PZI Teacher Archives

No Rank! – Or the Wild Path of Awakening


So…tonight I want to talk a little bit about the course of the inner work — the dharma work — in terms of this book, the Book of Serenity. And you know, it pretty much is the second case is the one we’re going to mention, about Bodhidharma meets The Emperor Wu.

So…tonight I want to talk a little bit about the course of the inner work —  the dharma work —  in terms of this book, the Book of Serenity. And you know, it pretty much is the second case is the one we’re going to mention, about


Bodhidharma meets The Emperor Wu. And the emperor says, “What is the first principal of the holy teaching?” And Bodhidharma says, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” And the emperor says, “Well, who are you, standing in front of me?” And Bodhidharma says, “I do not know.” 

So this is a different kind of teaching. Then, the emperor …I don’t know…spaces out or something happens… and in that gap of inattention, Bodhidharma just leaves and crosses the great river.

And in the long version of the story, there’s a duke who is one of those wild people who is really enlightened, and he’s the spiritual advisor to the emperor, and he says, “Oh, your majesty, do you know who that was?” And the emperor says, “I don’t know,” which is the second “I don’t know.” And he says, “That was the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, bearing the heart mind seal of the Buddha.” And the emperor wanted to send people to get him back, and the duke said, “It doesn’t matter if you send everybody after him, he wouldn’t return.”

So that’s the nice thing about how your life moves, and it’s done. And that can be good, you know, that might be on your side…might be a good thing. So the emperor has to stumble along getting enlightened with the duke, who is also a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of great compassion. 

So the thing here…there’s a couple of things ….he says, “What’s the first principal of the holy teaching?” And he says vast emptiness, nothing holy.”  Right? So you can’t rely on a rule. So this is the whole core of the advanced practice is that it’s improvisational in that way. There’s not a 5-step process where you might take all the five steps in one. Or your five-step process might take 35 steps.

There are a lot of stories in the Book of Serenity that go in that direction. The one I want to particularly touch on tonight is…I talked about the great master Linji, who kept going to his teacher and asking a question. Then he didn’t go to his teacher and ask a question and so then somebody said, “Well, why didn’t you go? You should go and ask the teacher … I mean use the teacher,” you know? So he said, “OK,” and he asked the teacher, and the teacher hit him. It happened 3 times, and he said, “I don’t know. I don’t think my karma belongs here.” But anyway, out of the process he became deeply enlightened and became a great teacher. 

Linji Yixuan

So, here’s what he’s like when he becomes a great teacher himself, and he taught the gathering: “There is a true person with no rank who is always coming and going through the portals of your face.”

When there’s a “true person with no rank,” that sounds ok, but then it starts to get weird when it says, “it’s coming and going through the portals of your face.” You can also say, “A true person of no fixed position,” so it’s in the direct line of what Bodhidharma said quite a few centuries before — about 300 years before —  which was the Indian dharma at the time, the high tantra of India.

So there’s “a true person with no rank, who is always coming and going through the portals of your face.” So in Zen there’s a whole bunch of these little stories like this that are used for different purpose, as I’ve mentioned.  So this —   “the true person with no rank,” the true woman with no rank, the true man with no rank — is used as a kind of gate-opening koan. If you start hanging around with it, it will change you from within, is the idea, and the thing with a great koan like this is that we always think there must be a right way to do it, but there’s no first principal and it’s got no rank, so maybe there’s not. And so you just do the best you can, which is yours…so the practice is for you.

There’s another koan that says, “It’s only for your benefit, honored one.” It’s not for somebody else’s. And then that will benefit everyone.

So in our school, we use various koans, which we give somebody when they seem really sincere, and they really want to go deep. If you want to find out who you really are…like what is it all about and, you know, not be afraid really, of death or anything else … and to see the light that’s shining in your [word?], then this would be a good koan to choose: “There’s a true person with no rank.” 

And actually one of my friends, some years ago, I gave this koan to, and he said, “I don’t get it.” I said, “Good, good.” When you’re stuck, get more stuck. That’s always good. So we had a deal where he would come in every week and visit me, and I’d ask him questions about “the true person with no rank,” and he’d say he didn’t know. So it seemed like a good arrangement, you know… and I kind of like him so it was sort of nice. So it was very hard to have a long interview under those conditions….probably hard on him, but it felt good…  it felt a true thing. So I’d come in for the interview and he would come in for the interview, and there wasn’t much to talk about really except, ”I don’t have anything to say about the koan.” “Good, good.”

And so there’s a kind of sacred quality to that process because you know you’ve put yourself on the path of the dharma, and so in a way you’re in the vessel, and something’s transforming, and the light and the heat and the intensity is happening, but you don’t really know about it yet in I some way. You don’t know it consciously. And in his case, one day he came in, and he smiled, and for the first time he didn’t wait for me to ask him.  He said, “Well, I still don’t know anything about the koan, but I can tell it’s working.” And I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Well, I’m making friends.”

So I said, “Oh good …that sounds good.” [ 10:25 missing words ]

And you become more visible to the world.


And for myself, when I was working on my first koan, you know people have different responses to this, and you know, it’s a process in which you go in, and the teacher looks at you or, in my case, my teacher looked at me, and I’d say, “I don’t know,” and the teacher would like sit there for a minute and then ring a bell, and then I’d leave. And I didn’t think I was going to suddenly guess what the teacher wanted or that there was a right answer to the koan in the room, but I thought it kept me honest, it put me in the process, so I didn’t feel bad about it at all. I felt encouraged, actually. That seemed good.

I knew that I didn’t know, so it wasn’t a shock to me that the teacher would say, “You don’t get it.” Yeah, I knew that, that’s why I’m here. And I realized that the kind of processes I was used to where you added things up and took a few other things away,

I wasn’t in one of those processes. It was too nonlinear for that and in fact, it was taking me into the dark, into the territory I didn’t know, and most of the time I felt OK about  that. I could tell something was happening… like the making friends thing. It was more like my mind was gradually purifying, and it wasn’t quite as all over the place. It was pretty all over the place, but it wasn’t quite as all over the place.

And also my body got more relaxed because I was in a lot of pain when I first did retreats. I was in a tremendous amount of pain physically, and it was really my mind that was very tight and so I put it all into the body. I would think, ah you know… I’ll just leave this whole retreat, but I’ll wait ‘til the next bell so I’ll walk out properly. And then we’d get up and walk for walking meditation, and I’d think, well, maybe one more period, and then I’ll leave. And so I got through weeks like that. 

And I could tell my dreams changed. I had a dream that Avalokiteshvara — Kanzeon  (the Japanese form) — the Bodhisattva who hears the sounds of the world…the Japanese and Chinese form of that…

I was sleeping on a porch, and it was summer, and the window was open, and it started to rain, and it rained through the window onto me, just very soft rain — a [13:42 a blessing?] kind of rain — and I heard singing. I heard Kanzeon singing. And the constellation of Orion was visible —  at least in my dream — through the window, which it was at that time. And Orion was really Kanzeon, and the singing was coming from the depths of the universe. Orion was just a small expression of the vastness of the [14:13 deity?] of compassion and I thought well, as far as dreams go, it could be worse. 

Things like that were encouraging, and my mind seemed to simplify, and I wasn’t always thinking about whether I was doing things right. And I began to realize in some ways that you know, you can’t really do it wrong in the practice.  And it’s a profound thing. If you can’t do it wrong, you don’t have to worry so much. All we have to do is hang out with a great koan. And then you think, oh God, what will I do? Oh I know: true person, no rank. And then… what will I do now? Oh, true person, no rank. And then you start thinking, well what is a true…true person, no rank. And then…I don’t mind doing this but…true person, no rank. And gradually — and it’s not quite like a mantra because there’s a sense of inquiry and wonder – but you can trust the goodness of the practice and in fact, the goodness of your own fate, your life, your karma, however you want to say that, because you know you wouldn’t be here otherwise, if it didn’t belong to you.

And no matter how crazy you feel sometimes… well good… be more lost.

The more lost you are, the less your rigid ideas about who you are, the less you have in a way…they start falling away. And so I think that’s a part of the profound process, and when Bodhidharma said, “I do not know,” it was also that he meant, “I’m operating in that darkness.” It’s not a trivial, “I don’t know.” It’s that the not-knowing is on my side. It’s on our side. 

And you’re moving around in that without having to reduce the vastness of the world to my small plan…whatever my small plan is: I’ll make some money on the stock exchange, or I’ll get a better job or I’ll lose weight – or whatever it is — all good things, but not to do with the vastness. So you start to trust that the fact you don’t know where you’re going is a good thing. Because all the places you know where you’re going…no, they’re not it…  and that’s why when the teacher said, “Yeah! That’s right.” I’d think, oh God, I need a new teacher. It’s so convenient having this one, I live here…that sort of thing.

And so I had traveled all the way across the Pacific Ocean to see a teacher, and the teacher eventually arrived…wasn’t there when I arrived but then came in.

And I went in to have an interview with the teacher, and I said my name and that I had started to work on one of the fundamental koans, and he just said, “Any questions?” I said “No,” and left. So it was like that. I didn’t wait for him to hit me.

So in a way I was already in the not-knowing.  And I could come and there were kind of cool things…. he was an interesting guy and interesting people hung around with him and occasionally I felt a pang about not being invited to dinner like the famous poets and people who were hanging around the zendo, but really I didn’t come for that. I’d had that already in my life and I wanted this other thing. I wasn’t against being invited to dinner, but I knew it wouldn’t help me on that path. So then gradually things purified like that.

And so then I found his questioning attitude was helpful because somehow that preserved the container because if you’re still asking me, and I’m still saying, “I don’t know,” neither of us had given up.  That was positive. And giving up wasn’t my question really, although I thought maybe I wouldn’t get there. I’d be like the guy who was asked another great koan like this: “What was your original face before your parents were born?” and he couldn’t find it anywhere. And he demanded his teacher tell him, and his teacher refused, so he went off and became a gardener. That story meant a lot to me, and I thought well, I can just stay here and be a gardener. I can be the gardener in the temple. That would be all right. Gardens are good.

So I guess I’m talking about the terrain….It’s not so much we move through the terrain, the terrain moves over us and through us…and so it’s like that. A great koan like “a true person with no rank” …So wherever you are, if you’re walking in the forest… true person, no rank, true woman, true man, no rank. There’s no gender in the original, just true person…the true one with no rank.

And so …and then it becomes this marvelous thing, and then you start to know that you don’t really get it, but you kind of get it, you know. And you can’t say anything about it, and then you notice this shift and you think, God, I’ve got it! And I remember running in to see my teacher and saying “I think I got it.” And he said,” Well, what is it?” And I….. “Never mind.”

One of the old Chinese teachers describing this said, “There’s a stage in which you know it for yourself alone.” You can’t express it, but you can feel you’re full of it. You notice that deep in retreat, you can feel yourself to be full. Some things get transparent. Things you wanted to do….whatever it is —  [20:35 kick?] people off, charm them and get them to come closer — whatever your shtick is. A, there’s nothing wrong with that and B, you don’t need to do it.  And you don’t need to apologize for yourself or…you’re here and you have every right. The true person with no rank is here on this earth, in the midst of the stars and the forests. And it’s a wonderful thing, and you can feel that… and also you feel how transparent you get and then suddenly…you know…then you’ve got some crazy obsession comes up and then you realize, well so what…true person, no rank.. so then you start to include… not make it wrong. [ 21:13 missing words] And I think that’s a really important thing.

And that happened for me. Because coming out of martial arts I thought, well I can just have these deep concentration states, and I’ll just stay in them until I get enlightened. 

And how’s that going John? It’s kind of something to do, I guess…like gardening…and it sort of kept me engaged in the vessel. And then I noticed that even when…my mind would like show me things. It would go nuts. I’d be in a deep concentration state and suddenly all these random thoughts would come in that didn’t even seem to belong to me and it was almost like the practice was showing me: oh, don’t take this stuff so seriously. Stay in your good states of mind. They’re just good states of mind, right? What’s that got to do with a true person of no rank? 

So that’s the thing. And you don’t need to be self-conscious about what you know and don’t know because a true person of no rank is before that. So it doesn’t matter…like..

your teacher’s opinion of you truly, deeply does not matter, and it’s probably not going to matter to your teacher….it  profoundly doesn’t matter to me. Ask me if I care.

And then you’ll notice that it doesn’t matter to you because there’s a shining nature that you have that’s before that and greater than anything [ 22:51 missing word  ] you can limit it like that.

How Linji works with it is kind of funny…true story…This is how Linji worked with people…The great master…as I said…every silk scroll that comes down to you if you’re going to carry the dharma in that way ..you’ll have Linji Yixuan’s name on it in Chinese. So you know, he’s sort of profoundly important in our school. Funny thing where he says, “So there’s a true person of no rank who’s always coming and going through the portals of your face. Those of you who are beginning and have still not seen this… Look! Look!” 

So some student with a great spirit steps forward and asks… (there were probably several hundred people in the hall)…”What is the true person of no rank?” He just asked the question. Great. And Linji comes down from the teacher’s seat which was on the dias…he climbs down, and he grabs the person and holds him and looks him in the eye, and the person doesn’t know what to do. And Linji says, “The true person of no rank is a dried piece of shit.” And he turns and walks away. It’s not an insult. But it says how serious the whole thing becomes because even the shit, even the stuff where you’re caught and you judge yourself, it’s there too. Like when he freezes…or you’re afraid…it’s there too.

And so then I want to read you how….Hundreds of years later. The true person of no rank..

There a great story about Yu  Daopo was a native of [place] during the Song dynasty — 

A whole dynasty later– And she sold fried food and made donuts for a living.

She often went with a group of people to study chan with Langya, a Linji line teacher.

Langya taught her Linji’s “person of no rank.” So she’s walking around:

“Friend donuts anyone?… true person of no rank… pancakes? True person of no rank.” She’s got a tray. Then one day she heard a beggar chanting “happiness in the lotus land”singing, “If you haven’t heard the song, how do you know the way home?”

And this struck her, and she had this great awakening, and she was carrying this food tray, and she threw it to the ground, and her husband said, “Have you gone crazy?”

And she slapped him and said, “this is not in your territory.” And she ran off to see Langya, and he could see even from a distance something marvelous had happened to her. He could see, oh she’s walked through the gate.

And she’s full of joy and dancing … but she kept coming to the temple like this, and one day Langya asked, “Is any of you the true person with no rank?” And she shouted, and she said, “There’s a true person with no rank who has six arms and  three heads. The arms are all working, and when she cuts through the mountain, she cuts the mountain in two. Her strength is like the ever-flowing water which does not care about the coming of spring.”

And it just pours forth and pours forth. The world does that. The universe does that. It pours forth, and so you can see the true person, no rank it’s in you but you’re also in the forest and in the stream and things like that.

There’s another famous thing from [27:57 name], one of the teachers in Linji’s line before Linji, who said, “The mountains rivers and the great earth, the sun, moon and stars are no other than your own heart mind.”

So, true person of no rank, coming and going through the portals of your face. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, like the heart sutra says, you know?

Anyway, Yu was this lively character, and she became famous… a famous zen master, and whenever she saw a student coming, she’d call him “son”: “Hello son, how’s the dharma going? Do you understand the true person of no rank yet?”

Then a famous chan master — zen master, [28:58 name ]  — went to investigate her degree of enlightenment, and she greeted him the same way: “Hello, sonny.” She wasn’t very impressed by fame. And he asked, “Where’s my father?” (his dead father), and she turns and bows to a pillar and [name] kicked it over and said, “I thought you had something unusual to offer.”  And as he began to leave, Yu shouted out,   “Son, come back here. Let me cuddle you.” However he did not turn back.

And once when a student came to visit her, she asked where did you come from?

And he said, “I’ve been at Deshan’s place.” And she said,” Ah, Deshan is my child, my son.” And the student asked, “Well whose son are you?” And she said, “Your question really makes me want to pee on you.”

So she got that whole way of expression from Linji…like 300years before…200 years before. You need to stick around and study with me. So you can tell there was a certain vigorous, kind of surprising quality to the style… very earthy. But you can tell it was in the service of just opening people up. So, Yu is one of the heroines… she makes food for us. 

And you know the “coming and going through the gates of your face,” Linji said sayings like this quite often actually, and it was like…where are we here…another time he talked about this…oh well…can’t find it doesn’t matter….

He said, “mind is always coming and going and mind is also the floor, the people, the trees, the stars, the heart mind…none other than your own heart mind”… so you’re not so limited to the thing you’re always worried about. It’s not so scary to die because who’s dying? And you don’t have to be so anxious about how well you’re going to perform because who’s performing? Ask the redwood tree to perform for you. Or ask the koan to answer the koan. And so when you start playing with it, you realize a great koan like this…a great saying like this… will start to carry you so you walk around thinking I’ve got to repeat this oh god I forgot… for the whole day I forgot. Or I’m in retreat, and I’ve forgotten retreat. I’m back in a fantasy world. I’m having this great fantasy. Wait, I’m in meditation hall and I haven’t noticed for a day!

Because you know dreams get you and you realize oh, the waking life is a bardo too. And that’s allright. In a way you start seeing through it and how it’s kind of fun…like you can tell, the donut maker, she was having fun with that: “Hey son come here. You’re my son.” And Linji was actually trying to shock that person awake. He holds him and looks at him. But then the saying comes out and you realize oh, even things we think are crap, or the things we think we would reject, it’s all right. Even before that, the true person of no rank was here.

So that’s how it goes out and then in our tradition when you start to open up like that, the idea is: in a way you’ve walked through a gate, but you haven’t really explored the garden or anything like that. That’s why some people stay around many many years in a community getting deeper and deeper…seeing…what’s it like and it’s a profound and beautiful process and that’s why we have a community and care about our communities. You can take it all the way

But some people don’t. Some people have a big awakening experience and you just never see them again. Every now and again, I hear from them. It’s kind of sweet, “Oh I remember you.”

So yeah…so…a true person with no rank. I don’t think I have anything else to say about that.

So, the idea is in the kind of questions that I was asked when I was a student…I found them to be helpful. So then when you start to go through the gate, the teacher might ask you questions like, “Show me the true person of no rank.” “What does the true person of no rank look like upside down?” The teacher’s having fun, but in a way you realize oh, you’re being helped by the ancestors.  

The ancestors have given us these stories and the koans. And in a way they’ve reached out through time and space and touched us. And then you realize oh, I am the ancestor, and you can feel that in your dreams …and things like that. And you notice you start getting dreams about ancestors. And you have affinities with certain ancestors not with others. Some ancestors never bother appearing in my dreams, and others do. That’s how it should be. This is all to say you know, you’re in a deep process, and you don’t have to understand it and encompass it all because it’s all in the darkness…there’s much more than in a small circle of light… if you can imagine.

And so all the wisdom that has ever been in the tradition in the thousands of years of it, starts to come to you, and it doesn’t have to take forever. At the same time, it’s a beautiful thing so it’s worth paying attention to and spending time on.  Love your own life, love the process.

Q & A:

Q:  I was thinking that this koan reminds me of what we were doing this afternoon. Because there’s was a way of being with each other and being with each person that felt entirely sort of level and fluid and no ideas about anyone, And yet every one is sort of shining thru in a kind of beautiful essence it was amazing how much you could pick up from just a tiny touch or contact or something like that, but it was completely outside of whatever ideas I might even have about my own body or myself it just transcended that feeling it was kind of a nice way of holding it, I guess.

John: Yeah. Just to anybody who wasn’t there. Denise Fujiwara lead us in a dance improvisation which was a contact one where you kept part of your body in touch with the other person. And somebody leads and then somebody else leads. A very simple thing. And I noticed that too I noticed that I didn’t know who was me and who was the other person so that’s it coming and going thru the portals of my face. And you notice oh, we start to have these kind experiences in small ways a lot And then we go back to being worried about something and so in a way the koan stops you doing that and then  you start seeing…the vastness starts to overwhelm you and you can’t lie to yourself any more or pretend it not there and not supporting you

Q: I feel like I came into this  retreat as a fake person with a rank….

[NOTE: Very long question and not easy to hear all of it.]

Forgetting things and I talked to Vincent who was sitting out under the tree waiting to see you or he had just seen you

“What did you discover while you’ve been here?”

And he said these koans, they’re really interesting. I said, “Well did you get one?” He said, “Yes, a person of no rank.” And so he’s been traveling . And I just remember it was the first koan that spoke to me and it was….

It just grabbed me and went home with me and when I heard Vincent talk about it. That’s the koan I need to be becoming friends with again. Because I’ve been relentlless ranking myself for failing here and there and everywhere…David Longerbeam was asking….And there was no rank….

John: What happens is we start to see something …there are all these karmic things we haven’t worked through. And so we get this chance to work them through and it’s allright. In a way maybe they look like [  43:40    ]

John: So Linji was known for shouting. Sometimes he would say things like, “dried piece of crap,” but in a way, people  in monasteries because everybody’s always trying to be pure so they talk about shit because they’re trying to balance things out. You notice that in all the traditions. But Linji shouted so we still have that tradition. Known for his shout. As the universe is just hearing. Just when you hear a bell, the universe is speaking to you. 

Q I just passed through the part in the Bodhidharma koan where he forgets who he is and he forgets that he’s a [murderer?] and an emperor.

John: It’s hard to get to be an emperor, and you’ve probably done things you’d rather not think about. And then you have to work with that. You have to forgive your own life. And we all have to do that. Things that were done to us, things that we did because of the things that were done to us….or whatever it is. And that’s kind of beautiful really.  A person of no rank just stands here, free, like a tree.

Q: You said this life is a bardo… sometimes…it made me feel that there’s kind of a sameness of looking whether awake or in a dream…it’s kind of not-knowing what we’re looking for how would you recognize it  so…there’s just a feeling of sameness of attention whether you’re awake or asleep, in any condition. A kind of attention that’s open to what you couldn’t anticipate, a kind of attention that would go to something that it wasn’t looking for…. like in a dream. In a dream I’m not there on purpose…

John: There’s an involuntary quality because the person who thinks he does things isn’t the person who’s walking up, and the person who thinks he does things is doing the things he usually does. And he’s trying to wake up with his usual strategies, or she is,  and that’s fine. There’s something sweet about that. We’re clueless until were not. And then we don’t mind whether were clueless or not. What’s wrong with being clueless? You’ve got Buddha nature.

And then you think, but I’m weird, and you think well, bring me someone who’s not weird. It’s like bring me something that’s not medicine. Bring me somebody who doesn’t enlighten people. And that’s another related koan: whoever it is…Manjushri, or somebody, goes off and searches the world and comes back and says, “I can’t find anything that isn’t medicine.” Kind of sweet. Nothing that isn’t the jewel.

Thank you Bodhisattvas. Just to say, we’re deep, deep in a great sesshin . Your mind sometimes will offer you things. Be respectful. Stay close to your koan, and things will unfold and come to you. Just let that be. Whatever comes, trust that. It’s allright. It’s your journey. It’s for you. So we have to —  in a way —  trust our karma. As we just mentioned.