In deepest midnight before the light of moonrise, we meet someone,
and though we do not recognize them, we need not be concerned.
Hidden, deeply hidden, we long for the beauty of olden times.

—First of Dongshan’s Five Ranks

Dongshan’s Five Ranks form the final collection of koans in Pacific Zen’s curriculum. The first rank recognizes darkness and shadow in our lives: the dirt, the mud, the smelly garbage. It is this dark matter that of necessity accompanies us in our search for light in the universe.

In our koan it is the time of the third watch, around midnight, the time of deepest night. The moon promises to rise, but even the least bit of light has yet to appear. In that darkest night we meet our most painful self though we do not yet recognize that person. We should not draw away—we must attend. In our witnessing we feel the recesses of our heart and an unfathomable longing for the beauty of olden times.

In many cultures and faiths, the rotting, decayed earth of the soul is appreciated as vital ground for spiritual and emotional growth. Rather than avoiding it, we feel the darkness and allow it to touch us.

In the world of alchemy, the nigredo (blackness) is the initial state of the materia prima, primordial matter, having been cooked and purified in a first step toward reaching the “philosopher’s stone” of illumination.

Christian mysticism deems “the dark night of the soul” a similarly necessary step, as outlined in the The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century work written by an unknown monk”

From the first time you lift your heart to God with stirrings of love, you will find only a darkness, a cloud of unknowing … Whatever you do, this darkness and the cloud are between you and your god, and hold you back from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in the sweetness of love in your feelings … And so prepare to remain in this darkness as long as you can, always begging for he who you love; for if you are ever to feel or see him … it must always be in this cloud and this darkness.”

(translation: A.C. Spearing)

Two centuries later the Spanish mystic John of the Cross published a poem entitled Dark Night of the Soul (La Noche Oscura del Alma) that begins in darkness and ends with two lovers—we might assume one of them was God—asleep together in the light-filled embrace of Lover and Beloved.

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings
–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised
–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me–
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

(translation: Edgar Allison Peers)