No Rank and No Identity

A long time ago, Zen Master Rinzai said, “There is a true person of no rank who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person of no rank?”

A few centuries later we get the story of Yu the Doughnut Maker (aka Yu Daopo). It can be found in the book The Hidden Lamp. It goes like this.

A woman called Yu worked in town making doughnuts. She used go up to visit the local Zen master and asked lots of questions. He gave her the koan about a true person of no rank. She contemplated it day and night.

One day a beggar outside her shop was singing a song called Happiness in the Lotus Land.

When Yu heard this, her heart and mind opened. She laughed. It was as if she had woken up after being asleep. Then she threw her doughnut pan onto the ground.

Her husband asked, “Have you gone crazy?”

She just answered, “This isn’t in your territory,” and ran up the hill to see her teacher, who, even from a distance, could tell that something had happened.

He asked, “Who is this true person of no rank?”

She immediately said, “There’s a person of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain in two with one blow. This person has strength like the ever-flowing water, which doesn’t know about the coming of spring.”

After this Yu became a famous teacher.

This koan is expressed in terms of rank. In the highly socially stratified societies of China and Japan, rank was (and still is) a big deal. It’s a big deal in American society too. But we like to pretend it isn’t. We like to pretend we’re all equals and that nobody outranks anybody else. We like to say that anyone can grow up to be President. And, while that may not be completely true, it’s certainly easier for any random person to become President than it ever was for a random person to become a Queen or King. At the time of our country’s founding this represented a big step forward.

These days, Americans don’t like the concept of rank. So when we hear about Rinzai’s “person of no rank” we’re immediately on board. I know I was when I first heard it.

Americans don’t like the idea of rank, but we love, love, love the idea of identity. Personal identity is our thing! Especially these days.

Rinzai’s idea of a person of no rank is precisely the same as saying “a person with no identity.” We could rephrase his saying as, “There is a true person with no identity who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person with no identity?” What Yu Daopo realizes in the second story is that she has no identity. Everything she ever believed about who she was, was a mistake.

In chapter 48 of Shobogenzo, “Expounding the Mind and Expounding the Nature” (book 3 of the Nishijima/Cross translation) Dogen says, “The total effort that Rinzai expresses is only ‘a true person of no rank,’ but he has never mentioned ‘a true person who has a rank.’ We can say that he has not yet realized other study and other expressions, and that he has yet to reach the state of exploring the ultimate.”

Again, we could substitute identity for rank. According the Dogen, Master Rinzai only understood “a person with no identity.” He didn’t understand “a person with an identity.”

I never take it literally when Dogen says stuff like this about ancient Zen Masters. Obviously he did not know the mind of Rinzai, who lived centuries before him. He’s really criticizing the common understanding of what Rinzai said. Most people who hear this koan only understand that it’s about a person with no identity. They rarely take the next step and understand that it’s about a person with an identity. Which is why Rinzai asked who the person with no identity was.

Dogen loved being contradictory. He loved to point out how real life is full of contradictions and how the same thing can look completely different when you look at it a different way. Nothing is ever just one way or another. Often things can be considered in ways that are contrary to each other and even mutually exclusive, and yet all of these ways of understanding can be true.

The person with no identity is you. And your true identity is a person with no identity. And yet you have an identity. In some sense, we might even say you are an identity.

The Absolute squeezes itself into you and looks out of your eyes. Behind your eyes is a person of no rank and no identity. And yet, that person of no rank and no identity expresses itself through your identity and your rank. That’s because part of this infinite, unnamable, and unknowable something is you. Absolute you. And no one other than you.

The infinite is you because, in order for it to be infinite, it must be finite. And in order to be finite and infinite, one of its expressions must be you and you alone, absolutely individual, and absolutely finite.

Which is all well and good semantically. I’m not sure if my explanation is clear here. But I’ve attempted to make a philosophical argument. If infinity exists, then the finite must be included within it and must, therefore, be identical to it.

But what if you don’t accept the proposition that there even is an Absolute?

Well, that’s fine too. In my own case, I wanted a way to test that proposition. I wanted some way to find out if the Absolute existed or not. So I sat with nothing. I sat with the potential for the Absolute, but with no belief in the Absolute. I also sat with the possibility that there was no Absolute, that I was simply a finite being who had no connection to anything but the pain of being alive. And yet I also gave up this belief too. I tried, instead, to accord with whatever reality actually was.

After a while, something very like what happened to Yu Daopo happened to me. I didn’t have a doughnut pan to throw on the ground. But that’s just a metaphor. Yu Daopo didn’t just throw away her doughnuts. She threw away her identity as a doughnut maker and a wife and whatever else she may have thought of herself as. This will happen to you too, if you sit with open possibilities for long enough.

At the end of the story of You Daopo we hear that she became a famous teacher. Does this mean that she came to understand both that she had no identity and that she also had an identity as Yu Daopo? I honestly don’t know, but I would like to believe it does.


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