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Here is a familiar story from Zen lore. It’s about Rinzai (Linji in Chinese) and an unnamed monk, and it’s often referred to as “Rinzai’s True Man of No Rank.” Today, we’d say “true person,” and many recent translations do use that terminology. But here’s the story as presented in a collection of koans with commentaries, titled Zen Echoes (pp. 104–105):
“Linji instructed the assembly, saying, “In all of you lumps of red flesh, there is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the gates of your face. Those of you [who] have not yet had evidence of this, then look, look!” At that time, there was a monk who came forward and asked, “What is a true man without rank like?” Linji came down from his meditation cot and grabbed him, saying, “Speak! Speak!” The monk was about to explain, when Linji let go of him, saying, “What a piece of shit is this true man without rank!”
Those of you doing koan study can find this story in the Shoyoroku, the Book of Equanimity, Case 38.
So, what was Rinzai / Linji saying to the monk? Well, since he isn’t here to grab me or push me away, as he is said to have done on occasion with his monks, I’ll share my own experience of this story. For me, it’s pretty simple.
As I see it, the Master is talking about the fresh, clean, and unsullied energy of Essential Nature, our True Nature. He’s saying that behind the gates of our face – indeed, behind everything – lies the untouchable, indefinable, inconceivable power that informs and supports and enlivens everything that we perceive as the Universe, including ourselves. You could say he’s talking about Jesus’ Kingdom of God. And if you don’t get this yet, the Master adds, you have only to look.
No need for words or explanation. It’s right there in front of you; in fact, it’s right there as you. And it makes you no better or no worse than any other thing you can perceive. If we have to make sense of every word in his statement, we can take the “of no rank” part to mean that everything that is meets this description. Everything that is: Just this.
Everything that is, in all its beauty and ugliness, all life and death, all has and has not, is an expression of the kingdom of God, which as Jesus said, is within you. In fact, we could say that the kingdom of God is you. Is all of us. Is all that is. And all that is not. It’s everything that was before we were, before the world was. What does the Christian Doxology say?
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.
So, when we set about judging ourselves or others as worthy or unworthy, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly – whatever – we can just put it all in the “person of no rank” bucket, and see things as they are, before we characterize them one way or the other. And then we deal with things according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And that’s the trick, isn’t it? That’s what we struggle with.
Just as we don’t want to bring harm to ourselves (at least when we’re in a clear frame of mind), we decline to bring harm into whatever situations arise. I know all this may sound like a bunch of idealistic claptrap having little to do with real life and the real world. But if we can set the needs of our little “self” aside and see this scenario as “the real world,” as “real life,” we may be able to keep the peace within and among ourselves. If we can’t keep the peace, at least we can advance the cause of peace. Be centers of peace. Harmless. Here’s another passage, this one from the Upanishads, that struck me as bringing it all home. This is paraphrased from Stephen Mitchell’s anthology of sacred verse, titled The Enlightened Mind (p. 4):
That which makes the tongue speak but which cannot be spoken by the tongue – that alone is God…
That which makes the mind think but which cannot be thought by the mind – that alone is God…
That which makes the eye see but which cannot be seen by the eye – that alone is God…
That which makes the ear hear but which cannot be heard by the ear – that alone is God…
If you think that you know God, you know very little; all that you can know are ideas and images of God.”
And apropos of our story about Rinzai’s true person of no rank, who is always going in and out of your face, this ancient verse concludes:
When you see that God acts through you at every moment, in every movement of mind or body, you attain true freedom. When you realize the truth, and cling to nothing in the world, you enter eternal life.