On Wearing Bifocals: Notes on the Sandōkai

sandokai-MTD-webI‘m studying the Sandōkai with Sensei Daiken Nelson along with the assistance of two trusty tour guides — Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow and Shunryu Suzuki’s Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. The Sandōkai is a Japanese translation of an eighth century Chinese poem by Shitou Xiqian, a student of Qingyuan Xingsi, who was in turn a Dharma heir of Huineng, the sixth ancestor. It was during this era that Zen split into competing Northern and Southern schools, one emphasizing gradual enlightenment, the other, sudden enlightenment. The Sandōkai minimized that rift, stating “in the Way there are no northern or southern ancestors.”

The title, Sandōkai, refers to the unity, harmony, or meeting of sameness and difference, the relative and the absolute.  San-Dō-Kai. “San” means plurality, diversity and difference. “” means sameness, equality, oneness, or commonality. “Kai” means “to shake hands” or agreement. “San” is associated with the Japanese principle of “ji” or relative reality, “” with the Japanese principle of “ri,” or absolute reality. The poem shares its name with an earlier Taoist text, underscoring the historical influence of Taoism on emerging Chinese Buddhism. The poem is essentially about the unity of ri and ji, or non-dual and everyday reality.

Non-duality is an important concept in Zen, but it’s a relative latecomer on the Buddhist scene. The Pali Canon, the earliest strata of Buddhist sutras, makes no reference to it, and it only finds its full flowering in Nagarjuna’s 2nd century writings on emptiness and Asanga and Vasubandhu’s 4th century writings on subject-object non-dualism. Non-duality is also a crucial concept within Advaita Vedanta, a non-Buddhist philosophical school which developed alongside the Mahayana in India.

To understand non-duality is to appreciate that the concepts we use to demarcate the world are human constructions. Things-in-themselves possess neither color, warmth, wetness or solidity — these attributes are the sense our minds make of reality, a reality which science tells us is, at a “deeper” level, a web of interacting quarks and gluons in multidimensional spacetime. (The scare quotes around “deeper” are there to remind us that the physicist’s description of reality is itself a web of abstract concepts and not necessarily “more real” than the phenomenal world — it’s just a description that’s more useful for certain purposes, less useful for others.)

In our everyday life we understand things in terms of their use and value — a chair is something we sit on, food is something we consume — but these attributes only exist through our relations with things and don’t inhere in things themselves. Mental concepts are powerful entities that shape and guide our perception and action. The mind draws borders between countries, even though the Earth seen from space has no boundaries. The Big Dipper materializes in the nighttime sky, even though there’s no Big Dipper in space. The mind creates dualities based on skin color, religion, and nationality, setting “us” apart from “them.” It establishes ego boundaries separating “mine” from “yours,” and “self” from “other.”

Not only do conceptual boundaries not inhere to reality independently of ourselves, but everything that exists shares an interdependent existence with everything else that exists. Things do not exist in isolation. They only exist in interrelationship with each other. We can’t exist without oxygen, water, sunlight, plants, animals, gravity and a surface to move upon. We can’t come into this world without others who give birth to and care for us. The sun can’t exist independent of the laws of physics. The words and meaning of what you are reading right now depend on semantic and syntactic relationships, a corpus of knowledge, and the invention of writing, computers, the electrical grid, and the internet — all socially constructed and dependent on innumerable others, past and present.

“Tall” means nothing unless something is also “short.” “Inside” means nothing without an “outside.” “Here” means nothing without a “there.” “Good” and “bad” depend on each other for existence, and on humans whose needs and predilections define them.  A world without humans is neither “good” nor “bad.” Without humans, earthquakes and viruses are just natural phenomena, neither good, nor bad. No ethics are violated when a lion kills an antelope. When humans kill, ethics appear.

This is a conceptual understanding of non-duality, but Buddhism points to an understanding beyond the conceptual, and this is where Zen makes an extraordinary claim — that it’s possible to directly apprehend non-duality, not as a concept but as reality itself — that it’s possible through zazen or koan study or happenstance to have moments when the conceptual map drops away and we’re left seeing the world and ourselves in an unmediated, startlingly new way. The Japanese call these moments kensho or satori, and the metaphor often used to describe them is that of the bottom falling out of a bucket. Many people have told me they’ve had such experiences. I’ve been sitting zazen for nineteen years, however, and while I’ve had many remarkable experiences, I can’t tell you I’ve had this kind of direct apprehension of non-duality. I can’t even imagine what the phrase “direct unmediated experience of non-dual reality” actually means. I think I may be an unusually dull Zen student. The Sandōkai includes a line about human faculties being either “sharp or dull.” Commenting on the line, Suzuki Roshi says “a dull person is good because he is dull; a sharp person is good because he is sharp. Even though you compare, you cannot say which is best. I am not so sharp, so I understand this very well.” So I sit zazen without bothering myself about such things. When sitting, just sit. Maybe one day lightning will strike. Until then, I can only tell you what others say.

The main point of the Sandōkai, however, isn’t that non-duality is the ultimate way things are — or should I say — the ultimate way things “is”. It’s about the harmony of duality and non-duality, the relative and the absolute. The interdependency of all things is true. But so is our natural way of perceiving the world of separate, individual, and unique things. Just as this table in front of me is real and solid in its everydayness, although science informs us it is mostly empty space. Both realities are, in some sense “true.” I’m not really separate from and independent of you. If there were some alternate universe in which you did not exist, I would be a different “I,” the universe would be a different universe. But I’m also a unique individual with my own specific attributes, habits, and predilections. That’s why in Zen we refrain from saying “everything is one.” It is and it isn’t. Instead we make the more circumspect claim that things are “not two.”

The Sandōkai asks us to view the world with bifocals, to live life at the crosshairs of the relative and the absolute, to understand that “relative” and “absolute” are the same, like ice and water. Suzuki Roshi said that explaining this through words is like scratching an itchy foot through one’s shoes. Language is inherently dualistic, and explaining non-duality through language is, as Allan Watts put it, a matter of “effing the ineffable.” But what choice do we have? We either remain silent, or we point beyond words through words.

How does this bi-focality, this double vision, affect our everyday lives? How does an intimation of non-duality affect the way we live, moment by moment? Fifty years ago I had a profound religious experience on LSD, but I couldn’t relate that experience to my daily life. What did it have to do with the price of tomatoes? Fifty years later, I’m raising a similar question. Does any of this have cash value?

I think it does.

Imagine you’re with another human being trying to get them to behave in a certain way. You’re involved in a negotiation. You have an objective. You want something for your efforts. You want to present your case, influence the other, help him or her to get to “yes.” You have your toolbox. You can be eloquent, logical, manipulative, charming, or threatening in turns, depending on the situation. Maybe you want your boss to give you a raise. Maybe you’re trying to convince an enemy to surrender. Maybe you’re courting a loved one. This is all legitimate human activity. You want to do your best. Now imagine you’re putting on your bifocals. Now you see that your [boss, enemy, lover] is no different from yourself. Your [boss, enemy, lover] doesn’t exist independently. He or she is — like you — a part of the particular way the Dharmakaya, the Buddhistic universe, is expressing itself in this moment. This [boss, enemy, lover] is one of countless beings you’ve vowed to save. This [boss, enemy, lover] is a perfectly realized Buddha, here to save you. Bifocal perception changes the feel of the negotiation. You still want what you want, but now you’re as interested in the other person’s well being as your own. Your relationship has shifted, from I-It to I-Thou and beyond. The other is no longer simply your objective, but yourself as well.

Bi-focality also helps us understand that nothing’s personal. Hurricanes, tornados, and disasters don’t happen to us. They just happen, and we just happen to be there at the time. It’s the same when others behave badly towards us. The other person’s behavior is the product of one-thousand-and-one antecedent causes and conditions — all of history conspiring to bring us together in just this way. From the perspective of the absolute, it has nothing to do with the other person or us. We’re like tectonic plates being shoved up against one other by powerful geological forces. If we can see this moment as the end product of the ongoing unfolding of the universe, we can take things less personally, be less egoistically involved in our misfortunes. This is not to deny our responsibility for our actions. The absolute and the relative are equally real. No one is left off the moral hook. But if we can loosen our egoistic involvement, our personal saga of victimization and righteousness, if we can wear our suffering like a loosely fitting garment instead of our core identity, new possibilities are free to emerge.

Possibilities like forgiveness, negotiation and healing.

In light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness.
In darkness there is light, but don’t see it as light.”

                             — The Sandōkai

Calligraphy above by Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982)

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A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”

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