The Sandokai: You Don’t Have To Be Zenish

by Bob Schwartz

Branching Streams

You don’t have to be a Zen person to read and appreciate the Sandokai (Harmony of Difference and Equality). You don’t have to be any particular person at all.

The Sandokai is a poem by eighth-century Chinese Zen Ancestor Sekito Kisen. It is a core text that is recited daily by many Zen practitioners.

It is often described as “difficult” the same way that oceans are described as “deep.” The depth is valuable and explorable, and yet ships of all kinds from all nations seem to float and travel on its surface beneficially, without regard to the depths below.

It is read as a challenge to even the most practiced reader. But a first reading by a beginner (and we are all beginners) can be surprisingly lightening.

The unsurpassed modern overview of the Sandokai is by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His talks from 1970 at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center are collected in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. (You can also read the unedited transcripts and hear the talks themselves by visiting the San Francisco Zen Center archives.)

If you have any interest in the nature of things, just read. Don’t worry about what else you’ve studied or about what perspective or tradition you are coming from, or not studied or are not coming from. Just read, and if any of the verses strike you—or strike you over the head—all for the good. And if not, well, it’s still an interesting and lyrical poem.


Harmony of Difference and Equality (Sandokai)

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.

While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.

Grasping at things is surely delusion,
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

All the objects of the senses
transpose and do not transpose.

Transposing, they are linked together;
not transposing, each keeps its place.

Sights vary in quality and form;
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.

Darkness merges refined and common words;
brightness distinguishes clear and murky phrases.

The four elements return to their natures,
Just as a child turns to its mother.

Fire heats, wind moves,
water wets, earth is solid.

Eye and sights, ear and sounds,
nose and smells, tongue and tastes;

Thus for each and every thing,
according to the roots, the leaves spread forth.

Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.

In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;

In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.

Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.

Existing phenomenally like box and cover joining;
according with principle like arrow points meeting.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t establish standards of your own.

Not understanding the Way before your eyes,
how do you know the path you walk?

Walking forward is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.

I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
don’t pass your days and nights in vain.

Translation from the Soto Zen Text Project.