When two swords cross, retreat is no longer possible.
The skillful master is like a lotus in the fire.
Naturally, without a reason, we desire to ascend to the heavens.


—The Record of Dongshan, 114

This is the fourth of the Five Ranks credited to Dongshan Liangjie (d. 869), one of the great masters of the Tang Dynasty and cofounder of the Caodong (Soto) school of Chan/Zen. This fourth verse is titled “Going within the Phenomena.”

The Five Ranks are gorgeous in their poetic complexity yet utterly simple in their basis: form and emptiness weave and unweave in the tapestry of the present. For over two centuries, these five stanzas have served as the final koans of the Linji/Rinzai koan curriculum first established by Hakuin Ekaku (d. 1798), a curriculum Pacific Zen still uses extensively today.

The poems, rich in their imagery, are said to describe our progression along the path to awakening. In the first poem it is midnight and there is no moonlight. In the second we realize that the face of the old woman is nothing other than our own. In the third we walk the path of emperors, one without dust and garbage. In the fourth we actively take up a sword, burning like a lotus on fire, and find ourselves naturally desiring an ascent to the heavens.

When we read any koan, poem, or myth, we often encounter bits that stand out and speak to us, shiny objects that say, “Come closer, look at me, play with me.” Sometimes they hook us and refuse to let go. The third line was just such an ornament with my latest reading: Who doesn’t want to ascend to heaven? And yet in the most natural way, our current circumstances are already that which we seek. Let’s look at the constituent Chinese characters:

宛 just like /  然 as such /  自oneself /  有is /  衝 important point/ 天 heaven/ 気 breath, desire

These characters highlight the subtle or obscure qualities prized in classic Chinese and Japanese. Where are the subjects? Is that an object or an adjective? Is the verb merely “is”? To better understand the time-honored associations and meanings, I translated the commentary by Hakuun Yasutani (Dokugo: Goi-Sanki-Sanju-Jukai, 1977), our ancestral teacher.

The first two characters, “just like” and “as such,” add a natural quality to that which follows. David Hinton (who is visiting our Pacific Zen Luminaries Series on July 1st), often discusses 自然, the simple characters for “nature.” Both appear—though transposed—in the above poem line. The word “nature” refers to both the natural world and “the nature”—Buddha nature—which animates the universe. Without loss or gain, struggle or effort, we see that ascending to heaven is realizing that from the very first we are already there: “This very place is the Lotus Land, this body the Buddha,” to quote Hakuin.

In recent weeks the facts of aging and illness have come home to me. A friend’s partner died of a heart attack climbing off a treadmill following a stress test. A friend’s brother suffered life-threatening arrhythmia while driving home. I myself got a skin cancer carved out of my head.

Dongshan, in this final line, is saying that this is how things should be. This is the natural way of things; even the hard bits are pieces of heaven. 

Yasutani writes, “If you become a politician, just be a politician, if a merchant, just a merchant. If you are a sick person, just be sick. We can’t escape our ascension to heaven by somehow looking to change our circumstances.”

Art: Daikoku, Mayumi Oda, the Original Goddess! See www.mayumioda.net.