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A Weird Title for a Beautiful Poem - 參同契 - Sandokai

The title of the Sandokai itself is a puzzle, but this is not so obvious if we just look at the standard translations. The official Soto School scripture book (Sotoshu Shumucho, 2001) and Suzuki (1999) give “Harmony of Difference and Equality” as the title. Rech (2015) gives essentially the same version in French, using “identity” instead of “equality”: “L’harmonie entre différence et identité”.  Okumura (2012) gives another version of the same theme, using “merging” instead of “harmony” and “unity” for “equality”: “Merging of Difference and Unity”. Deshimaru’s (1999) translation is slightly different: “L'identité de la rencontre et de la réunion” (“The identity of meeting and joining/bringing together”). Leaving minor variations aside, there are essentially two versions. The majority of commentators and Sotoshu itself speak in highly abstract terms of a coming together of difference and sameness. This makes somewhat sense in grammatical terms and also seems to reflect what the bo…

Shitou Xiqian - "Stone Head", Poet and Lineage Holder

Before immersing ourselves in the finer details of the Sandokai I want to say a few words about its supposed author - Zen Master and Ancestor Shítóu Xīqiān - Sekito Kisen in Japanese. 700  790 CE are given as his birth and death year. In Chinese his name is written like this: 石頭希遷. These characters literally mean “stone head hoping to ascend” (Shitou Xiqian - Wikipedia, 2019). And although I am not suggesting for a second that Shitou was some sort of 8th century Chinese Rastafarian, I cannot help it but also point out that the second poem he is famous for besides the Sandokai is called “The Song of the Grass Roofed Hut”. According to legend, Shitou had earned his nickname because he spent many years sitting in zazen (Zen meditation) on a stone slab on Mount Nanyue in Hunan province, and not for smoking weed. At some point after his death Shitou was awarded the honorific title Wuji Dashi - 無際大師 - which means something like “Boundless Great Teacher”.
Besides writing poems and enduring ha…

Riding the race horse of awareness - discussion of a video of Neo-Advaita teacher Rupert Spira

Last Wednesday’s session of the “Old Street” study group we watched a YouTube video called “Abiding as Awareness is a Non Practice”, featuring a talk by the spiritual teacher and studio potter Rupert Spira (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73hmMugiqGg&t=611s). Spira’s teachings are linked to the Neo-Advaita movement which has its roots in the Indian Advaita Vedanta tradition according to Wikipedia. This video was suggested by a member of the group who found that it had helped him to better understand the ideas of non-duality and “objectless meditation”, terms that we often use to distinguish our practice of zazen from other forms of meditation. All of us found the short video very inspiring, and it allowed us to have an animated discussion about our own practice. Zen practice and Zen teachings are not so easily understood. It is quite common and to look at various traditions and philosophies in order to deepen our understanding. But we also need to be cautious. To the Western mind,…

Sekito Kisen's Sandokai

The next project of the "Old Street" study group will be Sandokai, a famous Zen poem by the Chinese Master Shitou Xiqian (Japanese Sekito Kisen). The Sandokai is one of the most prominent scriptures of the Soto School and is chanted in temples every second day. It is famous for its deep insight into the nature of things. As a starting point, I am providing the Chinese original (yes, although it seems daunting, I believe it is important to look at what Shitou actually wrote in his own words), the Japanese version in Latin writing and an English translation. I have picked up the Chinese original from this website: http://www.worldofmastermind.com/?p=4709. The Japanese and English translations are from the official book of scriptures from the Soto School: Sotoshu Shumucho. (2001). Soto School Scriptures for Daily Services and Practice. Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho.

Title: 參同契 - Sandokai - Harmony of Difference and Equality
Verse no.Chinese  Japanese (chanted version)   English 1 竺土大仙心…

The greatest sutra ever! - Vimalakirti sutra - chapters 13 and 14

This chapter, the second last of the book, debates how the Dharma - the doctrines of the Buddha - should be taught. This process is called the “offering of the Dharma” (Vimalakirti sutra, 1997, pp. 136 to 142.) The sutra claims unashamedly that “Offering the Dharma” is the same as studying and teaching itself and related Mahayana sutras. Vimalakirti for once does not say anything in this chapter. This must have been quite difficult for him given his constant urge to teach throughout the book. Instead, Buddha Shakyamuni and the god Indra do the talking in this chapter. The Buddha also mentions his previous existence as a prince called "Moon Parasol" in the assembly of a previous Buddha called Medicine King. This mythical Buddha gave Moon Parasol a prediction of future enlightenment after the latter promised to protect and offer the Dharma.
At the opening of the chapter, Indra praises the Vimalakirti sutra and promises to support and protect it and anybody who teaches it. Indra…

Unbelievable powers and a heavy piece of lifting - Vimalakirti sutra - chapter 12

The highlight of chapter 12 and probably the dramatic climax of the whole sutra is when Vimalakirti - the lay prodigy and super-bodhisattva - scoops up an entire Buddha land with one hand and deposits it in the middle of the assembly in the Amra Gardens outside the city of Vaishali. This “land” is called “Wonderful Joy”, and in it rules the Buddha Akshobhya who is also ferried across. This world is complete with its own world mountain, its continents, oceans, hells, kingdoms of ghosts, animals and humans. It also has dozens of heavens, a sun and moon. Placing an object the size of a planet into a north Indian park does not cause any space issues of course. The chapter also has a long exposition by Vimalakirti on the body of the Buddha, although he really only tells us all the things that a Buddha is not. And no chapter of the Vimalakirti sutra seems to be complete without a silly question from the Buddha’s senior disciple Shariputra; so we get one of those as well.

At the beginning of…

Who is doing the Buddha's work? - fragrant rice and other unlikely agents - Vimalakirti Sutra - chapter 11

Chapter 11 contains many instructions how bodhisattva should go about doing their business which is nothing short of making all beings in all worlds happy and safe (Vimalakirti Sutra, 1997, pp. 122-129.) Another way of saying this is “doing the Buddha’s work”. A bodhisattva is after all just a future Buddha. And the advanced bodhisattvas we are meeting in the sutra like Manjushri or Vimalakirti have already come close to buddhahood and possess the appropriate powers. The topic of “doing the Buddha’s work” is introduced through the fragrant rice from the previous chapter. This magical rice, brought by Vimalakirti from a far away Buddha land to feed the assembly in his house, can only be digested after the diner has clarified the Buddha Dharma. This example is followed by a long list of other mundane and extraordinary examples of “doing the Buddha’s work”. The chapter culminates in a teaching of the Buddha about the practice of the bodhisattva in terms of the conditioned and the uncondi…