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 body of the poem tells us as we shall see later. But at the same time I personally find that “Harmony of Difference and Equality” is a cumbersome and even ugly title. Assuming that Shitou wanted to communicate his insights to an audience, I find it hard to imagine that he would have chosen such a confusing headline. Deshimaru’s version seems even worse. As “rencontre” and “réunion” are literally synonyms, he seems to render the title almost like “a meeting is the same as a gathering”, which is a pointless statement. But we should not dismiss Deshimaru too quickly. This ancestor of Soto Zen in Europe delivered his teachings in poor English to a mostly French speaking audience. His followers translated what they understood into French. Deshimaru did not understand or speak French at all. It is therefore quite possible that some of his intended meanings were lost in the process of translation.

Thanks to availability of online dictionaries and electronic versions of classic Zen literature we can now look closely at the words and signs that Shitou actually used. In Chinese the title of the Sandokai is 參同契. The meanings of the second and the third characters are fairly straight forward: 同 is translated as “like”, “same” or “similar”. It is usually used to compare two things which are declared to be the same or similar. 契 literally denotes a carved or engraved text. In extension it relates to a written “deed” or “agreement”. For 參 there are three different Chinese pronunciations with very different meanings:
  1. 參 as “sān” is a fraught proof bookkeeping version of the numeral  三 or “three”. Suzuki (1999, loc 202) mentions “three” as the basic meaning of the “San” in Sandokai, but adds that in the context of the poem it simply means “things”. There is another lead that Shitou might have had the number “three” in mind when writing the Sandokai. About 500 years before his time in the 2nd century CE somebody wrote a Taoist text with exactly the same title as the Sandokai: 參同契 or “Cantong qi” (Sandokai - Wikipedia, 2019). The title of this earlier text is often translated as “The Kinship of the Three” or variations referring to three elements. It seems too much of a coincidence that Shitou should have chosen his title without having the earlier classic text in mind. But I also couldn’t find any evidence that 參 is used to describe triads in Chinese Buddhist texts. Whenever three things are mentioned, then the standard numeral 三 seems to have been used, like in 三寳 for the Three Jewels of Buddhism (Soothill, Houdous, 1934).
  2. When pronounced “cān” 參 can itself mean two things: (a) “to take part in”, “to participate”, “to join” or (b) “uneven”, “varied”, “irregular”. It is the second group of meanings that most of the translators and commentators use when rendering 參 as “difference”. Deshimaru however translates it as “rencontre”. This is in line with the first group of meanings pointing to 參 as a kind of meeting. This second interpretation gains weight when we look at how 參 is used in a specific Buddhist context. Using Soothill and Houdous (1934) Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms 參 usually comes up in the context of visits or meetings in temples like in  早參 for “early morning assembly” or 晩參 for “evening assembly”. We also find 參 in common Zen expressions like “dokusan”, (独参) - a formal meeting with a teacher -, or “zanzen” (参禅), meaning practicing zazen together with a teacher.
  3. “Shēn”, the third possible meaning of 參, is a ginseng root or the name of a constellation of stars. Nobody suggests that these meanings have anything to do with the Sandokai.
Armed with these details, we can understand how the majority of commentators arrived at “Harmony of Difference and Equality” as a translation for the title of the Sandokai. 參 - “san” - is read as “difference”. 同 - “do” - is understood as a noun “Sameness”. And 契 - “kai” in its sense of “agreement” becomes “harmony”. It just about makes sense. But it also feels like a big stretch. If Shitou wanted to talk about difference in the sense of “many things”, why did he not chose a more familiar expression such as “all dharmas” - 諸法 - like in the Heart Sutra? If he wanted to talk about “harmony”, why did he not use the very familiar - 和? I cannot answer these questions at this point, and I cannot provide a better suggestion for a translation of the title. We might have to return to it once we have worked through the poem. For now, I suggest we settle provisionally for Okumura’s “Merging of Difference and Unity” (Okumuara, 2012). At least he avoids the term “harmony” that in my view really is not in the title at all. And maybe we bear in mind that the “difference” that most commentators talk about seems to point to differences within a meeting, a group of people or an assembly as Deshimaru suggests.

Summary of a discussion on 16 June.

A complete list of all literature and sources used is available in the blog entry of 16 June.

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