In the swirl of things and not - Sandokai, verses nine to twelve

All commentators - Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki - as well as the Sotoshu standard translation agree more or less on the meaning of verses nine to twelve of Sandokai. I am quoting Okumura’s (p. 225) translation as a representation of the general consensus:

“Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting, they also merge - 
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.”

The Chinese original looks like this:

門門一切境 (verse 9)
迴互不迴互 (verse 10)
迴而更相涉 (verse 11)
不爾依位住 (verse 12)

門 literally means “gate” or “door”. In a more figurative sense it means “class” or “category” - the conceptual gates that we use to sort the objects of the world into mental groups so we can understand them. In this sense 門 can also mean “family” - the conceptual gate that allows us to group individuals into family groups. Similarly, 門 can also mean “school of thought” or “religious sect” - the conceptual gate to classify philosophies and faith groups. 一切 literally means “one cut” which is another way of saying “all” or “every”. 境 has the geographical meaning of “border” or “area”, but in a spiritual sense it means a mental “sphere” or “area”, “any mental projection regarded as reality” in the words of Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. In other words, these are the domains of “families” or “schools of thoughts” that we create in our minds once we have processed the information through the respective conceptual gates - 門. How did the commentators manage to translate this verse as “Each sense and every field …” ? 境 - “mental sphere” or “domain” often appears in Buddhist writings together with the numeral six - 六境 -, describing exactly the objects of the six classical Buddhist senses the commentators are alluding to. These objects are (1) sights as perceived through the eyes, (2) sounds as perceived through the ears, (3) smells as perceived by the nose, (4) tastes as perceived by the tongue, (5) physical impacts as perceived by the sense of touch and (6) thoughts as perceived by the mind. Okumura and the other commentators understand 門 as a sense gate and 境 as the respective sense domain. The duplication of 門門 is read as plural, addressing all six senses and not just two. This is by all means a legitimate interpretation of verse nine, albeit one that appears to be somewhat stretched. According to Soothill’s dictionary,  門 was not used to describe sense gates in the Chinese Buddhist literature. The technical term for this is 六入, meaning “six entrances”, not 六 門. Furthermore, Shitou - our author of the Sandokai - directly addresses the six senses and their objects very explicitly later in verses twenty-one and twenty-two. Why would he introduce the topic here in a somewhat cryptic way if he only picks it up again ten verses later? In my very personal view, verse nine makes more direct sense if 門 is understood as “religious sect” or “school of thought”. 門門 would then directly link back to the division of the Zen movement in a “Southern” and “Northern” school that Shitou mentions at the beginning of the poem in verse four and then again through the “branching streams” in verse six. In a wider context 門門 could also be read as relating to any Buddhist school or indeed any religion. In this sense, verse nine should translate to something like “The two schools / any (Buddhist) school, all ideas (of schools) …”. In a very broad sense verse nine could also be read as “all conceptual gates, all (respective) mental domains…” which would then include the meaning of “senses” and “sense fields” preferred by the commentators.

In verse ten 迴 means “to revolve” or “to return”. 互 means “mutual”, and I also found “intertwining” and “crisscrossing”. 不 simply means “not”. Verbatim, verse ten, says that they [門門 from the previous verse]  “revolve mutually and don’t revolve mutually”. Looking at 迴互 together one can almost see what Shitou is trying to tell us. This is the beauty of looking at the Chinese signs instead of mere transliterations. The two signs are almost as expressive as any modern info graphic. They evoke a sense of spinning and turning, a gigantic whirlpool swirling around all things, including our “Southern” and “Northern” schools and any other object. Sometimes they are close and bump into each other, sometimes far, but always subject to the power of the maelstrom of all things existing. At the same time, Shitou tells us, the two schools - and in extension everything else that exists - are also entirely independent, not moving and not swirling at all. This does require some explanation. The commentators, especially Rech (p. 154-155) and Okumura (p. 221-224) point out that this apparent paradox really is one of the bedrock teachings of Zen. Everything that exists can and must be understood from two perspectives: every tree, every animal and every person exists in its own right, fully independent as a complete entity. And at the same time, every tree, animal and person only exists in total dependence on everything else. The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, not contradicting, and neither of them is more important than the other one. Zen teachers have talked and written about this a lot, so there is no need for me to do the same here. But I find it remarkable to have this idea so clearly expressed in Shitou’s Sandokai: 迴互不迴互.

In verse eleven, 迴 again means to “revolve” or to “swirl” as I would like to understand it. 而 in this context indicates a causal relationship. 更 means “to take turns”. 相 means mutually as in verse two. And 涉 literally means to “cross over” or “wade through” a river, but here has the extended meaning of “to be involved” or to “enter”. Verbatim we could say “if swirling , they [the schools or objects of the senses according to our understanding of verse nine] in turns enter each other.” Okumura translates this as “When interacting, they also merge”, which is roughly the same message. The subjects, when seen from a perspective of interaction - literally swirling around - are deeply involved with one another to a point where they mutually penetrate,  “merge” in Okumura’s words. This adds another aspect to Shitou’s images of the whirlpool. Not only are the subjects caught in the vortex hurled around together, but they are also exchanging and mixing their inner essence. Shitou’s whirlpool is more like a huge particle accelerator where protons are sped up to almost the speed of light and then smashed into each other, creating entirely new elements in the process. In verse twelve, 不 again stands for “not” and 爾 for “this”. 依 means “to rely” in this context. 位 means “position”. 住 means “to dwell” or “to reside”. Verbatim we could translate verse twelve as “not this [what has been said in the previous verse, swirling and interacting] they [the schools or objects of the senses] rely on [their] dwelling positions.” Okumura simplifies this message to “Otherwise, they remain in their own states.” In other words, the subjects - 門門 of verse nine -, when seen as independent, don’t interact with one another.

All in all, the message of verses nine to twelve are fairly clear. Things can be seen as either dependent or independent. When they are seen as dependent they are mixing and merging with one another. When they are seen as independent, they don’t mix and merge, remaining just as they are. The impact of this statement just depends on what these things are, our 門門 from verse nine. For the commentators, 門門 refers to the Buddhist senses and their objects. And as the whole perceivable world is covered by this expression, what Shitou is talking about here according to this view is really everything. It is not without a touch of emotion that Okumura sums up the meaning and importances of the four verses for himself and for Zen (p. 225):

“In these four lines Shitou uses only fifteen different Chinese characters, fifteen words to express the whole of reality. This is incredible to me. I could write a whole book about these four lines.”

Okumura’s commentary on the following pages (pp. 225 to 231) is worth a full book on interaction and independence in Zen. I encourage everybody to read it. And yet, the cold-hearted historian in myself tells me that Shitou probably did not try to make a grandiose cosmological statement when writing verses nine to twelve. He was concerned with the conflict between the “Southern” and “Northern” movements in Zen. He is telling his audience, presumably consisting of followers of both sects, that the schools share the same essence and necessarily influence each other. At the same time, each school fully and completely exists in her own right. Shitou is not trying to explain the world here, but he is telling the partisans of each movement to stop arguing and respect each other. But he is doing this with such eloquence that his verses can also be read as an expression of “the whole of reality” as Okumura puts it.


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