Branches, sects, words - Sandokai, verses 25 to 26



The Sotoshu standard translation renders verses twenty-five and twenty-six as follows:

(25) “Trunk and branches share the essence,
(26) revered and common, each has its speech.”

The commentators, Deshimaru, Okumura, Rech and Suzuki, render translations that vary a lot among themselves. More than ever, it is necessary to look at the Chinese original to make sense of Shitou’s poem:

(25) 本末須歸宗
(26) 尊卑用其語

本 stands for “root”, “stem”, “origin” or “basis”. 末 means “tip”, “end” or “inessential”. These two words relate back to the previous verse in my view which says “... depending on the root, the leaves scatter” that has been the object of the previous blog entry. The character for “root” - 根 - in verse twenty-four has a strong connotation of the six sense bases - eyes, ears, smell, taste, sense of touch and mind - that Shitou discussed in detail in verses twenty-one and twenty-two. This should in my view be understood as a reference to the Buddhist concept of conditional arising. The “tip” or “end” of verse twenty-five seems to correlate with the “leaves” - 葉 - in the previous verse, which have a connotation of Buddhist schools or sects. But 本末 together also have a compound meaning of “root and twigs”, “first and last”, “ins and outs” or “the whole course of an event from beginning to end”. Okumura initially refers to this meaning when he translates verse twenty-five as “The whole process must return to the source” (although he then rejects “process” and suggests “unity and individuality” as a more appropriate translation, p. 236.) Rendering 本末 as “process” supports the understanding that Shitou really had the mechanism of conditional arising in mind when talking about roots, leaves and branches in verses twenty-four and twenty-five. 須 translates as "must". 歸 is usually translated as “to return” or “to go back”, and this is what Okumura and also Suzuki use in their versions. I prefer the meaning “belong to”. If Shitou really thought about conditional arising when writing these verses, then “to return” does not make a lot of sense. Conditional arising is a process that only runs in one direction. Causes and conditions lead to consequences which in turn condition and cause new events. There is no way of going back in this continuous unfolding. The last word in verse twenty-five is 宗. Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms translates the word as “ancestors”, “class”, “category”, “school”, “sect”, “main doctrine” or “realisation”. It seems that its original meaning was “ancestral shrine” (Wikitionary). The commentators translate it as “source”, “essence” or “original nature”. And they imply that this “source”, “essence” or “original nature” is the same for all 本末 or “root-branch-processes”. Deshimaru is more explicit when saying that this common origin is in fact emptiness or “ku” as it is known from the Heart Sutra. I will come back to the meaning of 宗 after looking at the next verse.

The poetic form of Sandokai once more allows us to detect the symmetry between two paired verses. 本末, the subject of verse twenty five, corresponds to the pair of 尊卑 in twenty-six. Together 尊卑 translate as “rich and poor” or “mighty and meek”. On its own 尊 is commonly translated as “senior”. 卑 means “low”, “base”, “vulgar”, “inferior” or “humble” on its own. 用 - “to use” - is the verb in twenty-six, corresponding to 須 in the preceding verse. The fourth character is 其 and here means “their”. And the last word in twenty-six is 語 which means “words”, “speech” or “language”. It corresponds to 宗 - the “ancestral shrine” - in the previous verse. Word by word, verse twenty-six would be something like “Superior and inferior use their [own] speech.” If 本末 - “the root-branch process” - in verse twenty-five relates to Buddhist schools or sects as indicated earlier, then 尊卑 - “superior and inferior” - should have a corresponding meaning. Shitou mentions similar pairs of adjectives describing differences in status and ability earlier in Sandokai. In verse three he talks about people with 利鈍 - “sharp” or “dull” faculties. This statement is paired with the reference to the “Southern” and “Northern” schools” in verse four. In verse fifteen Shitou distinguishes between “high and middle words” - 上中言 - which I have interpreted as a reference to the “great” and “middle” vehicles of Buddhism. The “great” or “upper” vehicle is of course Mahayana Buddhism. But the “middle” vehicle and even the “small” or “lower” vehicle - Hinayana - also have their purpose in serving those who are not (yet) smart enough to follow the Mahayana way. I see Shitou picking up the very same idea in verse twenty-six when he says that “superior and inferior have their own speech”. “Superior” - are those who follow the Mahayana teachings - 上法. “Inferior” are those who follow the lesser dharmas, the “middle” or the “lower” vehicles - 中法, 下法. Each of the vehicles have their own “speech”. This makes immediate sense when we consult Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms. Soothill tells us that the followers of the three vehicles were described as the “three grades of hearers” in Chinese Buddhism - 三品聽法: the “higher”, “middle” and “lower” grade hearers - 上中下. Translating 語 as “discourse” instead of “speech” (Soothill), the meaning of verse twenty-six becomes “Superior and inferior [followers] have their [own] discourse.” This would completely make sense in the light of what Shitou says in verses three and fifteen. Then there only remains to clarify the meaning of the “ancestral shrine” - 宗 - the last character of verse twenty-five, the object that the “root-branches process” returns to. By now it is obvious that 宗 must mean “school” or “sect” in this context. This meaning corresponds neatly to the interpretation of 語 as “discourse” in verse twenty-six. Summing up all of the above, I would like to suggest something like the following as my best guess of what Shitou wanted to say in verses twenty-five and twenty-six:

(25) “The ‘branching process’ [the development of Buddhist sects] depends on the schools [themselves], …”
(26) “[Because] different types of Buddhist have [necessarily] their own teachings.”

I am keenly aware of the fact that this interpretation is very different from the Sotoshu standard translation and also from what the commentators say. What gives me some degree of confidence is the fact that they fail to agree among themselves what these verses mean. If I were to sum up the common ground of their renderings of verse twenty-five, it would be something like “All phenomena and the way they are produced return to [or share] the same essence/original nature/source”. Regarding verse twenty-six, Suzuki tells us that we may use good or bad words, but we should understand the deeper meaning behind these words. Okumura and Rech translate the verse as “‘Noble’ and ‘base’ are only manners of speaking.” And Deshimaru tells us that “we can use noble or vulgar words as we please”. These interpretations are the teachings of highly accomplished and inspiring Zen teachers. The last thing I am attempting to do is to criticise them or prove them wrong. On the other hand, I do believe that it is worth trying to investigate texts like Shitou’s Sandokai thoroughly and beyond the great work that has already been done. It is certainly a good exercise for an amateur like me who likes to understand more about Zen and Buddhism. It might also unearth some layers of meaning that have not been noticed very much or that may have been forgotten. I hope I have managed to make clear how I have arrived at my views. And I would like to invite anybody interested to critically scrutinise my reasoning.


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

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