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May 07 Newsletter » The Identity of Relative and Absolute
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara

“The Identity of Relative and Absolute” is a marvelous Zen poem that we chant together, especially on retreat. And we’ve been devoting this Ango to studying it, line by line. It was written by the great-grandfather of our lineage, Shitou - Dongshan’s Dharma great-grandfather, so it’s an important text for all of Zen and particularly for the Soto sect.

Shitou lived in a very exciting time in China when there were many different philosophical and religious teachings converging. Born in 700, legend has it that as a young boy he was sent away to the Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch’s, monastery—which I’ve visited and I hope sometime as a group we can go there: it’s a beautiful monastery with great cliffs - a wonderful place with a spring which is why sometimes you hear the Sixth Ancestor referred to as Caoxi because the spring there has that name.

At the age of thirteen, when the Sixth Ancestor lay dying, the record has it that the little boy said. “Where do I go? who do I study with when you’re dead?” and the Sixth Ancestor looked at him and said, “You’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.” Well, it turns out that he did figure it out and became an important teacher in his own right.

Now at the time that Shitou was studying, he would have been heir to the Taoist roots of Zen, with its concepts of wu wei, or flow, as well as ying and yang, and these ideas inform the substratum of the poem. He was also heir to the Hua Yen school with its teaching of the vast interpenetration and interconnectedness of all things as articulated in the Avakamasaka Sutra which we studied last summer. So both of these streams contribute to the formation of Zen around this time. The quality of vast interconnectness and non-obstruction, this idea that things do not obstruct one another, that our Buddha nature does not obstruct our human nature and our human nature does not obstruct our Buddha nature is a really important point in contrast with the rather dualistic asceticism that was associated with Buddhism in the other sects at that time in India, China and Tibet.

In studying the Absolute and Relative, we recall Fa Tsang’s teaching of the two terms—li and shu, typically translated as “principal” and “phenomena.” He used the example of a “golden lion.” The gold of which the lion is made is the essence or principle. There’s no part of the lion that is not gold, just as there is no part of you that is not a Buddha. And the shu is the form that the lion takes. Melted down it could be made into a Buddha, or a demon. So this idea of “principle” and the “phenomena” is really key to understanding Shitou’s great poem “The Identity of Absolute and Relative.”

The title, San Do Kai, was taken from a Taoist text written 500 years before Buddhism was prevalent at all in China. This alchemical text was about immortality, about changing iron into gold, so Shitou may have been trying to make the link between becoming an immortal, becoming a diety, and becoming a Buddha, using terms people were already familiar with. Looking at the characters, san do kai we see that san means difference. It’s actually the same san as in dokusan and daisan, an encounter between two people with different views. Do can mean sameness and kai to shake hands. So it could be translated as “Sameness and Difference Shaking Hands.” Maezumi Roshi wanted to avoid the idea of there being two separate things, absolute here and a relative there, so instead referred to identity to show that they are the same. He translated it as “The Identity of Relative and Absolute ” to counteract our tendency, as tool-making animals, to make a separate subject and an object.

Water tower on Broadway

There are many other meanings for these characters, however. So for example, Sheng Yen, the contemporary Chinese Zen master, has a very different take. He translates san as investigation or inquiry instead of difference. And do which we translate as sameness he translates as common, and kai which is the handshaking, he translates as contract. So his interpretation of the title is “Inquiry into Matching Halves” which is kind of nice. When Maezumi Roshi used the term “Relative and Absolute” he may have been trying to use shorthand - typical Western philosophical terms for these concepts that in Zen are constantly pointed at but never completely explained. The Absolute in the Western sense is the totality of all things, God. In Zen, it’s what we mean when we say, “No one is born and no one dies.” That’s the absolute view. This contrasts with the finite view, the conditional view of ourselves. I like to express it as, “A crane’s legs are long; a duck’s legs are short.” Sure we’re different; we’re as different as we can be! We’re born and we die. So, both are true.

The first line of the Identity and Relative goes: “The mind of the Great Sage of India is intimately conveyed from West to East.” This “Great Sage” is a reference not to the actual Shakyamuni Buddha but rather the mind of Shakyamuni Buddha, that is Buddha-mind. And, “From West to East” meant from India to China, so for our day we should really change it to “from East to the West.” So what is this “Buddha Mind” that is being conveyed, intimately?

A student once asked Shitou, “What is Buddha?” Shitou said, “You don’t have Buddha mind.” The student said, “I’m human; I run around and I have ideas.” Shitou said, “People who are active and have ideas also have Buddha-mind.” The student said,“Why don’t I have Buddha-mind?” Shitou said, “Because you are not willing to remain human.”

Right here is the entire teaching of “Identity of the Relative and Absolute.”

This student is asking, “What is Buddha?” “What is this thing over there?”

“You don’t have it,” says Shitou. “If you’re asking me what it is, you don’t have it.”

“Hey, I’m just human, ” the student answers. “People are human and they still have Buddha mind,” replies the teacher. “Well, I’m human. Why don’t I have it?” insists the student. “Because you’re not willing to remain human!” Your mind right now – sleepy, distracted, uncomfortable - is it, not next week when it’ll be in better shape, but right now! Can you accept it right now? “In light there is darkness; in the darkness light. But do not look for the light.” Buddha/human, good/bad, sleepy/alert—you must be willing to remain human. It’s so important! Not being willing to remain human is what causes so much punishing behavior on ourselves and others. Ideologies arise out of that. Pogroms arise out of that.

So this mind that is willing to remain human is intimately transmitted from West to East. Other people have translated it as “quietly” transmitted; “secretly”, “esoterically”…I really like “intimate”. The Latin intimus is “the inmost part”—according to my heart, because that’s the way we experience that intimacy. The character is Mitsu. It has two parts: it shows temples clustered together, and underneath the temples, mountains. So you have a sense of the quiet of the mountains along with denseness, and intimacy. Close together but not apart: the mind of India and the mind here at Wisdom House. “Intimately transmitted”—is anything transmitted? Is there a thing that goes from one to the other?

There’s a great story about a nun who wanted to attain this deep intimacy, this Buddha mind. She sat all the time but got very frustrated because she was not able to break through. So she went to her teacher and said, “Please help me.” And he said, “All right! Practice the saying ‘There is not mind, there is not Buddha, there is not a thing.” So she went off and meditated on this for a long time: “It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not a thing.” It is not mind. It is not Buddha. It is not a thing. And yet, filled with desire and anxiety, she was unable to really break through with this koan that he gave her. So she went back to him and she said, “Give me something easier to understand.” And he said, “All right. Practice the question, ‘What is it?’” What is it? It’s a great, great practice. And she worked on this and finally had a breakthrough. And what she said was, “Oh! It was always so close!”

It is always so close! So intimate! What can we learn from her? She sat. I implore you, no matter where you are and how much you travel, find time for yourself; find time to sit as this nun did. It doesn’t have to be all day long; half an hour every morning, every day, always, no matter what.

Maintain a kind of quality of attention and listen, listen. Then, not mind, not Buddha, not a thing. Don’t get stuck in ideas of the Dharma, of devotion, of the way you think things are.

So, What is it? He directed her so clearly, narrowed it down like an acupuncture needle. What is it? There’s nowhere else to look. It was always so close, so intimate, with your breath, your body. Always so close.

Let me just end with the story of where Shitou went after Huineng died. He found himself going to a second teacher, Quingyuan, who asked him where he came from. When he said from Hui-neng’s, Quingyuan said, “What did you bring with you?” Shitou said, “I had everything I needed before I went.” Quingyuan said, “Well if that’s so, why did you go?” Shitou said, “If I hadn’t gone there, how would I have known it?”

You have everything. You know that. You’ve read it in a book. Let’s try knowing it, experiencing it, experiencing the identity of relative and absolute right here, on the cushion, or on a walk under the blue sky.

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