Dongshan’s Five Ranks - Preface

Keys to Enlightenment

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My life as a musician has been informed and shaped by Zen practice. In fact, much of the music that I have created would have been unthinkable without it. In saying this, I speak for the power and virtue of zazen, whose effects are incalculable. Beyond that, metaphors of the Way have often been an inspiration for the structures and procedures in my compositions.

I discovered Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30, op. 109, in the midst of the squalor and emotional chaos of my teen years, and I found in it a luminous principle of order: a music that carried me into a deeper life and gave me my first remembered experience of timelessness. Years later I discovered John Cage’s book Silence with its Zen influenced account of sound as silence. Under the spell of his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano in the early 1980s I prepared a piano, inserting a variety of objects such as guitar jacks, postcards, fishing sinkers, combs, clothes pegs, and erasers between and around the strings to alter the sound of the piano in unheard of ways. By the end of the morning it sounded, to my joy, like a demented gamelan orchestra. Later, when I was making a cup of tea at lunchtime, I accidentally knocked the kettle against the stovetop—brang!—and found myself in a state of confused joy. It was somehow no longer “me” darkly stumbling about, unrestricted.

The sound of the kettle striking the stove evoked my yearning and stirred something deeper than thought. I trusted my experience and proceeded on trust. I had to, for, in the ordinary sense what I was getting into couldn’t be known in advance, or even known at all. Through koan work, over time and with persistent effort, I came to appreciate that words themselves, even as they retain their conventional sense, are at the same time beyond considerations of sense and meaning. In this they convey the Way no less than the caroling of magpies and the low hum of the fan with its periodic gathering of harmonics, reminiscent of a slow hymn played over and over on an old electronic organ. The genesis of this book on Dongshan’s Five Ranks lies in these experiences.

My interest in the Five Ranks has also been furthered by my explorations of ruined piano as a composer and improviser. A piano is said to be ruined (rather than neglected or devastated) when it has been abandoned to all weathers with the result that few or none of its notes sound like those of an even-tempered upright piano. It raises the question, “What is a piano?” When I discovered a ruined piano in a tractor shed on a West Australian sheep station, my passion for prepared piano and its contrivances gave way to one for pianos prepared by nature: by searing heat, flash floods, and by how far off the stars are.

For me “ruined piano” belongs with those other dead-end metaphors for emptiness: the stringless lute, the iron flute with no holes. The ruined piano may be evocative of emptiness, but each ruined piano is, at the same time, utterly unique with respect to action and tuning (if we can talk of tuning at all). An F# one-and-a-half octaves above middle C on a West Australian ruined piano in a semidesert environment differs radically from the same note on a flooded piano in a studio four floors below pavement level in Prague.

The ruined piano, abandoned in nature, becomes intimate with its environment. As its sound board opens wider to show the cloudless sky, and a dusty wisteria clambers over its broken hammers, the piano that is no longer a piano is so open at the edges that everything and everyone can come through, can come in. And they do—yapping sheep dogs, trucks revving up, sheep-station owners complaining about the drought, roosters crowing in some out-of-joint time—all of them singing the 108,000 tongues of the Buddha through the empty, dilapidated window of a single long-ringing ruined note. Taking this all together, we can discern three aspects of ruined piano: no-self, uniqueness, and intimate inclusiveness, three characteristics that connect the ruined piano into the feed-stream of the Five Ranks.

In this book I take two approaches to the Five Ranks. The first is straightforwardly descriptive. I employ this approach in the first exploration of the five modes of the essential and the contingent as well as in the history and context for the Five Ranks. Elsewhere, especially in the more detailed treatment of the Ranks, I draw freely on koans, especially in the extended exploration of Dongshan’s profound and subtle verses.

In terms of how to read the book, the book is as it is read. My recommendation is to jump into the middle of things and to explore from there. Memorizing the verses and meditating on them is also surely helpful for coming to terms with the Five Ranks. My hope is that, with persistent meditation and study, the Five Ranks will become familiar. In J. M. Coetzee’s novel, The Childhood of Christ, an immigrant worker on the docks apologizes to the senior stevedore about his poor command of the local language. The stevedore responds, “As for your Spanish, persist. One day it will cease to feel like a language, it will become the way things are.”

*A note on the translations

Peter Wong Yih-Jiun and I have aimed for a clear, fairly literal translation that hopefully presents Dongshan’s Dharma without being overly interpretative, and without unnecessary adornment. I hope we have been able to provide a clear source where there has been much obfuscation and guesswork. While we have both exercised care, any errors are entirely mine.

Ross Bolleter
Southern Spring, 2013

How to cite this document:
© Ross Bolleter, Dongshan's Five Ranks (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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