From psychology to cosmology - The mind of the great sage - Sandokai - verses one and two

The Sandokai is neatly laid out in verses of five characters each. Each character is one syllable. Two verses usually combine to form a sentence. The first two verses are: 竺土大仙心  東西密相付. The Sotoshu standard translation renders this sentence as “The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east” (Sotoshu Shumucho, 2001.) The characters themselves are not difficult. 竺土 means “India” in a Buddhist context - literally "bamboo" and "earth". 大 means great. 仙 in Chinese describes a Taoist immortal being or “Xian” who has realised the Tao, dwells in the mountains and has left behind all worries (Wikitionary, Oldstone-Moore, p. 48.) In Chinese translations of Indian sutras 仙 seems to have been mostly used to describe Indian seers - ṛṣis - who are not necessarily Buddhists. But it eventually also became a shorthand for the Buddha (Soothill, Hodous, 1934.) The standard translation picks up the Japanese interpretation of 仙 as a “sage” or “hermit”. Although 仙 is originally a Taoist sign, there can be no doubt that “the great sage from India” in the first verse of the Sandokai relates to the Buddha. But it is still curious that 仙 is Shitou’s word of choice. The ideogram for mountain - 山 - is very obvious. The historical Buddha never lived in the mountains, but walked the plains of the Ganges instead. Shitou and many of his contemporary monks and nuns however did prefer the mountains just like the Taoist immortals. The last character of the first verse is 心. It is a depiction of the heart organ, but also means “mind”, “thought”, “idea”, “core” or “centre”. The heart is an enormously important concept in East Asian Buddhism. We will come back to it shortly. Together, the words of the first verse are “India”, “great”, “sage” and “mind”. All commentators agree that this means “The mind of the great sage of India”.

The first two characters of the second verse are 東西 meaning “East” and “West”. Together, they form a standing expression - “East-West” - meaning “everywhere”. 密 can mean “dense” or “thick”, but it is usually rendered as “intimately” in the context of the Sandokai. This is another very important concept for Zen Buddhism in particular. It means that the teachings of the Buddha can only truly be transmitted between living people, usually a teacher and a disciple. They cannot be learned from texts. It is the same idea that also underpins the importance of lineage in Zen that I have touched on in my introduction to Shitou, the author of the Sandokai. The next character - 相 - can mean “to evaluate”, but in this case it is understood as “mutually” or “reciprocally”. The online dictionaries return “to give”, “to deliver” or “to entrust” for the following word 付. In a Buddhist context it means “to transmit” the teachings of Buddha. Lining up the words we get “East-West”, “intimately”, “reciprocally” and “to transmit”. Contrary to the standard translation, there is - perhaps surprisingly - no sense of direction. Instead of telling us that the Buddha mind followed the flow of ideas and sutras that brought Buddhism from India to China, Shitou seems to tell us that the “mind of the great sage of India” has always been in China as well as in India. This ubiquitous "mind" is intimately transmitted between both countries “reciprocally”. And this transmission is not even limited to India and China, it is happening everywhere - Europe, America and Africa are not excluded from “East-West”. The commentators confirm this view. According to Deshimaru (1996, p.18) “East-West” means the whole universe. Okumura (2012, p. 209) makes the absence of direction very clear in his translation of the second verse: the mind of the great sage is “communicated between east and west.” But if the this Buddha mind has nothing to do with the historical introduction of Buddhism from India to China, what is it then? Deshimaru (1996, p. 19) says “The Buddha mind, like air and light, is everywhere, in all directions, and filling up all space.” For Rech (2015, p. 135) the mind of the great sage of India is “the vast mind/spirit that includes everything.” Okumura (2012, p. 214) calls it the “One Mind”. Suzuki (1999, loc. 224) describes it as “Buddha’s big mind that includes everything.” And what is this “One Mind” or “vast mind”? It is the mind that we experience when we are practicing zazen - the seated meditation of the Soto Zen tradition - as the teacher-commentators explain to us in length (Rech, 215, p. 140-142; Suzuki, 1999,  loc. 224-254.) This is probably the point where a good disciple puts the pen down and practices zazen. But as an old historian, I have a desperate need to understand where things like the "One Mind" are coming from before I can become comfortable with them. In the following, I am trying to give a very brief outline of the evolution of the idea of mind in Buddhism from the beginnings up to Shitou's time. 

Aspects of the mind are already an integral part of the earliest and most fundamental teachings of the historical Buddha. He taught that every human being and in fact everything that exists is made up of five types of components or skandhas. Out of these five, at least three are psychological: vedanā - “feelings”, samjñā - “perceptions” and vijñāna - “consciousness”. Samskāra or “formations” are usually also understood as “mental formations” and therefore can also be seen as psychological. The only skandha that is clearly not of a psychological nature is rūpa which means “matter” or “form”. Vijñāna - consciousness - also appears as the third element in the classic twelve link chain of “conditioned arising” - pratītya-samutpāda -, another fundamental doctrine of early Buddhism. In the context of the early teachings,  vijñāna is understood to be depending on the six senses as recognised by Buddhism: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, sensation of touch and thought. In other words, consciousness was originally thought of as consciousness of something, like a visible object, a sound, a smell, etc. Consciousness was therefore not something stable, but constantly shifting according to sensual stimulation which generated it (Harvey, …, p. 50). Vijñāna is sometimes translated as “mind” or “heart” - 心 - in Chinese. But more often it appears as 識 - “consciousness” (Soothill, Hodous, 1934.) The so called sixth sense of Buddhism - "thought" or manas - is also sometimes understood as "consciousness" or "mind" on its own. It is used to describe the rational or intellectual faculty of the mind, the part of consciousness that is reflecting thoughts or ideas (Bowker, 2002, p. 609.) Manas as "consciousness" or "mind" is roughly synonymous with vijñāna or citta, which I explain in the next paragraph. In Chinese manas is usually rendered as 意, but it can also appear as 心 alone (Soothill, Hodous, 1934.)

The constant and restless flow of consciousness or mind is also known as citta in Sanskrit. There is a beautiful quote from the Buddha himself, where he compares citta to a monkey roaming through a forest: “... what is called ‘mentality’ and ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ arises and ceases differently through night and day, just as a monkey ranging through a forest seizes a branch, and, letting that go, seizes another” (Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, 1992, p. 230.) Those of us who practice zazen will be all too familiar with this “monkey mind”. But citta is not only restless. As somebody who meditates also sometimes experiences moments of calm when the mind seems to be content with itself, so does Buddhism recognise a deeper and serene layer of citta before it is compromised by sensual impressions. The Buddha called it the "brightly shining" mind (Harvey, 1990, p. 56.) Citta is regularly translated as heart or mind - 心 - in Chinese (Soothill, Hodous, 1934.) 

As Buddhism developed into schools and sects, "mind" gained important positions in various doctrines. The Theravada authors of the Abhidharma commentaries to the original sutra collections invented a system of 121 cittas or states of mind (Harvey, 1990, p. 84, Bowker, 2002, p. 225.) Mahayana Buddhism gave birth to the Yogācāra or Vijñanavāda school, which placed special emphasis on the practice of meditation - yoga - and made the mind-consciousness - vijñāna - the principal focus of its inquiry (Williams, 1989, pp. 77-95.) Yogācāra reacted against the strict interpretation of the Prajñāpāramitā school. The latter teaches that nothing in the world is real and that all phenomena and concepts are ultimately shūnya or “empty” of inherent existence. Yogācāra in contrast asserts that the experiencing mind must have some sort of real existence. If there was no experiencing mind, then there would be no basis for dependent origination in the Buddhist sense that created the world and the suffering within it. This perceiving mind was in fact the only thing whatsoever that actually existed according to Yogācāra. Because of this position the sect also became to be known as the “Mind-Only” or Cittamātra school of Buddhism. Yogācāra believed in a system of eight interacting types of consciousness. The system explains how sense impressions and inherent misconceptions create the illusion of a self and of an objectively existing world around it. Through meditation it is possible to overcome this illusion. After the taints of wrong views are removed, what is left is the “immaculate consciousness” or amalavijñāna.

There is yet another school of thought that we need to consider if we want to understand the “mind of the great sage” of the Sandokai: the Tathāgatagarbha or “Buddha-nature” tradition (Williams, 1989, pp. 96-115.) This school asserts in its basic form that all sentient beings have the nature of the Buddha somewhere hidden within themselves. This idea is rooted in the teaching of the “dharma-body” of the Buddha or dharmakāya. The dharmakāya was at first literally thought of as the body of the teachings (Dharma) of the Buddha, in other words the collections of the original sutras. Building on this idea, the dharmakāya later became a shorthand for the realities - dharmas - that were described in the original teachings. The world itself became to be thought of as an embodiment of the truths of the Buddha. It is in this sense that all sentient beings - and in fact all inanimate objects as well - really are part of the “dharma-body” of the Buddha and therefore share the same nature with it. To realise this hidden Buddha nature in oneself is the primary concern of the Tathāgatagarbha school. Tathāgatagarbha was never very important in India where it originated. But it became enormously influential in China and all of East Asia. There it merged with the “mind-only” teachings of Yogācāra and produced a cosmology that was highly attractive to the Chinese mind. In a nutshell, Yogācāra’s “everything is mind” and Tathāgatagarbha’s “everything is Buddha” became the “everything is Buddha mind” of Zen. This fusion is most clearly expressed in a text called the “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana” (Okumura, 2012, pp. 213-214; Williams, 1989, pp. 109-112.) Although it presents itself as an Indian text, scholars are now certain that it was written in China in the sixth century CE (Williams, 1989, p. 109.) The “One Mind” the “Awakening of Faith” talks about is the same as “Buddha nature”. It is the true nature of everything and it embraces the absolute as well as the phenomenal aspects of all that exists. From the vijñāna, manas and citta of the early sutras the idea of “mind” had morphed into a powerful cosmology that would shape the face of Buddhism in all of East Asia. All of this is contained in one little ideogram - 心. And I have barely scratched the surface.

Supplementary to discussion at "Old Street" group on 17 June 2020.

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


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