A quick rundown on the Go I – The Five Ranks (Ch. Wu wei; Jap. Go I 五位) an early Chinese Buddhist teaching from Dongshan Liangjie 洞山良价 (807–869), [generally regarded as founder of the Cao Dong School of Chan Buddhism (Soto Shu in Japan).]
The Five Ranks are represented by an iconic diagram which shows five black and white circles, the black and white circles being an allusion to the Yin-Yang diagram. So, there is a reference implicit here to Yin and Yang and,to the I Ching.
The five circles form an interesting pattern. Much has been made of them in different schools of Buddhism, different interpretations, philosophical and practical.
The first two circles:
In one the dark is dominant and the light is repressed, it’s just a third of the circle at the bottom.
The second is the other way round. The same diagram, the black and the white have swoped over.
So, these two make a pair. They’re two sides of a coin, if you like.
What do they mean? They represent two states of the person. There are times, when the mundane, worldly life is dominant and the spirituality is in the background, perhaps nudging, perhaps agitating a little – “Isn’t there something better than this?” – but is dominated by the mundane, the worldly.
Then there are other times, when the spiritual becomes the enthusiasm of life. The person takes up a practice, they make new resolutions, they throw themselves into the spiritual life. You know how, when you’re in hospital, you make many good resolutions, how you’ll be when you come out, but when you come out, perhaps those resolutions don’t stick. Or, when you’re in lockdown, you think you’re going to make a better world – well, maybe.
So, these two make a cycle. They can replace one another readily.
How does one get beyond this cycle?
The third circle:
The third circle – the black dot is in the middle, completely surrounded by the white. This is the epitome of self-power. Here, the person has conquered, they feel, they have conquered their negativities. They’ve overcome them. In every direction they can present a spiritual face to the world. Many people will see this as being the ultimate triumph to the religious life. “This is arrival. This is nirvana. This is enlightenment.” – whatever you care to call it. But, in fact, the dark is merely repressed. The dark is held inside. The centre, the heart, is still dark, but the presentation is always gleaming. You meet people like this, who have a certain sort of holiness – but is it genuine, is it real?
The fourth and fifth circles also make a pair:
One of them is completely white, one of them is completely black. Moving on from the triumph of self-power, the enlightenment of sorts, the position of the arahat, one moves to the position of either shravaka or bodhisattva.
The shravaka, all white, is a person who is in receipt of the other-power. They’re a person whose life is a matter of standing in awe. They are receiving the light. So, they are like a mirror, like a wonderful mirror that reflects the light of the Dharma into the world. This is a kind of holy child, in a sense. In the Pure Land, there are only shravakas and bodhisattvas.
So, what is a bodhisattva?
We come to the last circle:
The last circle is completely black. The bodhisattva has totally entered back into the world. His own self is no longer a matter of importance. As Dongshan says: He sits in the coals, the burning coal of the world, the heat of the world is his domain.
So, in the end, one returns to where one was at the beginning, and yet, it is now completely different. It is now completely transformed. The Yin is dominant completely. And one no longer suffers even from holiness.
This is the fifth of the five ranks.
Thank you very much
Namo Amida Bu
You can see another diagram and read more of my reflections on the Five Ranks at