Don't put up your own standards - Sandokai, verses 37 to 40

 After having spoken mysteriously throughout the poem, Shitou finally offers his audience some straight advice. He warns us against setting up standards by ourselves and falling for pretty but misleading teachings that lead as astray.

In the Sotoshu standard translation, verse thirty-seven to forty are presented as follows:

(37) Hearing the words, understand the meaning;

(38) don’t establish standards of your own.

(39) Not understanding the way before your eyes,

(40) how do you know the path you walk?

In Chinese we have:

(37) 承言須會宗

(38) 勿自立規矩

(39) 觸目不會道

(40) 運足焉知路

Two out of the five characters that make verse thirty-seven we have seen before. 言 - literally “word” - also appears in verses fifteen and thirty-four where I have suggested the meaning of “teaching''. 宗 we have met in verse twenty-five. Suzuki and Okumura render it as “source”, although none of the consulted online dictionaries support this translation directly. In verse twenty-five I have translated it as “school” or “sect”. The original meaning of 宗 seems to have been that of “ancestor” or “ancestral cult”. I will come back to 宗 after having clarified the remaining characters in this verse. Sotoshu and the commentators read 承, the first character of verse thirty-seven, as “to hear”. This is probably a liberal interpretation of  承 as "to receive" which we can find in online Chinese dictionaries. Other meanings are “to bear”, “to undertake” or “to continue”. 承 therefore seems to imply more than a mere passive receiving or listening, but also an active commitment to uphold and continue what has been received. 須 translates as “must”. Regarding 會, the commentators translate it as “to understand”. I prefer the meaning of “to associate” in the sense of “to match”. Putting all of this together, verse thirty-seven would be something like “Receiving [and continuing] the teaching you must associate/match the school/ancestral cult”. As in verse twenty-five, the meaning of this stanza depends on the reading of 宗. If we understand it as “schools” or “sects” as a plural, then this verse becomes a reminder that Shitou's listeners should take good care to always relate the teachings they receive to the various Buddhist schools. There is some evidence earlier in the poem to support this view. In verse fifteen Shitou warns against a mixing of various Buddhist doctrines, so it may well be that he picks up the same idea once more in verse thirty-seven. But on the other hand, understanding the verse in this way gives it a rather academic sense more akin to a modern college course of Buddhist studies than a Chinese Chan temple of the eighth century. The alternative would be to understand 宗 as one single “ancestral cult”, that is the undivided and original teaching of the Buddha in common to all Buddhist schools and sects. For this view we can also find support right at the start of the poem. In verse one Shitou introduces the “mind of the great sage from India” which is nothing but the Buddha mind. And not long after that in verse four Shitou tells us that two particular Zen Buddhist sects of his time, the so called “Southern” and “Northern” schools cannot claim ancestors of their own. As sects cannot claim ancestors, it would make sense that Shitou points his listeners to the only Buddhist tradition that can claim ancestry: the fundamental and undivided Buddha mind. This Buddha mind needs to be understood not as a collection of authoritative texts or sutras, but as the original mind of the Buddha that is experienced directly through meditation. From the context of what is following it looks more likely that Shitou had the one and undivided teachings of the Buddha in mind rather than a variety of competing schools. This interpretation would also agree to some extent with Suzuki’s and Okumura’s translation of 宗 as “source”, clearly referring to one single source as opposed to multiple ones. Moving along, 勿 in verse thirty-eight means “do not”. 自 translates as “self”. 立 is the verb “to put up”. 規矩 separately describe a compass and a carpenter’s set square. Combined they are used as an expression for “rules” or “standards”. Sotoshu’s translation “Don’t establish standards of your own” captures this word-by-word meaning neatly, and all commentators agree with this rendering. What these made-up standards are becomes clear if we put them in the context of the previous verse. “Establishing standards of one’s own” would mean to teach doctrines that are not reflecting the original mind of Buddha, the ancestor - 宗.

觸 of verse thirty-nine means “to touch” and 目 stands for the “eye”. The two together translate as “eye-catching”. The remaining three characters are 不 - “not”, 會 - the same “association” or “to match” as in verse thirty-seven - and 道 - “the way”. All commentators and Sotoshu agree that the subject of this phrase is an implicit “you”. As in verse thirty-seven they translate 會 as “to understand” so that the main message becomes “You don’t understand the way that touches your eye” (Okumura, Deshimaru). To me, it seems more reasonable to take 觸目 as the subject in the sense of “eye-catching things”. The full meaning of the sentence would then become “Eye-catching things don’t associate with the way.” This doesn’t change the basic gist of the message. Shitou continues to warn his audience from loosing sight of the right way. That much is clear. But by referring to “eye-catching things” I feel that Shitou is concretely referring back to his message from the verses immediately preceding this one. He continuous to talk about erroneous teachings, that are not grounded in the “ancestral” Buddha mind (verse thirty-seven), that are “made up” (verse thirty-eight) and that are “eye-catching” (verse thirty-nine). Such fancies don’t “associate”, or maybe better “agree”, with the way - 道 -, using exactly the same verb 會 as two verses earlier.

運 in verse forty is “to move” and 足 “foot” or “feet”. 焉 translates as “how”. 知 means “to know” and 路 “road”. There is not a lot of room for interpretation here. It means “Moving the feet, how to know the road”. 路 clearly pairs up with 道 - “way” in the previous verse. In verse forty Shitou seems to summarise everything he has said in the previous three lines: if you follow teachings that are not informed by the original Buddha mind, if you create your own standards and if you are distracted by pretty-looking diversions, how can you walk the right way?


A complete list of references for all entries on Sandokai is included in the entry from 16 June 2020.


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