Bright source and murky outflows - Sandokai, verses five and six

Verses five and six are probably the most iconic ones in the whole of Sandokai. The Sotoshu (2001) standard translation renders them as “The spiritual source shines clear in the light; the branching streams flow on in the dark.” Deshimaru (1996), Okumura (2012), Rech (2015) and Suzuki (1999) all basically agree with this translation. The original is 靈源明皎潔 支派暗流注. 靈 itself has a scary connotation of “ghost” or “spirit of the dead”, but here it is used as the adjective “spiritual”. 源 is the source of a river or a fountainhead. 明 is a combination of the signs of “sun” and “moon” and is used describe “bright light” or something “clear”.  皎 on its own also means “bright”, “brilliant” or “clear”. 潔 on its own means “clean” and “pure”. As a compound 皎潔 mean “shining clean” or “bright moonlight”. “The spiritual source shines clear in the light” is an almost verbatim rendering of the Chinese original. As to the following verse, 支 has a number of meanings, but here it is read as “branch” or “offshoot”. 派 on its own is a “tributary river”, but it also has the meaning of “branch” and - interestingly - “faction”, “school” or “clique”. As a compound 支派 describes again a “faction” or a “sect”. 暗 on its own means “dark”, “secret” or “obscure”. 流 on its own means “to flow” or “to disseminate”. As a compound 暗流 describes an “undercurrent”. 注 means to “pour into”. It is very obvious how the standard translation “... branching streams flow on in the dark” was arrived at. At the same time an alternative meaning of this verse cannot be ruled out based on the compound readings of 支派 as “faction” or “sect” and 暗流 as “undercurrent”. I will come back to this interpretation later.

All commentators agree that the “bright source” and the “branching streams” are metaphors for what may be called “the one” and “the many” in the most general philosophical terms. For them, the whole of Sandokai is in fact a poetic treatise on the problem of “the one” and “the many” and how “the many” - meaning the myriad of phenomena in the world - can be reconciled into “the one” - a principle or absolute. The image of the “source” and the “branching streams” itself has a distinct Taoist feel to it. The Sandokai is full of Taoist language, and we have already encountered the Taoist immortal or “sage” - 仙 - in the very first verse of the poem. We have also already encountered the Tao, or Dao - 道 - itself in verse four, although in that context it very likely referred to the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Tao - 道 - itself just means “path” or “way”. According to Julian Baggini who has written a wonderful comparative global history of Philosophy (Baggini, 2018, p. 137) there is no major philosophical tradition in the world that puts more emphasis on nature than Taoism. It does not seem far-fetched to assume that the iconic image in Sandokai of the “bright source” and the “branching streams” was inspired by a Taoist natural sensitivity. According to Jennifer Oldstone-More (2003, p. 21), for Taoists the universe originates in Tao which is thought of as a nameless and formless pattern. It is described as the “source of all things” (Oldstone-More, 2003, p. 21) and “... its own trunk, its own root” (Baggini, 2018, p. 138). This undifferentiated primordial reality spontaneously brings all the phenomena of the world into being. The image of the “source” as used in the Sandokai is literally the very same metaphor that is also used to describe the Tao in Taoist texts. Going back to the question of “the one” and “the many”, the image of “the source” and the “branching streams” evokes a very Taoist relationship between the two. “The one” as the “source” is original and comes first. “The many” as “the branching streams” are subordinate, literally “downstream”, realities in relationship to the “source” or “root”. Are we then actually dealing with a Taoist poem instead of a Buddhist one? Not quite. I would argue that by describing “the source” as “bright” and the “branching streams” as flowing in the “dark”, Shitou has probably very deliberately inverted the Taoist understanding of the nature of “the one” and “the many”. If “the source” was a metaphor for the Tao, we would expect it to lie in darkness or secrecy. The Tao is nameless, formless, beyond words, or hidden. If the “branching streams” stood for the many phenomena of the world in the Taoist sense, we would expect them to be in the bright light. After all, we can see them. They are not hidden. There clearly is more to the “bright source” and the “branching streams” than mere Taoist sensitivity.

Deshimaru (1996, pp. 21-22) reads the “bright source” and the “branching streams” as metaphors for “form” and “emptiness” - “shiki” (色) and “ku” (空) as they are mentioned in the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is the most important sutra in the Zen tradition and is chanted daily in temples and dojos around the world. One if its most important lines is 色即是空 空即是色 or “Shiki soku ze kū. Kū soku ze shiki” when it is chanted in the Japanese rendering of the Chinese original. These lines mean “form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself is form” according to the Sotoshu (2001) standard translation of the Heart Sutra. “Emptiness” means “empty of inherent existence” - everything only has a temporary existence and is totally dependent on other things. Nothing - even the human self, souls or gods - can exist outside the web of dependent origination. The Heart Sutra also emphasises the inverse of this relationship. “Emptiness” is not something that exists anywhere separately from “form”. In other words, there is no mysterious emptiness out there that can be discovered beyond the world of phenomena. This is how Deshimaru wants us to understand “the one” and “the many” of the Sandokai. The “bright source” is “ku” (空) or “emptiness” and the “branching streams” are “shiki” (色) or form. Rech (2015, p. 150) and Okumura (2012, p. 220) also explain the “bright source” in terms of 空. It appears only too natural to apply this fundamental teaching of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism to the fifth and sixth verses of the Sandokai. The only reservation is that 空 isn’t actually mentioned anywhere in the entire poem. If Shitou really wanted to talk about emptiness, why did he not use the word itself?

Suzuki and Okumura prefer another pair of words to shed light on “the one” and “the many” in the Sandokai. Both of them agree that “the bright source” really is a metaphor for “ri” (理) and the “branching streams” stand for “ji” (事). Contrary to “ku” (空), “ri” (理) and “ji” (事) actually do come up repeatedly in the Sandokai. For Suzuki and Okumura this pair is essential to understand the poem, so I will introduce the terms here, although they technically only appear in verses seven and eight for the first time. 理 is usually translated as “principle” or “inner essence”. 事 means “thing” or “matter” according to the online dictionaries. Suzuki (1999, loc. 393) uses ri - 理 - as a synonym of “emptiness” - 空 - by directly relating it to the Heart Sutra. For Okumura (2012, p. 220) “ri” and “ji” are also closely related to the notions of “form” and “emptiness” in the Heart Sutra, but he doesn’t go as far as declaring them as the same. “Form” and “emptiness” only correspond to “ji” and “ri”. For Okumura, the principle “ri” and the concrete thing “ji” are two perspectives of one single reality. And this one singular reality is represented by “the mind of the great sage” in the first verse in Sandokai - the “One Mind” as Okumura also calls it. This is a significant extension of the notion of “the one” and “the many”. “Ji” still stands for “the many” and “ri” for “the one”, but beyond both of them there is yet another unifying reality of an even greater order than “ri”, and that is the “One Mind”. The “One Mind” is something like a “one-many” that embraces the notions of difference and unity themselves. To illustrate his point Okumura uses the image of a hand and five fingers (ibid., pp. 219-220). Each hand has five different fingers with individual names. This is “ji” or “the many”. At the same time, the five fingers are an inseparable part of something called “hand” - “ri” or “the one”. “Hand” or “five fingers” are only two different ways to address the same thing, the same reality. Unfortunately this is where Okumura’s illustration ends. We have “the one” and “the many”, but what is the “one-many” or the “One Mind” in Okumura’s simile of the hand and the five fingers? This is where our ability to express things in words comes to an end. “The one-many” cannot be named any longer. It is the reality of that thing that is at the end of my arm, typing these words at this very moment and that I sometimes call “hand” and sometimes “five fingers”. This sounds complicated because it is actually so. Luckily, in our daily lives we don’t have to worry too much about these philosophical intricacies. All the teachers tell us unanimously that “the one-many” can only be truly realised through practice, and above all, through our formal seated meditation in the Soto Zen tradition - zazen.

I deeply admire Okumura’s thorough analysis of the problem of “the one” and “the many” in Sandokai and Zen in general. But I also believe that in the context of the “bright source” and the “branching streams” he overcomplicates an otherwise straight forward message. Sandokai seems a lot clearer to me if the “mind of the great sage” in verse one and “the bright source” in verse five refer to exactly the same thing. This one thing is the cosmical “Buddha mind” of the Chinese Buddha-Nature literature as I have introduced it in an earlier post. This makes sense when we look at the attributes that are used to describe the Buddha mind. Already in the early sutras the Buddha himself says that “this mind is brightly shining” (Harvey, 1991, p. 56) once polluting passions and delusions have stopped. And if we look at the later Chinese Buddha-Nature literature, the mind is described as “pure”, “mirror-like” and “radiant” (Williams, 1989, p. 111). These are exactly the same attributes that Shitou uses when describing the “source”: 明 - “bright, brilliant, clear”; 皎 - also “bright”, “clear”; and 潔 - “clean”, “pure”. Verse five is a stroke of a genius, because Shitou takes the Taoist image of the hidden source and transforms it into a powerful Buddhist symbol by literally switching on the light! And as verse five is a direct continuation of verses one and two, so verse six in my view directly picks up the topic of verses three and four: the split in the sangha into a “Southern” and “Northern” school. At the beginning of the post I have already pointed out that 支派 can be read as a compound meaning “faction” or “sect”. The same is true for 暗流 which together describe an undercurrent. Using these alternative meanings the standard translation “... branching streams flow on in the dark” turns into something like “... the sects pour/flow into hidden undercurrents.” What Shitou is saying here in my personal view is that, although the origin of all Buddhist schools is the same - the Buddha mind -, the way how these schools, sects or factions are forming is hidden or mysterious. This is a direct continuation of verses one to four. Shitou reminds the followers of the so-called “Southern” and “Northern” schools once more that they share the same origin and essence. He adds that there also really is no point arguing why and how one school is different from the other, as this process of differentiation is hidden and not understandable. Shitou contrasts the character 暗 - “dark”, “secret” - in verse six deliberately with 明 - “bright” - in the previous verse. Both are at the third position in the middle of each verse. If Sandokai is written in a verse-by-verse way, then 明 would stand right on top of 暗. In a previous post I have mentioned the foundational legend of the “Southern School”, where the Zen patriarchate was allegedly transmitted from the fifth patriarch Hongren to Huineng in a secret ceremony in the middle of the night. By using 暗 in verse six Shitou in my view directly refers to the legend of this secretive transmission. This allusion supports the view that Shitou really talks about the two fighting schools in the first place here. The broader philosophical theme of “the one” and “the many” as discussed by the commentators, although very valid, is probably only a secondary aspect of the verses of the “bright source” and the “branching streams”. 

Discussed at "Old Street" study group - 30 June 2020

A full list of all referenced material is available in the post from 16 June.


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