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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What Practice Is

Every moment of our lives is practice: every breath, movement, and gesture.  There is no edge, no boundary where our practice life ends and some other non-practice life begins.

When we meditate we are practicing, but we are also practicing when we meet and engage another human being, and at the very moment when we decide to either open or close our eyes to what we see around us.

Our practice is to keep our eyes open.

Our practice is to not turn away.

Our practice is to accept reality and to respond to it.

Our practice is to attend to and to take care of every single thing that happens to fall within the little circle of our lives.

What does it mean to not turn away? To be responsive to what we see?

You and I are, after all, only one person. The world is so large. There are so many causes. Our time and energy is so limited.

What exactly does it mean to fulfill the Bodhisattva vow: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all?”

It seems so hopeless, so impossible.

There is a great temptation to contract one’s circle of caring; to just take care of one’s kith and kin and tend to one’s own garden.

This is not the Buddhist way.

The Buddhist way is that family, friends, and strangers are one and the same; all are to be responded to wisely and compassionately.

Our Buddha nature is one that is spacious and ceaselessly responsive.

The 8th Century sage Shantideva wrote the following:

“For all those ailing in the world,

Until their every sickness has been healed,

May I myself become for them

The doctor, the nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink,

May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.

And in ages marked by scarcity and want,

May I appear as drink and sustenance.

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,

May I become a treasure ever plentiful,

And lie before them closely in their reach,

A varied source of all that they may need.

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,

And a lamp for those who long for light;

For those who need a resting place, a bed;

For all who need a servant, may I be their slave.

Thus for every thing that lives,

As far as the limits of the sky,

May I provide their livelihood and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.” [1]

How overwhelming this all sounds!  What a challenge to our usual way of being!  What does this mean to explore this as an ideal?  What does it mean to manifest this as a reality?

This is what practice is.

Not just sitting on a cushion.

Not just forming the intention to be kind to all beings.

Practice is putting our intentions to work in the world.

It is wondering what it is to be more open and compassionate.

It is finding ways to manifest that in the world right now.

Practice has 84,000 manifestations:

  • Organizing
  • Voting
  • Donating
  • Educating
  • Volunteering
  • Tending to the sick
  • Investing in companies that respect workers and protect the earth
  • Reducing your carbon footprint
  • Working at a job that is consistent with your values
  • Raising children to be tolerant and compassionate

This is the practice of Buddhism.

(A version of this was given as a Dharma talk at Change Your Mind Day 2006 in New Haven, Connecticut.)

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  1. [1] Shantideva (2003). The Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala.

What’s Buddhist About Buddhist Social Activism?

What’s Buddhist  About Buddhist Social Activism?

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote which appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Turning Wheel

1) Buddhist practice is nondual. It allows no space of separation between self and other. The dichotomy of working on the self but withdrawing from the world, or working on the world but bypassing the self, is antithetical to Buddhism. Since everything is connected, when I change myself, I change the world; when I change the world, I change myself. How could it be otherwise?

2) Everything that happens happens right here, immediately, in one’s own experience.

This is true whether the happenings are bodily sensations and personal emotions, or the remembered images of Abu Ghraib prison, or one’s reactions to listening to President Bush on the nightly news. All of these are mental objects that call for an equal degree of mindful attention, wise reflection, and skillful response. All are part of Buddhist practice.

3) Buddhist practice is continuous. There is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane; there is not one realm that belongs to Caesar and another that belongs to a deity. Nothing is excluded from Buddhist practice. We practice all the time, whether sitting on the cushion, talking with friends, shopping at the mall, or voting in the booth. Every moment is a moment of continuous, seamless practice. Social action is a realm of practice no different from meditation or sutra study.

4) Buddhist practice is universal. No thing is left out; no one is excluded. We apply our practice to all people: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We include animals and plants within our practice, too. We are not against anyone: we are not against soldiers, criminals, capitalists, landlords, Republicans. No one is left out of our caring and concern. We say, “May all beings be happy.” That is our practice.

5) We are not struggling against people but against processes: greed, aversion, and delusion. We work ceaselessly with these three poisons, whether they occur within us or within George W. Bush. We no more despise George Bush for his greed, aversion, and delusion than we do ourselves. George Bush is just a collection of the five aggregates, the same as we are.

The war in Iraq, for example, is the outcome of innumerable causes and conditions which include, but are not limited to: the history of British colonialism in Iraq; the ways in which modernity impinges on traditionally organized societies; the changing nature of the world order in the age of globalization and multinational corporations; the historic relationship between the Bush family and the house of Saud; the role Christianity played in helping George Bush overcome his drinking problem; the role that social class has played in shaping George Bush’s consciousness; the geopolitical consequences of the dependency of industrialized societies on petroleum; the greed of oil companies, and companies that produce the goods and services needed for war; Saddam Hussein’s sociopathic personality structure, which is itself a consequence of genetics and past experiences; the rise of neoconservative thought in reaction to the New Left of the 1960s; the post-9/11 fear of terrorism; and so on, ad infinitum. George Bush and Saddam Hussein did not create the war, but the karma of the world flows through their actions in an unbroken chain. We are here to be yet another influence in the great sea of causes and conditions. We are not here to control the world; no one ever does that. We are here to ceaselessly witness and ceaselessly practice. Our practice includes being present to suffering, being a friend to those forgotten, and being unafraid to speak our truth (with a small “t”) to those with power.

6) Buddhist practice is not overly attached to outcome.

When we sit on the cushion and we are not enlightened, we do not become discouraged and change our practice. When we demonstrate for peace and war breaks out, we do not become discouraged and change our practice. Not getting the outcome we want does not invalidate the value of working for peace. In her concept of the Four-Fold Way, educator, author, and cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien (www.angelesarrien.com) urges us to 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) tell the truth without blame or judgment, and 4) be open, but not attached, to outcome. This is the dharma, in short. Buddhist practice is about being here, being mindful, and speaking truthfully, again and again, without discouragement. Practice is, as Suzuki Roshi once said, making one’s “best effort on the moment forever.” If one can be deeply present, like Avalokiteshvara, and see the suffering of the world, if one can show up with the intention to relieve suffering whenever one encounters it to the best of one’s abilities, if one can include every being within the circle of one’s care and compassion, and if one can avoid anger and disillusionment when suffering does not always abate despite one’s best efforts, then one is engaged in a social activism that also epitomizes Buddhist practice.


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Don’t Side With Yourself

Bankei, the seventeenth century Zen master, had this to say: “Don’t side with yourself.” By this he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides. The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. The universe doesn’t take sides.  It doesn’t side with the east wind; it doesn’t side with the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms.  Everything is just as it is.

Zen Master Dogen once wrote about an eternal mirror of the Buddhas that had “no blurs or flaws within or without.”  Dogen went on to say, “The mirror is unclouded inside and out; this neither describes an inside that depends on an outside, nor an outside blurred by an inside.  There being no face or back, two individuals are able to see the same. Everything that appears around us is one, and is the same inside and out.  It is not ourself, nor other than self, but is naturally one and the same.  Our self is the same as other than self; other than self is the same as our self.  Such is the meeting of two human beings.”  This is our Buddhist practice.

What does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t have a side?  Politics demands to know “which side are you on?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in dichotomies: good against evil, God against Satan.  Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

And yet, the universe does not have sides.  Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  We see that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires and that these clash with each other. We see history as great waves of historical forces crashing into each other and creating cataclysms that resolve over time in the same way that air currents crash into each other and create weather.  The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind.  The universe does not favor calm weather or hurricanes.  At the highest level of understanding everything just happens and just is.

Our Buddhist practice is one of cultivating compassion and wisdom and alleviating suffering wherever we encounter it.   This leads us to make certain choices in the way we vote, donate money, and communicate within the political community.  Is it possible to support a course of action without demonizing, demeaning, or ridiculing those who support another course?  Is it possible to view those who disagree with us with respect, caring, and loving-kindness?  Is it possible to do this even when we think someone’s views reflect their greed, hatred, or delusion?  This is Buddhist practice.

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