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Riding the Turtle of Wisdom - The Themes of the Sandokai

 This is my final piece on the Sandokai. It is the summary of 16 separate blog entries of verse-by-verse and character-by-character discussions of the poem published between 16 June and 5 October 2020. It also reflects the discussions and joy we had in the “Old Street” study group at our Wednesday evening sessions after zazen. Without the support and enthusiasm of regulars of the study group, this series would not have been possible. Although pretty much everything that I can say has been said in the sixteen previous entries, I still feel the need for a summary. I want to gather the various strings picked up when discussing individual verses in one place and present them in an overview of the poem as a whole. As I progressed through the text and the strange characters, my growing understanding of earlier verses naturally informed my approach towards the ones at the end of the poem. And in the same way the later verses sometime opened up a new perspective on the earlier ones. Without wa

Don't palaver away your days and nights - Sandokai, verses 41 to 44

In the last four verses of this seminal poem, Shitou wraps up his message and gives some very clear advice to his audience. He also gives us a hint how we should understand the title and thus the whole poem of Sandokai. The Sotoshu standard translation is as follows: (41) Walking forward is not a matter of far or near, (42) But if you are confused, mountains and rivers block the way. (43) I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, (44) Don’t pass your days and nights in vain. In Chinese, these verses look like this: (41) 進步非近遠 (42) 迷隔山河固 (43) 謹白參玄人 (44) 光陰莫虛度 On its own 進 means “to go forward” and 步 is a “step” or “walk”. Together, they have the compound meaning of “progress”. 非 is the negation “not”. The pair 近遠 means “near” and “far”. Word-by-word we could translate verse forty-one as  “Progress not near far”, or in proper English “Progress [is] not [a question of] near or far.” This is more a less the same what Sotoshu says and also most of the commentators. Shitou continues to

Don't put up your own standards - Sandokai, verses 37 to 40

 After having spoken mysteriously throughout the poem, Shitou finally offers his audience some straight advice. He warns us against setting up standards by ourselves and falling for pretty but misleading teachings that lead as astray. In the Sotoshu standard translation, verse thirty-seven to forty are presented as follows: (37) Hearing the words, understand the meaning; (38) don’t establish standards of your own. (39) Not understanding the way before your eyes, (40) how do you know the path you walk? In Chinese we have: (37) 承言須會宗 (38) 勿自立規矩 (39) 觸目不會道 (40) 運足焉知路 Two out of the five characters that make verse thirty-seven we have seen before. 言 - literally “word” - also appears in verses fifteen and thirty-four where I have suggested the meaning of “teaching''. 宗 we have met in verse twenty-five . Suzuki and Okumura render it as “source”, although none of the consulted online dictionaries support this translation directly. In verse twenty-five I have translated it as “school

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 i

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)

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

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