Tuesday, July 18, 2006


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.

These are the second and third stanzas of Sandokai, “Harmony of Difference and Equality.”
Humans vary in their acumen and wisdom. As Sandokai says, some individuals are sharp, while others are dull.
When I say dull I don’t mean this in a negative way. I don’t mean boring or uninteresting, I mean unastute. This is not a negative judgment. Humans are diverse in their innate capabilities. Part of this diversity is a result of an individual’s background and formal education. A large part of it is owing to the pressures of society.
     Some people are inherently perceptive, some people are not.
     So what?
     Suzuki Roshi, the late head of San Francisco Zen Center, was respected for his profound, gentle wisdom, yet, he admitted he was not so sharp. He often told the story about his Zen teacher nicknaming him “Crooked Cucumber,” because in Japan crooked cucumbers were considered to be worthless.
     Though Suzuki was revered by his followers, he had no sense of his own dignity or worth, and was very self-effacing. He said there was no dull person or smart person. Both kinds experience their own difficulties and benefits in life. A so-called dull person must study hard and re-read everything several times over in order to remember. A so-called smart person may grasp a concept quickly, but he or she forgets quickly.
     In short, in differences there is no difference, so why make distinctions between sharp or dull, black or white, brilliant or poor?
     What is important is one’s potentiality.
     Every person has the potentiality to be awakened, to be totally aware, to be an enlightened being. To be enlightened is to be free from illusion and false beliefs.
As I’ve said before, to be enlightened is to see without looking, to hear without listening, and to be without rationalizing. It’s to live intuitively, without needing to make an apology.
     Thomas Jefferson probably wasn’t speaking in the Zen sense when he said that if people were enlightened, tyranny and oppression of body and mind would vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
     Pie in the sky? This world may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s all we have to work with. If you give up hope, you might as well give up life.
     Suzuki likened human potentiality to the capability of a bow and arrow. If you merely look at a bow and arrow, or keep them hanging on the wall, nothing happens. But if you make the most of their capability, the arrow will fly.
     Human potentiality is the capacity for growth, or development, or coming into existence. It’s the capacity to be used for a specific purpose.
     The original teaching of Zen established by Bodhidharma was a unified system based on human potentiality. But over many years it became divided over the question whether awakening was a gradual process or a sudden process.
     And here is one of Zen’s beautiful anomalies. Awakening is both gradual and sudden, and it is neither.
     If that boggles your mind, good.
     Some people are innately perceptive, others are not.
     So what?
     What difference does it make if awakening is sudden or is gradual? That isn’t important.
     What is important isn’t the how, or the where, or the why but the awakening itself.
     You’ve probably heard the American expression “Are you going to fish or cut bait?” It’s a goad to do what needs to be done, and stop fiddling around mulling over the options and their potential outcome.
     Don’t think about enlightenment. Let it be, or not be, in what ever shape or form, at what ever time.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light;                                              the branching streams flow on in the dark.
So, what was Sekito Musai Daishin getting at when he wrote “The spiritual source shines clear in the light”? I think this was his figurative way of saying one’s Buddha-nature is all-pervasive, always present. You are imbued with it. It can’t be taken away. All you have to do is awaken to it.
     No matter who you are, your Buddha-nature—that is, your potential for awakening to your true self—is alive and well at all times and in all places.
     As for the lines “The branching streams flow on in the dark,” they refer to the division of Bodhidharma’s basic Zen into the northern and southern schools. Though Zen was split, it was neither diluted nor subjugated. Neither branch was inferior, neither was superior. There was and is no differentiation.
     The two flow from the same source. The two remain one.
     The eye remains clear.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


The mind of the great sage of India is                                               intimately transmitted from west to east.
These words form the opening line of the poem Sandokai, known also as Harmony of Difference and Equality. What do these words mean?
If you are familiar with Buddhism, or with Zen, the metaphorical expressions of Sandokai may be a bit puzzling. If you are not acquainted with Buddhism, or Zen, the words of Sandokai may be utterly baffling.
Don’t worry. Opacity is the nature of Zen.
So, who is the great sage of India?
Is it Bodhidharma? He was the Buddhist monk who reputedly conveyed Zen from India to China because he disagreed with the way Buddhism was being manipulated in his own country.
India was also the home of the Buddha. It was where Guatama Siddhartha was born, became awakened, and taught for 45 years. Unfortunately, even during his lifetime, instead of his teachings remaining a simple practice and a tradition of self awakening, they were fuzzed over by so-called holy men to fit the esoteric practices of Hinduism.
That is, Buddhism as a way of life had taken on trappings of a religion, including elaborate ritual, ceremony, and doctrine.
To get back to our question, was, or is, the great sage of India Bodhidharma?
In a word, no.
The notion of the great sage of India reaches further back than Bodhidharma. The great sage is the Buddha himself.
The Buddha was not a god, a prophet, or a saint. When asked if he was not any of these things, then what was he, he replied, “I am awakened.”
In his time, the Buddha was known as a sage, a perceptive, insightful, discerning human being who didn’t hoard his insights but shared them with anyone who would listen.
In his time, the Buddha renounced the way his simple teachings were being embroidered with ecclesiastical notions that included Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha, Hanuman, Kali, and other gods and supernatural beings, each one representing something outside of oneself.
In the Sandokai, the mind of the great sage of India is Buddha mind. It’s the mind of zazen.
Zazen, or shikantaza, or just sitting, may seem like sleeping, and some people do nod off when they do zazen because their mind is on something other than nothing. Zazen is also termed no-mind because the zazen mind is empty, but it is attentive.
When you are sitting in zazen, you may hear the sound of a car tearing down the street, or a motorcycle starting up with a roar. You may hear thunder rumbling, or rain falling on the roof. You may hear people talking or laughing. You may feel heat or cold.
The world goes on all around you. You are part of the world, and you are aware of what is taking place, but your mind does not become caught up with what goes on.
This is Zen mind. This is great mind. This is mind that is passed down from the great sage. From the Buddha himself.
Knowing great mind and accepting it as true does not require an act of faith. You don’t have to acknowledge an almighty or any sort of divinity.
Great mind is like breathing. It’s part of you. In practicing zazen you are aware of great mind, and you are aware of your own true self.
Great mind is not restricted to when you’re sitting in zazen, though it is often identified with that practice. Great mind is present in you all of the time. You live by great mind.
It’s what lets you see the unique but interrelated character of a tree, or a raindrop, or another human being.
Who was the very first to think of not-thinking, or to not think about thinking? Was it the Buddha? Was it Christ? Was it someone thousands of years before either of these two? A Harappān in Mohenjo-Daro? An Ubaidian in Sumer?
It doesn’t matter who or when. What does matter is your not-thinking, and not thinking about not-thinking, when you do zazen, but just being in the moment.
And, remember, zazen isn’t only when you’re sitting with folded legs, facing the wall on Monday evening, or during some other scheduled period. Zazen is all the time.
As Suzuki Roshi said (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness), “That is the mind transmitted from Buddha. And that is the way we practice zazen.”
That is what Master Dogen was talking about when he said time is being.
That is the mind transmitted by the great sage.

What is the Sandokai?

The first so-called patriarch, or ancestor, of Zen Buddhism was Bodhidharma, the Indian master who introduced Zen into China. You may remember the story of the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng.
     According to legend, Hui-neng was born in southern China. He was an uneducated youth when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra, and he was so awed with the words that he made his way to the Yellow Plum Buddhist community.
As was the custom, the reigning master gave Hui-neng a hard time to make sure the lad wasn’t some frivolous dabbler in religion.
“Southerners have no Buddha-nature,” the master said,
Hui-neng answered, “There may be southerners and there may be northerners, but Buddha-nature makes no distinction.”
I won’t repeat the entire story of how Hui-neng came to be Zen Buddhism’s sixth patriarch. I will remind you that after eight months as a monastery kitchen helper he displayed his wisdom by refuting a monk’s declaration that one’s body is like the Bodhi-tree, and one’s soul is like a bright mirror that should not be allowed to collect dust.
Hui-neng responded with his verse:

There is no Bodhi tree,
Nor is there a clear mirror.
From the beginning not one thing exists,
So where is a speck of dust to cling?

The master recognized that Hui-neng had become conscious of his own Buddha-nature, so he passed on to him the robe that supposedly had been handed down from Bodhidharma.
This act confirmed Hui-neng as Zen’s sixth patriarch in China.
Some time after, the Yellow Plum Zen school split into two factions over differences in whether awakening was a gradual process or a sudden occurrence.
It was a disagreement that has been carried down to this day.
This brings us to the Sandokai.
The Sandokai is a poem that was written in the eighth century by a Chinese master, Sekito Kisen, who sat zazen on a large rock. The poem was intended to ease the “gradual” versus “sudden” separation of Zen, in addition to clarifying other oppositions such as good and bad, light and dark.
One of Sekito’s Dharma heirs was Yakusan Igen, and there were many verbal exchanges between the two that illustrate the relationship of teacher and student.
Once Sekito came upon Yakusan, who was sitting in zazen.
“What are you doing?” Sekito asked.
Yakusan said, “I’m not doing anything.”
Sekito said, “Well, then you are sitting idly.”
Yakusan answered, “If I were sitting idly, I would be doing something.”
Sekito asked, “So you say you are not doing anything. What is this not doing?”
Yakusan said, “Not even the ten thousand sages know.”
In almost all Soto Zen temples around the world a version of the Sandokai is chanted daily, and it is invariably chanted at the memorial service of a deceased master.
We won’t be chanting, but several of my forthcoming talks will be on the Sandokai as adapted from a series of lectures given by Shunryu Suzuki, late head of San Francisco Zen Center.