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Roshi's Teachings on the Sandōkai

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Roshi’s teachings on the Sandōkai

The Sandōkai is a poem by the eighth century Chinese Zen teacher, Shitou Xiqian. It is also a fundamental text of the Sōtō school of Zen, chanted daily in temples throughout the world. At Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California, during the summer of 1970, Suzuki Roshi delivered a series of twelve talks on the meaning of this 8th century poem. This video is an excerpt from one of those talks, given on 3 June 1970.

Students who were present for these twelve talks say that Roshi took great delight in presenting these teachings. Roshi’s Sandokai teachings are collected in BRANCHING STREAMS FLOW IN THE DARKNESS.  The book’s jacket reads: “The poem addresses the question of how the oneness of things and the multiplicity of things coexist or, as Suzuki Roshi expresses this complex thought, ‘things-as-it-is’.” Suzuki Roshi.

View the transcript of this talk.

Sandōkai
Harmonious Song of Difference and Sameness

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately communicated from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull,
The Way has no northern or southern ancestors.
The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.
All the objects of the senses
interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement.
Otherwise, each keeps its place.
Sights vary in quality and form,
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Refined and common speech come together in the dark,
clear and murky phrases are distinguished in the light.
The four elements return to their natures
just as a child turns to its mother.
Fire heats, wind moves,
water wets, earth is solid.
Eye and sights, ear and sounds,
nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
Thus with 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.
In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.
Light and darkness oppose one another
like front and back foot in walking.
Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist; box and lid fit.
Principle responds; arrow points meet.
Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t set up standards of your own.
If you don’t understand the Way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.

-Sekito Kisen Daiosho

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Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi; (May 18, 1904 – December 4, 1971) was a Soto Zen monk and teacher, one of the first to teach western students. He founded Tassajara Zen Mountain Center the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia; and the San Francisco Zen Center which, along with its affiliate temples, comprises one of the most influential Zen organizations in the United States. Trungpa Rinpoche met Roshi in 1970, and the two men formed a strong bond. They had a common purpose: to bring authentic buddhadharma to the West. Sadly, their friendship was brief. Roshi died a little more than a year after they meet. Nonetheless, Roshi had a profound impact of Rinpoche that manifested in the forms of practice he introduced and his way of working with western students. While Rinpoche was alive, a photograph of Roshi always was present on the shrines of all of his meditation centers.