Things As It Is

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi on The Sandokai, which he calls “one of our most important teachings.”

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
6 August 2017
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer

The Sandokai of Sekito Kisen

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted 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 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.
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 dark 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, like box and lid joining;
according with principle, like arrow points meeting.
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?
Practice 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,
don’t pass your days and nights in vain.

I am very grateful for this opportunity to talk about the Sandokai, one of our most important teachings. Its mode of expression is so smooth that you may not feel its deep meaning when you read it. The author of this poem, Sekito Kisen (or Sekito Musai Daishin, his posthumous name; in Chinese, Shitou Xiqian, 700-790 C.E.), is the dharma grandson of the Sixth Chinese Ancestor, Daikan Eno (in Chinese, Dajian Huineng), and the direct descendant of Seigen Gyoshi (Qingyuan Xingsi), who is considered the Seventh Ancestor. Among the Sixth Ancestor’s many disciples, the most prominent were Seigen Gyoshi and Nangaku Ejo. Later, Master Tozan Ryokai continued Seigen’s lineage as the Soto school, and Master Rinzai Gigen (Ch. Linji Yixuan) continued Nangaku’s lineage as the Rinzai school. Soto and Rinzai eventually became the dominant schools of Zen.

The way of Seigen and Sekito has a more gentle quality than Nangaku’s way. In Japan we call this the elder brother’s way. Nangaku is more like the second or third son, who is often rather naughty. The elder brother may not be so able or so bright, but he is very gentle. This is our understanding when we talk about Soto and Rinzai. Sometimes Soto Zen is called menmitsu no kafu—”a very careful and considerate style.” Seigen’s way is to find everything within himself. It is to realize the great mind that includes everything and to practice accordingly.

Our effort in Zen is to observe everything as-it-is. Yet even though we say so, we are not necessarily observing everything as-it-is. We say, “Here is my friend, over there is the mountain, and way up there is the moon.” But your friend is not only your friend, the mountain is not only the mountain, and the moon is not only the moon. If we think, “I am here and the mountain is over there,” that is a dualistic way of observing things. To go to San Francisco, we have to cross over the Tassajara mountains. That is our usual understanding. But that is not the Buddhist way of observing things. We find the mountain or the moon or our friend or San Francisco within ourselves. Right here. That is big mind within which everything exists.

Now, let’s look at the title, Sandokai. “San” literally means “three,” but here it means “things.” “Do” is “sameness.” To identify one thing with another is do. It also refers to “oneness” or “one’s whole being,” which here means “great mind” or “big mind.” So our understanding is that there is one whole being that includes everything, and that the many things are found in one whole being. Although we say “many beings,” they are actually the many parts of one whole being that includes everything. If you say “many” it is many, and if you say “one” it is one. “Many” and “one” are different ways of describing one whole being. To completely understand the relationship between one great whole being and the many facets of that one great whole being is kai. “Kai” means to shake hands. You have a feeling of friendship. You feel that the two of you are one. In the same way, this one great whole being and the many things are good friends, or more than good friends because they are originally one. Therefore like shaking hands we say kai. “Hi, how are you?” This is the meaning of the poem’s title. What is many? What is one? And what is the oneness of one and many?

Our effort in Zen is to observe everything as-it-is.

Originally, Sandokai was the title of a Taoist book. Sekito used the same title for his poem, which describes Buddha’s teaching. What is the difference between Taoist teachings and Buddhist teachings? There are many similarities. When a Buddhist reads it, it is a Buddhist text, and when a Taoist reads it, it is a Taoist text. Yet it is actually the same thing. When a Buddhist eats a vegetable it is Buddhist food, and when a vegetarian eats it, it is vegetarian food. Still it is just food.

As Buddhists, we do not eat a particular vegetable just because it has some special nourishing quality, or choose it because it is yin or yang, acid or alkaline. To eat food is simply our practice. We don’t eat just to support ourselves. As we say in our meal chant, “To practice our way, we eat this food.” This is how big mind is included in our practice. To think, “This is just a vegetable,” is not our understanding. We must treat things as part of ourselves, within our practice and within big mind. Small mind is the mind that is under the limitation of desires or some particular emotional covering or the discrimination of good and bad. So, for the most part, even though we think we are observing things-as-it-is, actually we are not. Why? Because of our discrimination, or our desires. The Buddhist way is to try hard to let go of this kind of emotional discrimination of good and bad, to let go of our prejudices, and to see things-as-it-is.

When I say to see things-as-it-is, what I mean is to practice hard with our desires—not to get rid of desires, but to take them into account. If you have a computer, you must enter all the data: this much desire, this much nourishment, this kind of color, this much weight. We must include our desires as one of the many factors in order to see things-as-it-is. We don’t always reflect on our desires. Without stopping to reflect on our selfish judgment we say “he is good” or “he is bad.” But someone who is bad to me is not necessarily always bad. To someone else, he may be a good person. Reflecting in this way we can see things-as-it-is. This is buddha mind.

The poem begins Chikudo daisen no shin, which means “The mind of the great sage of India.” That is Buddha’s big mind that includes everything. The mind we have when we practice zazen is the great mind: We don’t try to see anything; we stop conceptual thinking; we stop emotional activity; we just sit. Whatever happens to us, we are not bothered. We just sit. It is like something happening in the great sky. Whatever kind of bird flies through it, the sky doesn’t care. That is the mind transmitted from Buddha to us.

Many things happen as you sit. You may hear the sound of the stream. You may think of something, but your mind doesn’t care. Your great mind is just there sitting. Even when you are not aware of seeing, hearing or thinking, something is going on in big mind. We observe things. Without saying “good” or “bad,” we just sit. We enjoy things but have no special attachment to them. We have full appreciation of them at this time, that’s all. After zazen we say, “Oh good morning!” In that way, one after another, things will happen to us and we can fully appreciate them. That is the mind transmitted from Buddha. And that is the way we practice zazen.

The Buddhist way is to try hard to let go of emotional discrimination of good and bad, to let go of our prejudices, and to see things-as-it-is.

If you practice zazen in this way, you are less likely to have trouble when you are enjoying some event. Do you understand? You may have a special experience and think, “This is it. This is how it should be.” If someone opposes you, you will be angry. “No, it should be like this, not like that. Zen Center should be like this.” Maybe so. But it is not always so. If times change and we lose Tassajara and move to another mountain, the way we have here cannot be the same way we will have there. So, without sticking to some particular way, we open our minds to observe things-as-it-is and to accept things-as-it-is. Without this basis, when you say, “This is the mountain,” or “This is my friend,” or “This is the moon,” the mountain will not be the mountain, my friend will not be my friend, and the moon will not be the moon itself. That is the difference between sticking to something and Buddha’s way.

Buddha’s way is the study and teaching of human nature, including how foolish we are, what kinds of desires we have, our preferences and tendencies. Without sticking to something, I try to remember to use the expression “liable to.” We are liable to, or we have a tendency to do something. This is my motto.

When I was preparing this lecture someone asked me, “What is self-respect, and how can we obtain it?” Self-respect is not something that you can feel you have. When you feel, “I have self-respect,” that is not self-respect anymore. When you are just you, without thinking or trying to say something special, just saying what is on your mind and how you feel, then there is naturally self-respect. When I am closely related to all of you and to everything, then I am a part of one big whole being. When I feel something, I’m almost a part of it, but not quite. When you do something without any feeling of having done something, then that is you, yourself. You’re completely with everyone and you don’t feel self-conscious. That is self-respect.

When you feel that you are somebody, you have to practice zazen harder. As you know, it is difficult to sit without thinking or feeling. When you don’t think or feel, you usually fall asleep. But without sleeping and without thinking, just to be yourself is our practice. When you can do that, you will be able to speak without thinking too much, and without having any special purpose. When you speak or act it will be just to express yourself. That is complete self-respect. To practice zazen is to attain this kind of self-respect. You must be strict with yourself and especially with your tendencies. We each have our own unique personal tendencies. But if you try to get rid of them, or if you try not to think or not to hear the sound of the stream during zazen, it is not possible. Let your ears hear without trying to hear. Let the mind think without trying to think and without trying to stop it. That is practice.

More and more, you will have this rhythm or strength as the power of practice. If you practice hard you will be like a child. While we were talking about self-respect a bird was singing outside. Peep-peep-peep. That’s self-respect. Peep-peep-peep. It doesn’t mean anything. Maybe he was just singing. Maybe without trying to think he was just singing, peep-peep-peep. When we heard it we couldn’t stop smiling. We cannot say that it is just a bird. It controls the whole mountain, the whole world. That is self-respect.

In order to have this everyday practice, we study hard. When we reach this place, there is no need to say “one whole being” or “bird” or “many things which include one whole being.” It could be just a bird or a mountain or the Sandokai. If you understand this, there will be no need to recite the Sandokai. Although we recite it in this Japanese-Chinese form, it is not a matter of Japanese or Chinese. It is just a poem, or a bird, and this is just my talk. It does not mean much. We say that Zen is not something to talk about. It is what you experience in a true sense. It is difficult. But anyway this is a difficult world, so don’t worry. Wherever you go you will have problems. You should confront your problems. It may be much better to have these problems of practice rather than some other mixed-up kinds of problems.


Student: The other day when I was beating the mokugyo [a wooden drum] a small spider crawled across the top of it. There was nothing I could do to avoid the spider. I veered a little off to the side to avoid him, but he went right into the striker. It was too powerful for him to escape.

Suzuki Roshi: You didn’t kill him.

Student:Something did! [Laughter.]

By mistake. It happened in that way.

Student:Yeah, but I couldn’t stop.

Suzuki Roshi: Yeah. You know, it can’t be helped. Buddha killed him! [Laughter.] He may be very happy.

To live in this world is not so easy. When you see children playing by a stream or on a bridge, you may be really worried. “The cars are going zoom, zoom, zoom on the highway nearby. What if there is an accident?” If something happens, that’s all. If you stop and think, you will be terrified. Did you hear about the 165-year-old man who has more than two hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? If he thought about each one of them, he would be scared of losing one.

Our practice can be a very strict practice. You should be ready to kill something even if you are a Buddhist. Whether it is good or bad, you should do that sometime. It is impossible to survive without killing anything. We cannot live depending just on our feelings. Our practice must be deeper than that. That is the strict side of our practice. On the other hand, if it is absolutely necessary, you should stop hitting the mokugyo even though it throws everything into confusion. Not so easy.

Student: Would you explain more what you mean by “strict practice”?

Suzuki Roshi: Strict practice? Things are already going in a very strict way. There is no exception. Wherever there is something, there is some rule or truth behind it that is always strictly controlling it, without any exception. We think we care for freedom, but the other side of freedom is strict rule. Within the strict rule there is complete freedom. Freedom and strict rule are not two separate things. Originally we are supported by strict rules or truths. That is the other side of absolute freedom.

Student:Could you give us more examples that apply to our individual lives?

Suzuki Roshi: When you get up you should just get up. When everyone sleeps you should sleep. That is my example.

My responsibility is such that it’s very easy for me to follow the strict way, because it goes with my position. Other people have somewhat different responsibilities. Sometimes, because my inclination is to follow strictly, we have some differences, and sometimes I think it’s okay for them to do things differently than I do. Is that right?

Yeah. Sometimes you should shut your eyes [laughing]. Sometimes it may be unfortunate to see something. If you see it, you have to say something, so it may help you to practice without looking around. That is the best way, actually. If you look at the people on this side of the zendo, the people on the other side will sleep. So it’s better not to see anything! [Laughter.] They won’t know what you are doing. “He may not be sleeping, so all of us will stay awake.” If you see something, that’s all. The rest will be ignored. If you don’t see anything, you cannot ignore anything. That is the big mind that includes everything. If someone moves, you will notice. Even though you don’t try to hear it, if some sound comes you will catch it. If you focus on one person, the rest of the people will be very happy! [Laughter.] If you don’t catch anyone, no one can move.

From Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai, by Shunryu Suzuki, published in 1999 by the University of California Press. @ 1999 The Regents of the University of California.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904-1971) came to the US from Japan in 1959 and founded San Francisco Zen Center. The author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, his approach to teaching Soto Zen continues to have an immeasurable influence on Buddhism in the West.