Tuesday, July 11, 2006

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.


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