Every box its lid, every arrow its tip - Sandokai, verses 33 to 36

In verses thirty-three to thirty-six Shitou picks up a number of topics that he has touched upon in earlier parts of the poem. He once more talks about competing Buddhist teachings and about the pair of ri and ji or “principle” and “phenomena”. For those in his audience who struggle with such abstract ideas, he illustrates his thinking in terms of boxes and arrows.

The Sotoshu translation of verses thirty-three to thirty-six is:

(33) Each of the myriad things has its merit,

(34) Expressed according to function and place.

(35) Existing phenomenally, like box and cover joining,

(36) According with principle, like arrow points meeting.

In Chinese this passage looks like the following:

(33) 萬物自有功

(34) 當言用及處

(35) 事存函蓋合

(36) 理應箭鋒拄

萬物 in verse thirty three literally means “ten thousand things”. As a compound it can also mean “all living beings” or simply “everything” which is how it is rendered by the commentators Okumura, Suzuki, Deshimaru and Rech. 自 on its own means “self”, but here it is probably relating back to the “ten thousand things” as “themselves”. 有 means “to have “ and 功 in a Buddhist context often means “merit”, but can also mean “service” or “achievement”. Okumura translates it as “function” and Deshimaru as “use”. Word by word, verse thirty three would be something like “All things themselves have their merit” which is pretty much in agreement with what all commentators are saying. 當, the first character of verse thirty-four, indicates that two things match each other equally. 言 is the character for “word” or “speech” that we have already encountered in verse fifteen. 用 commonly means “to use” or “usefulness”. It probably relates to 功 - “merit” - in the previous verse. 及 means “to reach” or “in time”. 處 has many meanings, but probably relates to “place” or “location” in this context. Word by word, verse thirty-four could be something like “Equally -  words - usefulness - in time - place”. 言 - “word” - the subject of verse thirty-four, is ignored by most commentators. Sotoshu and Rech refer to it as “expressed”, and indeed 言 can also mean “to talk” or “to say”. But I feel that this rendering does not reflect the true weight of this keyword. In verse fifteen  the meaning of 言 is similarly either discarded or downplayed by all commentators. In this previous context, I suggested to read 言 in the sense of “teaching”. And this is one possible meaning it could also have in verse thirty-four. Putting all of this together, a fairly consistent interpretation emerges: “Each thing has its merit; equally, words [are] useful according to time and place.” This makes sense as it is. But if we read “words” as “teaching” then we can link this passage back to the multiple references of competing Buddhist doctrines in previous parts of Sandokai. Shitou understands these “teachings” or “schools” not us fundamentally opposed to each other, but rather as “skilful means” which are tailored to the circumstances of the listeners.

The subjects of verses thirty-five and thirty six are 事 - “matter”, “phenomena” - and 理 - “principle”, “inner essence”. This pair of opposites, ji and ri in Japanese pronunciation, has been introduced in verses seven and eight. In these previous stanzas Shitou tells us that “Grasping things [ji] as original is confusion; to agree with the principle [ri] is also not enlightenment.” The verb of verse thirty-five is 存, meaning “to exist”. The following 函蓋 stand for “box” and “lid”. And the last character is another verb, meaning “to join” or “to fit”. Word by word, verse thirty-five would be something like “Matter/phenomena exist,  box [and] lid fit”. In verse thirty-six 理 - ri or “principle” - is followed by the verb 應 - “should” or “ought to”. The next two characters are 箭 - “arrow” - and 鋒 - “[arrow] head”. The last character is another verb: 拄 - “to lean” or “to prop on”. Word by word, verse thirty-six could be something like “Principle [ri] should, arrow [and] arrow head prop.” The Sotoshu translation suggests an image where two arrows, released simultaneously by two opposing archers, are hitting each other in mid air. All commentators render similar versions of this dramatic scene. It relates to a similar passage in another famous Zen poem, the Hōkyō Zanmai by Dongshan Liangjie (Japanese Tōzan Ryōkai) who lived roughly one hundred years after Shitou, the author of the Sandokai. The Hōkyō Zanmai mentions the legendary archer Yi who is supposed to have duelled with another master archer. The memorable clash of the two arrows is thought to have happened at this occasion. I can see why all commentators seeks to read verse thirty-six of Sandokai in the light of this Chinese tale reminiscent of Robin Hood or Wilhelm Tell. It adds colour and meaning to a passage which is otherwise difficult to understand. According to Okumura, Shitou is trying to teach us that phenomena and principle - ji and ri - should meet like the arrows in this story (Okumura, p. 246). I completely agree that Shitou talks about the agreement between principle and phenomena. But I really struggle to see the image of arrows clashing in mid air in the words that Shitou actually uses in verse thirty-six. A prosaic but maybe also more faithful interpretation would be “Principle should lean on [phenomena] like an arrow head is supported by an arrow.” There is less action, but it harmonises better with the image of the box and the lid in the previous verse. A box needs a lid to be complete in the same way a real arrow must have a head. The complete meaning of verses thirty five and thirty six would then be “Phenomena exist like box and lid covering; the principle should lean on phenomena like a head on its arrow.” In other words, phenomena and principle are complementing each other and cannot be separated like a box and a lid or an arrow and its head.

We spent a lot of time discussing verses thirty-five and thirty-six. But Shitou does not talk about ri, ji, boxes, lids or arrows for their own sake. He merely uses these concepts and images to illustrate his thinking about Buddhist doctrines as expressed in the previous two verses. Competing Buddhist teachings and the schools they represent have their own purpose according to time and place. They are just like phenomena - ji - that ultimately cannot be separated from the principle - ri - in the same way a box does not exist without a lid and an arrow without its head. 


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