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.