The four elements return to their true nature as a child to its mother.
Fire is hot, water is wet, wind moves and the earth is dense.
Eye and form, ear and sound, Nose and smell, tongue and taste…the sweet and sour.
Each independent of the other like leaves that come from the same root;
And though leaves and root must go back to the source,
Both root and leaves have their own uses.
These passages can be translated as being not the physical elements of fire, wind, water, and earth as such. Shohaku Okumura in his book Living by Vow elaborates on their true meaning for us.
For example, fire represents body heat; wind symbolizes breathing and moving; water denotes blood, tears, or other bodily liquids; and earth suggests bones, nails, hair, and other solids. In addition to these four, Mahayana Buddhism considers ku, which means “emptiness” or “space,” the fifth gross element. In Chinese, space and emptiness are represented by the same character, which means “sky.” Everything occupies space, so space is, in a sense, another element (pages 234-5).
We live, as the name of the sutra says, in the world of the relative and the world of the absolute. And not only do we live in it but as Okumura says we “are” it. There is no separation of our physical bodies and the entire world even to the great big sky. He suggests that we should free ourselves from “words” and transcend them and look to the “middle way.”
The symbol of yin and yang is a great example of this, he says. They oppose, they intermingle, and they merge. There is a black dot in the middle of the white, and a white dot in the middle of the black. Thus the symbol illustrates separation, and merging, and oneness, and difference, masculine and feminine, and yet all working together to create the whole.
He says, “This circle is called the “great ultimate.” It is the source in “Sandokai (page 238).”
And yet we live our lives in a “dualistic” way, focused on separation, differences, likes and dislikes. We are encouraged when we come to Zen and learn to sit zazen to drop the duality and merge into the emptiness of the sky. Doing this can help us in many ways from relieving the body of tension and stress, calming the monkey mind and bringing it to quiet and stillness, and freeing the body from physical pain. Not that we focus on doing these things or try to make them happen, it is just a result of the body and mind becoming one with quiet, stillness and emptiness.
Even the heart knows the stillness within the body. After the lub/dub sounds of the heart values pushing the blood through the heart into the arteries in a healthy person the sounds disappear.
If a stethoscope is placed over the brachial artery in the antecubital fossa in a normal person (without arterial disease), no sound should be audible. What a great illustration of the place to be when sitting in the silence. Our body instinctively knows what to do without us doing a thing.
As I was writing this blog I was led to sit for a short period and at the end of my sit the words to this chant began to sing in my head. We used to chant this simple little song each week at Unity Church before we began the meditation.
In the silence there is a sacred place, a secret meeting place, Love is there. In the silence where every color blends, and every rainbow ends, Good is there. In the light now you find that you know peace of mind. In the silence your path is paved in gold, and all your dreams unfold; Love is there, Peace is there, Truth is there, God is there.”
What a beautiful illustration of the Sandokai, whether you believe in a god or not, the chant worked. It brought everyone into stillness and into a deeper meditation than some thought possible.
For most this process of stillness occurs after much time spent in zazen. It does not occur over night. It is not something to get stressed about. You need not spend time wondering why your monkey mind is still raging, comparing yourself to others in the group, or trying to make something happen. It is simply coming to sit—with no goals in mind except sitting.
I know that sounds crazy and it probably is. But the sky does not try to be the sky, it just is. The rainbow does not try to be a rainbow it just is. The moon and the sun do not try to be moon and sun. The sun does not wish to be the moon and vice versa. They all just “be” it.
You too can just be the four elements and the emptiness and the rainbow and the stillness whenever and wherever you are. In fact you are already it…there is nothing to search for. Just be it and watch what happens in your life without any work from you at all.
 Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA