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Tao, The Ten-Thousand-Things & Dongshan’s (Tung Shan’s) Five Ranks

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Hua Shan Mountains
Frank Lukasseck

Dongshan’s Five Ranks -- a classic 9th-century Ch’an/Zen teaching on the nature of reality -- offers five ways of understanding the ontological relationship between ultimate reality and particular phenomena, between the One and the many. In the language of Taoism, we could say that the Five Ranks point to five ways of understanding the relationship between Tao and the ten-thousand things. Each rank is expressed by Dongshan in the form of a short poem.

In certain renderings of this teaching (e.g. as outlined here by the wanderling) the Five Ranks are presented as being more-or-less sequential: they’re “stages along a path,” if you will -- with the earlier ranks descriptive of more superficial, and the later ranks of deeper levels of realization.

In other renderings, the Five Ranks seem to be understood more as aspects rather than as levels of realization. In other words, they’re simply different lenses through which one can view the nature of absolute reality, as it manifests within the partial/apparent phenomena of the world. The Oxford Dictionary Of Buddhism, for instance, offers the following description of the Five Ranks:

(1) The Absolute is seen in the identity of all differentiated phenomena in so far as they all share in the ultimate nature of emptiness, (2) The Absolute is seen in each and every individual phenomenon considered separately, since the nature of all things is complete and sufficient in itself, (3) The Absolute contains within itself the potential to manifest all particular phenomena, even those that are opposite or contrary to one another, (4) Despite their identity in terms of their ultimate nature, all phenomena are distinct and unconfused. In fact, it is only in their real differentiation that their relationality to each other and to the Absolute can be seen—for example, both fire and ice arise from the Absolute and share the same fundamental nature, but fire is not ice and ice is not fire, (5) The enlightened mind directly perceives the active and dynamic interplay between the Absolute and individual phenomena, and between one phenomenon and another.

In the Taoist rendering of the Five Ranks that follows, you’ll see that I lean toward a sequential understanding, with just a hint of the facets-of-a-jewel reading. In the interest of clarity, here’s a list of the various words used, more-or-less interchangeably, in various discussions of Dongshan’s Five Ranks, to denote the Real or Absolute and the partial or apparent:

Real = Absolute, Tao, One, Ultimate, true, upright, erect, noumenal, absolute self, equality, foundation of all being, the foundation of Heaven & Earth, undifferentiated.

Apparent = relative, ten-thousand-things, appearances, many, partial, particular, difference, phenomenal, bent, inclined, differentiated.

Dongshan’s Five Ranks With Taoist-Inspired Commentary

(1) Partial/Apparent within the Real

Here, there has awoken within us an awareness that the ten-thousand things, the phenomena of the manifest world, are similar in having Tao as their essence (in the sense of parts partaking of a whole). Nevertheless, our perception and experience remains rooted primarily in the ten-thousand-things as distinct phenomena -- or at least remains perpetually in danger of being magnetized and disrupted by them.

Dongshan’s poem:

In the third watch of the night
Before the moon appears,
No wonder when we meet
There is no recognition!
Still cherished in my heart
Is the beauty of earlier days.

(2) Real within the Partial/Apparent

Here our focus shifts to being rooted primarily in the Tao, the Real, the Absolute. And while the ten-thousand-things are still in the background, there is an understanding that each and every one of these diverse, particular phenomena contains and reflects -- in the manner of a hologram -- the “whole” of Tao. The ten-thousand-things have thus lost their power to disrupt us, for they function now as mirrors of our True Self.

Dongshan’s poem:

A sleepy-eyed grandam
Encounters herself in an old mirror.
Clearly she sees a face,
But it doesn’t resemble hers at all.
Too bad, with a muddled head,
She tried to recognize her reflection.

(3) Coming from within the Real

Here we have dissolved into or become the Tao. In Buddhism this deep opening and merging with the Absolute is known as Kensho or Satori. It is a glimpse of Enlightenment in which the separate self (the notion of an individual body and mind) falls away. We’ve accessed a timeless, dimensionless “space” -- the womb of Tao -- which has a profoundly purifying effect upon perception; and which will allow us then to emanate powerfully the wisdom and compassion of the Tao.

Dongshan’s poem:

Within nothingness there is a path
Leading away from the dusts of the world.
Even if you observe the taboo
On the present emperor’s name,
You will surpass that eloquent one of yore
Who silenced every tongue.

(4) Going within together OR Mutual Integration

As the ten-thousand-things (the “self” and the “world”) emerge once again out of undifferentiated Tao - as the Yin-Yang dance of opposites -- they are seen clearly now as dependently-originated emanations of the Absolute. Penetrated with this kind of insight, each phenomena appears with utmost vividness, is able to shine brightly and function with maximum effectiveness as an utterly unique manifestation of Tao. In the Light of its mutual integration with the Absolute, as well as with all other manifest phenomena, each of the ten-thousand-things - paradoxically - is able fully to express its singularity.

Dongshan’s poem:

When two blades cross points,
There’s no need to withdraw.
The master swordsman
Is like the lotus blooming in the fire.
Such a man has in and of himself
A heaven-soaring spirit.

(5) Arriving within together OR Unity Attained

Here, Tao and the ten-thousand-things, emptiness and form, mutually penetrate to such a degree as to become virtually indistinguishable. Our polarized conceptual notions of the difference between “Tao” and the “ten-thousand-things” -- between the Absolute and the relative, the Real and the apparent -- dissolve. This final collapse of dualistic thinking catalyzes the experience of inner freedom and spontaneous action known in Taoism as wuwei: the play of the Immortal - the child-like sage - within the illusory world.

Dongshan’s poem:

Who dares to equal him
Who falls into neither being nor non-being!
All men want to leave
The current of ordinary life,
But he, after all, comes back
To sit among the coals and ashes.

~ * ~

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