Light and darkness revisited - Sandokai, verses 27 to 31

 In these six verses Shitou reveals his final take on the theme of "light" and "darkness" which he has introduced at the beginning of Sandokai in the context of the split in the Zen community into a "Southern" and "Northern" school. We will look at the Lotus Sutra to decipher the meaning behind the poet's words and then see how he manages to give "darkness" and "light" new meaning that goes beyond the one in the great Mahayana text.

The Sotoshu translation for verses twenty-seven to thirty is:

(27) In the light there is darkness,

(28) but don’t take it as darkness.

(29) In the dark there is light,

(30) but don’t see it as light.

Okumura’s and Rech’s renderings are broadly similar. Suzuki and Deshimaru translate the corresponding verses twenty-eight and thirty slightly different, saying we should avoid “dark” or “bright” vision (or prejudice) when interacting with others.

The Chinese original is as follows:

(27) 當明中有暗

(28) 勿以暗相遇

(29) 當暗中有明

(30) 勿以明相睹

Verbatim, verse twenty-seven is something like “When - light - middle - there is - dark”. Twenty-nine says correspondingly “When - dark- middle - there is - light.” Verses twenty-eight and thirty are also almost identical with just “light” and “dark” exchanged: 勿 - “do not”, 以 - “to use”, 暗/明 - “dark”/”light”. 相遇 in verse twenty-has a compound meaning of “to meet”. 相睹 in verse thirty both mean “to see” or “to observe”. Maybe literally the meaning would be something like “Don’t use [light - subject of previous verse] darkness meeting” (28); “Don’t use [darkness] light seeing”. Sotoshu’s rendering seems to be most faithful to the Chinese original.

This is not the first time Shitou mentions light - 明 - and dark - 暗 - in Sandokai. He introduces the theme in verses five and six when contrasting the “spiritual source in the bright light” to the “branching streams flowing on in darkness”. I have interpreted the “bright source” as an allusion to the pure Buddha mind and the “branching streams” as a reference to the formation of Buddhist sects which happens in the dark. The pair of 明暗 comes up again in verses fifteen and sixteen. There, Shitou tells us that “in the dark, “high” and “middle” words are mixed, whilst in the clear light one can distinguish pure and impure doctrines. I have suggested reading the “high and middle words” as an allusion to the “high” and “middle” vehicles of Buddhism as they are extensively spoken of in the Lotus Sutra. Again, darkness is associated with doctrinal differences in the Buddhist tradition. The shadowy formation of schools is contrasted to the brightness of the Buddha mind which distinguishes between pure and impure teachings. In the verses that are the topic of the current entry Shitou gives us his final view on the theme of light and darkness. Once more, I am turning to the Lotus Sutra for guidance. In particular, I am looking at chapter five of the sutra which comes under the title “On Plants” in Hendrik Kern’s translation from 1884. To be even more precise, the part of the sutra that I found most helpful in trying to understand verses twenty-seven to thirty of Sandokai is the second half of this chapter. In it, the Buddha tells his disciple Mahākāśyapa, a parable about a blind man whose eyesight is restored. This part is unfortunately missing from the commonly available English editions of the Lotus Sutra like the ones by Kubo and Yuyama (2007) or Watson Burton (1993). These are based on the Chinese translation by the famous Central Asian scholar monk Kumarajiva which was completed around 400 CE. Kern's translation is based on a Sanskrit manuscript which Shitou would never have been able to see. But in his introduction, Kern also clarifies that the part missing from Kumarajiva’s version was included in other Chinese translations. He mentions in particular the versions by Ku Fâ-Hu, or Dharmaraksha, from around 300 CE and another one by Gñânagupta and Dharmagupta from the second half of the six century BCE (Saddharma-Puṇdarīka, p. xx-xxiii). It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that Shitou had access to the passage in question in a Chinese translation.

At the beginning of the second half of chapter five of the Lotus Sutra there is a remarkable passage where the Buddha likens his action in the world to that of the sun and the moon:

As the light of the sun and moon, Kâsyapa, shines upon the world, upon the virtuous and the wicked, upon high and low, upon the fragrant and ill-smelling; as their beams are sent down upon everything equally, without inequality (partiality); so, too, Kâsyapa, the intellectual light of the knowledge of the omniscient, the Tathâgatas, the Arhats, &c., the preaching of the true law proceeds equally in respect to all beings in the five states of existence, to all who according to their particular disposition are devoted to the great vehicle, or to the vehicle of the Pratyekabuddhas, or the vehicle of the disciples. Nor is there any deficiency or excess in the brightness of the Tathâgata knowledge up to one’s becoming fully acquainted with the law. There are not three vehicles, Kâsyapa; there are but beings who act differently; therefore it is declared that there are three vehicles.  (Saddharma-Puṇdarīka, p. 128)

“The intellectual light of the knowledge of the omniscient” and the “brightness of the Tathâgata knowledge” - “the omniscient” and “the Tathâgata” addressing the Buddha - resonate strongly with the “bright light” - 明 - in Sandokai. The Chinese character even consists of a combination of the signs for “sun” - 日 - and “moon” - 月 -, although this is probably really just a coincidence. There are more links between this paragraph from the Lotus Sutra and various passages in Sandokai. “The virtuous and the wicked”, “the high and low” point towards “superior” and “inferior” - 尊卑 - in verse twenty six. These terms describe various degrees of attainment of Buddhist realisation and the sort of people who stand for them. When the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra speaks of “the fragrant and the ill-smelling”, we are reminded of verses thirteen and fourteen of Sandokai. This is where Shitou introduces the five senses and the ability to distinguish between pleasing and unpleasant impressions. Then we find the reference to the “particular disposition” of people which guides their choice of Buddhist doctrine. This is the very same idea that Shitou presents right at the beginning of the poem. In verse three he tells us that people have “sharp” or “dull” faculties - 利鈍 - and links this idea to the rival doctrines of the “Southern” and “Northern” schools in verse four. And finally, the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra mentions “the great vehicle” or “Mahayana”, “the vehicle of the Pratyekabuddhas” and “the vehicle of the disciples” or “sravakas”. These are nothing else but the “upper” and “middle” “words” or “teachings” -上中言 - mentioned in verse fifteen. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha emphasises that these three “vehicles” are essentially “beings who act differently”. The “three vehicles” are just three different expressions of the one “bright” Buddha knowledge. This short paragraph holds in my view the key to understanding probably as much as fifty percent of the metaphors used in Sandokai. But there is more.

Following this exposition, Mahākāśyapa asks the Buddha if there are three different nirvanas according to the three vehicles or if there is only one (Saddharma-Puṇdarīka, p. 129). The Buddha responds that there can only be one nirvana:

Nirvâna, Kâsyapa, is a consequence of understanding that all laws (things) are equal. Hence there is but one Nirvâna, not two, not three.

Note that in this passage Kern cannot decide if he should translate “dharmas” as “things” or “laws”, but from the context it should be clear that “laws” or even better “teachings” are meant. Further in the text, the Buddha explains the point of the one dharma through the parable of a blind man. Blind since birth, this poor fellow does not believe that there are things like  “handsome and ugly shapes”, the sun, the moon or the planets because he has never seen them. (“Handsome and ugly shapes” again seem to point directly to verse thirteen of Sandokai.) People try to convince the blind man that all of these things do exist, but he refuses to acknowledge this. A compassionate physician - the Buddha - cures the blind man with four herbs. The man can now see all shapes, the sun, the moon and the planets, and thinks he knows it all. He exclaims: 

O how foolish was I that I did not believe what they told me, nor accepted what they affirmed. Now I see all; I am delivered from my blindness and have recovered my eyesight; there is no one in the world who could surpass me. (Saddharma-Puṇdarīka, p. 131)

The hubris that speaks through these words is blatant. The man is overheard by a group of “seers” - bodhisattvas - who have realised the five transcendental powers - divine sight, divine hearing, the ability to read the mind of others, the memory of past lives and other psychic powers. Comparing their own abilities to those of the man cured of blindness, they admonish him. Although he has recovered his normal sight,  he cannot sense far away sounds or forms like they can. Neither can he discern good or bad intentions of others by reading their minds or fly from one place to another. The seers conclude their judgement with the following words which echo in verses twenty-eight and thirty of Sandokai:

...; how then wouldst thou be clever, how canst thou say: I see all? Good man, thou takest darkness for light, and takest light for darkness. (Saddharma-Puṇdarīka, p. 132)

Is it this admonition that Shitou had in mind when he told his audience “don’t take darkness for light!” and “don’t take light for darkness!”? To be sure, one would have to consult the Chinese translations of the Lotus Sutra that actually contain this half chapter to make a convincing case. At this point I can only note that to my knowledge there is no more convincing explanation in the literature than the one presented here.

A few lines further down in the sutra the Buddha provides a handy explanation of the characters in his parable. We have already seen that the physician is the Buddha and that the seers are advanced bodhisattvas. The blind-born man is likened to the beings who are ignorant, “blind with infatuation”, and who drift through the cycle of suffering and rebirth that is the mundane world (ibid., pp. 134-135). The man with recovered eyesight is likened to a follower of the vehicle of the sravakas or Pratyekabuddhas - the “middle words” of verse fifteen of Sandokai. These classes of Buddhist devotees have successfully escaped the evil cycle of rebirth and believe to have achieved final liberation - nirvana. But the Buddha points out that they still need to realise further teachings before they can enter the one and only true nirvana. The ultimate insight is to see all phenomena as empty. The truly enlightened individual “sees that all laws (and phenomena) are unborn and undestroyed, not bound and not loose, not dark and not bright.” (ibid., p. 136). When Shitou tells his audience not to take darkness for light and light for darkness, he warns them against getting stuck at an incomplete level of realisation. Understanding the laws of conditioned arising and escaping the darkness of the cycle of rebirth is not yet enlightenment. Instead, Shitou tells his audience in line with the Lotus Sutra that they have to go further and master the higher teachings beyond the cycle of conditioned arising. But where the Lotus Sutra declares that ultimately all phenomena are neither dark nor bright, Shitou says that there is darkness in the middle of light and light in the middle of darkness. What he means by that becomes clearer in the following two verses.

(31) 明暗各相對

(32) 比如前後步

Verse thirty-one literally translates as: 明 - “light” - and 暗 - “darkness”, “each” - 各 - “oppose” - 相對. Verse thirty-two is equally lucid: 比 - “comparing”, 如 - “as if”, 前 - “front”, 後 - “back”, 步 - “step”. The Sotoshu translation renders these two verses in English as “Light and dark oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking.” All other commentators basically agree with this meaning. Shitou does not tell us that darkness and light ultimately don’t exist like the Lotus Sutra. He tells us that darkness and light are fundamentally inseparable. Without darkness there cannot be light. And without light there cannot be darkness, just like one always needs two legs in order to walk. The Lotus Sutra expounds the sharp conclusion of prajnaparamita - the “perfection of wisdom”, best known from the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. All dharmas - “realities” are ultimately empty, phenomena like darkness and light ultimately don’t exist. But Shitou emphasises that ultimate reality does not deny, but rather embraces opposites. Like in the age-old Chinese idea of Yin and Yang, opposites need to be balanced to produce an harmonious whole and not eradicated. The notion of Yin and Yang itself is in itself linked to the idea of light and darkness. The terms originally described the shadowy north side of a hill - Yin - and the sunny south side - Yang. From verses four and six we know that Shitou’s motivation for the poem was to address a bitter division in the Chinese Zen movement into a “Southern” and “Northern” school. Through this very personal "Chinese" take on light and darkness that emphasises harmony as opposed to contradiction, he shows the entrenched factions a way to overcome their differences.

A complete list of all references is available in the entry of 16 June 2020.


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