Lesson
13

Shitou

3 of 3

Traveling on the tortoise of wisdom

One day Shitou was reading a book, the Zhao Lun, which states that only a sage can incorporate the world into himself. When he read "The one who realizes that the myriad things are one's own self is no different from the sages," Shitou said:

The sages never think about themselves, and yet they contain everything inside them. Buddha can't be seen, but who says he has to come from somewhere? If you have the mind of enlightenment, the whole world reveals itself inside you. People's perception varies, so some will say 'come' while others say 'go'.

Then he put the book aside and fell asleep. He dreamed that he was traveling across deep water, riding on the back of a tortoise with the Sixth Patriarch. When Shitou woke up, he interpreted the dream this way:

The tortoise represents wisdom. The deep water is the sea of the nature of all that lives. So by means of wisdom I traveled with the Sixth Patriarch across this sea.

The Identity of Relative and Absolute

Shitou then wrote a verse entitled "The Identity of Relative and Absolute" (Cantongjie in Chinese; Sandokai in Japanese), an ode that is widely known and chanted in Zen temples down to the present day.

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
transpose and do not transpose.

Transposing, they are linked together;
not transposing, each keeps its place.

Sights vary in quality and form;
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.

Darkness merges refined and common words;
brightness distinguishes clear and murky phrases.

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 for each and every thing,
according to the 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 the front and back foot in walking.

Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.

Existing phenomenally like box and cover joining;
according with principle like arrow points meeting.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don't establish standards of your own.

Not understanding the Way before your eyes,
how do you know the path you walk?

Walking forward 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.

This verse mines metaphors and experience from Taoist writing.

. . . the mutuality of all beings and the inextricable unity of opposites. The poem . . . borrows the imagery of light and darkness that Taoists had developed in expressing the harmonies of yin and yang. The poem plays off these metaphors, taking light and dark in turn as organic expressions of Buddha-nature, of what is brightly manifested all around us and the dark mind of nonduality. Its originality in treating these two aspects of the great matter by turns distinguishing them, identifying them, and showing their complimentarily, made (this verse) famous.