The "Four Greats" are doing their own thing - Sandokai, verses 17 to 20

For verses seventeen to twenty once more Okumura provides the most faithful translation:

(17) “The four gross elements return to their own nature
(18) Like a baby turns to its mother.
(19) Fire heats, wind moves,
(20) Water wets, earth is solid.”

The other commentators are saying more or less the same. Verses nineteen and twenty are very straight forward. As they illustrate graphically what is said in the more cryptic verses seventeen and eighteen, it makes sense to take a look at them first.

In the Chinese original we find the following for verses nineteen and twenty:

(19) 火熱風動搖
(20) 水溼地堅固

There is again a beautiful and symmetrical pattern. 火 is the first character in verse nineteen and simply means “fire”. The corresponding character in verse twenty is 水 - “water”. 熱, the second word in verse nineteen, means “to heat” or “to warm”. The corresponding 溼 in verse twenty means “to damp” or “to wet”. The third character in verse nineteen is 風 - “wind”. The third word in verse twenty is “earth” - 地. And what is the wind doing? It 動搖. Both words have similar meanings like “to move”, “to shake” or “to rock”. And when used together as a compound they also mean that. Earth in verse twenty is 堅固. Again, these are two words with almost synonymous meanings - “solid”, “firm”, “hard”. And once more when used together as a compound they also have this meaning. Shitou enumerates the four great elements of Buddhism - fire, wind, water and earth. These are four words or characters. He also wants to tell us what these elements are doing, so he needs another four words - “fire heats”, “wind moves”, “water wets” and “earth - solid”. But due to the poetical form of Sandokai with five words per verse, Shitou needs to fill in two more positions to arrive at the required ten. This is why he choses compounds for “moves” and “solid” at the end of each verse. “Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid”, the English rendering could not be more verbatim and clearly conveys the simplicity symmetry of Shitou’s statement. The Western reader familiar with classical literature will immediately recognise these four elements which are the same as in Greek and Roman antiquity or in medieval European alchemy. In Buddhism, the four elements are part of the catalogue of dharmas, types of basic realities which are used to analyse reality. It is important to understand that as dharmas the four elements are not simply atomic types of matter that are mixed together like the ingredients of a cooking recipe. As dharmas, the four “elements” are dynamic processes. They “do” things. This is why Shitou is not content with simply listing them, but he also mentions their respective activities. Armed with this understanding of the four elements as dharmas we are now ready to address the more mysterious verses seventeen and eighteen.

In Chinese, verses seventeen and eighteen look like this:

(17) 四大性自復
(18) 如子得其母

The first character of verse seventeen - 四 - is the numeral four. The second - 大 - means “great”. Together, 四大 are a shorthand for the four great Buddhist elements we have just discussed - “The Four Greats”. 性 means “nature”, “character” or “personality”. 自 means “self”. 復 means “to return” or “to repeat”. It is not difficult to see how Okumura arrives at his translation “The four gross elements return to their own natures …”. All commentators apart from Deshimaru render similar translations. The plural “natures” is important here. It means that each of the elements returns to its own nature. Earth returns to earth, water returns to water, etc. In saying this, the commentators agree that the elements are not returning to some sort of primordial unity besides themselves. This last interpretation is presented by Deshimaru who translates verse seventeen as “The nature of the four great elements returns to the source automatically…” It is unlikely that Shitou intended this latter meaning as he explicitly describes how each element is “acting” according to its own nature in verses nineteen and twenty. Looking at the grammatical details of verse seventeen also supports this view. The verb - 復, “to return” or “to repeat” - comes at the end of the phrase. “Nature” and “self” - 性自 -, which are rendered as the object in Okumura’s translation, stand before the verb. From the very little I understand of Chinese grammar this seems unusual as the object usually comes after the verb. Strictly speaking, “self nature” might actually not be the intended object of Shitou’s verse, but actually part of the subject. In this case, a more verbatim translation would be something like “The self nature of the Four Greats repeats''. When reading the verse like this it becomes even clearer that the intended message really is that the four elements are independent and referring to themselves and not a “source” or any other primordial unity outside themselves. By the way, I owe these grammatical observations and indeed my entire understanding of the Chinese characters of Sandokai one hundred percent to my friend Martin Unzan Landolt. Martin has opened my eyes that it is actually possible to engage with the Chinese originals of the classical Zen texts without having a degree in that area.

如, the first character of verse eighteen, means “to be like” or “as if”. 子 simply means “child”. 得 is the verb of the verse and means “to gain”, “to obtain” or “to get”. 其 means “his” or “her” and 母 “mother”. Verbatim the verse could be translated like “... like a child obtains its mother.” Sotoshu, Okumura, Suzuki and Deshimaru render more or less similar translations apart from Rech who translates the phrase as “... like a child returns to its mother.” The image used is that of a child that depends on its mother in the same way like the four great elements depend on themselves. This simile feels somewhat ambivalent. Mother and child, although very closely related, are two separate bodies. Talking of a child depending on its mother seems like an odd choice if Shitou wants to underline that the four elements depend on themselves and explicitly not on some primordial unity or source. Could it be that our understanding of the whole passage is wrong? Maybe what Shitou really wants to say is that the four elements return to the original source like Deshimaru suggests? It is by pure chance that I came across a passage from another book that helped me to make some sense of this apparent contradiction.

In a little booklet on Taoism Jennifer Oldstone-Moore (p. 20) quotes a passage from the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, said to be written by the legendary Laozi himself. As this is a beautiful piece itself I would like to quote it in full:

“There is a thing chaotic yet formed,
It was born before Heaven and Earth.
Silent.
Empty.
It is self-sufficient; it does not change.
It goes in all directions, but is not exhausted.
It could be considered the mother of all creation.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.
If forced to name it, I would call it Great.
Being great, it fades away.
Fading away, it becomes distant.
Becoming distant, it reverses.
Therefore,
Tao is great.
Heaven is great.
Earth is great.
The king is great.
Within the boundaries of the land there are four great things, and the king is one.
The person follows the pattern of earth.
Earth follows the pattern of Heaven.
Heaven follows the pattern of Tao.
And Tao follows the pattern of Nature.”

The Tao Te Ching is one of the great Chinese classical texts. We can assume that Shitou’s audience was familiar with it. I also found a Chinese version of this passage under https://www.daodejing.org/. Just like Sandokai the Tao Te Ching lists “four great things”: the “king” or “person”, “earth”, “heaven” and “Tao”. These “four great things'' are addressed with exactly the same expression - 四大 - as the Buddhist four great elements in Sandokai. Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms confirms that 四大 can equally denote either the four great elements of Buddhism - fire, wind, water, earth - or the four great things of Taoism - person/king, earth, heaven and Tao. Furthermore, we also find the mother - 母 - in the above passage of the Tao Te Ching: “It [Tao] could be considered the mother of all creation.” This “mother” really is the primordial entity, the great Tao or source, that brings forth everything. The other three elements are one after another following the great Tao: people or the king follow the order of earth, earth follows the order of heaven, and heaven follows the order of Tao. In my personal view and based on my very limited knowledge of Chinese classical literature, I believe that Shitou alludes to the Tao Te Ching in verses seventeen and eighteen of Sandokai. The references to the “Four Greats'' and the “mother”, which seems so strangely involved to us, would have been instantly recognisable to Shitou’s intended audience as a reference to the great Chinese classic.

How does all of this help us to understand verses seventeen to twenty? Just like in previous passages of Sandokai, Shitou uses the language and imagery of Taoism to convey a Buddhist message. The “Four Greats'' are there, but they are the great elements imported by Buddhism. And as Buddhist dharmas these elements don’t depend on anything but themselves. The great mother or original source of the Tao Te Ching is there, but in Shitou’s poem the relationship between mother and child is just a metaphor to describe the naturalness of the four elements: Fire heats as naturally as a child needs its mother. Water wets just as naturally as a child needs its mother, etc. By using the words of the great Tao Te Ching Shitou very skillfully makes Buddhist teachings palatable to an audience that would be very familiar with the Taoist classic. And once more, I believe that Shitou is not talking about Buddhist philosophy for its own sake. Shitou wrote Sandokai to address frictions in the Chinese Zen movement following the split into the so-called “Southern” and “Northern” schools as I have pointed out in a number of previous posts. The four great elements who are independently acting according to their own natures are metaphors for Buddhist schools. Just like the four elements exist in their own right, so do the various Buddhist schools and sects that existed at Shitou’s time. Fire heats. It does not concern itself with water or wind. Fire does not think that it is better than water or wind, nor does it try to make things wet or blow them over. In the same way, the followers of different Buddhist schools should tolerate each other’s function and right to exist. Of course, there also is the unifying principle, the universal Buddha mind. Shitou mentions it for example as “the mind of the great sage” in verse one or the “bright source” in verse five. But in verses seventeen to twenty Shitou emphasises the natural independence of the true schools of Buddhism. It is again another appeal to the members of the arguing factions to come to terms with each other.

A complete list of references can be found in the post from 16 June 2020.

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