* TUNG SHAN'S FIVE RANKS (The go-i of Soto Shu & Rinzai Shu)


I’ve been studying the Go-i, or “Five Ranks” developed by master Tung Shan Liang Chieh. I shall continue with this study so this may not be the final version of this paper, but I am sharing it for the benefit of those who may be interested. To me this work is an important contribution to seeing the fundamental unity of Mahayana that transcends the various schools.

Master Tung Shan is notable for two particular teachings, one being the poem Jewel Mirror Samadhi and the other being various writings about the Five Ranks. The Five Ranks idea has then been further developed by his disciples.

There is a great deal written about this doctrine and a goodly bit of it is available on the internet. If you delve into it you will read a great deal about “universality” and “particularity” and other abstract concepts and how they are combined and separated. If you are anything like me, then after a while you start to feel that you have read a vast number of words but very little has actually been said. It is abstruse, abstract and ontological in ways that can soon leave you asking, So what? What is it all about? These teachings lie at the origin of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism particularly but are also important in Rinzai Shu. They have clearly been inspiring to many people, yet in their contemporary presentation seem as dry as dust.

Well, after much digging and reflecting this is where I have got to. I am not a Chinese language scholar so I may be entirely wrong, but my sense is that this teaching does not reflect anything uniquely "Zen" nor is it a statement about ontology, nor about abstract, remote philosophical concepts. Rather it is a poetic way of asserting basic general Mahayana principles.

We can start with a line in the Jewel Mirror Samadhi. It is because I am making a study of the poem that I got detoured into sorting out what the five ranks are all about.

Line nineteen of the text 疊而為三變盡成五 could be translated “Three permutations, though exhaustively five.” There is clearly here a reference to the traditional manner in which yarrow stalks were used to cast hexagrams in the use of the I Ching divinatory classic, but I think it is probably a red herring to go chasing after a meaning for JMS hidden in the I Ching. Tung Shan is using the allusion to anchor his argument in something already respectably established in Chinese culture.

Scholars are agreed that the “five” here refers to the five ranks and it seems to me that this line betrays the fact that what was special for Tung Shan was that he was proposing something that went beyond “three”, so what are the three?

The key terms here are shih and li. These are the words that some translators take to mean “particularity” and “universality” respectively, or, in other cases “form” and “void” or “relative” and “absolute” and so on. It seems to me that some liberty is being taken with the language here in order to fit into prior metaphysical commitments of the interpreters. Li referred originally the the correct performance of rites and implies the hidden, secret grain in things. Shih means events, the things that happen in the world, up-front, consciously contrived. It seems to me, therefore, that if we do want to choose general nouns to typify the distinction that is being made here, the best we can probably do in English is “the mundane” (shih) and “the holy” or “sacred” (li).

The Hua Yen school, based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, developed a fourfold schema as follows:
1. a world of shih
2. a world of li
3. interpenetration of shih and li
4. complete oneness of shih and li

I think you can see that 3 and 4 are hardly different so that really there are three options here. These three do outline the progress of a spiritual practitioner. First stage is worldliness with occasional hints of the possibility of something more. The second stage is to turn toward holiness. The third stage is to integrate the two. This, I think, is Tung Shan’s three permutations: 1. just shih, 2. just li, 3. shih and li together.

So he is saying that you can go beyond this. That beyond these three there are two more, so really five altogether.  This is the Mahayna critique of conventional religion and of what it calls "hinayana" in Buddhism. the three delineate hinayana - overcome faults and present oneself as a holy being.

His two additional positions are built upon the fact that, generally speaking, shih and li together is taken to indicate a path. The religious life is to bring the holy into the mundane world or to raise the mundane world toward the holy. This implies a “vertical” distinction and a gap that one is intent upon closing. Religions then advance a wide variety of methodologies - prayer, meditation, mantras, ceremonies, precepts, and so on, to this end and individuals start to believe that they have got it now that they have a formula by which to live their life which they tacitly think of as a kind of contact with God - if I do as I'm told He will do his bit and save me. All fair enough up to a point and a practical description of real religious life.

However, Tung Shan then points out that there is a liberation that is beyond having a path. Actually, this liberation-beyond-path is the real nature of faith (i.e. other power rather than self power). The person of real faith does not live by a do-it-youself formula, however good. He or she trusts in an other power to provide guidance beyond what his or her wit could contrive. Within this pathless condition Tung Shan discerns two modes, which thus brings the three up to five.

One mode is that of standing in awe. This actually is the position of the true shravaka. The word shravaka means a listener or hearer. It is often translated as “disciple”. The sravaka is a person of simple faith whose central concern is to pay attention to the Buddhas – to thusness, in the terminology of Tung Shan. The Buddhas and the ancestors are intimately and secretly transmitting thusness throughout time and space. The first line of JMS says so: 如是之法佛祖密付 "By Buddhas and ancestors the Dharma of thusness is secretly transmitted."

The second mode of pathlessness is that of the bodhisattva who is also acutely attentive to thusness but rather than being a passive receiver, is an activist. Bodhi signifies awareness of thusness. Sattva implies courage or strong character – one who has the courage of the vision.

So Tung Shan's extra two are actually the passive and active faces of faith. This makes his teaching not a new departure creating a different sectarian tendency – which is what has generally been made of it – but rather a reaffirmation of Mahayana fundamentals that are just as consistent with Pureland and with the “philosophical” schools, such as Hua Yen, as with Zen , even though there is the seemingly inevitable tendency to render the whole thing into abstruse ontologies that would have been ridiculed by Shakyamuni.

This also gives us a sense of how wisdom and faith are a single entity in Buddhism, one being the intuitive knowledge and the other being the courage to carry it into the world. Of course, this is circular because it is the wisdom that gives faith its courage and faith that gives wisdom its willingness to heed. These - prajna and shraddha - therefore, are simply two sides of a coin.

There is a set of traditional diagrams associated with the Five Ranks which you can see in the left but one column of the picture. In the first, the dark overwhelms the light. In the second the light overwhelms the dark. In the third, the dark has been safely surrounded. These are the three and for many people, number three is the goal of religion. However, four and five give other possibilities - the obvious one's really. In four, there is no dark because attention is completely taken by the Dharma Light, the Light of all the Buddhas. In the final, however, the quintessence, there is total darkness (see In the Dark). This is the dark side of the mirror. This is what is most difficult to grasp (actually defies grasping completely) because, as Tung Shan suggests, it goes well beyond the ordinary idea of religion.

Don Shan's Verses on the Five Ranks

(my translation from Chinese)

1. Pride before a fall

In the third watch, at the beginning of night, when the moon's brightness is still ahead,

it is not surprising if one meets but does not recognise

the old taint hidden so deep in the heart.


三更初夜 月明前

莫怪相逢 不相識

隱隱猶懷 舊日嫌


Night refers to samsara, the time of darkness. The moon refers to the Dharma appearing in the world. Before one has found the Dharma it is not remarkable that one fails to understand. In particular, one fails to see one's own fault and responsibility. One feels sure of oneself in a limited way. One meets evidence of one's hidden nature but does not recognise it. At this stage we believe that reality will bow to us. There is nothing we cannot have or accomplish and if we do not get it then it is somebody else's fault.

2. Bowing before righteousness.

The wrinkled old woman finds an ancient mirror.

There, shining, is her face, different from the unreal (i.e. from what she imagined).

She is stopped in her tracks, startled, yet she recognises the image.


失曉老婆 逢古鏡

分明覿面 別無真

休更迷頭 猶認影


The wrinkled old woman represents the experienced person who has lost some of the arrogance of youth. Finding a mirror means to find the Dharma or, in other words, to see oneself reflected. This is a shock. To face up to how we really are, more experienced but less beautiful then we thought, stops us in our tracks. At this stage the person bows to reality. This is the position of stream entry.

3. To arrive all proper and correct

Away from the centre there is a road free from dust,

simply avoid and don't look at whatever is currently taboo,

cut off your sharp tongue and advance to victory.


無中有路 隔塵埃

但能不觸 當今諱

也勝前朝 斷舌才


Chastened by the experience of seeing into oneself, one seeks a path. Soon one finds a formula for self-reform. This is the position of conventional religion. The dark part is suppressed and the person conforms to what is deemed correct. This is a matter of knowing right from wrong and obeying the principles. It is moralistic. Adhering to rectitude one believes that one has arrived. From the Mahayana perspective, this is the position of the arhat. However, this is uncentred. In the centre, at this stage, is everything one has repressed.

4. Furthermore, to arrive

To have the two points meet, one must not turn aside.

The expert, as of old, is as the lotus within [a sea of] fire,

self-possessed, steeped in the will of Heaven.


兩刃交鋒 不須避

好手猶如 火裏蓮

宛然自有 沖天志


There is, however, a further step, symbolised by the skill needed to make two points meet. The more truly spiritual person is steeped in the will of Heaven. This means that he or she is like a warrior going into the world. Where the third position is one of keeping apart from the world in order to maintain one's own purity, now it is a matter of going forth into the world, like a lotus in a sea of fire. This is the position of the bodhisattva.

5. And what's more, to really arrive

don't fall into having or not having, who dares [real] peace?

People want to escape from the ceaseless round;

snap out of that, go back, go back and sit in the coals.


不落有無 誰敢和

人人盡欲 出常流

折合還歸 炭裏坐


Yet there is more. Even in the position of the bodhisattva there is a certain inherent arrogance. Who is this one who aspires to save all sentient beings? One must go beyond even the intention to be a spiritual hero. One must sit in the coals of one's own foolish nature.

Dong Shan's Song of the Merit of the Five Ranks


1. Approach

In the beginning the great Dharma Lord Yao

governed by means of propriety and held to the dragon's waist,

passing over the hurly burly of the market place

everywhere was civilised and rejoiced in his virtuous rule.





This verse celebrates a time in the mythical past when things were simple and the legendary Emperor Yao ruled simply by means of his inherent virtue and inner cultivation. The corruption of the market place did not figure and civilisation spread naturally under such benevolent rule. The reference to holding the dragon's waist refers to Taoist inner yoga. Were we to live in such a benign land, there would be no need for spiritual cultivation. Everything would happen rightly of its own accord.

2. Offering

Take off your make up, who is it for?

A child voice calls you back.

Flowers fall, yet the voice is ceaseless.

Go on through the chaos, the deep place is calling.





The person embarking upon a spiritual journey, no longer putting on airs and keeping up appearances, nor pretending to be something artificial, follows a more innocent calling. Even though this means losing all the glitter – the hundred blossoms – and going through the chaos of one's fractured life, still there is this voice always distantly calling, urging one onward. (Some texts refer to the voice as that of a cuckoo. If that is correct, then it is an image of the same old call over and over).

3. Achievement

A dead wood flower unlocks a timeless spring beyond.

Riding the jade elephant backwards, hunting the qilin.

Now high and secluded beyond the thousand peaks.

The moon shines, the breeze is gentle, what a perfect day!





The flowering of dead wood can be taken as reflecting the idea in the Jewel Mirror Samadhi or making the wooden man sing and the stone damsel dance, but it can also be taken as ironic and I think the latter is correct. This, then, is a facetious depiction of the state of the person who has “gone beyond it all”. Dead wood does not flower. Spring is not timeless. The image of that kind of perfection is deceptive. There is here a certain kind of achievement, but the message of Mahayana is that such purity is, at best, only a step on the way. The qilin is a mythical beast that attends a sage. When you have caught the beast, then everybody will know that you are a sage. This is all posing and not the real thing. Riding the jade elephant backwards means that one is using the Dharma the wrong way round. This is like the Buddha's parable of getting hold of the wrong end of the snake. It is also like the parable of the apparitional city in the Lotus Sutra.

4. 共功 Shared Achievement

There is no interpenetration of people and Buddhas.

Mountains rise high. Water lies low.

In all its myriad different forms, humble work shines.

The partridge calls from its dwelling place amidst the fresh flowers.






The partridge is notable for nesting on the ground. This is a sign of humility. This verse is about keeping to one's place. Teacher and disciple make each other successful by each performing their correct roles. One is not Buddha. One calls out to Buddha. When one adopts a lower position in a humble way, one shines This is the position of faith and awe. When we worship Buddha we help Buddha to be Buddha and assist the salvation of all sentient beings. When we try to be Buddha ourselves, we only create conflict and posing. The way to become a Buddha is to let all thought of becoming a Buddha fall away and completely fulfil one's role as the humble partridge calling out from the ground. then we shall be surrounded by fragrant flowers.

5. 功功 ~ Merit of all Merit

When devils' horns appear, you were already unworthy.

How shameful, the mind set on demanding Buddhahood!

Realise the no man's land of the distant empty kalpa.

Be willing to go south and consult the fifty three.






The horns on the head refers to one's tainted nature. In English too we say “I can see your horns,” meaning that one's devil nature is showing. However, by the time it shows it has already been long established. The empty kalpa is the time before the creation of heaven and earth. To realise it is to become independent of relations to other people. A Buddha, while practising to help all sentient beings, is not himself trying to please, nor relying upon what others think. He is in a kind of no man's land. It is from this position of independnce that he is able to cut through the common delusions of the world and so help people in the best possible way. The best therapist is not manipulable by the client because she is independent and not proud. However, to arrive at such a place one must become humble. To consult the fifty three is a reference to Sudhana in the Avatamsaka Sutra journeying to visit 53 sages. In his fifty-first encounter he arrives at the tower of Maitreya which is vast as space and contains innumerable other towers all also similarly vast. The point is to be willing to learn rather than to arrogantly demand that one be granted high spiritual status. The attainment one seeks is beyond all recognition or status and would be just as meritorious in the empty kalpa when there was nobody to impress. Yet the purpose of any such attainment is the practice of compassion for all beings.

Thus, in the grounding of Dong Shan's Ch'an teaching lies the Gandavyuha chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra and the model in the background is the pilgrimage of Sudhana.


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