There is some disagreements over the 5 Ranks of Dongshan
within the Soto School. Some
people say that it is too much of a developmental step-ladder and loses the
“nowness” and immediacy of “each moment is enlightenment”. In my lineage, the labeling of a
“kensho” is looked down upon because we usually end up clinging to it, fixating
on it, trying to reproduce it, etc., and indeed, we lose the point of
enlightenment all together. Dogen
writes about the 5 ranks, saying we shouldn’t use them, and yet underlying his
many writings, there they are!
Similarly, Dogen doesn’t like the organized, ascending approach of
Rinzai koan training, yet, everywhere in the Shobogenzo, he unpacks koans. That being said, Dongshan is the
founder of the Soto School, and a great ancestor, and before we can throw
something out, we have to know what that something is.
This past spring and at June sesshin at Hokyoji, I studied
and lectured on the ranks and found them very informative and quite
beautiful. What I found most
interesting is that the first rank is an insight into Nagarjuna’s emptiness
where there is no reference system and no perceptions. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
no body and no mind. The dropping
off of body and mind. Ha! That’s
the first rank when often people misperceive that as the last stage. There is a great teaching enfolded in
the ranks. Insight into
non-perception or non-thinking is the beginning of understanding
enlightenment. It is not the
end. What I also found fascinating
was that the 10th ox-herding picture, “Returning to the
marketplace”, or “returning to delusion” is subtly deciphered in the last 3
ranks. What is living in
unity? What is mutuality and
non-hindrance between form and emptiness.
What is a truly mature human being?
I will try very briefly to summarize Dongshan’s 5 ranks in
the hopes that it will inspire and teach about the subtlety of the merging of
difference and unity. I am using
Daido Loori’s translations and many of his teachings.
1st Rank – The apparent (form or relative) within
the Real (emptiness or absolute)
At the dead of night with no moon
Meeting yet not knowing each other
You have a vague memory of knowing
This is an experience of entrance into the realm of
non-perceptions, non-thinking and dissolving of reference systems. A taste of emptiness. This corresponds to the 8th
Ox-herding picture – a circle with nothing in it.
2nd Rank – The Real (emptiness) within the
At dawn the old women finds the
Immediate and intimate
But nothing particular
There is no need to search for your
This corresponds to the 9th ox-herding picture –
seeing form, completely freshly and vividly, with intimacy and immediacy, as
our minds come back into focus after experiencing “no-thing”. It is a rush of consciousness and
seeing the world completely anew. We see all forms through the eyes of
emptiness and exacting clarity.
Form is seen in equality with no differentiation.
The shadow of the 1st and 2nd ranks is
the very green, immature, enlightened person with the stink of Zen. Zen sickness, sometimes this is
called. Because our insights are
all so new and intoxicating, people with new insight may come off as arrogant,
judgmental and self-righteous. We
need to mature our understanding at this point. As Dogen points out: “You are
playing in the entranceway, but you are still short of the vital path of
emancipation.” In the first two
ranks, the practitioner is still quite focused on their individualized self and
still compartmentalizing in duality; sometimes being in form, sometimes being
3rd Rank – Coming from within the Real
In emptiness is the way found
Pure and clear
Don’t mention the name of the
You have the universe under your
I really liked the way Daido Loori-roshi explained
this. We start to go back and
forth over and over between emptiness and form, silence and noise, stillness
and activity. As we repetitively go back and forth, we begin to see their
mutuality and our view begins to integrate. We start to have a mental pliancy that can go back and forth
without fixation. As we develop
maturity, we begin to see unity in differentiation and can begin to manifest
our understanding in activity and in the relative world. We can function well in the relative
world, rooted in the absolute.
Awareness is now cleaned up of self-referencing. Immediacy becomes awareness, which is
non-biased, pliant, and with no preferences.
This is also the birth of compassion. Self and other lose their differences
and we learn about compassion in relationship to the activity in the world. We move into seeing ourselves in the
nature of the 10,000 things.
4. Arrival at
swords are crossed
The spirits of the warrior
Like a lotus flower shining in the
Soar high penetrating through
Many of us know this state. The state of being a Bodhisattva in the world, working to
free all beings. It is a state of
being inside of a fire. It has the
intensity of sword fighters, not in their militancy, but in the heightened
awareness. We feel the suffering
of the world of samsara, and don’t turn back. This requires the courage of a warrior. As we return to the relative world, we
burn in the suffering, going into greater and greater difficult situations to
help. Jizo Bodhisattva jangling
his staff to open the doors of hell and entering. The shining lotus flower needs the burning fire to exist and
the practitioner has accepted being covered in the mud of the human realm. There is a true freedom in that and no
need to have a duality of form and emptiness. Just this is it!
5. Unity Attained
Falling into neither form nor
Who can join the master
While others strive to rise above
the common level
He unites with everything.
Sitting quietly by the fire.
translation: and sits in the
He or she unites with everything. All signs of “specialness” or preferences of any kind have
dropped off. This is the ripe
plum, the matured, mellow practitioner.
As Dogen writes: “Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is
free from effort”. It seems that
the burning of the 4th rank has subsided and the practitioner sits
in the ashes, accepting the 10,000 things as Buddha, just as they are. Unity attained. Not having to reject anything, she sits
quietly by the fire. Peace in the
middle of the unpredictability of life.
I’d like to emphasize that these ranks aren’t linear and
progressive. They are dharma
positions in the expression of enlightenment. We can move around in them like movement of a wheel or a mandala. Each one contains all the others and no
one position is fixed. Perhaps,
now that we know them, we should forget them. We can return to Dongshan’s teaching: “Just this is it”. Form and emptiness, mutually beneficial
Labels: Bodhisattvas, Daido Loori, Dogen, Dongshan's Five Ranks, duality and non-duality, form and emptiness, Kensho, Lotus in the fire, mental pliancy, no preferences, ox-herding pictures