Japanese sutra

Where is the Dharma? Looking for the teaching on the cushion and in everyday life – Colin Shinjo Salmon

“The Dharma, incomparably profound and infinitely subtle, is rarely encountered even in millions of ages.”-  from the Sutra Opening Gatha

“The Buddha’s Dharma has this good reputation; it is well expounded by the Blessed One, visible here and now, inviting one to come and inspect it, applicable, to be personally experienced by sensible people.”  – from the Six Qualities of the Dharma

These two quotations appeared contradictory to me when I first looked at them side by side. The first is a line of the verse we recite before a Teisho, and seems to say this teaching of ours is something very difficult to come by. The second quotation is how the Dharma is frequently described in the sutras. To me it suggests the opposite – that the teaching is all around us and readily available. Reciting the first of these on Sesshin got me reflecting on the second, and the apparent paradox of them both being true. I have been exploring the second quotation by studying the original words used by the Buddha, which have been translated in so many ways (this was my new lockdown hobby outside of scouring my phone for apps that pay cash!). The four of these from the original phrase which most strike me are: sanditthiko, akaliko, ehipassiko and opanayiko. I’ve really enjoyed looking at their meanings from different angles and sitting with the implications, so I’ve collected a few of my reflections on them below.

Sanditthiko – This word is variously translated as ‘self-realised’, ‘viewed by oneself’, or ‘visible here and now’. In my own experience though, ‘here and now’ can easily take on a mystical quality. I have certainly read it at times as ‘here and now, but you have to be more enlightened to see it,’ or ‘here and now, but hidden from view (at least to you).’ It’s also easy for ‘here and now’ to become just another phrase I throw around. What exactly is here and now? There’s a difference between looking for something extra, something hidden, or paying attention to what I already perceive. I find it helpful to reflect on the fact that ‘sanditthiko ’ is word which had an everyday, common meaning in the time it was used. It doesn’t need to be over-thought. If I were to ask someone in the ancient kingdom of Maghada where the post office was, they might point over the road and say “sanditthiko” that is, “You can see it yourself”, “It’s there”.

Akaliko – This word can mean ‘eternal’, in some contexts, or ‘immediate’ in others. These two meanings are sometimes combined as ‘eternally manifesting in the present’ or ‘here in this very lifetime’, but I prefer the less grandiose sounding, ‘it’s always happening now’.

Ehipassiko – A strange adjective, again with many translations! Something which is ‘ehipassiko’ stands up to scrutiny and invites investigation. A room full of fascinating objects, waiting with the door wide open is ‘ehipassiko’. A well-made point that can be backed up with evidence is ‘ehipassiko’. Everyone is invited to come and have a look. There are no secrets with something that is ehipassiko, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to discover.

Opanayiko – Literally it means ‘leads one upwards’, but most scholars seem to render it as ‘applicable’. Combined with the preceding word it conjures an image in my mind of a hallway or staircase. It invites us in, not to stand around and admire where we are, but to move on further.

 

Taken together, there is a definite flavour to these four words that complement each other and point towards a single meaning. The classical translation is in the middle part of the quote above, “visible here and now, inviting one to come and inspect it, applicable”, but we can play around with this and try to phrase it in a way that is more natural in our language. These are all everyday terms, with down to earth worldly meanings as well their spiritual connotations. I like to think of these words as meaning something like this,

“The Dharma is always appearing to us, inviting us to explore it and ready to help us when we do so.”

In my own practice over the last few months, I have frequently returned to this point. It’s a reminder to look at what’s there and what’s happening, rather than trying to find something extra, or something hidden. What’s there is there when I am sitting in zazen. What’s there is there when I agree or disagree with a colleague. Every situation offers itself up to be explored, and the choice is always there to pay attention or not. Perhaps the only difference with zazen is that it makes the choice more obvious.

Returning to my original question, how can I resolve the apparent paradox between this view of the Dharma and the view presented in the Sutra Opening Gatha? How can the Dharma be so readily available at the same time as being rarely encountered, even in millions of ages? I don’t think there is any contradiction at all. This life is indeed a rare and precious thing. It is unique. And, at the same, I can always see it. It is happening all around me, even as I ponder on its meaning.