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)

12 Replies to “On Wearing Bifocals: Notes on the Sandōkai”

    1. Thanks, Roy. It’s a pleasure to hear from an old Connecticut Buddhist Peace Fellowship friend. I found myself thinking about Fred just the other day, remembering his wonderful spirit. Beautiful memories. I’ve been enjoying your photography, by the way. Keep up the beautiful work!

  1. Seth
    As I reread your post on the Sandokai I realized that I often associate the non-dual with bi-focality. When I chant “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form” I think of that as an expression of non-duality, but in my mind the ’emptiness’ element of that dualism is also a synonym for non-duality. Your post suggests the latter but seems to present “bi-focality” as an altogether different concept. How do you understand “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form” in relation to this emphasis on double vision, or is there some way that non-duality implies its own coexistence with the relative?
    I love the statement that “explaining this through words is like scratching an itchy foot through one’s shoes”. Nonetheless, do you have a shoe handy?

    1. Roy, sorry to be confusing. I hadn’t intended bi-focality to imply anything more than what’s already implied by the Heart Sutra’s identity of form and emptiness. But a millennium later Dōgen wrote “form is form, emptiness is emptiness.” Why? I don’t really know for sure. But Dōgen’s restatement warns me to avoid one-sidedness. It’s not enough to get stuck on the mountaintop and see everything from that perspective; one needs to descend back into the marketplace as well. It’s like he’s saying “Form is emptiness, but don’t forget — it’s form as well.”

      1. Well, since we’re talkin’ some Taoism here, I take the “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” observation/koan as “opposites define each other such that they wouldn’t exist without one another — and thus in a very important sense are one another”…think electro-magnetism, or space-time, phenomena which used to be thought of as separate entities/qualities (and it’s still useful oftentimes to think that way) but are now understood to be the same one thing….

        Yer basic yin-yang stuff.

        Now the thing for myself is, how to “apprehend” such truths not intellectually, as I’ve just done, but “realize” them in the very fibers of my being…as an author, I assume this problem to be like the difference between reading a novel and reading a Cliff Notes exegesis of it…like knowing how to calculate a tesseract and somehow actually perceiving it directly beyond mathematics….

  2. Thank you for this post. The last paragraph articulates well the more abstract notion of dependent origination into a more practical view in understanding inter-personal issues, and taking things less personally. I hope you extend this with a post that deals with how “mental formations” affect the quality of decisions or negotiations.

    1. Maybe study kendo. It’s said that master swordsmen (and women?) report of their duels: *they* don’t strike; *it* strikes.

      But that’s a bit misleading, too, I suspect, given the structure of Indo-European languages and how there’s always gotta be an agent, grammatically: speaking of Seth and his hurricanes, think of how the weather requires an “it” whereas in, say, Chinese, one doesn’t say “it rains” but just “rain[ing]”…there is no “it” there, no agent there, no wizard behind the curtain, no ghost in the machine…it’s just our languages requiring such a structure, making us go on a wild goose-chase….

      Anyway, study kendo maybe for directly perceiving how mental formations affect the quality of decisions and negotiations (what’s a joust but decisive negotiation??)….

  3. By chance I have just read your post, and indeed it is the first time I have ‘visited’ your site. Thank you, it is very helpful to me to read.

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