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Every box its lid, every arrow its tip - Sandokai, verses 33 to 36

In verses thirty-three to thirty-six Shitou picks up a number of topics that he has touched upon in earlier parts of the poem. He once more talks about competing Buddhist teachings and about the pair of ri and ji or “principle” and “phenomena”. For those in his audience who struggle with such abstract ideas, he illustrates his thinking in terms of boxes and arrows.The Sotoshu translation of verses thirty-three to thirty-six is:(33) Each of the myriad things has its merit,(34) Expressed according to function and place.(35) Existing phenomenally, like box and cover joining,(36) According with principle, like arrow points meeting.In Chinese this passage looks like the following:(33) 萬物自有功(34) 當言用及處(35) 事存函蓋合(36) 理應箭鋒拄萬物 in verse thirty three literally means “ten thousand things”. As a compound it can also mean “all living beings” or simply “everything” which is how it is rendered by the commentators Okumura, Suzuki, Deshimaru and Rech. 自 on its own means “self”, but here it is probably r…

Light and darkness revisited - Sandokai, verses 27 to 31

In these six verses Shitou reveals his final take on the theme of "light" and "darkness" which he has introduced at the beginning of Sandokai in the context of the split in the Zen community into a "Southern" and "Northern" school. We will look at the Lotus Sutra to decipher the meaning behind the poet's words and then see how he manages to give "darkness" and "light" new meaning that goes beyond the one in the great Mahayana text.The Sotoshu translation for verses twenty-seven to thirty is:(27) In the light there is darkness,(28) but don’t take it as darkness.(29) In the dark there is light,(30) but don’t see it as light.Okumura’s and Rech’s renderings are broadly similar. Suzuki and Deshimaru translate the corresponding verses twenty-eight and thirty slightly different, saying we should avoid “dark” or “bright” vision (or prejudice) when interacting with others.The Chinese original is as follows:(27) 當明中有暗(28) 勿以暗相遇(29…

Branches, sects, words - Sandokai, verses 25 to 26

The Sotoshu standard translation renders verses twenty-five and twenty-six as follows:

(25) “Trunk and branches share the essence,
(26) revered and common, each has its speech.”

The commentators, Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki, render translations that vary a lot among themselves. More than ever, it is necessary to look at the Chinese original to make sense of Shitou’s poem:

(25) 本末須歸宗
(26) 尊卑用其語

本 stands for “root”, “stem”, “origin” or “basis”. 末 means “tip”, “end” or “inessential”. These two words relate back to the previous verse in my view which says “... depending on the root, the leaves scatter” that has been the object of the previous blog entry. The character for “root” - 根 - in verse twenty-four has a strong connotation of the six sense bases - eyes, ears, smell, taste, sense of touch and mind - that Shitou discussed in detail in verses twenty-one and twenty-two. This should in my view be understood as a reference to the Buddhist concept of conditional arising. The “tip” or “…

Roots and leaves - Sandokai, verses twenty-one to twenty-four

After talking about the four great elements of Buddhism - fire, wind, water and earth - in the previous verses, Shitou returns his attention to the dharmas of the senses. The Sotoshu standard translations for verses twenty-one to twenty-four is as follows:

(21) “Eye and sights, ear and sounds,
(22) nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
(23) thus for each and every thing,
(24) according to the roots, the leaves spread forth.”

All commentators, Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki, broadly agree with this rendering.

In Shitou’s own words, the four verses appear as follows:

(21) 眼色耳音聲
(22) 鼻香舌鹹醋
(23) 然依一一法
(24) 依根葉分布

In verses twenty-one and twenty-two the symmetrical pattern observed in previous verses becomes apparent again. 眼 in verse twenty one means “eye” or “eyeball”, the physical organ of sight in other words. 色 is “colour” or “form” and stands for the object of the sense of seeing. 鼻 in verse twenty-two is the physical nose, and 香 stands for smell. The middle character in twenty-one is 耳, the …

The "Four Greats" are doing their own thing - Sandokai, verses 17 to 20

For verses seventeen to twenty once more Okumura provides the most faithful translation:

(17) “The four gross elements return to their own nature
(18) Like a baby turns to its mother.
(19) Fire heats, wind moves,
(20) Water wets, earth is solid.”

The other commentators are saying more or less the same. Verses nineteen and twenty are very straight forward. As they illustrate graphically what is said in the more cryptic verses seventeen and eighteen, it makes sense to take a look at them first.

In the Chinese original we find the following for verses nineteen and twenty:

(19) 火熱風動搖
(20) 水溼地堅固

There is again a beautiful and symmetrical pattern. 火 is the first character in verse nineteen and simply means “fire”. The corresponding character in verse twenty is 水 - “water”. 熱, the second word in verse nineteen, means “to heat” or “to warm”. The corresponding 溼 in verse twenty means “to damp” or “to wet”. The third character in verse nineteen is 風 - “wind”. The third word in verse twenty is “earth” -…

The hidden pratyeka-buddha - Sandokai, verses 13 to 16

Shohaku Okumura (p. 231) renders the most faithful translation of verses thirteen and fourteen: “Forms are basically different in material and appearance, Sounds are fundamentally different in pleasant or harsh quality.” The original looks like this:

(13) 色本殊質象,

(14) 聲元異樂苦。

色 here is the object of the faculty of sight, a “shape” or “form” in other words. It corresponds with the first character of verse fourteen 聲 - “sound” - the object of the faculty of hearing. There is no doubt that Shitou here addresses the five classic Buddhist senses and their respective “fields” or “objects” - sight, hearing, smell, taste and sense of touch. The senses and their objects play a pivotal role in the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. It is the contact between a sense faculty and its object that generates desirable or undesirable impressions. These in turn that to actions of grasping or avoiding respectively. Actions like this drive forward the wheel of samsara, the never-ending process of bec…

In the swirl of things and not - Sandokai, verses nine to twelve

All commentators - Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki - as well as the Sotoshu standard translation agree more or less on the meaning of verses nine to twelve of Sandokai. I am quoting Okumura’s (p. 225) translation as a representation of the general consensus:
“Each sense and every field Interact and do not interact; When interacting, they also merge -  Otherwise, they remain in their own states.”
The Chinese original looks like this:
門門一切境 (verse 9) 迴互不迴互(verse 10) 迴而更相涉(verse 11) 不爾依位住(verse 12)
門 literally means “gate” or “door”. In a more figurative sense it means “class” or “category” - the conceptual gates that we use to sort the objects of the world into mental groups so we can understand them. In this sense 門 can also mean “family” - the conceptual gate that allows us to group individuals into family groups. Similarly, 門 can also mean “school of thought” or “religious sect” - the conceptual gate to classify philosophies and faith groups. 一切 literally means “one cut” which is another w…