Harmony of Difference and Sameness (Alternate Translation)

Harmony of Difference and Sameness (Alternate Translation) August 23, 2019

This year at both the Nebraska Zen Center and the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training we’ve studied one of the essential texts in the Sōtō Zen liturgy, “Harmony of Difference and Sameness” (Japanese: Sandōkai; Chinese: Cāntóngqì 參同契), supported by Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In order to work my edge and offer something fresh to students, I translated the text as we were going along. You’ll find that below.

The original text has forty-four terse lines with five characters in each line. The Sōtō Zen Text Project version of the “Harmony of Difference and Sameness” – here – that’s is used by many Sōtō groups in the US, at least, is well done and flows well as a chant. However, because translating a text is a powerful method for understanding and appreciating what’s inside the meaning, I reworked it and shared the results with students – and now here for you.

In translation work, there is no such thing as “one right way,” because there are many ways that the ideograms can be expressed in English. The version below is offered in the spirit of “it could be this way too,” although this is living rendering and may well change in the future, including smoothing out some of the rough edges. I try to stay as close to the original as possible and allow the text room for expression, even if that results in something that’s a bit awkward. If you give it a read, you’ll see what I mean.

And although a good deal could be said about the details of this translation, I’ll make just one note. 理 (lǐ) comes up twice in the text. The Sōtō Zen Text Project version translates it two ways, as “sameness” and “principle” (as in “According with sameness is still not enlightenment” and “Principle responds like arrow points meet”). I follow David Hinton, translating 理 (lǐ) as “inner pattern.” Hinton writes,

“The philosophical meaning of inner-pattern, which originally referred to the veins and markings in a precious piece of jade, is something akin to what we call ‘natural law.’ It is the system of principles or patterns that governs the unfolding of tzu-jan [self-ablaze], or the manifestations of origin-ch’i [a single breath-force surging through its perpetual transformations] as it takes on the forms of the ten thousand things. Inner-pattern therefore weaves Absence and Presence into a single boundless tissue.” (1)

Here it is:

The Agreement of Difference and Sameness

By Shítóu Xīqiān (700-790) 石頭希遷 


The Indian-dust great-sage mind

Is mutually, intimately entrusted east-west

The root of people is sharp-dull

In the Way – no north-south ancestor

The source of awareness shines moonlight bright

The undercurrent pours through branching streams

Grasping it is original confusion

Inner-pattern accordance is also not enlightenment

Every field is gate-to-gate

Mutually revolving and not mutually revolving

Involvement revolves and changes each other

Not thus according to position and place

The root nature of form appears to differ

Sounds primarily distinguish happy from bitter

In darkness, elevated and common speech come together

In brightness, phrases are clear and muddy

Four elements return to self-nature

Like a child has their mother

Fire hot, wind moves

Water wet, earth hard

Eye-form, ear-sounds 

Nose-fragrance, tongue-salty or vinegary

One-by-one, dharmas depend thus

Depending on roots, leaves scatter

The root doesn’t wait to return to the branch

Revered and humble use their speech

When light, within there is dark

Do not meet by means of dark

When dark, within there is light

Do not meet by means of light.

The opposition of light and dark

is like the front and back [foot] stepping.

All living beings have meritorious activity 

Expressed according to function and place

Things exist [like] box and lid join 

Inner pattern responds [like] arrow points meet

Receiving words, understand the school

Self-sustaining customs won’t do

Seeing everything [yet] not understanding the Way

How is moving [your] foot knowing the road? 

Stepping forward is not far or near

Bewildered, hard separation from mountains and rivers

Solemnly say, “Person who participates in the mystery,

Do not fritter away the time”


(1) David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan, p. 134.


Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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