Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Dongshan’s Five Ranks - Selections

Keys to Enlightenment


1. Dongshan and the Five Ranks

Dongshan: A Brief Biographical Sketch

Dongshan Liangjie (807–869) was a great teacher among great teachers during the flowering of Chan (Zen) Buddhism in the Tang dynasty. He was the thirty-eighth ancestor in the lineage that comes down from the Buddha and in the eleventh generation of the grand masters of ancient China. He and his successor Caoshan Benji (840–901) are revered as the founders of the Caodong lineage (known in Japanese as Sōtō), the name of which is a portmanteau of Cao and Dong, the mountains on which these two masters lived and taught.

Dongshan went on pilgrimage as a young man and engaged with some of the foremost teachers of his era, including Nanquan Puyuan (748–835) and Guishan Lingyou (771–853). Dongshan finally settled with Yunyan Tansheng (784–841), under whom he had his initial awakening. Eventually, Dongshan established his own center on “Cave Mountain” (dong shan) in Hungzhou. He had twenty-six successors, the principal ones being Caoshan Benji and Yunju Daoying (835?–902). The latter’s line endured for about eight hundred years in China, disappearing in the seventeenth century. Eihei Dogen (1200–1253) brought the Caodong line to Japan in the thirteenth century, and it has persisted there as one of the major streams of Zen that comes down to us today, the other being the Linji (Rinzai in Japanese).

Dongshan’s style of teaching was often dark, elliptical, and subtle. His enigmatic expressions gave his students little to cling to, but nonetheless nourished generations of disciples. His wry, sardonic humor and aloofness from ordinary human concerns are readily evident in the following account of his death.

The story goes that when Dongshan knew that he was about to die, he changed his clothes, struck the bell, and announced the fact to his assembly. He then sat in zazen and began to pass away. Because he was much loved and respected, his disciples wept and wailed.

Annoyed by the disturbance, Dongshan opened his eyes and said, “Those who travel the Buddha Way should have a mind unattached to life and death. People struggle to live and are confounded by death, but what’s the use of lamenting?”

He then ordered the temple manager to make arrangements for a delusion banquet. The prospect of this banquet didn’t alleviate his students’ feeling of bereavement, so preparations were prolonged for seven days.

In order to urge the preparations along, Dongshan joined in, grumbling, “You monks have made a great commotion over nothing. This time when you see me dying, don’t make a noisy fuss.”

Then, probably expecting more grief, he retired to his room, sat in zazen, and died.

The poetic work widely known as the Five Ranks—a pair of esoteric five-verse summations of Chan teachings—is traditionally attributed to Dongshan. I accept the traditional attribution, although we cannot be certain who in fact authored the work. The two cycles that comprise the Five Ranks, and the poem “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi,” appear near the end of the Record of Dongshan. The Record appears to be loosely chronological, but even if it is not, the two cycles and the Precious Mirror certainly feel “late,” in the way that Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”—unfinished at his death—does. Bach crystallized insights gained from a lifetime of writing fugues and emulating the contrapuntal techniques of his forbears. Just as with Bach’s masterwork, there is nothing crabbed in Dongshan’s Five Ranks, in which he draws on a long tradition of skillful means and teaching devices that go back to the Buddha.

Also, both of Dongshan’s cycles feel “composed” and are strikingly different from the mostly brief responses to questions that are recorded in his Record. The following is typical:

A monk asked, “When a dying monk passes away, where does he go?”
“After the fire, a single reed stem,” Dongshan replied.

Brief, but plenty and enough.

In the Five Ranks, Dongshan uses a dialectical formulation to present the Buddha Way. Over the centuries since its appearance, the cryptic dialectic of the Five Ranks has captured the imagination and inspired the practice of countless teachers and students of the Way.

Dongshan arranges the perspectives of the Five Ranks in two closely related cycles. The first of these focuses on enlightenment itself and is composed of five perspectives on the great matter: awakening, its expression, its embodiment and integration into our life, and finally the transcending of steps and stages. The second cycle presents enlightenment in terms of the stages on the journey to awakening, followed by the stages beyond. Each cycle focuses in a different way on the relationship between the timeless, inexpressible realm of our essential nature and the contingent realm of life and death, where myriad beings, things, and events appear as separate and unique.

Although study of, and meditation on, the Five Ranks are a peerless means to undertake the quest for awakening and a means to confirm that awakening, the text encourages us not to take seeing into our true nature as the final destination of practice, for there is so much more to be discovered and lived. Seeing into our true nature is only the beginning. Study and practice of the Five Ranks push us beyond the one-sided partiality of our little stories to realize the timeless immensity present in even the least of our experiences. When we awaken to that immensity, we live it in even the mundane moments of our lives. Unerringly pointing us beyond naïve individualism, the Five Ranks encourage us to take care of the world, and of each other.

Still, the Five Ranks are not merely teachings or instructions on how to walk the Way, although it is possible to infer such teachings from them. They also intimate what can’t be taught, employing a matchless combination of poetry and koans. Expression of the inexpressible thus becomes one of the central themes of the Five Ranks. Dongshan employs the music of poetry—which through the power of allusion and suggestion is capable of expressing much more than the content of its words—to point the reader’s mind toward the ineffable.

As I follow the precedent of attributing the Five Ranks to Dongshan that was set in the Record of Dongshan Liangjie, I do likewise for the poem “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi,” in which we find configured the same themes encountered in the Five Ranks. It is possible that the Five Ranks and the “Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi” were composed during the Song dynasty, after Dongshan’s time. Whatever the case may be, subsequent to their appearance, the Five Ranks entered the transmission streams that would become the Sōtō and Rinzai schools in Japan, where, although their popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries, they remain important works to this day.


Because I feel that the term “ranks” seems unduly hierarchical, I use the terms positions, modes, or stages to refer broadly to the five distinct phases treated within each of the two cycles. I use the word “position” to refer to the particular relationship between the essential and the contingent, as expressed by the verse caption alone. I use the word “mode” to refer to the caption and verse taken together, and to the mood and spirit they evoke. I use the word “stage” to refer to any of the progressive “positions” of the second cycle, the Cycle of Merit. Finally, I use the expression “Five Ranks” to refer to the two cycles taken together as a complete work or to acknowledge the traditional translation of the title into English, and on occasion to refer to Dongshan’s cycle of the essential and the contingent when other options seem to involve undue hair-splitting.

The title of Dongshan’s first cycle is “Gatha of the Five Positions of Ruler and Minister” (Wuwei junchen song; Jap. Henshō Gōi Shō). The Chinese phrase wuwei has traditionally been translated into English as “five ranks,” but I prefer to translate it as “five positions”—a translation that takes into account that the Chinese sense of wei is not always evocative of hierarchy. I also choose to use the word “position” to translate wei because it captures the dual meaning of “a point in relation to others” or “a perspective on reality,” as in “having a position” on an ethical or political issue. The positions enumerated in the first cycle of the Five Ranks depict the relationship between the essential and the contingent—the relationship between, among other things, the universe and ourselves.

The Two Cycles of the Five Ranks

Dongshan’s Five Ranks consists of two cycles: the Cycle of the Essential and the Contingent, and the Cycle of Merit. I use the term “cycle” to mean a completed series of events (or positions, or stages)—in keeping with the way this term is used with literary or musical cycles, such as the Arthurian Cycle or Wagner’s Ring Cycle. This definition gives us an overview of the Five Ranks as comprised of two series, each consisting of five “events”—five perspectives on awakened mind and five perspectives on the progress of the Way—rather than a cyclic account of reality that constantly returns to its starting point. These two cycles run broadly in parallel, like two great mountain ranges. I will very generally introduce the two cycles here, providing a brief sketch of each of them.


In the first cycle, five perspectives on enlightenment are conveyed by Dongshan’s captions, or titles, that precede each of his verses:

1. The Contingent within the Essential
2. The Essential within the Contingent
3. Arriving within the Essential
4. Approaching from the Contingent
5. Arriving at Concurrence

These five statements express the varying relations between the timeless, inexpressible realm of our essential nature and the contingent realm of life and death, where myriad beings and events appear as separate and unique. Each of these five positions evokes the most profound and far-reaching considerations concerning the relationship between the universe and ourselves, as well as other beings, sentient and nonsentient alike; at the same time our experience of them is utterly intimate and personal. We can say that these five statements express profound enlightenment considered from five perspectives.

Although Dongshan’s presentation of this cycle of perspectives on enlightenment may seem novel, the technique of teaching by means of such paradigms did not originate with him. The Huayan masters, in particular, had already developed a similar way of teaching the nature of reality from the perspective of enlightened mind under the rubric of the four dharmadhatu with its interacting realms of principle and phenomena, as well as in their elaborations of that doctrine. The dialectic between essential and contingent in Dongshan’s five positions is likely a distillation, or even a simplification, of the Huayan dialectic of principle and phenomena, and particularly of a Huayan doctrine called Ten Approaches to the Second Discernment, which will be discussed below.

Yet, though Dongshan’s verse captions clearly seem to have been influenced by Huayan dialectics, the verses themselves overflow with the unmistakable spirit of Chan (Zen)—allusive, playful, and challenging. The way in which Dongshan composed verses to accompany each of the five positions, as identified by the captions, often counterpoints or subverts them, wittily exploring, enriching, and deepening their implications. Dongshan conjures vivid and memorable imagery in his verses—an old woman oversleeping at daybreak, a withered tree blooming in timeless spring, a lotus in the midst of fire. The Five Ranks deftly evoke the Huayan legacy even as they transcend it.

Even though the Five Ranks owe a debt to Huayan formulations, they aren’t reducible to them. The Five Ranks stand out from their historical background and influences for their capacity to synthesize the experience of awakened mind in memorable images and koans. In this, they are much more than the sum of their influences. Rather like Bach, Dongshan transformed whatever he inherited and gave it not only the eyes of profound insight but also poetry that moistens and enlivens what otherwise might have been dry and abstract.


In his second cycle, the Cycle of Merit, Dongshan summarizes the manner and means of living the positions of the first cycle. The second cycle is more concerned with the how of the Way: how we are to lay the ground for awakening, and once awakened, how we deepen that awakening in our lives.

Here are the five stages of merit, literally “the five positions of merit and honor” (Wuwei gong xun; Jap. Kōkun Gōi), as set out in the captions that precede the verses:

1. Orientation
2. Service
3. Merit
4. Merit in Common
5. Merit upon Merit

Each of these captions presents a stage on our journey to maturity on the bodhisattva path. Although the path is laid out in stages, the entire journey is implicit in our dawning curiosity and our first hesitant step. Importantly, each stage––including the first two, which apparently precede awakening––is an expression of enlightened mind. Moreover, each stage opens to eternity, even as it occurs in time. Thus considered, the five stages of merit show the progressive path from an enlightened perspective: orientation as the full expression of our timeless essential nature, service as the full expression of our Buddha nature, and similarly for each of the subsequent stages taken in turn.

The five stages of merit are cumulative; they take time. In this regard, each stage represents a level of maturation that serves as a basis for the next one. As long as we continue to practice, the earlier stages are not lost, but remain like the growth rings of an ancient tree. From this perspective, there is no shortcut to maturity.

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

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