Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and
smell, tongue, and taste.
Thus for each and every thing, depending on these
roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence; revered and
common, each has its speech.

The last time I spoke on Sandokai, the ancient poem that was written in the eighth century by the Chinese master, Sekito Kisen, I talked about the independence and interdependence of everything, and the way that each being embraces the entire world.

Now we have the eleventh and twelfth stanzas of Sandokai. Remember, this poem was written at a time when masters and monks were haggling over which of two Zen schools was right. Whether it was the teaching that promoted gradual enlightenment, or the teaching that touted sudden enlightenment.  

Was one right, and the other wrong?

Each school was expressing its grasp of Buddhism in its own way. Soto has its tradition, and Rinzai has its tradition. The ways may be diverse, but only a dull person labels one right, the other wrong.

If you like plum preserves and I like rhubarb jam, we are talking about sweet stuff to spread on toast, not which one is better. If we talk about Soto or Rinzai, we are talking about Zen or Buddhism, not about which is right or wrong.

As Shunryu Suzuki said, Sandokai talks about the nature of reality, and what Buddha teaching is in its true sense. It isn’t concerned with good, better, or best.

Suzuki had a lot to say in his discourse on those eleventh and twelfth stanzas of Sandokai. What he said was good. However, much of what he said was, and is, frightfully obscure, and I won’t repeat it, but I will give an example.

Suzuki quotes Dogen’s words that “If there is no river, there is no boat.” Then he, Suzuki, goes on to say (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)—and I quote him—“Even though there is a boat, it will not be a boat. Because there is a river, a boat can become a boat.”

All right. We won’t pass judgment on the statement, or analyze it, which would drive it deeper into the ground. We’ll let it go at that. “Because there is a river, a boat can become a boat.” If that has meaning for you, I say good for you.

Suzuki then goes into considerable detail about killing earwigs. But if you want to learn more about that, read his talks on Sandokai. It’s interesting that he never gets around to the senses: Eye and sight, ear and sound, nose and smell, tongue, and taste. He does carry on about earwigs.

But maybe I am too dense to understand what he says about earwigs and the senses.

Dogen tells of a monastery cook—a tenzo—who was washing the rice for the day’s meal. The master happened by and asked, “Do you wash the sand and pick out the rice, or do you wash the rice and pick out the sand?”

That reminds me of the non-Zen puzzler that asks if Santa Claus sleeps with his beard on top of the covers or under the covers.

The tenzo answered, “I wash and throw away both the sand and the rice together.”

“So, if you do that, what do the monks eat?” the master asked.

The cook responded by turning over the rice bucket.

Now, to me, that is perfectly clear. But don’t ask me to explain it. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t get it, don’t worry.

If you want to use rice and sand as metaphors for right views and mistaken views, or for wisdom and enlightenment, that’s fine. Just don’t try to stretch interpretations too far.

In upending the rice bucket, was the cook being melodramatic?

Such an expressive approach in style reflects the spirit of Sandokai. And it is a good example of the differences in the more theatrical Rinzai School and the minimalist Soto School.

And what difference do differences make?

I’ve said enough tonight. More than enough. Do with it whatever you want. But think for yourself.