In the middle of nothing, there is a road that is free of all dust.
If you just refrain from mentioning the emperor’s true name,
You’ll be more eloquent than those of previous eras. 

—Third of Dongshan’s Five Ranks

Thus far with the Five Ranks—which are a kind of roadmap for the process of awakening—we’ve sat in the utter darkness with all its potential (First Rank), seen our true face in the mirror (Second Rank), and now in this Third Rank begin to emerge from the world of emptiness into the world of form. This rank is called “Coming from Within the Real,” and we are learning to embody, to become intimate, with that emptiness. We make it our own.

In the Third Rank, the Japanese character meaning “nothing” is the same wu-mu 無 we met when a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have buddha nature, or not?” Taking in that “No!” we find that the road of buddha nature—the Way—is pure, utterly without garbage or dust. 

Yasutani Hakuun writes in his commentary, 

Originally there is no self. There is no need to explain the Dharma. There are no beings to save.

And what is the garbage and dust?

Enlightenment and delusion, sacred and profane, gain and loss, taking and giving, love and hate, belief and doubt, and all the rest of it.

This path is nothing other than the path of our lives.

In the second line there is something important about speaking, or not speaking, the emperor’s true name. 

A couple weeks ago my partner and I attended a benefit dinner. One of our guests was a longtime family friend. She looked well though she had recently spent two weeks in the hospital dealing with cancer. We got caught up on family and travels. Then she said, “You know, I was in the hospital recently.” I did know, I told her. I said something benign and we moved on to other topics. Later I realized she may have been inviting me to better understand what she was feeling and going through: an invitation to go deeper. It was one I did not accept.

Growing up, my family was not big on exploring or discussing our feelings. “Boys don’t cry,” my father would say. “Shut up or I’ll give you something to really cry about!” was another line we heard when the six kids (all of us in eight years) joined in a symphony of screaming and fighting.

At my 50th birthday party I was feeling particularly grateful to the many friends and family who showed up. As I stood to give a short thank-you speech, I began to choke up. From out in the crowd my mother yelled, “Oh suck it up, Joseph!” It’s not that emotions were forbidden in my family—they just often went uncommunicated. We did not mention the name of the emperor, we did not accept the invitation.

But that is not a wrong thing. It is just a thing, Dongshan is saying in the third line. There is an eloquence in the humanity of being imperfect: bungled invitations, muffled communications, unexpressed emotions. 

Yasutani writes that this line makes reference to a story about the 7th century orator Li, who was so skilled in debate that he could vanquish his opponent in just a couple of phrases. That is us: in some way, no matter what we say, it has a kind of light and beauty in it. Boys do cry.

—Jon Joseph