Sandokai (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 9
The Sandokai also known as The Meaning of Sameness and Difference or The Identity of the Relative and the Absolute is a Chinese poem written in the eighth century by Zen master Sekito Kisen. This poem is an essential part of the Soto Zen liturgy. The intention of the Sandokai was to clear up an inaccurate doctrinal dispute that arose following the death of the Sixth Patriarch. There was and argument over which was better, the Northern (gradual enlightenment) or Southern (sudden enlightenment) Schools of Zen. The many schools or sects of Zen were lost in disagreement. Because these schools were involved in dualistic ideas of right and wrong teaching, they lost the significance of their practice says Suzuki Roshi (1990).
And what was that main point of the poem? As always when Sekito is articulating the Buddha’s teaching, he asks: “if three teachers are pointing at the moon, each has his finger, so there are three schools, but the moon is one.”
It was this strong understanding that the truth of Buddhism is beyond words, outside disputes, outside itself even—that Suzuki Roshi’s teachings enjoy their inspiring place in American Zen teaching today. Unfortunately, few collections of his teachings that have been captured in print.
Of course, the Sandokai offers more than a correction of an eighth century polemical debate. And one might observe that Sekito never gets stuck in the problem he is trying to solve. Rather, he takes a high Buddhist view of things, surveying all manner of other dichotomies that have plagued Zen students from Bodhidharma to the present day: between sameness and difference, between nothing and everything, between having faith in your enlightenment and having to get up at 5 a.m. to cross your legs. All of these Sekito resolves with a single stroke, pointing out that the one and the many are not separate, but one and the many as-the-same, a difficult paradox which can be summed up with his neologism “things-as-it-is,” which is surely one of the great triumphs of Zen over grammar (Strand, 2019).
Long break to tell a story.
A monk asked Sekito, "What is the essential meaning of Buddha-Dharma?" Those of you who do koan study know that this is a frequently-asked question, and one that different masters have answered in some very different ways, in trying to help their students see something.
Sekito said, "No gaining, no knowing."
The monk said, " Can you say anything further?"
Sekito said, " The expansive sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds."
So Sekito says that it's about not knowing, or what Suzuki Roshi would call Beginner's Mind. It's a mind that is fresh and open to experience, that is clear and aware. And, Sekito says, it's about no gaining, which means we practice to learn to be fully here, just the way things are, breath by breath and are not carried away by the ego's ideas of getting something or achieving something. We are agendaless opening our hands and walking, innocently.
So in the dialogue, when the monk asks Sekito to say something further, Sekito replies, that the spacious sky does not hinder the moving white clouds. We might think, in this analogy of clouds and sky, that the clouds are the obstruction, but Sekito says it the other way. The extensive sky does not obstruct the moving white clouds. There is the open space of our true nature, which is agenda-less, which is pure awareness, and it does not obstruct our day to day functioning, the clouds that come and go, that take form and then dissipate again. These clouds include things such as our thoughts and our emotions. Our true nature does not obstruct the elements of our everyday life, and the elements of our everyday life do not obstruct our Buddha Nature.
Previous talks have emphasized Zen's Taoist influences on Chinese Zen, particularly in the centuries following the first Buddhist teachings brought to China; therefore, most early practices blended Buddhist and Taoist culture. The Sandokai is a primary example of this. This title, the Sandokai, or what we are translating as The Identity of the Relative and Absolute, was the title of an earlier Taoist text that Sekito would certainly have been familiar. Now, let’s decompose the Sandokai title. “San” in Chinese means means “three,” but in this instance it can be interpreted as “things.” “Do” refers to evenness. “Do” means sameness. It also refers to cohesion or oneness of one’s whole existence. It also indicates the great mind or the big mind of everything related. The understanding is that there is one whole being that includes the whole and many things are present in a single being. Although we say “many beings,” they refer to the many parts of one whole being inclusive of everything.
In the Sekito verse, the first two lines reference "the great sage of India," the Buddha, but aside from that, the other 42 lines could be entirely Taoist. It is revered as a Buddhist text. Suzuki Roshi had a wonderful comment on this. He said, "What is the difference between Taoist teachings and Buddhist teachings? There are many similarities. When a Buddhist reads the Sandokai it is a Buddhist text, and when a Taoist reads it, it is a Taoist text." So what that points to is a wisdom teaching that is older and more universal than being strictly Buddhist.
Christopher Jyoen Biggs, Zen Student
Zen Community of Baltimore and Clare Sangha
Strand, Clark (2019) an ex-Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk.
Suzuki, Shunryu (1990) Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. University of California Press, Berkley.