Chinese Poetry

Do Not Pass Your Days and Nights in Vain – Shitou’s Sandokai

The Sandokai, sometimes translated as The Harmony of Difference and Equality, was written by master Shitou – known as Sekito Kisen in Japanese – an 8th century Chinese monk, and a student of Huineng and Huineng’s successor, Qingyuan Xingsi (Seigen Gyoshi). The Sandokai was written at a time when there were two opposing factions within the Zen tradition in China, a northern and southern school, who were in fiery disagreement with one another over matters of principle. The poem is a call to end hostilities by understanding the true nature of the way and of difference and equality, as well as a reminder that life is short and practice most urgent. Shitou is also the author of the Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage and you can find some commentary on a portion of the Sandokai by Shunryu Suzuki here.

 

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 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; like box and lid joining; 
principle accords; 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 your who study the mystery, 
do not pass your days and nights in vain. 

 

Shitou Xiqian (700-790)
Version as featured in: Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness

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