Bob Schwartz

Tag: Sandokai


Thomas Merton hermitage

Four Walls

Four walls
Three doors
One window
One ceiling
One floor.
How simple
How deep.
Walls layered
And filled.
Behind two doors
Filled too.
One door
Is different.
Goes out
Comes in.
Out there
The same.
In here
The same.
But not.

Hermitage has been in and on my mind. While not exactly a hermitage, the poem above describes the room in which I write.

When I first started reading Thomas Merton, I learned about his building a hermitage on the grounds of the Kentucky abbey where he lived. Merton was a sublime conundrum, who committed himself to relative silence and disciplined orthodoxy as a monk, yet whose spirit (the Spirit) would not allow him to be quiet and stop exploring. So he wrote and discovered. Thank goodness for us.

Sandokai is a famous poem by the Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Master Shitou Xiqian (700-790), who is known in Japanese as Sekito Kisen. I have long been reading and studying this, as have many Zen students. Of all the essential texts available, there are few more concisely powerful than Sandokai.

There is another poem by Sekito that is a little less known, but equally compelling. It is a description of his hermitage, a grass hut. There, he tells us, is nothing and everything.

Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage
by Shitou Xiqian

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in – covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines –
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.

(from Taigen Daniel Leighton, Cultivating the Empty Field)

The Sandokai: You Don’t Have To Be Zenish

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.