PZI Teacher Archives

Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Poem 1


This is from an old Chinese poet, and koans and poems were always, poems, koans, koans, poems, they’re always somewhat intertwined in their history. And so often poems were used as koans and vice versa. This is a series of five poems by an old Chinese teacher called Dongshan, who kind of did a map of the Way in five stages, because everybody knows there are five stages for the Way [laughter].


Hi. Here we are. Excellent. Life is good. Tonight I’m going to talk about this old koan, poem:

It’s past midnight. The moon has not risen. In the thick, deep dark, you meet a face from long ago, but you don’t recognize them. No need to be surprised by this.


So there we are. This is from an old Chinese poet, and koans and poems were always, poems, koans, koans, poems, they’re always somewhat intertwined in their history. And so often poems were used as koans and vice versa. This is a series of five poems by an old Chinese teacher called Dongshan, who kind of did a map of the Way in five stages, because everybody knows there are five stages for the Way [laughter]. It’s a well-known truth that there are only five stages and not less than five stages. And Zen is really a kind of path that says you know it’s not really about believing stuff and taking off the shelf used, it’s a sort of hand-made path, really. You life is a hand-made life.

So the idea of a map of stages is interesting because we love maps. Kids love maps. I love maps. And at the same time a map in Zen is something like: oh here’s what somebody noticed about their path. If you empathically enter what they noticed, you’ll find out something about your path, and you might find out your path has some resemblance to theirs, or you might find in a very creative way it’s different. Either way it’s a gift, and a communication between you and that old teacher, which is what fundamentally I suppose art and music and things like that are about, really. They wake something up in us and make us more open to our lives. So this is one of those kind of maps.

Dongshan was an interesting guy and so his maps are worth considering, and then there’s a history. For those of you who are interested, there’s a history to these five poems in that the great painter and koan master, Japanese guy, Hakuin Ekaku, he thought they were really cool, and so… he made koans into a curriculum, which is another idea of a map, a curriculum. If you do this one and then this one and then this one, it will improve you no end. And kind of it does in a way, but not the way you might have thought when you set off. And so he really valued them and he put them right at the end of his curriculum, thought they were subtle and deep, thus confusing people quite a lot, because I don’t think they’re that subtle, but I think they’re very interesting and so I thought we’d explore them together. So that’s the short form for what we’re doing with this.

I think why he thought they were subtle and deep is actually I suppose because they bring out something in us. It feels that way. They bring out perhaps our sense of mystery and awe; that’s always nice, because we spend a lot of time – you’ll notice in meditation what we do in life, and we spend a lot of time comparing, contrasting, in a critique of our lives, in a critique of other people’s lives even if we don’t know them, especially if we don’t know them. And we feel somehow that narrows us and makes us smaller, and we’d like it to be opened up.

So this first koan starts with darkness. Sometimes you can say the word darkness and shiver a bit, or maybe you think oh that’s great because you love sleep and the falling thing that goes with sleep, you know. But it starts with darkness and I think that’s a smart thing. It’s always good to start out by going we might say down or into the unknown. Because if you start out with the known, you fall screaming from the heights later, so you might as well just go down the rabbit hole straight off, which is your basic koan approach. And I think it’s nice because then we’ve already said to ourselves and informed ourselves and each other that we’re prepared to see with new eyes, and we’re prepared to perhaps experience things differently, and whenever I’m doing that I’m prepared to be, really, a different me. I don’t have to take my me with me. Because I know my me is just something I made up to sort of get around and sign documents at customs and immigration and things and I’m not really that attached to that guy. I like life, but that’s another matter.

It’s after midnight, before the moon has risen. So that’s the first thing. It’s dark. Then the other thing is, there’s something though familiar and old, ancient, or familiar and from long ago, or something you already know but you can’t quite get hold of it, you can’t quite recognize it. That’s a beautiful thing. It’s like you’re on the cusp of something. The moment of longing is also genuine just as the moment of fulfillment is. Where would the music industry be without longing? Or any art? But it’s really interesting to realize that those things we think of as passing through are themselves places. And so this is a genuine kind of place to be in the dark. And if you’re in the dark – because the mind is so empathic, all you have to do is mention the dark and immediately we get plunged into whatever our favorite notion of darkness is, but you can trust that in yourself. You don’t have to make that wrong, and also you don’t have to think that you’ll be there forever, because it’s a path. As I said, there are five stages [laughter]. Don’t like the weather? Stick around.

But the darkness is part of life, isn’t it. We can’t ever dodge it, because life doesn’t really allow us to. And so we have to in a certain sense learn to move in the dark and maybe it’s not so bad. I had an interesting phone call this week with a friend called me up and her son had died a couple of years ago, mysteriously, lost at sea while diving, never found him. And she’d been unavailable and hadn’t been answering her phone and didn’t have an answering machine on her phone. And she’d called me a couple of times and left me messages saying if I was worried about her she was doing okay with it and stuff. But we hadn’t ever talked about it. So then she calls me and we have a talk about art, we have a talk about Kyoto, and talk about the pilgrimage trail for Kuan Yin pilgrimages, and so in other words we’re moving through something to something, because that clearly wasn’t why she called me up. Well why were we[?] talking? And why the phone had found me because I never pick up the phone and I picked up the phone.

So I said well how are you doing with the loss of your son. And she said oh, and suddenly that’s what we were talking about. And she said oh, I didn’t lose him. And I said Oh? And she said well he’s with me all the time and I talk to him several times a day. And she said you know how I’ve always been a person who had a little core of worry in me? Which probably just means you’re a mammal [laughter]. Little core of worry in me, and she said now I feel like it doesn’t end. Not the worry doesn’t end, but it doesn’t end, this thing we’re in doesn’t really end. And she said, and I’m not afraid of death and I can’t tell you what a relief that is. And so I would think of that as a moment where you’re moving in the dark. You’re in the dark, and there’s nothing much darker than losing your kid, right? And you’re moving in the dark but you’re finding ways to move, and it’s very moving, very beautiful, touching. And it felt  big, hearing this from her, that she’s gone through this huge thing and still going through it and in it and so I thought I’d share that with you, because it’s a sort of Zen navigation thing, that we will be able to move when it’s dark, because we will. That’s it, because we will.

What else about darkness? Well, feeling your way is kind of what we’re always doing in life, right? You know this is a kind of known thing. I don’t really

William Blake – Hades

think of myself as a poet but I write poetry sometimes and publish it, and one thing I notice is that you can’t make a line come. You might have a perfectly good poem and it doesn’t have some part of it missing[?], and the poem’s got to do that. You can’t. You can fake it or something but it’s not the same thing. And so in a certain sense, but then you can start to trust, and it will come. There’s a certain way in which there’s a kind of surrender if you enter the dark. But if you’re trying to do everything from up top, the top shelf of your mind, a friend calls it the control tower, then that’s what you’re going to get, you’re going to get that kind of thinking, which is suitable for doing your taxes but not suitable for a poem or your love life, or the deep things in life.

So then there’s an advantage in a certain sense in the darkness because you surrender, because you’re not in charge, and then you find out that the universe is kinder than you thought. You don’t have to hold it off with your critique, your assessment, your judgment, whatever it is, you know I’m too old I’m too fat I’m too crazy. Yes, you’re all those things but so what [laughter]. Aren’t we all? My history was wrong. Yes, so was mine. That’s the point. So it’s for me, and so our life becomes our own unique life because we gave into it. We’re not holding off our own life. So there’s that.

And then you notice, the other thing is we notice that those ways we manage life by finding a problem with it, a critique… I find a problem with you, you’re wrong, or I realize that everything I think about you is really about me, and once we get clued into that it kind of helps in a way, although it doesn’t help when we’re still deluded, but it kind of helps. But then I might think it about me, but it’s not true about me either. Like: you’re an idiot! Oh god, I’m the idiot. Wait, even I’m not an idiot. Or there’s nothing wrong with being an idiot. There we are, it’s the human condition. And so there’s a kind of, then there’s a joy that can expand out of the darkness, out of surrendering, out of giving up. And the whole thing about koan study really is about being carried by that, carried by the bigger way of being in the world, it’s the universe… underneath your small problem there’s the universe, and it’s much more interesting than your small problem. To you it’s much more interesting than your problem, because it’s you. The universe is you.

In a way that bigness is what we’re afraid of, which is why you’ll notice you start to expand and you think oh my god, my mind is out of control. Yes? Did you ever think it was in control? And in a way that’s all right, because it’s more like dancing than stuffing things in packages into boxes, Amazon fulfillment. It’s more a dance thing happens with the universe. And the reason I like koans is that koans were originally marketed in the West because we wanted to understand Japanese culture, and it was sort of fascinating. We knew the Japanese and Chinese were onto something and it was interesting to us, and we knew we needed something to blow our minds a bit. And so they were marketed as puzzles that would blow your mind. They were marketed as kind of an appliance for your mind, like a toaster or a best[?] can opener… with a known function.

But the thing about koans is they don’t have a known function. They have a function into the unknown. They take you into what you don’t know. They don’t take you into what you know because you know that shit and the koan doesn’t care. And you don’t care, because that’s just doing what you always do, eating the same thing for breakfast sort of thing. So there’s something magical about oh, what if the koan, like here it’s past midnight, the moon hasn’t risen. That’s not an appliance, that’s an environment. That’s a platform, that’s a world, really, that’s in you and it comes into and it starts to carry you. And the other way to put it is you walk through it and then it really, I don’t know – inside, outside, it’s mysterious. And you really feel the sunlight come into you or you hear the sound of rain, which I hope we might hear later and it’s – is it inside, is it outside? It’s the universe is raining, the universe is sunning, it’s like that.

Okay so what else – oh, and then everything you meet, because it’s so big, because you’re not in the way, the ordinariness of things is precious. More than one of you was complaining about the ugliness of the building. Who would design a building like this? Who would sit in meditation in a building like this? The answer is we would. And you see that, yeah. And still there’s the leaf and there was the magic light on the hills tonight and that red light that filmmakers love, and then there’s people’s feet. There’s the preciousness of the thusness of things. And probably if we were to design this building it would look a little different, but you know, I’m grateful for what we have. So it’s great. So even things that seem banal or useless, if I don’t hold back from them, the joy of life can happen there. It doesn’t only happen in palaces, it happens in trailer parks, right? There’s no rule about where you’re allowed to have joy. So that’s what the darkness takes away. The darkness takes away your rules about how you can be happy or what you need for happiness, or how you can be lovable or how you can love.

And in a way when you’re in the darkness you’re in a way kind of in a dream and we’re believing the dream, but we’re sort of starting to see that when we see things are precious we realize oh, it’s kind of a nice dream. It’s all right. And that it carries us. And if something needs to be healed, the healing will happen outside our plots and schemes. So if something in you needs to be healed, be kind of loving with your own hopelessness that it won’t be healed, with your own fear that it won’t be healed with your own oh my god what would I do with my life if it were healed, all that stuff. So we have, the darkness gives us these possibilities. And really the biggest possibility it gives us is to be kind with our experience. So if you’re angry, if you’re lonely, if you’re heartless, have some heart with that. Because then you’ll realize oh I’m not really any of those things, because I’m here.

What else? I’m very systematic today. I have a list. You do, sometimes you’ll feel you say the word dark and anybody, there’s a certain awe and respect we have for our dark experiences because we know they can overwhelm us, and so they can be really dark, and our minds can feel crazy and things. I think the thing to say is that’s the beauty of having a practice and to some degree a method, even if it’s a sort of non-method method like koans, is that the koan will hold all what seems like madness and craziness and you don’t have to do it. What you’re feeling, it’s not your business either. What somebody else is feeling, what you think somebody else is feeling, is only your story about them. It’s not your business, but even what you’re feeling isn’t your business. It’s life happening through you. If it’s too big then let the koan carry it, and it will.

And in the dark the other thing is that there’s always movement, like you meet this face from long ago, and you don’t recognize them, but you don’t need to be surprised by that, which means of course you are surprised by that. I feel like I don’t know, there’s something here, and that’s your own awakening you’re stumbling into, but you’re asleep and can’t wake up to it yet. But you can feel the reality of it, you can feel there’s something bigger. It may be just that thing about any piece of discovery is all of discovery. Any place you enter, the whole universe is there. Which is why the koan isn’t a gadget, because a gadget thinks: there’s me, there’s the universe, I’m doing this thing to it. It’s bigger than that. Although you know it’s a notable Buddhist strategy to have gadgets and the idea that there’s a – Tibetans have a whole kind of fun system like that where they poison you (it’s like chemotherapy), they poison you and you lose your delusions but you lose other things as well. And they have to give you an antidote to the belief you had that got you out of your crazier beliefs, but then all beliefs are crazy too, so… then they have an antidote to the antidote. It’s kind of fun, but I don’t – it’s too confusing for an Australian. Too confusing for a marsupial like me, I just have to have koans.

And then you can start to, wherever you are you can enjoy it. If you’re sad, there’s all this stuff that I shouldn’t be sad or I shouldn’t this or I shouldn’t that, but what if you said: I’m really sad. Like, be sad. Sometimes we’re sad. Do it up! Have it! If that’s what you’ve got. If that’s your darkness, then don’t criticize yourself for it. Or at least have a curiosity about it, because a lot of the things we think are really negative in our lives, we didn’t really look yet. So if we let ourselves be curious, that itself, we’ll have compassion for feeling it. And if we can’t even be curious and we’re just terrified then we’ll have compassion for that, and that eases things.

Then the question of method becomes a lot easier with the koan, because you’ll notice the instructions on how to work with the koan are incredibly vague and contradictory. Yeah, it’s just they are. Because it’s yours, and really it’s a relationship, so if you want to love somebody, you find out what it’s like to be with them, you don’t think: Well this is how to be with – ! I did have this wonderful friend who – I have these couple of friends who are married and they asked me could you sit down with us because we have something we absolutely can’t work out… and I was mmmm, I’ll make it worse… but I did. And it was this great thing where, so the big conflict was breakfast. And breakfast was because she cooked him a certain breakfast which, she’d grown up in a farm family in Illinois, and he was this skinny intellectual computer type who hated eating. And she always did this big breakfast that she thought he should have because that was what being a good wife was, and he felt [?] he found it hard to eat it and he didn’t like it and he said well couldn’t sometimes we have another breakfast? No, because this is the breakfast you should have.

And often we meditate that way, like this is the meditation I should be having, or this is the emotion I should be having right now. But you know, what really is happening right now is always kinder and more interesting than what I should be having. And that’s koanville, really. It’s like koanville is not anything special is added. Mainly it’s stuff that we’re not adding. And so people talk about great, crashing enlightenment experiences and things like that. Well, you know, some people have them, but really what it is, is if you just look at any moment of life, if you’re just here, show up for any moment of life and you stop making it small and putting the bumper sticker on it and stop explaining it to yourself, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And as far as I can tell there’s no end to it.

You can call it enlightenment if you want, but really that’s another bumper sticker. Because you can feel it coming through you. It’s like the sound of the night up there and the tree frogs, I can hear them again. Or just the sight of people’s faces. There’s a beauty that’s almost hard to endure in any moment. And okay, we’ll endure that. We’ll endure that as unendurable. So all that comes out of the darkness, the darkness is the mysterious source. Lao Tzu called it the valley spirit. She never dies. Comes out of that. Doesn’t come out of our heroic achievements so much in that way.

So I don’t know, I should… let me stop there and let’s do, how are you doing with all this? How are you doing with darkness, light, tree frogs, I don’t know, what are you into? How’s it going? What questions do you have? What do you love and what are you drawn to? You know we have no choice in life about what touches us, so we have no choice in life about which part of the koan touches you, so trust that. You have no choice about which emotion you’re feeling, so trust that. And so on, so. The reason we like people, us, to talk about it is we can see, they’re the bright pieces, the bright gates. Everything everyone says is that, is the bright fragments of what Lin-ji called the solitary brightness that fills everything. So whatever you’re experiencing is worth speaking, because it changes as you speak, and it creates somehow a mysterious connection between you and the world and between all of us, so… Potted[?] theory of conversation right there, but what are you noticing? Yeah?

S: So in the line that says something about it’s familiar but not recognizable, so I found a lot of comfort in it being familiar, and it allowed me to really drop into the heart and let go of the cognizing about it and thinking I knew anything about it. And it felt really important, because it felt like the eye of the hurricane, but I also wonder if I’m holding onto it to protect myself from other things, from too much of the unknown perhaps. So it’s like it’s important that it’s familiar and known and it feels like ground, but at the same time I don’t know if there’s a holding onto it, because I’m making it important. But on the other hand it feels like that is ground and feels like that is the only thing I can know.

John: Well you know when you’re… it’s a little bit like, you know how… we were driving in the dark in New South Wales a couple of years ago, and this big wombat ran out in the road and said: I think I’ll go over this side; no no, I don’t like that, I think I’ll go to that side. Well I think maybe back this side. Make up your mind [laughter]. So it’s a natural mammalian thing to fetch about like that. Love that, and then it’ll free… Who knows whether you’re indulging in familiarity or avoiding? Who cares? [laughter, John claps] And when the question rises up, go into the question. The question is interesting. The thing I love that Yunmen, one of the great old teachers said, somebody said: I’m reaching for the light, please help me. And he said: Forget about the light! Give me the reaching. In other words it’s already happening and we’re reaching past it. You gave a beautiful example of the koan in a way. Do you get it? And so if we can love even our question I don’t know if I’m doing it right… Who cares? How could you do it wrong?

S: It just points to me how core that is in my whole psyche as being critically important.

John: I blame Darwin [laughter]. Mammals do that, right? Am I doing it right? Maybe I’ll get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger is I do it that way. And so we have to I think just love our, even our silliness. And there’s nothing silly about anything you’ve said, because they’re they navigational questions everybody asks. And deep in your own heart, we get better at, I think I’ll move this way and see what it’s like, and I don’t know, maybe I went too far that way, but it was kind of nice. Then it started to hurt and now I’ll try this side of the road. Does that? Yeah. So you can see the thing is that it’s for you. Even the question of how should I do it is for me. And it’s not like you shouldn’t ask it. I’m glad you asked it, because it’s rather fun and I discover all those ways I do it. What’s wrong with that?

S: Today I was getting very annoyed at it’s saying don’t be surprised.

John: I’ll be surprised if I want to be surprised. Cut it out!

S: Because like thinking about encountering my young violin students or my friend… it’s the parts that I don’t know that I haven’t experienced, especially with growing kids this is very interesting, but also getting to know somebody more intimately. It’s the parts that I didn’t see before that make the relationship come alive, so I still get annoyed at saying don’t be surprised.

John: Are you saying I’ll be surprised if I want to be surprised, is that what you’re saying?

S: Well it’s just that yes, it’s that something new, something I didn’t see before, and…

John: Yeah, I like that.

S: Sometimes it is a surprise. Sometimes my mind is blown when they make this leap or something.

John: If you have a relationship with the koan, it’s perfectly fine to argue with it and say go to hell on this part of it, because it’s your koan. It’s your relationship. And my relationship with that part of the koan, it’s saying oh, whatever is going on with me right now, it’s fine. That’s what I get from it, but you know, I’m usually wrong.

S: That’s fine, right?

John: But I try to have compassion. So you see, it’s so vast, life. And how could we not be surprised? So what are we going to do with something like that? It’s interesting, it sort of opens something up. Think well, what if – think of the most difficult thing in your life. Try it. If you can do it without screaming. Oh go ahead, scream. And what if you’re doing it right? What if you’re not doing it wrong? What if in other words this is for you? What if you have some heart with that? Right? You know about this. It’s kind of – difficulty can become voluptuous. The constraint can become something precious. You just have to get through breakfast. It’s already a hard day and it’s only seven o’clock in the morning. Do you want to fight with the koan some more? Go ahead.

S: I feel like it’s something I need to practice doing.

John: Fighting with koans?

S: Yeah, because I tend to believe them.

John: You tend to wimp out on the relationship, huh?

S: Yeah.

John: Stand up for yourself! [laughter] Yeah well, what is evoked in my… I mean one of the things is this stuff, it’s about blossoming and transformation. It’s not about b

eing correct. So what has the life, what blossoms? This blossoms in you. I like being surprised by people. That’s one reason I teach Zen.

S: I really wasn’t focusing on this during the meditation, but I think I like the koan more now because I realize how visual it is. And I saw blood moon a few nights ago and that all was a part of the meditation too, but it seems like the darkness and moon are so congenial, and although the moon hasn’t risen yet, we know it’s about to rise, or it might rise, and so you have a koan that encompasses all that, and I think that’s kind of a wonderful feeling to have. On the other hand I think earlier you were talking about maybe you shouldn’t try too hard, so that came out in the meditation, and then I just gradually drifted off into the afternoon meditation, so I have to be careful about taking those things too literally. But I felt I was being –

John: Or not.

S: Yeah. But I was being kind to myself as a kind of experiment and it actually paid off, so…

John: That’s what I’m trying to encourage when I say mainly people are on themselves more than they need to be, because they’re not trusting the universe to do anything, right? I’m not worrying about life, what will happen. So it’s not like… you’ll have a natural discipline, because we like to feed our kids, whatever it is – I like to cook. And so it’s not like we won’t know to do those things. But when we’re always like barking at ourselves, in a way it’s a sales job on ourselves. It’s a sort of a hustle and I don’t think we need to do it. I mean that’s fine but it’s nothing to do with meditation. Because the naturalness of the mind is this free thing. And it’s naturally kind of, it doesn’t get stuck to things as much as when we start criticizing ourselves. We’re always working off some criteria, and it just doesn’t have any criteria is the problem. So but that’s the whole problem about poisons and antidotes and things. I’ll walk around being loving and kind, you know [laughter].

Well you know, empathy’s a different thing. When your mind-heart opens, it’s not a discipline to be loving. It’s like you can’t help it. It’s none of your business, it’s nothing to do with you really. And that’s that thing where you hear the tree frogs and it’s just tree frog. You look at somebody’s face and you’re them. Yeah?

S: It feels like as I’ve been sitting with this, it feels like it points to awareness, and so I was noticing for myself that like when I’m in something and it’s taken me and that’s the darkness, it’s so hard to get some awareness of it, because I’m identified with it –

John: Can you give me an example?

S: Oh, really?

John: You gave me a great one when I was talking to you recently. It was about running shoes.

S: Running shoes! Oh okay, I can do that [laughter].

John: I learn from things when people tell me stories. You see it’s all about let’s get over we shouldn’t be deluded, because we are. In a certain sense we move through different dreams. The thing is, am I waking up as I’m dreaming? Does that happen? So a little piece of freedom and seeing I’m an idiot is wonderful. Anyway.

S: Yes and it’s a great example because it happens so frequently [laughter] is that my beloved and I were having a thing. And what happens when we have a thing is that I want to run. I want out. I want a divorce. I don’t want to have anything to do with this life anymore, and then I start scheming, how I’m going to get out, what I need to do to get out, can I afford to get out… it’s really extensive, and so I had this moment, like the awareness that I’m talking about rose up and I asked myself, so what are you feeling. And I wanted to run. So I thought well let’s go put on our running shoes and let’s just run and run and run and we won’t stop until we’ve run that feeling out. And then I thought well, what am I running from? And that was another moment that I’d never asked myself before. And it changed everything. So in that moment I noticed I was running from my feelings, what I was actually feeling, and when I could just let myself feel what was there, and I cried, and it was like I was free. I was totally free.

John: And then you realize oh, it was never about the other person anyway. It was all about, all for me. I love that stuff.

S: Yeah and one of the other great [?] for me was recognizing that I could have those feelings and no one’s to blame. And there’s freedom in that for me too. So for me this poem is that, being in that darkness and not being surprised. There’s something I know, but I don’t know it, and just being in the curiosity shop, let something else unfold.

John: Yeah see I think that’s wisdom. Wisdom is not I never feel that. Wisdom is I wonder why I’m putting on my running shoes. And that’s what makes it somehow free and the light gets in and the whole thing is fun instead of being awful. It’s great and then we can tell the story and everybody laughs. Because everybody recognizes that’s the nature of delusion is it’s kind of funny. And it’s also innocent, there’s a kind of innocence.

S: And it’s sweet. I had so much compassion for myself [laughter].

John: Well maybe we’ve done it. What do you think? Thank you very much.