Riding the Turtle of Wisdom - The Themes of the Sandokai

 This is my final piece on the Sandokai. It is the summary of 16 separate blog entries of verse-by-verse and character-by-character discussions of the poem published between 16 June and 5 October 2020. It also reflects the discussions and joy we had in the “Old Street” study group at our Wednesday evening sessions after zazen. Without the support and enthusiasm of regulars of the study group, this series would not have been possible. Although pretty much everything that I can say has been said in the sixteen previous entries, I still feel the need for a summary. I want to gather the various strings picked up when discussing individual verses in one place and present them in an overview of the poem as a whole. As I progressed through the text and the strange characters, my growing understanding of earlier verses naturally informed my approach towards the ones at the end of the poem. And in the same way the later verses sometime opened up a new perspective on the earlier ones. Without wanting to revisit what I had written earlier, I hope that this summary offers a concise view of the poem in the light of my developed understanding as it stands now.

The summary turned out much longer than I initially intended. This is because I tried to write it in a way that it would also be understandable to somebody who has not read all the sixteen previous blog entries. But it goes without saying that a summary cannot present the same level of detail as the parts covers. I would like to invite anybody who wants to know more to look at the earlier posts. There are also a few sections where I incorporated new material - the paragraph about Tang era poetry or the reference to Fazang’s Essay of the Golden Lion for example - which are not covered by previous posts. A complete list of all sources used for the whole series of posts on the Sandokai is available in the entry of 16 June.

Riding the Turtle of Wisdom - Sandokai in the Soto Zen tradition

Shitou Xiqian (700-790 CE) is known as Sekito Kisen in Japanese. His poem Sandokai - 參同契 - is one out of nine liturgical texts that feature the official book of scripture of the Soto School of Zen (Sotoshu). It’s rank as ritual text is second only to the famous Heart Sutra - Hannya Shingyo -  which is chanted daily in Soto Zen temples and groups all over the world. Sandokai is chanted every other day, alternating with another famous liturgical Zen poem, the Hokyo Zanmai. Buddhism does not know holy scriptures in the same way as the Abrahamic religions Christianity, Judaims and Islam do. But certain texts are nonetheless very highly regarded. Regularly recited as a liturgical text, Sandokai is as a text can possibly be in the Soto Zen tradition. In Sotoshu’s scripture book for daily services the title of Sandokai is translated as “Harmony of Difference and Equality”. This expression seems reflect a mysterious and profound insight into the nature of the world for which the text is revered. But at the same time this statement also appears to be on the verge of nonsense. Why would somebody want to write a poem about something as abstruse as "difference" and "equality" and the harmony between the two?

The Japanese Zen Master and co-founder of the Soto-Zen school in that country Keizan Jokin (1268-1325 CE) left a charming account of the circumstances of how Shitou conceived Sandokai. We don’t know for sure if Keizan actually thought that this account was historically true, but based on the fact that we almost know nothing about Shitou’s real life we can be sure that this story is a legend. The episode in “Record of the Transmission of Illumination” however is very revealing of the symbolic status that the poem and its author had acquired by the time of Keizan.

At one time, when he [Shitou] was reading the Treatise of Shengzhao, he came to the line that says: “As for those who combine the myriad things and regard them as self, are they exclusively sages?” The Master [Shitou] slapped his desk and said: “Sages have no self, and yet there is nothing that is not their self. The dharma body has no appearance. Who can speak of self and other? The round mirror shines numinously, and within it the essential mystery of the myriad phenomena appears on its own. Sense objects and cognition are not identical, but who can speak of their going and coming? How far-reaching, those words!” Finally [Shitou] rolled up the scroll and, without being aware of it, fell asleep. In a dream, he himself and the Sixth Ancestor both rode on a single turtle as it swam about the middle of a deep pool. When he woke, the explained it precisely: “The numinous turtle is wisdom, and the pool is the ocean of the nature. I and the Ancestral Teacher [Huineng] both rode numinous wisdom, wandering about the ocean of nature.” Consequently, he wrote the Harmony of Difference and Equality [Sandokai].

Shenghzao is an early Chinese translator and commentator of Indian Buddhist texts who lived around 400 BCE. When reading one of his treatises, Shitou has a moment of awakening. He had obviously been pondering the question that had taxed many generations of Buddhists before him. The historical Buddha has rejected the idea of personal and universal selfhood without supplying any alternative metaphysical framework. For centuries since the death of Gautama his followers have struggled to reconcile their subjective experience of selfhood and the need for a metaphysical basis for their practice with the Buddha’s original indictment. Shitou’s revelation in the story is that there is indeed no self, but that at the same time everything partakes in a higher reality. This higher reality is pictured as a mirror that simply reflects phenomena as they come and go. The mirror is not a universal self, but wisdom. After this episode Shitou falls asleep and dreams of wisdom - this time in the form of a giant turtle - and phenomena - pictured as a pool. He rides on the back of the “numinous” turtle next to the famous Sixth Ancestor of Chinese Zen Huineng. After he has woken up, he writes down his newly found insight in the form of Sandokai - the poem of “Harmony of Difference and Equality”.

This little episode provides some clues why Sandokai became so important to the Soto Zen school. On one hand it clearly affirms the association of Shitou with the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. By the time of Keizan, Shitou had long held his place as the eighth Chinese ancestor in direct line of transmission from Bodhidharma - the legendary first Chinese Patriarch who introduced the tradition from his Indian homeland - and the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. According to the tradition, Shitou did not receive directly the transmission from Huineng. Instead, Huineng’s disciple Quinguang Xingsi - Japanese Seigen Gyoshi - transmitted Huineng’s lineage to Shitou. The significance of this fact is clearly illustrated in a small article on Sandokai by Rev. Sekkei Harada, published in the official journal of the Soto Zen School Dharma Eye: “If the Dharma of Seigen Gyoshi had not been transmitted to Sekito Kisen Zenji, then the Soto Zen sect would have ceased to exist.” We can see that the whole legitimacy of the Soto Zen school hinges on the seamless transmission from Huineng via Quinguang Xingsi to Shitou. It matters very little that the Soto school of Zen only emerged as a separate entity in the tenth century in China under the name of Caodong school (Dumoulin, p. 222) roughly two hundred years after Shitou lived. The other reason why Sandokai is important to Soto Zen is its deep philosophical contents which is supposedly summed up in its title “Harmony of Difference and Equality”. Once more Rev. Sekkei Harada summarises this view concisely:

The character for “san” presents the separate nature (difference) of the myriad things in the universe. The character for “do” says that all things are the same (equality) and “kai” has the meaning of fusion or harmony. [… ] This is to say that the difference of all the myriad things (Dharma) as it is meets and merges together does so without anything be [sic!] harmed whatever.

Things are different, and yet they are the same, and there is no problem between the two perspectives. Other modern commentators - Deshimaru, Rech, Okumura, Suzuki - also focus mostly on this philosophical message of Sandokai. They discuss concepts like noumenon and phenomenon or form and emptiness, and they also stress the importance of the practice of zazen - the object less meditation in the Soto Zen tradition. What struck me once I started to engage with Sandokai was that the poem that emerged from my tedious character-by-character deciphering seemed to be of a very different nature from the one portrayed by Harada and other commentators. Surly enough, Shitou does talk about noumenon and phenomena and other concepts of Buddhist philosophy. But these topics don’t seem to have been his primary concern. From the very beginning it did not feel like Shitou wanted to write about something as arcane as the “Harmony of Difference and Equality” for its own sake. Instead, Shitou seemed to address a matter that was more immediate and urgent: a bitter conflict within the young Chinese Zen movement between the “Southern” and “Northern” schools. 

An elite poet

In an earlier blog post about the life of Shitou I mentioned that he was probably no important figure in the Zen movement of his time. I pictured him as the head of a remote provincial temple who observed the unfolding conflict between the “Southern” and “Northern” schools from a distance. After having studied his Sandokai in detail I feel that this appraisal has to be revised to some extent. It is not that some new details of Shitou’s life have emerged since I wrote the first entry. What we know about him for sure is still as scarce as it was before. But it is the nature of the poem itself that makes me see him in a new light.

The little I know about Chinese poetry of the Tang era (618-907 CE) I owe to a small anthology of works of the two famous poets Tu Fu (701-762 CE) and Li Po (712-770), commented and translated by Arthur Cooper. Tu Fu and Li Po were contemporaries of Shitou and lived in what Cooper believed to be the golden age of Chinese poetry. Sandokai is written in a 2 + 3 = 5 syllabic metre which is the same that Tu Fu and Li Po often used in their poems. Together with a similar 3 + 4 = 7 metre this form became the classic pattern of high Chinese poetry during the reign of the Tang dynasty and thereafter. Poems of this form are rich in allusions and subtle associations to themes of the vast body of Chinese classical - and in the case of Sandokai also Buddhist - literature. Such poetry could not be written by anybody. Cooper (p. 40) describes the usage of poetry at the time of Tu Fu, Li Po and Shitou as a mixture of political journalism, governmental advice or recreation for an elite audience. Cooper emphasises that poetry was only produced and consumed in and around the imperial court by the members of the highly educated bureaucracy and the emperors themselves. In his own words:

There were virtually no producers of poetry other than those at Court, or notionally at Court because they were members of the civil service (the only highly literate class), and there was no other public for it. Its function could therefore hardly be detached from the other functions of this ruling class which, of course, included the Emperors themselves, and among their number some great poets.

Sandokai was clearly not intended for an imperial audience. It addresses an assembly of monks and nuns. But if what Cooper says is true about Tang area poets, then we must conclude that Shitou belonged to, or at least was raised in the immediate vicinity of, the core elite circle that governed the empire. This view is supported by the high degree of literacy and knowledge that is evident in the poem itself. Shitou probably references the Tao Te Ching, the Lotus Sutra, the Abidharma, Fa-Tsang’s Treatise of the Golden Lion and other Buddhist texts that are hard to identify. Zen literature often depicts the early masters as simple and rough folk characters. Huineng, the archetypal Zen master, is believed to have been an illiterate woodcutter. The author of Sandokai instead was a highly educated person not far from the inner circle of the imperial bureaucracy.

One ancestor - many outflows

During the course of my studies I became ever more convinced that Sandokai is a poem about Buddhist schools or sects. Shitou talks about Buddhist sects throughout the poem. He introduces this topic right at the start in verse four where he says that “the way has no Southern or Northern ancestor” - 道無南北祖. This “South” and “North” relate to the so-called “Southern” and “Northern” schools of Zen Buddhism, two factions within the young Chinese Zen movement that were at loggerheads in the middle of the eighth century CE. Shitou lived in the middle of this crisis, and his Sandokai is in my view an attempt to defuse the conflict. By denying both sects the claim of possessing a distinct lineage of ancestry, Shitou strikes at the very heart of the conflict. One of the fundamental claims of the “Southern” school was that the Zen patriarchate had been transmitted to its founder Huineng in a secret ceremony in the middle of the night. It was therefore only the “Southern” school who could legitimately claim to be the rightful heir to Bodhidarma - the first Chinese Zen patriarch. Shitou denies such claims. For him, there is only one legitimate ancestor - 宗 - which is nobody else but Buddha itself and to which all Buddhist schools must relate themselves (verses 25 and 37).

It would be wrong to think though that Shitou denies the legitimacy of Buddhist schools and their doctrines as such. In the first half of the poem, he uses basic Buddhist teachings about reality to explain why diverse Buddhist schools exist and how they come into being. In verses five and six Shitou explains that all Buddhist sects - 支派 - are essentially outflows from the “spiritual source” - 靈源 -, which is another reference to the original Buddha. The spiritual source shines purly in the light - 明 -, pointing to the enlightened nature of the Buddha and original purity. The sects form in darkness or obscurity - 暗 - which is probably a reference to the alleged clandestine transmission of the Zen patriarchate to Huineng in the dead of night.

Sects as dharmas

In verse nine Shitou uses the expression “gate, gate” - 門門 - to address the two rival sects of his time. It could also be a reference to Buddhist sects in general with the repetition simply indicating a plural. These “gates”, just like all phenomena according to the Buddhist view, are impermanent, conditioned and subject to the cycle of rebirth. The “revolve mutually” - 迴互 (verse ten) - and influence one another - 更相涉 (verse eleven). At the same time however, they are also independent and exist in their own right. They “don’t revolve mutually” - 不迴互 (verse ten) and therefore “rely on their own dwelling position” - 依位住 (verse eleven). What I believe Shitou is doing in these verses is analysing Buddhist sects as dharmas such as they are discussed in the Abhidharma literature of the Buddhist canons (Skilton, chapter 10: The Abhidharma). These dharmas were an attempt to systematise the teachings of the Buddha into a finite list of ultimate and irreducible realities. Dharmas were thought of as actual facts that cannot be broken down further into parts. At the same time, these dharmas are also recognised as impermanent in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination. The original list of dharmas in the Abhidharma do not cover Buddhist sects as a particular dharma. But at the time of Shitou the term dharma was used to describe all existing phenomena and not just the irreducible ultimates of the original Abhidharma list. That Shitou indeed talks about dharmas becomes evident in verses seventeen to twenty where he mentions the four great elements of Buddhism: fire, wind, water and earth. These four are recognised dharmas according to the Abhidharma. With Buddhist sects in mind, Shitou says that “The four great elements repeat their self-nature” - 四大性自復 (verse 17). And to explain what he means by that, he points out that “Fire heats, wind moves, water is wet and earth is solid” - 火熱風動搖, 水溼地堅固 (verses 19 and 20). Shitou tells us that these dharmas are essentially what they do, they are functional. And it is this functionality that lies at the heart of what a dharma is. In the same way Shitou implies, Buddhist schools are what they do and therefore exist in their own rights. And still with Buddhist sects in mind, Shitou addresses the simultaneously functional and independent nature of dharmas: “Everything (literally ‘the ten thousand things’) has their own merit” - 萬物自有功 (verse 33) and “Phenomena exist like a lid covering a box” -  事存函蓋合 (verse 35).

Teachings as skilful means

Shitou insists that Buddhist sects exist because of what they do. But what exactly is it they do? To explain this, Shitou turns to the Lotus Sutra I believe. One of the key messages of the Lotus Sutra is that all Buddhist doctrines are essentially one. Originating in India several centuries before Shitou wrote his Sandokai, The Lotus Sutra doesn’t know anything about the “Southern” and “Northern” schools of Chinese Zen. It addresses the divisions within Buddhism of its own time and place. It discusses a “Great Way” - Mahayana - a “small” or “lesser” way - Hinayana - and and a middle way somewhere between the two poles, sometimes also called the "vehicle of the pratyekabuddhas". The “Great Way” is the doctrine of the bodhisattvas who seek supreme enlightenment for all beings. Hinayana is a derogatory term that followers of the Mahayana used to describe all non-Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Followers of the Hinayana were seen as propounding a limited form of enlightenment, pursued by the so-called “voice hearers” or “shravakas” for their own personal salvation. The pratyekabuddhas were seen as fully enlightened beings who chose to withdraw instead of helping others like the bodhisattvas. The Lotus Sutra explains these seemingly controversial Buddhist doctrines as “skillful means” or tactics used by the Buddha to tailor his teachings to the abilities and needs of his audience. The Mahayana is reserved for the most advanced disciples, whilst the shravaka and pratyekabuddha doctrines serve less capable students who are behind on their journey. But the Lotus Sutra insists that all of these doctrines are essentially part of the one and great Buddha way.

Shitou alludes to the Mahayana and the middle teachings of the pratyekabuddha doctrines in verse fifteen when saying “Darkness covers upper and middle words” - 暗合上中言. 上中 can be seen as an abbreviation of 上中下 - “up/great”, “middle”, “low/less” - which denotes the three doctrines of the Lotus Sutra in Chinese Buddhist literature (Soothill). In this verse, Shitou also introduces the term “word” - 言 - to reference Buddhist sects. Buddhist sects are according to Shitou defined by differences in doctrine or “words”. That Shitou actually thinks about doctrines in terms of the capabilities of the intended audience becomes clear from the very beginning of Sandokai. In verse three he says that “people’s faculties can be sharp or dull” - 人根有利鈍. The same idea is presented again in verse twenty-six where Shitou says that “those of high and low status use their own language” - 尊卑用其語. And in verse thirty-four Shitou reminds us that “words/doctrines” must be used according to the circumstances” - 當言用及處. The key word Shitou uses to describe personal faculties in verse three is 根 or “root”. These “roots” are not just a figure of speech for Shitou. In Buddhist thinking the “roots” - or “kleshas” in Sanskrit - are the fundamental driving force behind the cycle of birth and death or samsara. They are linked to the six senses and to our tendency to like or dislike what we see, hear, taste, etc. To ensure that this meaning is not lost, Shitou comments extensively on the senses and their respective objects. In verses twenty-three and twenty-four he says that “sights originally vary in quality of appearance” - 色本殊質象 - and “sounds essentially differ as pleasing or harsh” - 聲元異樂苦. In verses twenty-two and twenty-three he continues: “eyes and sight, ears and sound, nose and fragrance, tongue and tastes” - 眼色耳音聲, 鼻香舌鹹醋. These senses and their objects are also seen as original dharmas in Buddhism just like the four great elements mentioned earlier. And together the elements and the senses form the conditions or “roots” of sensation and craving which ultimately lead on to new existence, birth and death. Shitou very cleverly applies the Buddhist analytical frameworks of dharmas and dependent origination to Buddhist doctrines whose “roots” are the “sharp” and “dull” faculties of different types of people. He makes the connection explicit in verses twenty-three and twenty-four: “Like this for each and every dharma, according to the roots the leaves spread” - 然依一一法, 依根葉分布. Buddhist sects and their doctrines arise out of and have their justification in the diverse needs of different groups of Buddhist. This process is as inevitable as the cycle of samsara that governs the life and death of all dharmas and everything that exists.

Confusion of doctrines

As Shitou introduces the “great” and “middle” teachings from the Lotus Sutra, the Mahayana and the way of the pratyekabuddhas, he does this with a word of warning. “Darkness covers upper and middle words” - 暗合上中言 - meaning that in the process of transmission the differences between various doctrines or skilful means can be be blurred. The antidote to this confusion is presented in verse sixteen where Shitou says that “brightness clarifies clear and muddy sentences” - 明明清濁句. This brightness points to the mind of the original Buddha in verse one - 竺土大仙心 -, or the spiritual source - 靈源 - in verse five. I understand verses fifteen and sixteen as a warning against the unconscious mixing of Buddhist doctrines when these are taken out of the context of the original teaching. The topic of doctrinal confusion clearly mattered to Shitou as he raises it again emphatically towards the end of the poem. In verse thirty-seven he tells us directly: “Receiving the word [teaching] you must associate [it] with the ancestor [Buddha]” - 承言須會宗. And if that is not clear enough he adds in the following verse “Don’t establish standards of your own” -  勿自立規矩. New doctrinal ideas maybe attractive as Shitou concedes, but they don’t belong to the way of the true follower: “What is eye catching does not associate with the way [of Buddha]” - 觸目不會道 - Shitou says in verse thirty-nine. And then he concludes this line of reasoning by saying that doctrinal confusion itself is the greatest obstacle: “Confusion gets in the way like concrete mountains and rivers” - 迷隔山河固. We can see that Shitou did not see himself as an innovator. His outlook was conservative. His reaction to the doctrinal debates and infighting in the Zen movement of his time was to revert back to the ancestral teachings, the original Buddha mind and the Lotus Sutra.

Shitou and the “Southern” school

We have already seen how the association of Shitou and Huineng is essential to the self-image of the Soto school. If a strong connection between the two really existed we should expect to find evidence of it in Sandokai. But in the poem itself we can find no indication that Shitou supported the position of his “dharma grandfather” Huineng and the “Southern” school.  If anything, there is a sense criticism of the new movement when Shitou says in verse four that the “way knows no northern or southern ancestor”, thus refuting one of the key claims of the followers of the “Southern” school, the secret transmission of the Zen patriarchate to Huineng. Sandokai can also be understood as refuting the second fundamental tenet of the “Southern” school, that of superior “sudden enlightenment”. Shitou’s warning in verse fifteen against the confusion of the teachings of the Mahayana and the vehicle of the so-called “middle vehicle” of the pratyekabuddhas can be seen in this way. If taken out of context, “sudden enlightenment” can appear as a self-centred practice in a similar way as the teachings of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas from the Lotus Sutra who only seek enlightenment for the individual itself. Firming up this position, Shitou seems to take aim at the doctrine of “sudden enlightenment” once more in verse forty-one when saying “Progress is not a matter of near or far” - 進步非近遠. Neither the “sudden enlightenment” of the Southern school or the “gradual enlightenment” of the Northern school really matter. Instead, Shitou urges his audience to seek the mind of the original Buddha.

Darkness and light

We have already seen how Shitou introduced the theme of light and darkness in verses five and six. Light is associated with the spiritual source, the original Buddha mind. Darkness is linked to the transmission and the formation of sects. The next time Shitou mentions the pair is in verses fifteen and sixteen where he says that in the darkness of transmission various doctrines get mixed up. This is contrasted to the light of the original Buddha mind which exposes pure and impure teachings. So far the message seems clear. But in verses twenty-seven through to thirty-two Shitou adds a twist to this seemingly straightforward opposition of darkness and light. He says that “In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness!” - 當明中有暗, 勿以暗相遇 (verse 27-28). And then, using almost identical characters, “In darkness there is light, but don’t take it as light!” - 當暗中有明, 勿以明相睹 (verse 29-30). Light and darkness belong to two separate domains, the bright mind of the original Buddha and the shadowy world of sects and transmission. They are not to be confused. But at the same time Shitou points out that the two can also not be separated. He explains this relationship further in verses thirty-one and thirty-two: “Light and darkness oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking” - 明暗各相對, 比如前後步. Shitou here points to the higher truth that darkness and light cannot exist without each other. Without light there is no shadow and vice-versa. Through this analogy Shitou tells us that the original bright Buddha mind and the Buddhist sects are in a higher sense two aspects of the same reality. Just like Yin and Yang, originally the shadowy northern and sunny southern flanks of a hill, cannot exist independently, so the original Buddha mind must be expressed through doctrines and schools. And yet at the same time, they are unthinkable without the original Buddha mind. And as this is so, there really is nothing to argue about between the followers of different Buddhist schools.

Taoist allusions

In the section about light and darkness we have already noticed that the way the two poles are depending on each other “like the front and back foot in walking” resonates strongly with the quintessential Chinese idea of Yin and Yang. Sandokai is clearly a Buddhist poem, but Shitou also evokes originally non-Buddhist Chinese philosophy to make his point. According to the Yin-Yang school the duality between darkness and light is not something which needs to be overcome, but it is the essence of everything that exists in the universe (Billington, pp.107-108). This metaphysical paradigm supports Shitou’s claim perfectly, that the original Buddha mind on the one side and its manifestation in various schools and doctrine on the other are no contradiction. Another barely hidden reference to classical Chinese philosophy can be found in verse seventeen where Shitou introduces the four great elements fire, water, wind and earth. The very same expression 四大 can also be used as a shorthand to the four great elements of Taoism - person (or king), earth, heaven and tao (Soothill). And that Shitou also had the Tao in mind when mentioning the “Four Greats” becomes clear in the following verse: “... like a child obtains its mother” - 如子得其母. The “mother” is not a common metaphor in the Buddhist scriptures, but it is very common to describe the Tao - the formless and unfathomable origin of everything that exists - in the philosophy that carries its name. The “Four Greats” together with the “mother” appear side-by-side in chapter twenty-five of one of the greatest Chinese classics of all times, the Tao Te Ching (Billington, p. 90). It is hard to believe that Shitou didn’t place this allusion on purpose in his Sandokai. And then there is the title itself, 參同契, which is exactly the same as the title of a treatise of Taoist alchemy, written roughly 500 years earlier. The title of this earlier Sandokai is usually rendered as "The Kinship of the Three", referring to three elements (Sandokai - Wikipedia, 2019). There are probably more references to classic Chinese philosophy and religion in the poem that I wasn’t able to identify. But the two examples cited here should suffice to illustrate how Shitou draws Taoist and Yin-Yang school thinking in addition to Buddhist concepts to argue his case. 

The Golden Lion

In verses seven and eight Shitou introduces the terms 理 - li (or ri in Japanese pronunciation) - and 事 - shi (or ji in Japanese). This pair is often translated as “noumenon” and “phenomenon” or “principle” and (concrete) “thing”. Li as a concept has been used in Taoism and Confucianism long before Buddhism arrived in China. Adopted by Buddhists, li and shi were also used as synonyms for “essence” or “Buddha mind” on one side and dharma in the sense of a concrete reality as discussed earlier. Li and shi were made famous in Buddhism through an essay by the founder of the Chinese Hua-yen school Fazang who lived one generation before Shitou. In the text titled Essay on the Golden Lion Fazang illustrates the nature of li and shi using the statue of a golden lion. The gold is li or the essence. The form of the lion is shi or phenomenon. The li has no form on its own, but it always takes on the form of something. As a result, all phenomena or dharmas, whilst existing in their own rights, are also an expression of the original essence - li (Skilton. Chapter 22 - Buddhism in China). This understanding of li and shi fits perfectly with Shitou’s analysis of Buddhist sects as dharmas. As shi they are functional phenomena. But at the same time they are an expression of the original Buddha mind, the original ancestor - li. In verses seven and eight, Shitou highlights that neither li and shi can explain reality on their own: “To uphold shi (phenomena) as fundamental is confusion; but to agree with li (the principle) is also not awakening” -  執事元是迷, 契理亦非悟. These verses are another way of expressing the same idea as in the image of darkness and light being totally different and yet mutually dependent on each other like the front and back foot (verses 31-32). Shtiou then once more refers to li and shi in verses thirty-five and thirty-six: “Shi (phenomena or dharmas) exist like a lid covering a box. Li (the principle) agrees like an arrow tip propped onto a shaft” - 事存函蓋合, 理應箭鋒拄. The first verse relates to the functional character of dharmas - “they are what they do”. The second verse underlines that dharmas and essence are ultimately inseparable like the tip and the shaft of an arrow.

Noumenon and phenomena, light and darkness, Buddha mind and dharmas, are images and concepts Shitou uses to support his argument that the inevitable doctrinal differences between Buddhist sects are no source of discord for as long they relate to the original Buddha ancestor. Arguments in the community only arise when factions lose sight of the original essence of the teaching and create their own standards. At the very end of the poem Shitou pleads with his audience to stop wasting their time with idle debates and arguments: “I respectfully ask the members of the assembly of monks and nuns, do not spend your days and nights with idle theorising” - 謹白參玄人, 光陰莫虛度. For me, this last line really is the essence of Sandokai. Shitou does not try to convince his audience that difference and equality are in harmony. Instead, he demands and end of futile arguments and a return to the original foundation of the Buddhist way. This view also allows us to see the title of the poem in a new light. Rather than "Harmony of Difference and Equality", Shitou probably had something like “Assembly” (參) “[is] the same [as]” (同) “agreement” (契) in mind.

The irony of history

The political dimension of Sandokai seems to have been lost as Sandokai became consecrated as a liturgical scripture of the Soto Zen school. Shitou’s philosophical statements about darkness and light, noumenon and phenomenon became detached from their original context and acquired a meaning of their own as the emerging Soto school tried to shore up its legitimacy in the tenth century and thereafter. This process had already been completed before Keizan copied the legend of the conception of Sandokai from an older Chinese source. The story of the numinous turtle calmly circling the pool of phenomena bears no trace of the tension and urgency we can sense when reading the poem itself.

Despite the rising fame of his poem, Shitou’s conservative appeal does not seem to have been very successful. The factions did not stop arguing. The proponents of the “Southern” school continued their attack on the Zen establishment of the “Northern” school. Before long, they succeeded. Huineng became recognised as the only legitimate Six Ancestor of the entire Zen movement. And “sudden enlightenment” became recognised as an universal Zen doctrine.

From the very few historical facts we know about Shitou’s life it is impossible to say with certainty how he felt about these developments. But one thing we do know is that in the 740s he withdrew to a remote temple in the mountains of Hunan. There he engaged in a severe practice of zazen on a stone platform over several years. It was this exercise that earned him the nickname of “Stone Head” - 石頭 (Shitou). From what we have seen in Sandokai it does not require a great leap of imagination to assume that Shitou chose to withdraw out of dissatisfaction with the developments in the Zen movement following the victory of the “Southern” school. There is a certain irony in the fact that a poem that was intended to argue against change later on became absorbed as a signature scripture of one of the traditions that emerged from the movement that Shitou seemingly tried to contain. Equally, Shitou himself, possibly because of the unintended success of his poem, became himself absorbed into the tradition of the Soto Zen school. The man who argued against ancestral lineages and sectarian conflict became himself the ancestor of a new Buddhist sect.

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


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