by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Part XLI
Historical Roots of the Five Ranks

Transitory things are fundamentally unreal;
Because of wrongly grasping after them as if they were True Reality
Ordinary people revolve in the prison of birth and death.

--Avatamsaka Sutra ("The Flower Ornament Scripture")
translated by Thomas Cleary [paraphrased]

One and Many

The teaching of the Five Ranks has its origins in the development of Chinese Buddhist thought and practice that preceded the Ch'an (Zen) movement. In particular, the conceptual foundations of the Five Ranks were laid by the masters of the Hua-Yen School of Buddhism, which took as its principal text the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Hua-Yen masters explored the relationship between the "All is One" and the "All is Different." The "All is One" is the realm of deepest reality--the oneness of all existence within the Eternal. The "All is Different" is the realm of the transitory, which, in comparison with deepest reality, is ephemeral. There is no real separation between these two "realms", for the transitory and ephemeral is the changing face of the Eternal.

If it is true that there is this True Reality, and if it is true that there is no real separation between It and transitory existence, there still remains the question of how we can directly experience this truth. To do so, we will need more than intellectual study and concepts. As one Zen master said, "The portrait of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger."

There are times when the teaching runs ahead of the training; there are times when the training runs ahead of the teaching. But in the long run, teaching and training must be fully harmonized in order for the deepest religious experience and the deepest level of spiritual conversion to manifest in human life. In the lives of the early Zen masters, training caught up with teaching. And when this happened, the teaching was deepened and made more practically applicable.

Dark and Light in Sandokai

The teaching in Great Master Sekito Kisen's poem, Sandokai ("Harmonizing the Real and the Apparent") shows the way in which the bridge between Hua-Yen teaching and the later teaching of the Five Ranks developed during the first few generations of Zen masters.

Sandokai employs a number of paired opposites to express the relationship between the Eternal and the transitory. "Dark and light" is one of these paired opposites, and it happens to be one that goes back to the symbolism employed by the Hua-Yen masters.

Imagine for a moment that you have just walked into a room and closed the door behind you. Now you stand still just inside the room. There are no windows along the walls and there is no artifical source of light: you are in complete darkness. Imagine that this room is filled with objects of many types and sizes. You cannot see them because there is no light. But they are there nonetheless. Within this darkness, there is no possibility of discriminating one object from another because there is no light to see them by.

In Sandokai, "darkness" represents the unity of all existence within the Eternal. Just as in the dark room there is no ability to visually discriminate one object from another, so within the Eternal there is no fundamentally real distinction between self and other, right and wrong, male and female, etc. In other words, Infinite Love does not pick out one thing to love more than another: It only loves infinitely.

Now imagine that a light gets turned on in that dark room. Suddenly, all the objects are revealed. On one side of the room is a sofa; across the room from the sofa is a chair; the sofa is different from the chair.--And so on. In other words, a great multiplicity is now seen.

In Sandokai "light" represents the multiplicity of existence. In this aspect of existence, we distinguish betweeen self and other, right and wrong, male and female, etc. And how could we survive if we could not make such distinctions? If I cannot distinguish between a bus and a mouse, I will eventually end up getting run over by a bus.

Sandokai teaches that oneness and multiplicity are two aspects of one True Reality. If our attitudes and actions are not in harmony with this True Reality--the Eternal--we become lost in the multiplicity, that is, we become the spiritual prisoners of our own confusion by doing that which the Eternal does not do: clutching at some things and hating others. We may partially awaken from this spiritual sleep-walking and then make the mistake of clinging to oneness and despising multiplicity. This only "compounds delusion." What is needed is the genuine harmonization of our attitudes and actions with the True Reality of the Eternal. This is the purpose of Zen training.

Consider the following lines from Sandokai:

Within all light is darkness
But explained it cannot be by darkness that one-sided is alone.
In darkness there is light
But here again by light one-sided it is not explained.

If we apply the above explanation of the light/dark metaphor to this text, it can be re-worded as follows:

None of the many forms of existence is ever separate from the Eternal,
Yet each being has its own independent existence (and responsibility, in the case of intelligent life) that cannot be understood just in terms of its oneness with the Eternal.
Similarly, the Eternal is never separate from the forms of existence, which are Its external appearance,
Yet the Eternal can never be understood or realized through externals alone.

For the Zen trainee, the practical implications of the teaching expressed within these few lines include the following:

The fact that all beings possess the Buddha Nature does not stand against the fact that each being makes, and must carry, his/her/its own karma. Therefore, the correct understanding and practice of the Precepts is essential. (I draw this implication from the first two lines.)
Because we possess the Buddha Nature (that is, because we are of the Eternal), we have the capacity to awaken to our wonderful True Nature. We cannot do this by taking refuge in externals. If we would realize our True Nature, we must turn within in pure meditation. (I draw this implication from the third and fourth lines.)

It is because I am doing the training that goes with this teaching that I interpret these four lines from Sandokai in this pragmatically religious, non-philosophical way. Zen Buddhism--and especially Soto Zen Buddhism--has always been characterized by such pragmatism. In the next few chapters of these Reflections, we will see how this practical application of teaching to daily-life training manifests in Great Master Tozan's Five Ranks.


Click here to proceed to Part XLII, "The First Rank: The Host Invites the Guest"


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