by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

The First Rank: The Host Invites the Guest

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.

--Poem on the First Rank
Great Master Tozan
translated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki in Zen Dust
quoted in A History of Zen by Dr. Y. H. Ku


Great Master Tozan (Chinese: Tung-shan) built the teaching of the Five Ranks on the conceptual foundations established by the Hua-Yen masters and the early Zen masters, including Great Master Sekito Kisen, author of Sandokai. Both Sekito Kisen and Tozan couched their teaching in terms that have a strongly philosophical flavor, even though their purpose for doing so was purely religious. For example, the First Rank, which is the subject of this chapter of these Reflections, is Cheng chung p'ien, which is commonly translated as "the Absolute within the relative." I see peoples' eyes glaze over when I use terms such as "the Absolute," "the relative," "the Real," and "the phenomenal." One of Tozan's disciples, Sozan, did suffering humanity a great favor by expressing the teaching of the Five Ranks in terms of the relationship of "Host and guest" (or "Lord and vassal"). This was one way in which this teaching was made more accessible to ordinary people.

The metaphor of Host and guest strikes me as a particularly happy one for modern people; for, while we may have only a vague idea of the what it was like to be the vassal of a lord, we all know something about what it is to be a guest in someone's house. We have some sense of the obligation of a guest and the generosity of a host. So in discussing the Five Ranks, I will use the term "Host" to refer to the Eternal; I will use the term "guest" to refer to the individual human being.

Sozan named the First Rank "The Host sees [i.e. looks toward] the Guest," and this is a big step forward in the effort to make the name of the first of the Five Ranks more readily comprehensible. But another step can be taken, and I am taking that step by designating the First Rank as "The Host invites the guest."

The Invitation

Rev. Master said, "Before we longed for the Eternal, the Eternal longed for us."

Within all beings, there is a call from the Heart, a beckoning from our wonderful True Nature to return into "full recognized reunion" (to use Rev. Master's expression) with Itself.

Since it originates in our Buddha Nature, this invitation to return to our True Home is always present. It is an invitation, not a command. We are free to ignore it, and we are free to listen to it and accept it. Infinite Love does not force Itself upon the beloved: It is willing to wait.


If we accept the invitation, we have to move into the spiritual unknown. It is never the case that we accept the invitation, have a nice visit with the Eternal, and then are set for life--no more problems. Accepting the invitation is always the beginning of an adventure. There is always an element of risk. In Great Master Dogen's words, "Always we must be disturbed by the Truth."

This First Rank, "the Host invites the guest," is a constant element in the spiritual life. I encourage the reader to be careful not to think of this First Rank (or any of the other Ranks) just as a stage one goes through at a certain point in the spiritual life, only to be left behind as one progresses to another Rank. The Ranks are both successive stages in the spiritual life and aspects of spiritual experience that manifest again and again--and also (in varying degrees and in varying conditions) simultaneously.

The Invitation and The Search for the Master

The search for a human master is a natural response to this invitation (or call) from the Eternal. And only when we are truly accepting the invitation will we recognize our true human master. The recognition of one's human master has to happen at the level of pure spiritual intuition: one's True Heart says "Yes!" in the presence of one's true human master even if one's head is confused. Since in the course of training the disciple's head is often confused, it is vitally important for the disciple always to remember that that "Yes!" happened and that it was real.

Other Perspectives on the First Rank

The invitation from the Eternal appears in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom as the light that pierces the dark clouds in the First of the Five Columns, and that is always to be seen if we will but look up in faith.

The invitation from the Eternal is what reminds us that we can turn toward the Eternal and ask sincerely for help. This sincere asking (or opening of the heart) is the first of the Five Aspects of Meditation.

The comprehension of the Buddha's First Noble Truth, "Existence is permeated with suffering" is made possible by the fact that the invitation from the Eternal is always quietly resonating within our mind and heart, whispering to us that there is a True Refuge, and that nothing else in the universe can satisfy our deepest longing. This inherent unsatisfactoriness of transitory existence is the deeper meaning of dukkha (suffering).

Click here to proceed to Part XLIII, "The Second Rank: The Guest Turns Toward the Host"



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