74 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 1
76 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 1

This my second episode on the Sandokai, 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 – one of only a handful of Zen or Buddhist scriptures similarly honored. In the first episode I read the whole poem, discussed the “big deal” about absolute and relative (why Zen talks about this topic so much), and started exploring the Sandokai line by line. In this episode I finish up that exploration.

Read/listen to Sandokai Part 1

 

 

In the previous episode we got up through “Grasping at things is surely delusion; according with sameness is still not enlightenment.”

Quicklinks to Content:
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.
Conclusion
Sources


All the objects of the senses interact and yet do not.

“All the objects of the senses” means, essentially, everything – all things we can perceive with eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind (in Buddhism, mind is considered a sense organ that “senses” thoughts). All of these perceptible things “interact and yet do not.” “Interacting” refers to the way in which all things are interdependent, or defined by their relative positions and relationships (the relative aspect of reality, or Ji). However, things don’t interact in the sense that they’re also independent – they’re entirely complete and unique exactly as they are, in the dimension (Ri, the absolute) where comparisons are irrelevant.

In another way of looking at the relationships between sense objects, you could say all things, in a relative sense, have their individuality and therefore can be said to interact with one another. However, in an absolute sense, everything is part of one seamless whole – therefore there are no separate “things” to interact! If this sounds a little crazy-making, remember that we’re talking about viewing the same reality at two different levels. To use the hand metaphor again, you can say fingers are separate and therefore can interact in order to let us pick things up, but at the same time such movement is just the holistic functioning of a hand.

Interacting brings involvement. Otherwise, each keeps its place.

Interacting puts everything into relationship with everything else, but in in the absolute sense, “each keeps its place.” Within a seamless whole that would not be the same without each of its parts, each thing has its unique and undeniable place.

Relative to one another, things are good and bad, light and dark, tall and short, young and old, etc. As part of a seamless whole, each thing is an essential part of what Suzuki Roshi famously called “things-as-it-is,” and therefore each thing has its own reality and completeness without comparison to anything else. The universe would not be the same without you. We each have our 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.

“Sights,” “sounds,” and “speech” are shorthand for all the things we experience and do, which differ and are “distinguished in the light” in the sense that they really do have relative qualities. They “come together in the dark” in an absolute sense, because things are just what they are; the distinctions we make, however useful in a relative sense, are ultimately our mental constructions or judgments and aren’t inherently true or real.

Why is this important? We can’t deny the reality of the relative, where things may bring us joy or misery, and actions we take may cause benefit or harm. However, it’s extremely valuable to also understand the absolute dimension of our lives – the vital, intimate reality of things-as-it-is – so we will have a larger perspective and not be so knocked about by conditions. This is like fully acknowledging and feeling the pain of a particular situation of illness or loss, but at the same time grounding ourselves in the appreciation of life as a whole, with its rhythms of joy and sadness.

The four elements return to their natures just as a child turns to its mother; Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid.

Despite their undeniable differences in characteristics and function (heat, solidity, etc.), the four elements (all things) are fundamentally empty (they “return to their natures”). Emptiness is potential, and actually makes it possible for things to manifest, as a child depends on a mother.

We need to remember that it’s not that “things” are actually empty, or that despite emptiness there appears to be “things.” That’s still setting up form and emptiness as two separate realities, in a dualistic way, as if emptiness somehow delegitimizes form (e.g. nothing “really” exists, and things are merely illusions). In reality, form and emptiness are not opposed to each other: Just as there is no child without a mother, or a mother without a child, emptiness defines things and things define emptiness. Emptiness doesn’t exist somewhere on its own, it’s a quality of things. No things, no emptiness. Therefore, at the same time as all things lack inherent, independent, enduring self-nature, they manifest all the wondrous differences of the phenomenal world in their function and characteristics (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.

All interdependent phenomena interact; the eye depends on sights to be an eye, sights depend on eyes to be sights, etc. Because of this interaction of interdependent things, new phenomena and manifestations arise and the chain of causation continues (“depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth”).

“How does the world get to be the way it is?” we wonder. Is the fundamental cause good or bad? But behind it all is emptiness. Every phenomenon arises from causes, which themselves were simply resultant phenomena. Thus, through the interactions of myriad things we arrive at the present situation. Ultimately, there is no one, no thing, to be credited or blamed. From the absolute perspective, it’s just leaves spreading.

Trunk and branches share the essence; revered and common, each has its speech.

The “trunk” is the absolute source and “branches” are relative phenomena, but they “share the essence” and just aspects of the same thing (trunk + branches = a tree; neither “trunk” nor “branches” have meaning by themselves). At the same time, each aspect (revered, or the absolute, and common, or the relative) has its own “speech,” or manner of expression in the world.

The absolute, which can seem so lovely but removed, and the relative, which can seem so complicated and sometimes terrible, are inseparable aspects of the same reality. Still, absolute and relative express themselves differently, and we must respond to different situations accordingly, appropriately, and skillfully. When we’re facing a relative conundrum, it’s not usually helpful to simply maintain an absolute perspective and say nothing really matters. And when we need to take solace in a larger perspective, we don’t have to let the grind of mundane existence weigh us down.

The yin-yang symbol is Taoist, not Buddhist, but it conveys a similar Chinese idea of there being two apparently opposite but interdependent and complementary aspects of reality.

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.

According to Shunryu Suzuki, this could be translated as “light has darkness,” and “darkness has light,” like we “have hands.” This is another description of how intimate and inseparable absolute and relative are. However, while this interpenetration is so, if we imagine we perceive “absolute” in the midst of the “relative” or vice versa, we are actually just creating a conceptual separation (“don’t take it as darkness/see it as light”).

It’s natural to look for the absolute when the relative perspective dominates our experience, and vice versa, but when we do, we actually create division instead of allowing the two aspects to harmonize. How do we harmonize absolute and relative? By wholly and directly experiencing the moment we’re in, where absolute and relative fully manifest together. We do this by not getting stuck in any one perspective. You might describe this as living by faith – faith that the absolute aspect of reality is always true, even as the relative aspect is also always legitimate in its own way – instead of having to intellectually grasp and describe what’s going on. However, this doesn’t mean we stop being aware or live on autopilot; it just means we learn to live in a way less reliant on dualistic thinking.

Light and dark oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking.

Once again, light stands for the relative aspect of reality, and dark for the absolute aspect of reality.

Despite being mutually dependent, between absolute and relative there is undoubtedly a dynamic tension (light and dark oppose one another). In the relative sense, there is much suffering in the world, and much that needs to be done. In the absolute sense, it’s all a miraculous drama no matter how it turns out. To harmonize these aspects of life, we learn to work with and utilize that dynamic tension in a positive, constructive way – like using two feet to walk. In other words, far from being a problem, the “opposition” between relative and absolute allows the world to function.

Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.

I like Shohaku Okumura’s translation: “All things have their function – it is a matter of use in the appropriate situation.”

Usually we’re either attached to individuality (the relative, our sense of self) or averse to it (parts of our experience we don’t like, a sense of separation). Realizing things, including self, are empty, is medicine for attachment and dissatisfaction, but we also need to appreciate, embrace, and use our individuality – remembering there is no absolute aspect of reality separate from the relative aspect.

Phenomena exist; box and lid fit. Principle responds; arrow points meet.

Shohaku Okumura says both of these sentences are about both ji and ri; Chinese poetry just tends to avoid repeating the subjects in the same line. In other words, you could rephrase this section as saying Ji and Ri fit together like box and lid, and perfectly respond to and meet each other, like two arrows meeting in midair.

Before we practice, we may be blissfully ignorant of the apparent tension between absolute and relative. When we start practice, this tension becomes apparent and things feel uncomfortable and confusing at times. Eventually we see how the two aspects of reality elegantly fit and work together.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning; don’t set up standards of your own.

Shohaku Okumura’s translation is, “Hearing the words, understand the source.” He says the source is reality behind the words. Setting up standards of your own means intellectualizing and conceptualizing this teaching instead of practicing with it.

This whole discussion of the Sandokai, and the poem itself, may seem very intellectual. Here the Sandokai calls attention to the fact that words can only point at reality; it asks us to investigate the true meaning the words are pointing to, and understand it for ourselves. This is an irony we face repeatedly in Buddhist practice: We can’t experience the rewards of practice simply by listening to and memorizing teachings, but on the other hand, we need teachings in order to expand our minds and challenge our assumptions. Fortunately, at a certain point we’re able to recognize truth without relying on intellect and concepts, when something resonates deep within us and we experience an intuitive, whole-body-and-mind kind of understanding, like recognition.

If you don’t understand the Way right before you, how will you know the path as you walk?

There is no way for us break out of our limited, relative, embodied experience in order to taste the absolute in some ethereal realm separate from our mundane existence. That’s something some of us end up hoping for, especially when we’re completely caught in relative perspective and we long for the sense of wholeness and completeness offered by the absolute perspective. However, if we’re going to perceive absolute truth, or the dynamic relationship between absolute and relative, it will happen right here, as an aspect of our own direct experience. It can’t happen anywhere else. So even though you may not know where you’re going, the path to awakening is right in front of you.

Progress is not a matter of far or near, but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.

If understanding, integration, or liberation seem far away, it’s because we’re confused about what understanding, integration, or liberation actually are (progress is not a matter of far or near). There is no obstruction except what we create for ourselves. Even so, such obstructions can be hard to overcome (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.

Our efforts to practice and understand never result in a final, static answer – life remains a mystery. Still, there is so much more to experience. We can become so much wiser, freer, and more compassionate than we currently are. Life is short, so we should practice diligently and not waste time. Although this begs the question: What does it mean to waste time? Sometimes what seems to be a waste ends up being incredibly important and transformative. Sometimes our willful efforts come to nothing and in retrospect look like delusion. As long we turn toward life, toward the mystery, with curiosity, energy, and humility, we are practicing and not passing our time in vain.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in case you think the Sandokai is primarily advice for people who have already “realized” the absolute and need to get clear about the relationship between absolute and relative, I encourage you to consider otherwise. Personally, I believe we’ve all had moments of perceiving the absolute aspect of reality, and that we can all afford to become more intimately aware of it. The Sandokai reassures us that the absolute is not separate from us, or far away, or special, or something we attain through striving or talent. It’s an integral aspect of who we are.

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.

 

74 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 1
76 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 1
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