form and I am a flow that is connected with everything else.  These are not contradictions but fit seamlessly together like a box and lid.  On this retreat we are all separate individuals and we are the One Activity.  We also are each other’s causes and conditions.

Suzuki Roshi says this:  “That I am here means that the true buddha nature — that is, our empty, inter-connected nature — is here. At the moment, I am an expression of buddha nature.  I am not just I — I am also expressing true nature in my own way.  That I am here means that the whole universe is here, just as where there is a kerosene lamp providing light, oil is here.”

The imagery of two arrows meeting in mid-air relates to an old Chinese tale of legendary archers.  They were facing each other at a great distance and both shot arrows towards each other.  Because of their incredible skill and perfect alignment, the arrows met mid-air.   A miraculous meeting of arrows.  In case we missed it, Shitou is again describing how the perspective of Form and the perspective of Emptiness come together exactly.  We could also see that as our own life.  This world of Emptiness has infinite flowing possibilities through vast epochs of time, and yet somehow, miraculously, each of us came to be here, in 2018, on this retreat.

Towards the end of the verse, Shitou writes:

– When you walk The Way it is not near it is not far.”

You may recall how Shitou expresses this same insight in his Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage, using different imagery:

The person in the hut lives here calmly,

Not stuck to inside, outside or in-between.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.

The original master is present,

Not dwelling south or north, nor east or west.

So our journey on The Way is not a matter of near or far, inside or outside, south or north, those polarities.  Our place on The Way is always here, now.  There is nowhere else, only here.

Shitou then adds, “If you do not see The Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.”   So is The Way something separate from ourselves, something that can be seen?  It is not like a path of  neatly raked gravel, separate from ourselves.  From the standpoint of the Absolute we cannot see The Way because we are The Way.

At the same time, we want to feel that we are on a spiritual path.  Sometimes we do feel that way, our practice feels alive and integrated into our life …. and we also go through periods where we may feel distant, not connected.  These are cycles of practice that we all go through.  But it is important to remember that the path ahead of us is never clear.  And how could it be. Enkyo Roshi used to remind us that our spiritual path is like being in a boat. Looking ahead we see nothing but a vast lake or ocean, no path at all.  But when we look back and see the wake of the boat we can see that in fact we have been on a path or a course the whole time.  We walk the path forward moment by moment, breath by breath, being with what is.

Shitou closes his verse by saying:  “I respectfully say to those who wish to be enlightened, do not waste your time by night or day.”  Each night at the conclusion of zazen we have had the han and the evening gatha, which is taken from Shitou’s verse.  “Each of us should strive to awaken, awaken ….. Do not squander your life.”  We always remember that the practice is about this moment.  This moment, this moment.  Not to sacrifice this moment for some dream of a moment in the future or the memory of a moment that is the past, never to return.

So for three mornings we have been looking at the Sandokai.  And it’s worth asking …. what does this verse mean to my actual practice, to my life?   Well, perhaps there are certain phrases or teachings that stand out for you, that speak to you.  And to me, a verse like the Sandokai may not be a direct influence on our actual practice of zazen, but it does inform our practice.   Over time, verses like the Sandokai shape our practice in subtle ways, as we come to know these Zen ancestors who share their wisdom across time with us.

In the Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path, the first step is what he called Right Understanding or Right View.  Right Understanding can encompass a lot of things, such as impermanence, or our understanding of no fixed self.  The teachings of the Sandokai help us with this Right Understanding.  There are teachings in this that show us the way to accord with the flow of life, the flow of reality, that allow us to live with more wisdom, to live more harmoniously, to have a deeper understanding of this life, to see beyond the polarities of right/wrong, dark/light.  Our understanding of this evolves gradually over time, with the continued commitment to practice. This is a life practice that we grow into.  No one is ever done.  Even if the Buddha was still here, he isn’t done.

Many of us have had this experience of reading a text now that we may not have read for 10 or even 20 years.  Now we read it and see so much more in it.  This is our slowly maturing practice.  So let the Sandokai sink into your bones.  The Heart Sutra doesn’t make much sense initially, but over time it sinks into our bones, whether the logical mind understands each phrase or not.

Towards the end of the verse, Shitou reminds us that reading words, or chanting words, we should “grasp the great reality”.  It is through our practice of zazen that we come to intimately know this great reality, and come to sense that each one of us embodies this great reality, that we are both personal and universal, individual and inter-connected.    Just sitting quietly, our entire being is one with this great ground of life.