73 – Is Buddhism Religious, Spiritual, or Secular?
75 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 2

Sandokai is an ancient teaching poem composed by Chinese Zen master Sekito Kisen (Shitou Xiqian, 700-790). It’s recited daily in Soto Zen temples throughout the world. In the next two episodes I’ll explore the meaning of the Sandokai, and why it’s given such a central place in Soto Zen. In this first episode I discuss the “big deal” about absolute and relative (why Zen talks about this topic so much), read you the poem, and then explore it line by line. I only get part way through, so I finish up the exploration in the next episode.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
The Big Deal About Absolute Versus Relative
The Same Reality Described at Different Levels
Verse by Verse Exploration of the Sandokai
Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Text
Sandokai (the Title)
The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull, the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light; the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion; according with sameness is still not enlightenment.
Sources

 

The Big Deal About Absolute Versus Relative

Essentially, Sekito’s Sandokai deals with an issue of paramount importance in Zen: the relationship between the relative and absolute dimensions of reality. As I’ve already discussed at length in my episodes on Dogen’s Genjokoan and on the Heart Sutra, absolute and relative are terms that describe two profoundly different aspects of reality – the relative aspect, in which everything is defined by difference and particularity, and the absolute aspect, in which everything is part of a seamless whole. Both aspects are simultaneously true, even though they may appear contradictory, just as a finger is a thing unto itself, defined by its separateness from other fingers, but is also simply part of a hand.

The relationship between relative and absolute is a huge preoccupation of Zen. Why? Well, frankly, it’s also a preoccupation of many other spiritual traditions. To see this, all you have to do is look for the dualities about which people get very worked up: Divine (or Ineffable) versus human, pure versus impure, transcendent versus mundane, separate versus (re)united with God, ideal versus actual. This duality is so pervasive and recurring, ancient Chan masters adopted a special term for each side: Ji (or Shih) is the concrete, phenomenal (relative) aspect of existence, while Ri (or Li) is the absolute or ultimate aspect of existence.

The relationship between absolute and relative isn’t just a topic for philosophical debate, it’s something we human beings care about a great deal. We get a sense there’s a whole lot more to life than our ordinary, limited, self-centered perception of it. When meditating, praying, listening to wonderful music, hiking in the wilderness, or just drinking a cup of tea, we may perceive how everything is precious just as it is, how there’s order in the universe, how God is within, how all human beings are fundamentally the same and therefore naturally inclined to compassion, or how nothing is inherently separate from anything else. Oh, how inspiring and glorious! And then the moment passes and we’re back in the world of good and bad, right and wrong, dirty houses, afflictive emotions, passionate disagreements, and traffic jams – not to mention injustice, war, and environmental destruction. How are we supposed to reconcile these two aspects of reality? For many of us, the absolute aspect seems preferable but frustratingly elusive, setting up a sad tension in our spiritual lives.

The main teaching in Zen, therefore, emphasizes how the relative and absolute aspects of reality aren’t really separate. It’s not that our transcendent moments are glimpses into some kind of alternative reality where everything is great, and the rest of our life is an annoying interlude of imperfection. The absolute has no existence whatsoever apart from the relative, and vice versa. These two aspects are just the same reality perceived at different levels. Real enlightenment or awakening means not just having an experience of the absolute – although that’s important – it means comprehending how the two aspects of reality relate to each other. When we truly understand the identity – or the equivalence, congruence, or accord – of the absolute and relative dimensions of reality, we avoid getting overly identified with either one. This is very important: If we’re over-identified with the relative, we miss the absolute or perceive it as distant, elusive, inherently separate, or superior. We may feel trapped in a frustrating or hopeless mundane existence, unable to avail ourselves of the solace provided by a larger perspective. On the other hand, if we’re over-identified with the absolute, we lose touch with real life and fall into the delusion that our enlightenment’s complete when, in fact, it’s only partial. Giving priority to all things transcendent, we may reject everyday life or find it unnecessary to respond to the world with compassion or work to relieve real-life suffering.

True awakening, from a Zen point of view, requires us to learn from first-hand experience how to integrate our experience of the absolute and relative aspects of reality. This is actually very difficult – much more difficult than simply having an insight into the literal reality of the absolute. Our minds are naturally inclined toward dualism, and integration of the absolute and relative is only possible when we leap beyond dualism and wrestle directly with the multi-dimensional reality of life.

The Same Reality Described at Different Levels

The substantial challenge of integration is why there are so many Zen teachings on the relationship between absolute and relative. In Zen, of course, the point is to directly and personally experience the truth of the teachings, but it does help us to understand them intellectually as well, so I’ll offer a little more explanation before I get to our text. Partly for my own edification, I made a handy dandy one-page chart listing different ways of describing the absolute versus the relative dimensions of reality (click here for the chart). The chart consists of paired terms which are usually thought of as opposites, but which actually just describe reality at different levels, or viewed through different lenses:

Phenomena (a relative aspect), or all that manifests and happens, “versus” Principle (an absolute aspect), which is the truths underlying, or manifesting through, phenomena.

Form (a relative aspect), which is short for the five skandhas of form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, and basically refers to everything that can be touched, sensed, conceived, or experienced, versus Emptiness (an absolute aspect), or the quality, shared by all beings and things and experiences, of being empty of inherent, independent, enduring self-essence.

Many (a relative aspect), the fact there are countless things and beings in the universe defined by their separateness and uniqueness, versus One (an absolute aspect), or unity; being empty of inherent and separate existence, nothing can be differentiated from anything else in an ultimate, permanent sense.

Difference (a relative aspect), the relative reality where there are effective and important differences between things (harmful vs helpful, deluded vs wise, etc.) versus Equality (an absolute aspect), the way in which all things are marked by emptiness, sameness, and unity, while all differentiations are relative and impermanent.

Interdependence (a relative aspect), each thing is defined by its relationships to other things, and by what it is not, so insofar as it can be differentiated, each thing is dependent on all other things by definition, versus Independence (an absolute aspect), each thing has absolute value given its unique place within the seamless whole.

Conditional (a relative aspect), the relative differentiations we make in order to live our lives, which are always based on conditions and subject to change, versus Ultimate (an absolute aspect), the unchanging empty aspect of reality, which is not limited by conditions, space, or time; it was before we were born and will be after we die.

Mundane (a relative aspect), the way we experience reality when we are only aware of the relative, and our fixed ideas label things as ordinary, or relatively unremarkable and unworthy of our attention, versus Suchness, or thusness (an absolute aspect), the luminous, precious, miraculous quality of phenomena when they are experienced with an awareness of the absolute.

Verse by Verse Exploration of the Sandokai

Hopefully that gives you some sense of what we’re talking about when we go on and on about “relative” versus “absolute.” Now I’ll go into Sekito’s poem on the subject, Sandokai, exploring first the title, and then going through it verse by verse. For each verse, I’ll give you a basic, straightforward explanation of the terms and imagery based on my own Buddhist study as well as on two books: Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, a compilation of talks given on the Sandokai by Shunryu Suzuki, and Living by Vow, by Shohaku Okumura, in which Okumura discussed eight essential Zen chants and texts, including the Sandokai. After the basic explanation, I’ll offer my own interpretive take on each verse. As I go, my interpretations may not seem immediately accessible and clear because each one will be limited to a reflection of a particular section of the Sandokai rather than a full explanation of all the concepts mentioned. However, the interpretations will hopefully build over time as the poem explains itself.

Before I get into the details, though, I’ll give you the poem itself, which is fairly short. Don’t worry if you don’t grasp much of it; it’s full of metaphorical imagery that requires some explanation before you can begin to unlock the meaning even in an intellectual way. So for the time being, just let the words wash over you without trying to struggle with comprehension. As you listen/read, remember this is recited on a daily basis in Soto Zen monasteries and temples throughout the world – one of only about 4 or 5 Buddhist scriptures we honor in that manner.

Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute

The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull, the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light; the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion; according with sameness is still not enlightenment.
All the objects of the senses interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement. Otherwise, each keeps its place.
Sights vary in quality and form, sounds differ as pleasing or harsh. Refined and common speech come together in the dark, clear and murky phrases are distinguished in the light.
The four elements return to their natures just as a child turns to its mother; Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes; Thus with each and every thing, depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence; revered and common, each has its speech.
In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness; In the dark there is light, but don’t see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking.
Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist; box and lid fit. Principle responds; arrow points meet.
Hearing the words, understand the meaning; don’t set up standards of your own.
If you don’t understand the Way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near, but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your days and nights in vain.

Sandokai (the Title)

According to Okumura, “san” means many, difference, diversity, or variety, and is used as a synonym for “ji” or the concrete, phenomenal, relative aspect of our life. “Do” means one, sameness, equality, commonality, or unity, and is used as a synonym for “ri” or the absolute or ultimate reality of emptiness beyond discrimination. I love Okumura’s explanation of the meaning of the third character of the poem’s title, “kai,” which he says means a promise, agreement, or tally. Okumura explains that, in ancient times, merchants wrote a contract on a tally (a piece of wood), and then broke it in half. Later, they could later confirm an agreement by putting together the two halves. Absolute and relative, then, are like two halves of one thing. Isn’t that cool?

The most common translation of the title Sandokai is “Harmony of Difference and Sameness,” although I like the translation “Identity of Relative and Absolute” because the word “identity” means equivalence, congruence, or accord and implies less of a separation even than “harmony,” which evokes the idea of two separate things working closely and well together. My own, awkward, interpretive translation of “Sandokai” is “The Apparently Paradoxical Fact that Absolute and Relative are Intimately Related and Mutually Dependent.” The poem tries to point out how each thing is simultaneously a thing (or being), differentiated from all others, and part of an overall unity within which all things are ultimately equal, and have the same fundamentally empty nature.

The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east.

“Mind” refers to the original and liberating insight, or awakening, reached by Shakyamuni Buddha, “the great sage of India.” What the Buddha realized has been carefully and authentically passed from person to person, face-to-face, through the centuries (“intimately transmitted”). At Sekito’s time, “west” meant India and “east” meant China, and these were vastly different cultures separated by territory that was very hard to travel. Nonetheless, the poem states that the essence of the Buddha’s teaching has not changed despite the distance it has traveled and the translation it had endured. This was very important to the Chinese.

While Sekito’s statement about the transmission of the Dharma was undoubtedly a claim of legitimacy for Buddhism, I also see this verse as reminding us we have a chance to encounter the full truth of Buddhism right here and now. Despite its transmission through space and time, it has not dissipated or changed. It’s a living reality affirmed intimately between real people, face-to-face.

While human faculties are sharp or dull, the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.

According to sectarian Chan (Zen) thinking in China at Sekito’s time, duller students took the gradual approach to practice (slowly clearing delusion from the mind with various provisional practices), while sharper students practiced for “sudden” enlightenment (striving for awakening through meditation – or even without the necessity for prolonged meditation, because it was possible to awaken fully at any moment). The gradual path became associated with Chan schools in the north, and the sudden path was associated with southern Chan schools. Although this way of looking at Chan turns out to have been a vast oversimplification manufactured by people with sectarian motives, Sekito is responding to it by saying the true Buddha Way can’t be divided in this like this (“the Way has no northern or southern ancestors”).

Perhaps the Buddha Way can’t be divided into slow and fast, but we face the same conundrums the ancient Chan practitioners did. What are we to make of our own aptitude for Buddhism? Is awakening something to strive for, or should we simply accept our limitations and do gradual practice? Effort, struggle, slow, fast, realization, no realization… these distinctions are inevitably part of our experience, but the Buddha’s Way isn’t dependent on, or limited by, any of them.

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

“Ri,” or the absolute, unity, or principle, is the “spiritual source,” and is also symbolized by darkness (in the dark, all distinctions fall away). “Ji,” or the relative, many, or phenomena, is the branching streams and light. Even within the relative, the absolute shines unimpeded (“spiritual source shines clear in the light”), and within the absolute, relative phenomena continue functioning without obstruction (branching streams flow on in the dark).

As I mentioned earlier, it can often feel like the absolute and relative dimensions of our lives are very separate. When we perceive the absolute – unity, non-separation, everything complete just-as-it-is – the relative seems to recede, and when the relative intrudes – individuality, separation, action, worldly success, conflict, suffering – the absolute aspect seems to disappear. In reality, though, everything exists in both the absolute and relative sense simultaneously, and the two aspects don’t interfere with or impede each other at all. One or the other aspect may be more salient in our experience at any given moment, but we should know neither ceases to function when the other is front and center. The everyday world doesn’t stop chugging along during our transcendent moments, and the transcendent is an ever-present context or container for the everyday.

Grasping at things is surely delusion; according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

“Grasping at things” means being caught up in the relative dimension, Ji, and therefore falling into the trap of grasping and aversion. “According with sameness” means being attached to the absolute, Ri, and denying the relative reality of Ji.

To believe the distinctions of the relative dimension are inherently real is a mistake that leads to dissatisfaction (dukkha). We grasp after certain things and push other things away, and become obsessed with “I, me, and mine.” The nature and cause of dukkha is the subject of the Buddha’s original teachings, and I go into detail about it in a number of episodes (just type “dukkha” into the search field to find them). Surely, then, Sekito says, grasping at things is delusion, and this isn’t a surprise to most of us. However, Sekito says it’s also a mistake to believe instead that “all is one” and differences are merely illusions (“according with sameness”). This is clinging to the absolute and neglecting the relative, and is “still not enlightenment,” even though at times people have been inclined to think it is. As I mentioned earlier, real enlightenment involves an understanding of how absolute and relative relate.

Read/listen to Sandokai Part 2

Sources

Okumura, Shohaku. Living by Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2012.
Soto School Scriptures For Daily Services And Practice on SotoZen-Net. https://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html
Suzuki, Shunryu. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

 

73 – Is Buddhism Religious, Spiritual, or Secular?
75 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 2
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