Tung-shan's Fourth Rank

by Ross Bolleter Roshi

Proceeding within the Phenomenon

Two crossed swords, neither permitting retreat, dextrously wielded: Like the lotus in the midst of fire - thus you resolve from your heart to ascend the heavens.

The Five Ranks of Tung-shan are the crown and summit of the koan path. After the student has laboured through hundreds of koans, opening deeply and labouring to find the means to express, convey and refine her realisation, these five peaks become visible through mist and snow. To come to terms with the Five Ranks, she has to cast aside conventional means - the techniques learned thus far - and climb where there are not clear tracks established, make her way up steep faces where there are no hand holds.

And yet the Five Ranks speak to us at all stages of the Path; their power and mystery touch us in the beginning phases of our joy and struggle, as well as illuminating the countryside of mature practice. The style of Tung-shan's verses is lofty but actually borrows the form of a humble folk song popular in the ninth century, much as Bach's Goldberg Variations are variations on two folksongs, one which has a title something like 'I love you, you cabbage'.

Like Dogen, Tung-shan lost his father when he was very young, and he left home early to seek the Way. The story of his dying shows his huge devotion to the Way as well as his wry, even sardonic humour. It's one of the most engaging stories of his life.

So Tung-shan, knowing he was about to die, made preparations. He had his head shaved, bathed himself and put on his robes. He struck the bell and announced his departure to the assembly (giving them fair warning: I'm leaving you now). Sitting solemnly, he began to pass away (teaching his assembly even in extremis). Bassui, as he toppled off his cushion said: 'Look closely, what is this?' Giving his followers a last great opportunity to awaken. Immediately, the large assembly began to wail and lament. This continued for some time without stopping (Tung-shan was much loved, and none of his monks was ready to see him go). The Master suddenly opened his eyes and addressed the assembly, saying: 'For those who have left home, a mind unattached to things is the true practice' (you need to realise that birth and death are also no-birth and no-death. You must transcend ideas of birth and death). People struggle to live and make much of death, but what's the use of lamenting? (But we'll miss you! It's right to mourn; it's right to shed tears). Then he ordered the temple official to make arrangements for a Delusion Banquet (so, let's pay tribute to this foolishness. We'll have a party before I go). However the assembly's feeling of bereavement did not go away (it would take more than a good party to shift their pain of impending loss), so preparations for the banquet were extended over seven days (none of the monks were hurrying to get this show up). The Master joined the assembly in completing the preparations (trying to move the show along so he could get to die, and still giving love and energy to the life of his Sangha, even in his frail condition0. He said: 'You monks have made a great commotion over nothing. When you see me passing away this time, don't make a noisy fuss.' Accordingly, he retired to his room, sat correct and passed away in the tenth year of the Hsien-t'ung era (869). 1

Tung-shan's Fourth Rank in the Cycle of the Phenomenon and the Universal,2 Proceeding within the Phenomenon addresses the time after we have had a true experience of the timeless void where everything disappears and becomes like the vast sky, dazzlingly pure and dark; where there are no impediments, and as Tung-shan puts it in his verse on the Third Rank - 'the road is free of dust'. After that ineffable moment the world comes charging back; we come back, subtly or deeply changed. And at least provisionally, everything separates again. All this has great power for love, for work, for the Way. It's also the realm of 'my back hurts - the dishes are dirty'. It's where we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we feel that whatever we have realised can't light up the darkness and grief of estrangement and divorce, our inability to forgive and the waste and futility of so much of our effort. It's easy to feel that we have never realised anything, and that our life feels worse than it ever did before we started to walk the Way. The promise held out has been withdrawn and we feel stalked by failure. At such a time we want to pull back, to leave. Everything signals a crisis in practice, and in commitment to the Way.

Tung-shan's line: 'Two swords dextrously wielded, neither permitting retreat' - with its sense of tension and struggle and the impossibility of advance or retreat, encourages us to stay put and to open to our pain and confusion right where we are. And when you commit to your Zazen in the midst of your crisis of confidence and your frustration and your rage you're like "the lotus in the midst of fire", Tung-shan's powerful and fruitful image for the transforming power of the Way when we sit ablaze with anger, consumed by envy, embodying the dilemmas of our lives. If you are grieving and full of pain, allow yourself to open gently and gradually to what's there. Some of our pain can be so unknown to us that it takes a long time to become even slightly comfortable with being with it. We should be respectful of how tender we are.

The lotus opens in that blaze: We open in the midst of our troubles and our confusion. There is no perfect environment, and we don't have to be perfect; We work with the life that is mysteriously ours, the particular weave of love and pain - the difficult parent, the sterile relationship, the pain of abandonment. This is perfect ground for growing a lotus. It's when things are not going our way, when we're up against it that the Way opens - between two desperate thoughts: 'Oh, that's it!' - two desperate thoughts are the Way itself, shining.

Lotus in the midst of fire comes from the Vimalakirti Sutra where it referred to aspiration in the midst of desires. Tung-shan broadened the metaphor to mean aspiration in the midst of Samsara 3 - aspiring to enlighten yourself and others amidst the suffering of the world, in the midst or our ragged life with its bright chaos and carnage, vowing to deepen that realisation tirelessly to the extreme. This is resolving in your heart to ascend the heavens 4 and opens the way to practice with its tension to the end of your life and beyond - even if there is no resolution. It's about stickability, about being prepared to be open to difficulty, but this is not to advocate dumb suffering - being at the mercy of whatever is raging. Getting a little distance is helpful, and it's good not to be too entranced by our moods. Simply naming and acknowledging them can help us to not be eaten alive. It's enough to encourage our heart to open to these infernos. Hating what we see and beating ourselves up for the hatred we feel just won't do. The Way isn't about becoming more refined in how we torture ourselves.

A heart free of prejudices and therefore open to truth 5, a heart opened to include our most intractable obnoxious traits, the pigs and fishes aspects of our character. For the author of the I Ching pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of animals, and therefore the most difficult to influence. If you have intimate knowledge of pigs and fish you may not agree with his judgement, but we all have some measure of bloodymindedness, stubborn stupidity, completely irrational cussedness, or fathomless grumpiness, especially in the early morning. The point for the author of the I Ching involved dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, but it is relevant to our dealings with ourselves, with our own backwardness.

In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. 6

And so it is with our difficult traits - good to let go of our prejudices and judgements and allow our twistedness, our evasiveness and our shame to show themselves without restraint. In this way we make contact and are not so ridden by what is unseen, by what is blind sighted. When our dark parts can also speak we have greater vibrancy; we come from a deeper place and there is a power that can be sensed: Our capacity to harm is at home; it's felt in the sardonic joke, it's implicit in the bulk, but it's not turned loose on others.

The character of Fu (truth) is actually the picture of a bird's foot over a fledgeling. It suggests the idea of brooding. An egg is hollow. The light-giving power must work to quicken it from outside but there must be the germ of life within, if life is to be awakened. 7

The life-giving power of brooding - not the hatching of plots - but the hatching of our deepest liveliness, tenderness, our humour and compassion comes out of our vigil, our bearing with our rage and vengefulness. All that - allowed - and in time shot through with birdsong, glinting in the moonlight gives birth to its offspring with its voice coming from a deeper place, its heart open to others. The more we do Zazen, the more we're dunked in the dark waters of the Way, the more we're prepared to go down among the root systems of our fear and depression and to open our eyes in the dark, the more we emerge as our unique self - 'so that's how I am - so that's how I feel!' We know our tender places, and we know how fragile, lovely things are in their bright uniqueness.

Before we enter the Way all things are disconnected. Me and the universe - complete separation. Yasutani Roshi called the kind of thinking that issues with I am in here and you are out there the fundamental delusion of humanity. So in this initial and deluded phase: People are people and mountains are mountains. After you've experienced a little people are mountains and mountains are people. After a time that passes, and people are people and mountains are mountains all over again - is this the same separation as before? The iris is purple, the wattle is yellow; I am Ross, you are Mary. People ask: 'What is Zen all about?' You respond: 'Oh, the sky is blue, the grass is green' and they say: 'Well, any three year old knows that!' But when you truly realise, when you truly taste the Matter, when someone says to you: 'The sky is blue, the flower is pink', you find your eyes fill up with tears. The taste of mountain water is different to the taste of water from the tap.

And it is this realm where everything is alive in its bright individuality, where each unique jewel in the Net of Indra perfectly reflects the infinity of other jewels, that Tung-shan celebrates in the Fourth Rank on the Honour and Virtue side:

Buddhas and ordinary beings have no interchange.
Mountains are high of themselves;
Waters are deep of themselves.
What do the may differences and distinctions reveal?
Where the partridge calls many flowers are blooming.

Each thing pours out its own song without stint; the cicada sings itself to death as the cicada. Each one of us comes into our own - mother, father, labourer, academic, gardener and in our relating and our solitude are fathomlessly, unrepeatably ourselves. A chair, a butterfly, the parrots eating berries in the Cape Lilac - each candid thing sings its individual song. Just when we've picked up our cat and are seeing for the very first time the lovely and intricate markings on her face, the mysterious flecking in her irises, Tung-shan taps us on the shoulder and asks with a smile: 'Well, what do the many differences and distinctions reveal?' - Opening the whole matter up all over again, turning us back into the open space of wonder, demanding that we consign the bright kingdom of this, this, this into mystery once again - calling us into greater depth, calling us to live our realisation more fully, to succumb at deeper and deeper levels. Never enough! Never enough!

Tung-shan's call to bring the shining particulars back into vastness is also Rilke's in his Ninth Duino Elegy:

Perhaps we are here to say: House, bridge, fountain, gate , pitcher, fruit-tree, window - at most: Column, tower ?
But to say them, you must understand,
oh, to say the more intensely than the things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.
Isn't it the secret intent of this taciturn earth,
when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion
all things may shudder with joy?

To say things not only to express them, but to live them, breathe them in such breathtaking intimacy that house and bridge find themselves with toe nails, and an aching heart?

Tung-shan answers his own question about difference and distinction with a profound and mysterious line, Where the partridge calls, many flowers are blooming. I've carried this koan for many years without ever feeling that it's resolved - it just keeps opening up. Where the magpie sings, where the train crashes through, where the aeroplane roars over opening up your heart, nothing blocks, and you die again and again into that flower blooming, buzzing with death and life. And within it: Quarrels and reconciliations, sleepless inchoate journeys - meeting my son as he comes off the plane to start a new life in Sydney loaded up with his bike and his synthesiser and amplifier on a drenching autumn afternoon. Then, standing in lighter rain hugging him as we say our goodbyes with me flying back to Perth, neither of us wanting our time together to end: The embrace of meeting and parting where bridge, tower and harbour gather - the wind blows over the water and what is unfathomable, unsayable starts up as the stumbling almost articulate speech of love.



1. William F. Powell, The Record of Tung-shan, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1989, p.68.

2. Tung-shan's Five Ranks unfolds in two cycles. The first is The Phenomenon and the Universal (Hensho Goi), the second is Honour and Virtue (Kokun Goi).

3. Robert Aitken, The Five Modes of Tung-shan, Mode IV, unpublished monograph p.2.

4. Ibid.

5. Richard Willhelm (Transl.), I Ching, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1988, Hexagram 61, Chung Fu/ Inner Truth. There is a tradition going back to Tung-shan?s disciple Ts'ao-shan of bringing the five hexagrams from the I Ching to bear on the Five Ranks of Tung-shan. I am guided by Yanagida's schemata (see William F. Powell, The Record of Tung-shan, note 181, p.88).

6. I Ching, Hexagram 61

7. I Ching, ibid.

8. Stephen Mitchell (Transl.), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage Books (Random House), New York, 1984, pp199-201.

©Ross Bolleter 1998

No reproduction without the authors permission please.