A True Man of No-Rank

Linji (by Hakuin)

Soto Zen’s 7th Grave Precept calls for not ”praising or elevating” oneself while ”blaming or abusing” others. It seems like good advice — don’t be so self centered, don’t create disharmony, look to your own faults before blaming others. It also reflects Buddhism’s emphasis on non-self and non-duality — if there’s no division between self and other — if there’s just one vast field of practice — if one can’t claim credit for one’s strengths and virtues because they arise dependently from ”outside” the self — and if the faults of others are also dependently arisen — then what sense does elevating the self or blaming others make? None, ultimately.

But there’s more of interest here.

Whenever we interact with another person, three dimensions of experience spontaneously emerge. We can call those dimensions ”In/Out,” ”Up/Down,” and ”Near/Far.” ”In/Out” reflects the degree to which we accept each other as belonging to the same tribe — are we family, friends, allies, and members-of-the-club, or are we strangers, enemies, and/or rejects? ”Up/Down” reflects where we stand in the pecking order: leaders, followers, rebels, or mascots. ”Near/Far” reflects our degree of mutual intimacy. How transparent can we be? Can we take off our masks and let down our hair? Do we have an ”I-Thou” or ”I-It” relationship? All three of these dimensions are unavoidable. They emerge at the moment of ”Hello.”

An up/down dimension lies within every interpersonal transaction. If someone knocks on my door and asks if he may come in, he acknowledges my power to permit or deny his entrance. If I say, ”Come in, take a seat,” I confirm my authority to control what happens in my space. If he replies, ”I’d rather stand,” he’s attempting to re-renegotiate control. If I reply ”suit yourself,” I let the challenge pass, but reserve my future rights. And so it goes. At any given moment we’re either one-up, one-down, or sharing status as coequals.

The Chinese Zen Master Linji famously observed “I, a mountain monk, tell you clearly… there is a true man with no-rank always present not even a hair’s breadth away.” Linji wasn’t talking about interpersonal relations. He was saying something enigmatic about self-view and enlightened being. But let’s take Linji more literally (and out of context). In our everyday existence where we’re always one-up, one-down, or co-equal, what does it mean to be a ”true man of no-rank?”

Imagine walking into an encounter with no idea of your status in the relationship. I don’t mean being oblivious to what you imagine the other person thinks of you. I mean having no evaluation, positive or negative, about your own worth. You just are who you happen to be in this moment. Any concerns about what the other person thinks about you are irrelevant to your own worth since you have none. You don’t exist anywhere on that scale. The other person’s evaluations only matter in terms of how they’ll affect the likely outcome of the transaction.

You are now free to do whatever seems necessary or skillful. You don’t have to ask whether it’s your place or right to say something. You don’t have to worry about how you’ll feel if the other person thinks poorly of you. You only have to ask if it’s skillful and likely to turn out well.

What would it be like to negotiate the world in this way, moment after moment? We can simply be what is needed in each situation to the degree our energy and judgment permit. We would go through life neither up nor down but just here. Like Mitt Romney’s trees, we would always be just the right height.

Every now and then I run across a tale of a Zen Master and a Warrior in medieval China or Japan. I suspect the tale is bogus because I can’t track down its original source. (Where is the Zen Snopes when you need it?) As the story goes, the Warrior tries to intimidate the Zen Master by announcing he’s the man who can ”run a sword through” the Zen Master ”without blinking an eye.” In his mind he’s one-up; he’s in control. The Zen Master looks at if differently, however. He responds that he’s the man who ”can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye.” As far as he’s concerned, that’s not a one-down status. It’s just a fact. Now that we’ve established who we are and have been properly introduced we can get on with the business at hand. The Zen Master isn’t ignorant of the brute facts, he just exists outside of the power differential. He’s a true man of no-rank.

Daisan (the teacher-student interview) is a good place to explore this issue. What’s it like when you sit and meet with your teacher? Who are you when you sit on the cushion face to face? Is the teacher up? Are you down? Can you say/ask whatever needs saying/asking for the benefit of your practice? Can you exist in a space that’s neither up nor down?

Thoughts of ”up” and ”down,” acceptance and rejection, closeness and distance always arise. They’re hard-wired into us, part of our humanness. The question is whether we can let these thoughts come and go without attaching to them, without believing them, without making more of them then what they are — simply words and concepts arising in the mind — clouds scurrying across the vast expanse of blue sky which leave no traces of themselves behind.

31 Replies to “A True Man of No-Rank”

  1. Earlier tonight I was revisiting Status Anxiety and reflecting on my anxiety that bubbles up when I’m concerned with how others are perceiving me in those In/Out, Up/Down, Near/Far critical moments. I’m glad I found your post as a follow up to that. Thank you

    1. Glad you found the post helpful! It’s a blessing to be able to see our anxiety as it arises within social contexts and just breathe with it. Good luck with your continued practice!

  2. I just wanted to say that I really appreciate this post. I found it very insightful and I’m quite glad I stumbled across your blog.

    Also, as a prospective talk therapist I feel like we see the world through a similar tint (as much as I’d like to presume that I see the world as it is without any tint at all I’m probably pretty far from that, haha).

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    1. Glad you appreciated the post! We all see the world from our own limited and unique perspectives. There will always be our “tint.” The best we can do is share our perspectives with each other and in that process become aware of our perceptual and cognitive biases. There is no reality “as it is” for us human beings — just reality as it appears. We need social processes as a corrective.

  3. Truly interesting…
    Very similar to a mantra I have been applying to myself for some time,
    the IN/OUT and OUT/IN approach.
    The IN/OUT (the Universe between our ears) is where the personal drama begins, by projecting our inner feelings-moods to our reality.
    The OUT/IN (the Physical Universe) is when you look at the situation from a worldly even cosmic perspective and realize the banality of your initial perspective.
    Thank you for reassuring me in my premonition.

    1. Ralph, glad you enjoyed the post. We mean something different when we talk about “in/out” — I was referring to a social process, and you’re referring to projection vs. taking a broader perspective. But I like your means of down-regulating personal drama by adopting a cosmic perspective. In Buddhism we talk about two truths — the truth of our everyday experience, and the truth of seeing things from the perspective of non-duality. We live at the intersection of these two truths. We need the bigger picture to not get caught in the personal drama, but we also need to stay grounded in our everydayness and not get lost in the cosmos. Best wishes!

  4. Seth-
    I only recently found your site and enjoy it very much–thank you for doing it. This post , for me, suggests the difficulty with” being in the world but not of it.” I have found that if you exert less ego (less rank) when engaging with others, sometimes they grab it and run with it and things do indeed go much more smoothly. But often I’ve found people suspicious of such behavior, ” What do want? Don’t patronize me….” It’s as if their mind has issued a caution: No one acts that way–be careful. As you suggest, it’s no doubt a human thing to expect others to act ” with rank.” This, of course, allows one to practice endlessly. Thanks again–Tony

  5. Your possibly apochryphal story of the zen master’s reply is similar to one cited by Epictetus: “‘I will behead you.’ Well, when did I ever tell you that mine was the only neck that could not be severed? These are the lessons that philosophers ought to rehearse, these they ought to write down daily, in these they ought to exercise themselves.” Discourses 1:1.

    1. Thanks, Walter, for this interesting quote from Epiceteus. The parallels between Stoic Dharma and Buddhadharma continually amaze me. Someone should write a book on it. Unfortunately, there are probably very few philosophers and scholars out there who are sufficiently knowledgeable of both ancient Greek and Pali (not to mention Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan!) to write such a book. There’s a dissertation waiting out there for someone.

  6. Seth –

    Thanks for this illuminating essay. It prompts me to wonder how the Internet in general and social media in particular have been affecting the dynamics of in/out, up/down, and near/far. Only yesterday I read a report of the ways in which shoppers with their apps are changing the balance of power between seller and buyer. Are those of us who use Facebook and other social media coming closer to being true persons of no rank, insofar as the balances of in/out, up/down, and near/far are are being realigned by virtual connectivity?

    One other note. I first read the story of the general and the Zen master in one of Jack Kornfield’s books, I believe it was SEEKING THE HEART OF WISDOM. In that version, the general bows respectfully and leaves the empty temple after the Zen master shows no fear. As I’ve understood the tale, the Zen master does not transcend the power differential. Rather, by not opposing the general, he reverses the balance of power, in the manner of a martial artist practicing T’ai Chi.

    1. Ben, thanks for your take on the Zen master and general story. As a t’ai chi practitioner, I appreciate it.

      Is the internet changing the dynamics of in/out, up/down, and near/far? It puts interesting twists into the dynamic in the sense that we now feel more empowered to contact people who travel in circles very far from our own and write to them in a democratic language that denies differentials — or more willing to share essentially private matters with virtual strangers. On the other hand, the dynamic is still operating unchanged — we measure power by Klout, “friend” and “unfriend” people, and arrange them in different “circles.”

  7. Hi Seth,

    Did you ever see the film Clockwise with John Cleese, where at one point he falls to his knees and exclaims, It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’

    Recently, I read of an exchange during dokusan in which the student complained, ”I’m making no progress,” and the master replied instantly, ”There is no progress. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no distance.”

    When I contemplate the true man of no rank he appears to represent all that is Out, Up and Far. Where is the spiritual path that is not paved alternately with hope and despair?

    1. The True Man of No Rank is “Out, Up, and Far”? I’d love to hear more about what this means to you — I’m not sure I can intuit it from your brief post.

      I was thinking more along the lines of how the up/down dimension might be transcended by the True Man of No Rank. On the other hand, the True Man is always “in” in that he belongs wherever he is, and he’s always “near” in the sense of being intimate with all things.

  8. Your post shows that your very attached to your intellect and perceptions, which is worrying considering your trying to talk about Zen, emptiness etc.

    You also seem to be very attached to words while promoting “no words”. Your attitude also shows that you have many doubt over the Buddha’s teachings, and your just “pick and choose” based on your own ego. Is this the way to learn?

    Buddhism without dogma? Again, sounds like your hiding alot of unwholesome things in your mind, instead of self-reflection, you are using the Dharma to promote your own sense of self.

  9. @Thug4lyfe — You’re right on some things. I do value intellect and finding the right words for things (I’ve never promoted “no words” by the way). And I do question and doubt a number of propositions/statements that are part of the Buddhist tradition and attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the historical Buddha. I do “pick and choose,” but hopefully its not based entirely on ego but at least in part on the basis of reason and experience. “Is this the way to learn?” you ask. It’s the way I learn. Accepting something on faith even if it seems illogical, counterintuitive, and at odds with my own experience just because it’s written down in a book somewhere doesn’t make sense to me. That’s not to say I’m right about things — I’m sure my mind is filled with lots of unwholesome thoughts — both hidden and obvious. I’ve never claimed to be more enlightened than the next guy.

    Am I “promoting my own sense of self”? To some degree. People generally don’t write blogs unless they think they have something of value to say and some ability to communicate it. Hopefully, however, I’m not just “selling myself” but sharing ideas that others might find helpful. This blog is one tiny voice in a vast on-going conversation, both historic and contemporary, about what it means to live well and meaningfully. Welcome to the conversation.

  10. Hi Seth, my last name is also segal but only with one L, haha i havent seen that last name too much. Anyways im only 17 and ive recently in the past year have started seeing life in the “Man of No-rank” type of perspective, i’ve slowly realized that you create whatever stress you feel upon yourself and that, that can easily be avoided by simply approaching things in a very open taking it as it comes type of attitude, which i find to be completely beautiful. Im writing to you because i would like to take the knowledge that ive come to, to the next level. I want to be able to practice this way of life, since i know that we unconsciously immediately create our own thoughts and feelings towards people and things. I want to be able to train myself to really grasp and understand and live like a true man of no rank.

  11. Someone knocked on the door of the house containing Shakbar, and asked if he might come in. Shakbar said, ”Come in, take a seat,” Shakbar followed the normal social rules to avoid causing the fellow any suffering, but realised he had no authority a space that belongs to no one and everyone. He replied, ”I’d rather stand,” Shakbar said ”suit yourself,” in light tone to keep the fellow at his ease. Shakbar saw no challenge, and his rights, as ever, were those of universe, in which he was forever at peace. And so it goes. At any given moment we’re all one with the universe in our Buddha-nature.

    I’ve been reading about Shakbar in Ricard’s “Happiness”. This was just my poor attempt at wondering about how he might handle this situation. Please add caveats as you see fit. And my apologies for putting Shakbar in my poor fiction…

  12. Slight correction. Although Ricard references his translation of “The Life of Shakbar” in “Happiness”, the tale that most inspired me is based on Patrul Rinpoche’s encounter with a thief.

      1. I’m just an aspirant arahant, wouldn’t you rather get the tale from someone who just might be a Bodhisattva? In any case, you will have to ’cause summarising Matthieu Ricard’s story, when it is so easily obtained in the original, would be entirely too presumptuous of me (also I have other things to do…)

  13. hi
    i am translating a book about zen philosophy and have encountered some difficulties in translation of zen terms special y ” the man without any rank “.
    I want to translate it in one word in Persian language which can
    describe whole aspects of this term.
    please guide me .


    1. Abolfazi — I wish I could be of help here, but I can’t think of a word that would help your translation process along. I understand neither Chinese nor Japanese, and haven’t come across any other translations of the koan. Perhaps a more knowledgable reader of this blog could make some suggestions here.

  14. This is a wonderful way to put interactions into perspective! I’m currently struggling to let go of the self, and be more open with others. I find it difficult though when I’m interacting with people who are prejudiced or bigoted towards others. My immediate response is anger, which I do my best to quell. I’ve found that if you try discussing sometimes it’s like talking to a brick wall. Is there anyway to successfully navigate these kinds of interactions with no rank?

    1. Ali, the way to navigate these relationships is following the basic four-step rule: 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) tell the truth, 4) let go of needing a particular outcome to occur. Repeat steps 1-4 over and over, moment by moment, for the rest of your life. Also, when telling your truth, it should express how you feel without labeling, demeaning, or criticizing the personhood of the person you’re addressing. The Buddha also recommended that one only speak when there is some good that will come from speaking. All we can do is do the best we can in each moment. That doesn’t mean that we control the outcome. Having said what needs to be said, let go. You’ve done your part. It’s your job to speak from the heart when helpful. It’s not your job to bring the other person around.

      The problem is, can you still see the other person as a perfect manifestation of the Buddha even when they say things we strongly disagree with, and can we still treat them as we treat all Buddhas. Now that’s a real practice.

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