Enlightenment is not what you think it is - Sandokai, verses seven and eight

The standard translation of verses seven and eight of the Sandokai is “Grasping at things is surely delusion; according with sameness is still not enlightenment” (Sotoshu). All commentators agree with this rendering (Suzuki, loc. 1392; Rech, p. 151; Deshimaru, p. 23; Okumura, p. 218). Okumura translates verse eight as “Merging with principle is still not enlightenment.” The characters in Chinese are 執事元是迷,契理亦非悟。執 stands for “to grasp”. 事 is the “ji” that Okumura and Suzuki have introduced in their commentaries on the previous two verses. It simply means “thing”, “matter” or “event”. 元 means “first”, “original”, “primary” or “fundamental”. 是 simply means “this”, a pronoun that relates to the first three characters. 迷 means “lost”, “crazy” or “confused”. We can see very clearly how the standard translation has been arrived at with only minor allowances to render an intelligible English phrase. A verbatim translation would be something like “Grasping things as original, this is confusion.” As to verse eight, 契 is the “agreement” that we have already met in the title of the Sandokai. 理 - “ri” - is the opposite of 事 - “ji” or “thing” - of the previous verse. It is the word for “principle” that Suzuki and Okumura introduced when commenting on the “bright source” and the “branching streams” of verses five and six. There is no doubt that 理 - “ri” - is used in this sense in the Sandokai. In their dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms Soothill and Hodous (1934) translate the pair of 理事 as “phenomenon and noumenon” and “activity and principle, or the absolute”. But it is also worth pointing out that 理 has a deep meaning in Taoism and Confucianism. Alan Watts (1975, pp. 45-46 ) explains that the original meaning of 理 is the grain of cut jade. In general, it stands for the natural, but uncontrolled kind of order that is produced by nature and that we can for example observe in the grain of cut wood, the shape of clouds, water courses or pebbles scattered on a beach. In my view it is fair to say that Shitou, our author if the Sandokai, did not see 理 only as an abstract principle, but as a living order that he could observe in nature. With its connection to moving water 理 directly relates back to the “branching streams” in verse six. According to Watts, 理 can be observed and painted, but it cannot be understood in terms of laws or logic. Returning to verse eight, 亦 simply means “also”, 非 is the negation “is not” and 悟 stands for “awakening”. In Japanese this term is read as “enlightenment” - “satori”. Again, it is very clear how the standard translation was arrived at. Verbatim, verse eight translates to something like “To agree with the principle is also not enlightenment.”

The message of verse seven is a "no brainer" from a Buddhist perspective. Nothing good can come from grasping at the phenomena of the world which are seen as illusions. But why is the opposite, agreeing with the universal principle, also not quite right? The commentators answer this problem through comparing “ji” - 事, “thing”, “matter” - and “ri” - 理, “principle” - directly with “ku” - 空, “emptiness” - and “shiki” - 色, “form” - from the Heart Sutra. All commentators agree that the notions of “ri” (principle) and “ku” (“emptiness”) are strongly related as I have pointed out in the remarks of verses five and six. For Deshimaru, Rech and Suzuki “ri” and “ku” are synonymous, meaning exactly the same. “Ji” (“thing”, “matter”) and “shiki” (“form”) from the Heart Sutra are also seen as equal. And as the Heart Sutra tells us that “ku” and “shiki” are only two aspects of the same reality, trying to identify one of them as the only truth in opposition to the other one can only be a mistake. From this follows directly that neither “ji”/”shiki” nor “ri”/”ku” can be the source of enlightenment on its own. To overcome this conundrum, Deshimaru suggests that we find a “middle way” - “Voie du milieu” (1996, p. 23). The commentators agree unanimously that the practice of zazen, the seated meditation in the tradition of the Soto School, is the correct way to overcome the dualism between the two poles. “Within this zazen, both ji and ri are manifested; neither is negated, neither is affirmed” Okumura (p. 224) tells us. This line of reasoning is crucial to understand the position of Sandokai as a doctrinal scripture in the Soto Zen tradition. Sandokai enshrines the conciliation of “the one” and “the many”, “sameness” and “difference” through practice. This is exactly what we find in the English rendering of the title of the poem as “Harmony of Difference and Equality” (Sotoshu) as discussed in an earlier entry. It also leads directly to Ehei Dōgen’s famous teaching that “practice and enlightenment are one”. (Okumura, p. 224)

Returning to the words of the poem, it is of course impossible to know for certain if Shitou had 空 - “emptiness” - in mind when he wrote 理 - “principle” - in verse eight. Equally, we don’t know if Shitou really meant 色 - “form” - when using 事 - “thing”, “matter” - in verse seven. But it is clear that 空 is not mentioned once in the poem. 色 does appear later in the text though, referring to an object of eyesight. Be this as it may, when remembering that Sandokai was written to address the conflict between the “Southern” and “Northern” schools within the Zen movement, another interpretation of verse eight becomes possible. The “Southern School” taught immediate enlightenment as opposed to the gradual approach of the “Northern School”. It taught that one only needed to look into one’s own mind to “achieve buddhahood directly and completely” (The Platform Sutra, p. 17). Taken out  of context, this teaching can become a dangerous source of confusion for novice monks and nuns. It is not uncommon for people who have recently taken up the practice of zazen to feel some kind of “enlightenment” experience. I certainly had them when I started some eighteen years ago. These are very emotional moments of apparent clarity and insight into the nature of the universe and the self. Roland Rech (pp. 157-158) and other teachers warn us against giving too much importance to these experiences. But if such an enlightenment fancy is seemingly confirmed by a powerful teaching, the thus “awakened” person may indeed believe that they have “achieved buddhahood directly and completely”. Liberated in such a way, the “newly enlightened” person might not any longer see the need  to respect the rules of the temple community, the words of the elders or the authority of the Buddhist sutras. In my personal view, it does not require a great leap of imagination to assume that Shitou aimed his verse “To agree with the principle is also not enlightenment” as a direct warning to monks and nuns. In my view, he cautions all those who might be overconfident in their own awakening based on the new doctrine of “sudden enlightenment”. In the end we are taught that “enlightenment” is not something that can be attained, grasped or understood. If you think you are enlightened, then you are as far removed from the truth as you can possibly be (Rech, p. 158-159; Suzuki, loc. 411).

Discussed on 24 June at "Old Street" study group.

A full list of references is included in the post of 16. June 2020.


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