Tuesday, August 29, 2006


All the objects of the senses
transpose and do not transpose.
Transposing they are linked together;
Not transposing, each keeps its place.

These are the fifth and sixth stanzas of Sandokai, the larger-than-life poem otherwise known as Harmony of Difference and Equality. As a reminder, Sandokai was written in the eighth century by a Chinese Zen master, Sekito Kisen, who did his meditating sitting 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.

Carl Bielefeldt’s translation of Sandokai—which we are following—uses the word “transpose,” In Suzuki Roshi’s book of talks on Sandokai, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness, he uses the word “interact.” I could perhaps give a talk on the whys of this difference, but I won’t. The analysis would be pointless as well as dull.

The word “transpose” is used four times in these two stanzas, so it must be important. What does that word mean?

To transpose is to reverse, to put into a different place or order. In mathematics, transpose means to move a term from one side of an equation to the other side in order to maintain equality. In music, transpose means to perform a composition in a key other than that of the original key for the purpose of personal subjectivity.

Zen is neither subjective nor objective. Zen isn’t interested in things or in ways of thinking. Because subjectivity and objectivity are not a part of our practice, we are able to step back and understand what oneness is.

When we do zazen we learn to have an empty mind. We are aware of what is going on around us—sounds, smells, heat, cold—but we don’t attach ourselves to our senses, nor do we think about anything. Our minds are as clear as a stream of water flowing off a high-altitude glacier. A thought may enter our consciousness, but we don’t grab hold of it or cling to it. We let the thought come and go.

As Suzuki Roshi said, this is zazen, because by not letting our mind become involved with anything, our mind encompasses everything. We become, as Tennyson wrote, a part of all we have met.

Incidentally, Byron said something similar to that when he wrote, “I live not in myself, but I become portion of that around me.” Byron went on by saying high mountains are a feeling, but human cities are torture.

What’s the difference between sound and noise? Without messing around with semantics, sound generally is a pleasant auditory sensation. Noise is also an auditory sensation, but it’s usually unpleasant. Some people enjoy hearing heavy metal music and can listen to it for hours, whereas other individuals actually suffer if they hear what they think of as noise.

In one episode of Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty is enraptured hearing a symphony on the radio when his wife interrupts by saying, “Are you listening to that racket again?”

Basil answers, “Racket? That’s Brahm’s. Brahm’s Third Racket.”

Suzuki says that the more you practice zazen, the more you’ll be able to accept something as it is, whether it’s sound or noise, heat or cold, sweet or sour. This doesn’t mean we become attached to a rap composition, or to a concerto, though some people do become emotionally involved in one of the other.

It means that because all is interrelated, there is no barrier, no disturbance. There is a flow back and forth. To and fro. Up and down. In this flow there is a blending in which separate things become interrelated. They become one.

Of the many Buddhist sects in Japan, there is a popular one called Kegon. It’s based on a school of thought that was established in China in the early 7th century that emphasized the mutual interdependence of all things as well as the reality of Buddha-nature in all things. It held that individuals could realize the Buddha-nature that exists in everyday reality.

Touch, taste, hearing, smell, and seeing are senses. Suzuki likens body, tongue, ears, nose, and eyes to gates for sense objects, and says these gates are both independent and interrelated. Sandokai says all the objects of the senses transpose and do not transpose. That is, all objects of the senses are distinctive and at the same time are linked to one another.

Birds, flowers, mountains, streams, and trees are unique, meaningful entities and each has its place in existence. Yet all are linked together as part of life.

Do objects of the senses have a reason? Does everything have to have a reason, or are reasons the rationalizations of the human brain that loves to assign causes to everything?

Why is a mountain? Why is a flower? Why is a bird song? What difference does it make? A mountain simply is. A flower simply is. A bird song is.

Each of us is each of us. Isn’t that enough? We are individual, and we are linked together.

“Transposing, all objects are linked together; not transposing, each keeps its place.”

Birds, flowers, mountains, streams, trees and human beings are their own, and birds, flowers, mountains, streams, trees, and human beings are the entire world.

All that is needed is awareness. Nothing more is necessary.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Grasping at things is surely delusion.
According with sameness is still not enlightenment.
     These lines form the next stanza of Sandokai I’ll be talking about.
In the past I’ve given a couple of talks on the Zen concept of “Not one, not two.” It’s a tricky notion to take hold of, but it keeps recurring within Zen, which means it’s significant.
I am holding up two fingers. If I take away one finger, one finger remains. Two fingers are really one finger twice. One finger is half of two fingers.
Not two, not one. Not one, not two.
Some people can’t seem to get a handle on “Not one, not two,” but they also can’t seem to get away from it. So, here it comes again in the context of Sandokai’s words on grasping.
Inside yourself and outside yourself may seem like two different ideas. This singing bowl may appear to be an object of its own, entirely separate from you. But this bowl already is present in your mind.
The bowl over here. The bowl in our minds. Two different things, right? Of course there is only one real bowl that I can strike to bring out its potential to sing. But in my mind I am striking the bowl, and in my mind I am hearing it sing.
Which bowl is authentic?
Which bowl is more real, this one or the one in my mind?
Not one, not two.
Does this mean only one bowl exists? Does it mean both bowls exist? Does it mean neither bowl exists?
I hope your mind is being hard-pressed right now.
Suzuki Roshi suggested that our presuming that things exist outside of ourselves, totally independent of us, is a dualistic, shallow understanding not only of the external world but also of ourselves.
The first line of tonight’s stanza of Sandokai reminds us that grasping at things is delusion.
“Grasping” implies clinging, hanging onto.
“Delusion” implies make-believe, fallacy, a misleading notion.
Suzuki Roshi mentions that when you understand each thing is different, you tend to see each thing as something special, and that may cause you to cling to all things or certain things. He warned his followers not to stick to beings, or ideas, or even to the teachings of the Buddha.
Remember the Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
That means not to get hung up on the Buddha or anything else.
Sometimes you may hear a person say that he or she is enlightened. To say this is very—in modern lingo—uncool. It means that person is clinging to some concept of awakening. And that concept is usually a misconception, a delusion.
To quote Suzuki Roshi directly (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness): “Enlightenment is not something about which you can say there is or there is not.”
Enlightenment—or awakening—is not something to stick to. It’s something you experience.
A person who is awakened doesn’t ignore things, and yet doesn’t attach to things, physically or emotionally.
Again, I have to add a proviso. Being committed to one’s parent, or to one’s spouse, or to one’s child, is not attachment. It is devotion and dedication.
But if you are committed so forcefully to a loved one that you don’t allow them to be themselves, you are attached. And that is not healthy.
I have a married friend who is devoted to his wife. He is so attentive, so solicitous, and so caring, that often she has to tell him to back off, to give her room to breathe.
That is possession of another person. It’s the clinging desire to be in control. And that is not healthy.
So, what’s the answer?
I don’t have the answer. I don’t even know the question. As Woody Allen said, “'Only God can make a tree, probably because it's so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.”
Actually, the Zen answer is awareness. Awareness of everything, including yourself.
Not one, not two.
None other than you has the answer.
I’ll wind down this talk with a couple of other quotes, these from Rikyu, the noted Japanese tea master who enjoyed a simple life in the 1500s. He lived effortlessly, and he said that to make tea you need one kettle; to possess many utensils is foolish.
He also said:
“How much does a person lack himself, who feels the need to be attached to so many things?”