Don't palaver away your days and nights - Sandokai, verses 41 to 44

In the last four verses of this seminal poem, Shitou wraps up his message and gives some very clear advice to his audience. He also gives us a hint how we should understand the title and thus the whole poem of Sandokai.

The Sotoshu standard translation is as follows:

(41) Walking forward is not a matter of far or near,

(42) But if you are confused, mountains and rivers block the way.

(43) I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,

(44) Don’t pass your days and nights in vain.

In Chinese, these verses look like this:

(41) 進步非近遠

(42) 迷隔山河固

(43) 謹白參玄人

(44) 光陰莫虛度

On its own 進 means “to go forward” and 步 is a “step” or “walk”. Together, they have the compound meaning of “progress”. 非 is the negation “not”. The pair 近遠 means “near” and “far”. Word-by-word we could translate verse forty-one as  “Progress not near far”, or in proper English “Progress [is] not [a question of] near or far.” This is more a less the same what Sotoshu says and also most of the commentators. Shitou continues to speak of Buddhist practice as “walking forward on a way” like in the verses that immediately precede this one. “Not near or far” could also be an indirect reference to the “Southern” and “Northern” schools of Zen Shitou mentions in verse four. The main doctrinal difference between the two sects is that the “Southern” school advocated “sudden enlightenment” - “near” - whilst the “Northern” school was said to stand for a way of “gradual enlightenment” - “far”. Shitou, I believe, rejects such doctrinal differences and upholds the undivided and original Buddha mind as the only valid foundation of any Buddhist school. 迷 in verse forty-two is rendered as “confused” by Sotoshu and Okumura. This is one possible meaning according to the consulted online Chinese dictionaries. Other meanings include “to bewilder”, “crazy about” or “fan”. From this I think it becomes obvious that 迷 has a sense of excitement and passion for the thing which confuses. In this sense it would also resonate well with the “eye-catching” things - 觸目 - Shitou warns us against in verse thirty-nine. I therefore prefer the meaning of “to bewilder” instead of “confuse”. 隔 means “to separate” or “to block”. 山 is “mountain” and 河 “river”. 固 literally means “hard” or “solid”, but it can also be used in the sense of “undoubtedly” or “of course”. Word-by-word verse forty-two could be “Bewildered block mountains rivers undoubtedly”. In better English this could be understood like “The bewildered is undoubtedly blocked by mountains and rivers”, which is roughly the same Sotoshu and the commentators are saying. This sense complements nicely what is said in the previous verse. Shitou tells us that the way is not a question of “far” or “near” - “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment -, but that the true obstacles are distractions in the mind. These distractions are “eye-catching” things (verse thirty-nine), made-up standards (verse thirty-eight) and teachings that don’t follow the original ancestor or Buddha (verse thirty-seven). One could sum all of this hindrances up as idle theorising.

So short before the end, verse forty-three confronts the modern reader with some of the most cryptic and difficult characters of the entire poem. But this problem only presents itself in hindsight. Shitou’s original message was clear and simple, I believe. 謹 is translated variously as “cautious”, “careful”, “solemnly” or “sincerely”. 白 on its own means the colour “white”. It has associated meanings such as “plain”, “pure” or “clear”. Sotoshu translates 謹白 as “I respectfully urge you”. The commentators also agree that 謹白 must be some sort of polite formula Shitou uses to address his audience directly. Rech and Deshimaru translate it as “je vous en prie” in French. Okumura renders it as “I humbly say ...”. The two online Chinese dictionaries I have used, MDBG Word dictionary and Wikitionary, don’t offer a compound meaning for 謹白 in Chinese. But Wikitionary mentions a blended meaning in Japanese as “sincerely yours” which might reflect a formulaic use of the combination at the time the Chinese writing system was introduced to Japan. Literally, 謹白 might have meant something like “Solemnly and purely” where 白 - "purely" - would have described the purity of Shitou’s intention. As to the following three characters - 參玄人 - everybody agrees that they are a description of the audience, those that are addressed “solemnly and purely”. 人 is the easiest of the three, simply meaning “person” or “people”. 玄 describes the type of people who are in the audience. They are literally “black”, “dark” or “mysterious”. Sotoshu and Okumura translate 玄人 as “those who study the mystery”. Suzuki calls them “seekers of the truth”. Deshimaru and Rech render 玄人 as those “who seek the way”. But who are these “mystery people”? Once more, the online version of Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist terms provides the vital clues. The entry for 玄 tells us that this attribute “dark” or “black”, but also meaning “deep” and “profound”, was initially used to describe the teachings of Taoism. Eventually the Chinese Buddhists adopted 玄 to describe the mystery and profundity of their own tradition. This gave rise to a number of expressions for Buddhism that use 玄:

玄宗 - The profound principles, or propositions, i. e. Buddhism.

玄道 - The profound doctrine, Buddhism.

玄門 - The profound school, i. e. Buddhism.

It should be obvious by now that 玄人 - “those who study the mystery” in the words of Okumura and Sotoshu - are nothing but the followers of Buddhism. We should also note that, although Shitou does not use any of the above three expressions for Buddhism directly, the words respectively paired with 玄 -  宗, 道 and 門 - appear as important key words at various places earlier in Sandokai. 宗 - literally “ancestor”, “ancestral cult” or “school” - can be found in verses twenty-five and thirty-seven. 道 - the “way” - is used in verses four and thirty-nine. And 門 - literally “gate” but also “school” or “sect” - appears in verse nine. Soothill also offers one alternative reading of 玄人 as people dressed in black robes. This possibility follows from the following entry from the Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms:

玄流 - The black-robed sect of monks.

玄 in this sense would not point to the mystery and profundity of Buddhism, but to the colour of the robes of the audience. Monks and nuns in the Soto Zen tradition of today wear indeed black robes as opposed to the more colourful garments of other Buddhist traditions. It would therefore be easy to conclude that by saying 玄人 - “people of black” - Shitou really means Zen monks and nuns. I don’t really know if Zen monks in Shitou’s time wore black robes like we do today, but it is a possibility. The last thing I want to point out in relation to the word 玄 - “black”- is how elegantly it pairs up with 白 - “white” - in the polite formula at the beginning of the verse. This contrast resonates strongly with Shitou’s lengthy discourse on “darkness” and “light” in the verses twenty-seven to thirty-two.

The last character in this "long" verse forty-three is 參. It is conveniently ignored by Sotoshu and all of the commentators in their translations of the verse. I however think it is important to look at 參 more closely as it also appears as the first word in the title of the poem: 參同契. If Shitou places this character 參 in the centre of his final appeal and uses it as the first title word, he must have had some importance. In other words, I believe that the meaning of 參 in verse forty-three determines how it should be read in the title of the poem as well. And this can potentially change the way the whole poem is understood. I already spent a lot of time agonising over the meaning of 參 when discussing the title of the poem. The standard view is that 參 means “difference” in the title. Sotoshu translates it as “Harmony of Difference and Equality”. According to the MDBG Word dictionary, 參 can be read in three different ways in traditional Chinese. As “sān” it is used as an alternative version of the numeral 三 or "three". When read as “shēn”, 參 describes a ginseng root or a constellation of stars in the night sky. Nobody seriously suggests that any of these two meanings apply to Sandokai. This leaves us with the third reading of 參 as “cān”. As “cān” 參 covers two different groups of meanings that don’t seem to relate very much with one another. It can either mean “to participate”, “to attend”, “to join” on one hand, or “unequal”, “varied”, “irregular” on the other. It seems that the latter group of meanings has informed the rendering of 參 as “difference” in the common translation of the title of Sandokai. However, browsing through Soothill’s Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms reveals that 參 is more common in the sense of “to attend” or “to join” when used in a Buddhist context. Soothill translates 參 as follows:

Reflect on, counsel, visit superior. An assembly[,] a gathering for the purpose of meditation, preaching, worship.

More specifically, 參 seems to have been used to describe meetings in Buddhist temples that are related to teaching and learning. He gives the following examples: 

小參 - Small group, a class for instruction outside the regular morning or evening services; also a class in a household.

早參 - The early morning assembly.

坐參 - The evening meditation at a monastery (preceding instruction by the abbot).

From these examples it should become clear that it makes a lot more sense to understand 參 as “assembly” instead of “varied” or “difference” in the context of Sandokai. The meaning of verse forty-three then becomes very simply and directly: “Solemnly, purely [I address you] the assembly of the people of Buddhism”. Or alternatively for “people of Buddhism” one could say “Zen Buddhist monks and nuns”. Understanding 參 as concerning an assembly of monks and nuns is important, because it informs how we should understand the same character in the title of the poem. In this sense, 參同契 becomes something like “[To be part of an] assembly [of Buddhist monks and nuns] is the same as agreement”. The exact meaning of this I will address in one final entry I am still planning to write about the whole of Sandokai. For now, we only need to finish off the final verse of this poem where Shitou says what he so “solemnly” and “purely” asks the assembly of monks and nuns to do. 光, the first character of verse forty-four on its own means “light” and 陰 - the second - “overcast”, “cloudy” or “shady”. 陰 is the Yin in the famous pair of Yin and Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy - 陰陽 -, the opposites that complement each other in everything that exists. But in Sandokai Yin is paired with “light”, and together they mean “time available”. 莫 is another imperative used by a straight-talking Shitou: “do not”. 虛 has the meaning of “emptiness” or “void”, but this is not the same “emptiness” as in 空 - ku - from the Heart Sutra. 虛 has a negative connotation of “false” and “untrue” and not one of positive “potential” like 空. It can also mean to do something “in vain”, which is the translation chosen by Sotoshu, Suzuki and Rech.  虛 can also describe an “abstract theory” according to the online MDBG Word dictionary. And it is this last meaning which in my view points to the heart of what Shitou preaches through all of Sandokai. 度, the very last character of the entire poem (yipeeh!), simply means “to pass” or “to spend time”. At face value, Shitou’s final message could not be clearer. Okumura simply renders it as “Don’t waste time.” But what exactly is this “time wasting” Shitou is so concerned about? Reading 虛 as “abstract theory” gives us the clue. Shitou criticises the tendency in the Zen Buddhist community of his time to engage in idle theoretical and doctrinal arguments. Instead, he demands that the followers of the Buddhist way should direct their efforts to the bright “spiritual source” of their tradition which is the original Buddha mind, the “mind of the great sage of India” from verse one. And this source is not approached via intellectual debate, but through a steadfast practice of seated meditation or zazen.

This is the end of the poem, and I feel that some type of resume is needed. But instead of adding to one to this entry which already is far too long, I am planning to write one more piece on this magnificent poem which summaries the most important points.


A full list of all references used throughout this series on the Sandokai is available in the entry from 16 June.


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