One day Zen Master Rinzai (Ch. Lin-chi) said, “There is a true man of no rank (ç„¡ä½çœžäºº) in the mass of naked flesh , who goes in and out from your facial features. Those who have not yet testified, look, look!”
A monk came forward and said, “Who is this true man of no rank?”
Master Rinzai came down from his seat, grabbed the monk by the throat and said, “Speak! Speak!”
The monk hesitated.
Master Rinzai let go and said, “What a worthless shit-stick this true man of no rank is!”
I first started to grasp the idea of the person of no rank (the above is a standard translation in which the genderless word äºº – pronounced “hito” or “nin” in Japanese – has been translated as “man”) when I was in a Tokyo park watching some pigeons.
As I watched those birds gather around my bench hoping I’d drop some rice from my onigiri I noticed that the differences between me and those birds were fairly superficial. Up until then I hadn’t thought much about my rank in relation to birds. If anyone had asked, I imagine I would have said that I was superior to birds in terms of intelligence and and inferior in terms of flying abilities.
More significantly, I would have assumed that my internal experience was more sophisticated and nuanced than that of a bird, since, for example, I can name the entire cast of Gilligan’s Island whereas a bird couldn’t be expected to do much more than whistle the theme song with no real understanding of the story the lyrics tell.
That day I noticed with a very sharp clarity that there really is no big difference between the various internal experiences of any being in the universe. Any rank I could assign to another person or creature was imaginary. This, when I was working in the extraordinarily rank-conscious world of Japanese business.
That doesn’t mean everybody is equal in every way. Some people really are experts at certain things and we can learn a lot from them about the areas that they have studied and practiced. But that’s not quite the same as the idea of rank.
To have no rank means you not only don’t regard anyone as your superior, but you don’t regard anyone as your inferior either. It’s easy not to regard anyone as your superior. I used to do that so much I got to be an expert. I was superior to everybody. Including you! So there!
That’s just arrogance and defensiveness. It’s a coping strategy and it can work pretty well in lots of situations – again I can attest to its efficacy from lots of experience.
It was an eye-opener to see that while no one was my superior, no one was my inferior either. Little children, dogs, pigeons, hateful religious fanatics, rich dipshits in stupidly expensive cars who cut you off on the freeway, both of the guys from Hanson… none of them are in any way inferior to me or to you.
Take note. Although I described those guys in stupidly expensive cars as dipshits, this does not mean I am superior to them, nor does it mean they aren’t still dipshits or that the excessive money they spent on their cars is any less stupid.
What I mean is that I can still have an opinion. So can you. More important I still do have an opinion and so do you.
A lot of times people hear stuff about being a person with no rank and try to envision what that would mean, then they train to themselves to act like the person-of-no-rank character they’ve created. What sort of dialogue would you write for your person-of-no-rank? Well, he has no rank, right? So he would simply looooooove everybody regardless of what they did or said. He would be just the fluffiest, most cuddly thing ever! He would only say lovey things and never call anyone a “dipshit” or, indeed, have any opinion about anyone anywhere ever!
I’ve run into a lot of people who strive for this and they are annoying as… hell, I don’t know. Something really, super annoying. Is that the way Master Rinzai behaves in the example?
Having no rank doesn’t mean having no opinion, no personality, no position on anything. It’s more of an understanding of how things actually work.
This is not an easy understanding to come to or accept. Last Saturday I watched a movie called ROAR! It’s an insane film about a family who try to share their home with dozens of gigantic killer lions, tigers, panthers, cheetahs and other big cats. The family is portrayed by a group of actors – including Melanie Griffith – actually sharing a real house in California with dozens of huge, un-tamed killer cats. It’s the most amazingly deranged movie you will ever see.
Anyway, one of the plot lines in the film involves a struggle for dominance by two large male lions. Animal trainers warned the director that you could never use two male lions in a film because they’d spend the whole time trying to kill each other. This movie features something like seven male lions living in a house together. And they fight constantly.
The point is, our tendency to try to figure out where we rank in terms of others is not something that we invented when we started to form armies and assign some people to be sergeants and others to be corporals. It goes way back to our prehuman ancestors. It’s not something you can think your way out of. This is because it’s an inclination that operates at a much more basic level than that of thought. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re better than the other guy or not. By the time it has reached the level wherein you can think consciously about it, it’s already established.
What you can learn to do, though, is to notice what’s happening. Watch yourself slip into ranking mode. Don’t try to stop it because by the time you’ve consciously noticed it, you’re already doing it. Just recognize that it’s meaningless the same way you recognize that just because that itch on the back of your head feels like there’s a tarantula under your bonnet does not mean there really is a tarantula under your bonnet.
When you have no rank at all, you are free from comparison.
This is not a once-and-forever deal. It’s not like you realize this once and then, forever after you are free from rank. In fact it’s quite the opposite. You notice that the tendency to accord a rank to yourself and others is always there and always will be there. You notice that this is something you will always have to remind yourself about.
It’s not necessary to play the person-of-no-rank role straight out of Central Casting either. In the moment that you need to modify your relationship to the ranks you assign to self and others, you’ll see what you need to do. It won’t always be what you want to do. You may, in fact, choose not to do what you clearly see you ought to. You’ll also see what happens when you do that.
TONIGHT, just like every Monday at 8pm I lead zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
Registration is now open for our 3-day Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 24-26, 2015. CLICK HERE for more info! YOU ONLY HAVE A FEW DAYS LEFT TO REGISTER! DO IT!!
April 24-26, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
May 16-17, 2015 Nashville, TN 2-DAY RETREAT AT NASHVILLE ZEN CENTER
July 8-12, 2015 Vancouver, BC Canada 5-DAY RETREAT at HOLLYHOCK RETREAT CENTER
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 4, 2015 Hamburg, Germany LECTURE
September 5, 2015 Hamburg, Germany ZEN DAY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
September 16-19, 20015 Hebden Bridge, England 4-DAY RETREAT
* * *
Your donations to this blog help out more than you think. Thank you!