The hidden pratyeka-buddha - Sandokai, verses 13 to 16



Shohaku Okumura (p. 231) renders the most faithful translation of verses thirteen and fourteen: “Forms are basically different in material and appearance, Sounds are fundamentally different in pleasant or harsh quality.” The original looks like this:

(13) 色本殊質象,

(14) 聲元異樂苦。

色 here is the object of the faculty of sight, a “shape” or “form” in other words. It corresponds with the first character of verse fourteen 聲 - “sound” - the object of the faculty of hearing. There is no doubt that Shitou here addresses the five classic Buddhist senses and their respective “fields” or “objects” - sight, hearing, smell, taste and sense of touch. The senses and their objects play a pivotal role in the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. It is the contact between a sense faculty and its object that generates desirable or undesirable impressions. These in turn that to actions of grasping or avoiding respectively. Actions like this drive forward the wheel of samsara, the never-ending process of becoming and ceasing, birth and death. Shitou only mentions two sense objects - visible “forms” and audible “sounds” - but he really could have picked any of the five. The second character in verse thirteen is 本 means “origin”, “foundation” or “root”, but in this context it is probably intended as a modifier of “form” - “basically” according to Okumura’s translation. It corresponds neatly with the second character 元 in verse fourteen which has a very similar meaning - “head”, “first”, “origin” or “basic”. Okumura also treats 元 as a modifier - “sounds are fundamentally …” 殊 in verse thirteen and 異 in fourteen again have very similar meanings: “distinguish”, “differentiate”, “being different”. 質 in verse thirteen means “quality”, “material” or “character”. 象 means “appearance” or “image”. We can see that Okumura’s translation is almost verbatim: “Forms”, “original”, “distinguish”, “quality”, “appearance”. 樂 in verse fourteen literally describes “music” or a “melodie”. The sense of “enjoyable” is an extended meaning. 苦 means “suffering”, “hardship”, “bitter” or “harsh”. Word by word verse fourteen is “Sound(s)”, “originally”, “distinguish”, “enjoyable”, “bitter”. We have seen in the previous verses that Sandokai is usually seen as a treatise of “the many” and “the one”, the myriad of phenomena that we experience in daily life and the unifying principle behind them. In verses thirteen and fourteen Shitou clearly talks about “the many”, the objects we constantly perceive through our senses. Verses thirteen and fourteen are also a beautiful example of the basic simplicity and symmetry of Sandokai. Each character in each verse corresponds neatly to another one at the same position in the other verse: “form” - “sound”, “originally” - “fundamentally”, “distinguish” - “differentiate”, etc. Recognising these patterns is vital to approach the intended meaning of the poem.


Whilst the commentators by and large agree on the meaning of verses thirteen and fourteen, the proposed translations for the following two verses vary considerably. I personally think that the Sotoshu standard rendering is most faithful to the original text, but questions remain: “Darkness merges refined and common words, brightness distinguishes clear and murky phrases.” The original looks like this:

(15) 暗合上中言,

(16) 明明清濁句。

In these verses, Shitou picks up the theme of “darkness” and “light” that he has introduced in verses five and six as the “brightness of the source” and the “outflows streaming in darkness”. The same characters, 暗 - “darkness” - and 明 - “bright light” - appear in verses fifteen and sixteen as well. And as in verses thirteen and fourteen we can observe a basic symmetry between the two stanzas. The first character in fifteen - “darkness” - corresponds to the first character in sixteen - “bright light”. The second character in verse fifteen, 合, means “to bring together”, “to unite” or “to join”. It clearly is the verb of the phrase that is verse fifteen. The corresponding character in verse sixteen is again the character for “bright light” - 明. Due to its position we can assume that it is intended as a verb here as well, maybe in the sense of “to clarify”. The commentators broadly follow this approach. Sotoshu, Okumuara and Rech read 明 as “to distinguish”. Deshimaru renders it as “is clear” in line with Suzuki’s “is apparent”. The next two characters in verse fifteen - 上中 - literally mean “up” and “middle”. They are interpreted in various ways by the commentators, but for the time being it is best just to refer to them by their original meanings. The corresponding two characters in verse sixteen are 清濁. 清 means “clear”, “pure” or “distinct”. 濁 is the opposite: “impure”, “muddy”, “dirty”. The last character in verse fifteen is “word”. This sign is ignored by all commentators but Okumura who renders the whole verse as “Darkness is a word for merging upper and lower.” The corresponding character to “word” in verse sixteen is 句 - “phrase” or “sentence”. Verbatim, verse fifteen would be something like “darkness”, “unites”, “upper”, “middle”, “word(s)”. Verse sixteen can be read as “Bright light”, “clarifies”, “pure”, “impure”, “sentence(s)”.


The commentators offer a variety of different interpretations for these two verses. Suzuki and Okumura read 上中 as “superior” and “inferior” or “upper” and “lower”, giving it a social connotation in the sense of “upper” and “lower” classes or culture. The problem is that 中 - “middle” - is not really the opposite of 上 - “up”. I also personally don’t see that Shitou talks about social classes in the Sandokai, although there are more references later in the poem that could be understood in this way. Sotoshu speaks of “refined and common words” which also has a social connotation, but avoids the problem of translating 中 as “low”. For Deshimaru 上中 is a shorthand for all directions - on top, below and in the middle - or “everywhere”. This would be similar to the use of 東西 - “east-west” - in the second verse. Rech reads 上中 as synonyms of the corresponding pair of opposites 清濁 in verse sixteen: “In darkness, purity and impurity are mixed up.” All of these are good interpretations of what seems to be a rather mysterious passage in the poem. But it feels like that an essential bit of the jigsaw is still missing. After agonising over this problem for a day or two, I ran 上中 over the electronic version of Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms. Amongst many other things, it returned the following: “上中下法 The three dharmas, systems, or vehicles, 菩薩, 緣覺, and 聲聞 bodhisattva, pratyeka-buddha, and śrāvaka.” Searching 上 or “up” on its own returns “上乘 Mahāyāna”. Searching 中 - “middle” - returns “中乘 The middle vehicle to nirvana, includes all intermediate or medial systems between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. It also corresponds with the state of a pratyekabuddha, who lives chiefly for his own salvation but partly for others, like a man sitting in the middle of a vehicle, leaving scarcely room for others.” This allows us to interpret the expression 上中 in a new way as a reference to the Mahayana vehicle and the pratyeka-buddha vehicle of Buddhism.


The pratyeka-buddha vehicle is not something many people are very familiar with. We all know what Mahayana - the “Great Vehicle” is. We also know that the “small vehicle” - Hinayana - is what the Mahayana militants called all the Buddhist schools that did not follow their innovations in terms of buddhology and bodhisattva worship. The great Mahayana sutras like the Lotus Sutra or the Vimalakirti Sutra call the followers of the “small vehicle” “sravakas” or “voice hearers”, a term initially designating the original disciples of the historical Buddha. In the classic simile of the burning house from the Lotus Sutra (pp. 34-35) the father lures his children out of danger by promising them bullock carts, goat carts and deer carts to play with. The bullock carts stand for the bodhisattva vehicle, the deer carts for the sravaka (Hinayana) vehicle and the goat carts for the pratyeka-buddha vehicle. Williams calls pratyeka-buddhas “private buddhas”, self-enlightened sages.


The last piece of the riddle of verse fifteen so conveniently overlooked by most commentators is the intended meaning of 言 or “word”. Also running it through Soothill’s dictionary reveals the possibility of reading it as “word” in the sense of a “religious teaching”. It is used in this sense for example in the name of the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism: 眞言宗 - literally “The True Word Sect”. “The Word of God'' would be a Western analogy. Putting all of this together allows us to read verse fifteen as “in darkness, the teachings of the Mahayana and pratyeka-buddha vehicles are mixed up.” Why do I think that this is a better interpretation than “Darkness merges refined and common words” (Sotoshu) or “Darkness is a word for merging upper and lower” (Okumura)? Because I believe that all through Sandokai Shitou addresses concrete frictions in the Zen movement following the split in the so called “Southern” and “Northern” schools. The schism is explicitly mentioned in verses three and four. And Shitou continues to talk about this troubling state of affairs in the following verses symbolically. In verses five and six he introduces the “bright source” as metaphor for the original Buddha mind and what is usually rendered as “branching streams in the darkness” really refers to Buddhist schools or sects forming mysteriously out of the original source. So the “darkness” at the beginning of verse fifteen is in my view a clear reference to the multiplicity of Buddhists schools that existed at Shitou’s time. This view ties in neatly with the interpretation of 上 as a shorthand for the Mahayana vehicle and 中 for the “middle” or pratyeka-buddha vehicle.


Armed with this understanding of verse fifteen, verse sixteen immediately becomes more intelligible as well. When Shitou says “bright light clarifies pure impure sentence(s)” we should read this brightness as a reference to “bright source” in verse five and the “mind of the great sage of India” in verse one. In other words, Shitou is saying that in the light of the clear Buddha mind we can distinguish between pure and impure teachings. This is in direct reference to the mixing of Mahayana and pratyeka-buddha doctrines stated in verse fifteen. I believe that instead of musing about the nature of darkness and light and “upper” and “lower” speach, Shitou very clearly expresses a concern about a creeping infiltration of pratyeka-buddha thinking into the Mahayana foundation of Chinese Zen at the time of the conflict between the “Northern” and “Southern” schools. To make sense of this concern it is worth recalling the teaching of so-called “sudden enlightenment” as it was put forward by the followers of the “Southern” movement. The Platform Sutra states that one only needs to look into one’s own mind to achieve complete and perfect buddhahood. In the remarks on verses seven and eight I have pointed out the dangers that such a doctrine presents when taken out of context. It can be seen as a selfish denial of the Buddhist tradition of practice, respecting elders and putting others first. It does not require a big leap of faith to assume the Shitou might have seen aspects of pratyeka-buddha philosophy in extreme manifestations of the doctrine of “sudden enlightenment”. If somebody considers him- or herself as enlightened solely by having looked into their own mind, how is that different from a privately enlightened sage after all?

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