Roots and leaves - Sandokai, verses twenty-one to twenty-four

After talking about the four great elements of Buddhism - fire, wind, water and earth - in the previous verses, Shitou returns his attention to the dharmas of the senses. The Sotoshu standard translations for verses twenty-one to twenty-four is as follows:

(21) “Eye and sights, ear and sounds,
(22) nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
(23) thus for each and every thing,
(24) according to the roots, the leaves spread forth.”

All commentators, Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki, broadly agree with this rendering.

In Shitou’s own words, the four verses appear as follows:

(21) 眼色耳音聲
(22) 鼻香舌鹹醋
(23) 然依一一法
(24) 依根葉分布

In verses twenty-one and twenty-two the symmetrical pattern observed in previous verses becomes apparent again. 眼 in verse twenty one means “eye” or “eyeball”, the physical organ of sight in other words. 色 is “colour” or “form” and stands for the object of the sense of seeing. 鼻 in verse twenty-two is the physical nose, and 香 stands for smell. The middle character in twenty-one is 耳, the physical ear. The corresponding middle character in verse twenty-two is 舌 - the “tongue”. Once more, in order to maintain the poetical form of five words per verse Shitou uses a two character compound in verse twenty-one to describe sound, the object of the hearing faculty. 音 on its own also means “sound”. 聲 on its own also means “sound”, but also “voice” or “tone”. Together they mean “sound” or “music”. In verse twenty-two Shitou simply lists two different tastes in order to evoke tastes in general: 鹹 - “salty” - and 醋 - “vinegar”. “Eye - forms, ear - sounds, nose - smell, tongue - tastes”. There is not much room for alternative translations in these two lines.

The senses and their objects play a crucial role in the Buddhist doctrine of conditioned arising or dependent origination - pratītya-samutpāda in Sanskrit. There are typically six senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, testing, sense of touch and consciousness. The last one is understood as a sensor of thoughts (Harvey, p. 58). Shitou only mentions the first four senses, but he almost certainly refers to the full list. Conditioned arising is usually illustrated through the twelve links of causes and conditions - nidāna. In this formula the six senses - shadāyatana - come in the fifth position. There is some confusion regarding the exact meaning of shadāyatana, which literally means “six bases” or “six realms”. The Rider Encyclopedia (p. 312) translates it as “the six objects of the senses”, in other words, “sights”, “sounds”, “smells”, etc. These are also sometimes called the “external” bases as they are outside of the sensing body. For Harvey (p.55), the “six bases” refer to the physical sense organs: “eyes”, “ears”, “nose”, etc. The sense organs are also sometimes called the “internal” bases as they are placed within the sensing body. Shitou literally covers all “bases” by listing the organs and the respective objects - “eye - forms, ear - sound, etc.” The “external” and “internal” sense bases come in contact - sparsha - in the sixth link of the chain of conditioned arising. Once a sense stimulus has been received, it provokes positive or negative feelings - vedanā, the seventh link. This triggers the remaining consequences in the chain of conditional arising, leading to new birth, death and suffering in the world. According to Soothill's dictionary the expression 六根 or “the six roots” or "bases" is used in Chinese Buddhism to name the six senses. Shitou uses the same character - 根 or "root" - in verse twenty-four. 

The first character of verse twenty-three is 然, signifying “thus” or “so”. It clearly links what follows directly to the previous verses. 依 can be translated as “to depend on”. 一一 literally means “one one”, but together signify “one-by-one”. And 法, the last character in verse twenty-three, means “dharma”. “Dharma” can refer to many different ideas. The commentators translate it consistently as “things” (Okumura, Sotoshu) or “everything that exists” (Deshimaru, Rech). In a more restricted sense, “dharmas” are a collection of concepts and realities based on the teachings of the Buddha. The four great elements - earth, fire, water and wind - are four such dharmas. And so are the six sense organs and their respective domains. “Dharma” in verse twenty three can be understood in a general way as “all things” or more specifically relating to the sense dharmas mentioned in the previous two verses. The first character in verse twenty-four is again 依 - “to depend on”. The next word is “root” or “basis” - 根. This is the same character that is also used in the expression 六根 or “the six roots” as a shorthand for the six senses. 葉 means “leaf” or “lobe”. The last two characters of verse twenty-four - 分布 - mean “part” or ”to divide” and “to declare” or ”to spread” respectively. Together as a compound they translate as “to scatter” or “to distribute”. “Thus depending on each dharma, depending on the root the leaves scatter” would be a possible verbatim translation of verses twenty-three and twenty-four. Okumura (p. 236) interprets these stanza as a direct reference to the “bright spiritual source” and the “branching streams” in verses five and six. The “bright source” in verse five and the “root” in verse twenty-three stand for “universality” or “oneness” in his view. The “branching streams” in verse six and the “leaves” in verse twenty-four stand for “individuality” according to the same author. Whilst this is certainly a valid interpretation, I am more inclined to think that Shitou had something more concrete in mind than “oneness” versus “individuality”. I agree with Okumura though that the “leaves” of verse twenty-four relate to the same idea as the “branching streams” in verse six. As mentioned in an earlier entry, the “outflows” or “undercurrents” in verse six can also be interpreted as Buddhist schools or sects. And from verse four we know that Shitou was in particular concerned with the split of the Chinese Zen movement into a “Southern” and “Northern” school when he wrote Sandokai. Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms lends some support to the notion that the word “leaves” - 葉 - in verse twenty-four could be used to describe Buddhist sects. It appears as part of the expression 門葉 which describes the followers or the development of a sect. 門 literally means “gate”, another word that Shitou uses in verse nine of Sandokai to address Buddhist sects. If 葉 points to sects, what does the preceding “root” - 根 - relate to from which these sects “scatter”? I personally don’t think that Shitou had any particular root in mind when writing this verse. I see the “root” more as a general reference to the process of conditional arising that he evokes in verses twenty-one and twenty-two. 根 directly relates to the six sense bases mentioned in verses twenty-one and twenty-two where they are used as a reference to the whole cycle of conditional arising. Shitou is telling his audience that the various Buddhist schools are subject to the same rules as any other phenomenon. They are conditionally born, exist for a while before disappearing again. Conditioned and impermanent as they all are, it is pointless to give them any importance or argue about them.


A complete list of references is available in the post from 16 June 2020.




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