This poem was composed by the 8th century Chinese Zen master Shitou Xiqian. Sandokai refers to the meeting of sameness and difference, the relative and the absolute. Looking at each part:

  • San means plurality, diversity and difference and is associated with the Japanese concept of “ji” – relative reality
  •  means sameness, equality, oneness, or commonality and relates to the Japanese concept of “ri” – absolute reality
  • Kai means “to shake hands” or agreement.

The poem is essentially about the unity of ri and ji, or non-dual and everyday reality.


The Identity of Relative and Absolute

The mind of the Great Sage of India
was intimately conveyed from West to East.

Among human beings are wise ones and fools,
but in the Way there is no northern and southern Ancestor.

The subtle source is clear and bright;
The tributary streams flow through the darkness.

To be attached to things is illusion;
To encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.

Each and all the subjective and objective spheres are related,
and at the same time independent.
Related and yet working differently.

Though each keeps its own place,
form makes the character and appearance different.

Sounds distinguish comfort and discomfort.

The dark makes all words one;
the brightness distinguishes good and bad phrases.

The four elements return to their own nature as a child to its mother.
Fire is hot, wind moves, water is wet, earth hard.

Eyes see, ears hear, nose smells,
tongue tastes the salt and sour.
Each is independent of the other.

Cause and effect must return to the great reality.

The words high and low are used relatively.
Within light there is darkness,
but do not try to understand that darkness.

Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light.
Light and darkness are a pair,
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

Each thing has its own intrinsic value
and is related to everything else in function and position.

Ordinary life fits the absolute as a box and its lid.

The absolute works together with the relative,
like two arrows meeting in mid-air.

Reading words you should grasp the great reality.
Do not judge by any standards.

If you do not see the Way,
You do not see it even as you walk on it.
When you walk the Way it is not near, it is not far.
If you are deluded, you are mountains and rivers away from it.

I respectfully say to those who wish to be enlightened –

Do not waste your time by night or day!

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Dharma talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi