These ranks cannot be understood hierarchically. They are simply ways of looking at the relationship between absolute and relative, and between all dualities. Among them are enlightenment and delusion. On one side is enlightenment, on the other side is delusion. One side is heaven, the other side is hell. One side is male, the other side is female. One side is monastic practice, the other side is lay practice. One side is good, the other side is evil. However you create dualities, those dualities and the dynamics of their interactions can be understood through these Five Ranks. Then, as you proceed through these ranks, you reach the point of perfect integration, mutual accomplishment, absolute and relative totally integrated, totally unified. Neither absolute nor relative, neither male nor female, neither good nor bad.

The first of those ranks is the absolute basis of reality. The second rank is the emergence out of the realization of the absolute. The third rank is the manifestation of that realization in the world of the ten thousand things. It’s a synthesis of form and emptiness. It’s here that compassion begins to manifest effortlessly, with no sense of doing. The fourth rank is mutual integration. This is the characteristic of the bodhisattva in the world, acting according to conditions, according to karma, according to vow.

Then, finally, we reach the fifth rank, where no trace of enlightenment or non-enlightenment remains. Dongshan’s verse on that fifth rank says:

Who can be tuned to that beyond what is and what is not?
Though everyone wants to leave the ever-flowing stream,
each is still sitting in darkness black as charcoal.
Perfect integration falling into neither form nor emptiness,
who can join the master?

Who can be tuned in to reality beyond what is and what is not? Who can be in touch with that place that falls into neither the absolute nor relative. No one can tune into it—even a buddha or a sage cannot recognize it. Though everyone wants to leave the ever-flowing stream, each is still sitting in darkness black as charcoal. Though all of us want to leave the ceaseless turmoil of this world, there’s always a sense of needing to accomplish further, needing to be part of that continual stream of functioning. The third line is rendered in different ways. Each returns to sit among the coals is another translation. There’s nothing lacking, nothing extra. Everything is perfect and complete just the way it is.

The first two ranks show the two sides: absolute on one side, relative on the other side. The absolute is in relationship to the relative, the relative in relationship to the absolute, just the way we chant in the Heart Sutra: “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” In the Identity of Relative and Absolute we chant “Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.” There is an interdependent relationship between the two. In the third and fourth ranks, they’re independent. Absolute is absolute, and relative is relative. A devil is a devil, a buddha is a buddha, white paper is white paper, elephants are elephants. In the fifth rank, unity is attained. Everything is seen together—the devil is white paper. Looking south, the North Star is seen.

Perfect integration falling into neither form nor emptiness. Who can join the master residing in this realm? All others strive to rise above the common level. This one unites everything. In his “Genjokoan,” Dogen says, “No trace of enlightenment remains and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.” We call this endless activity “filling a well with snow,” the seemingly inane occupation of the ancient sages. No one can tell whether they’re sages or whether they’re crazy, whether they’re ordinary or holy. One of them hires a few others and they all climb the mountain to get to the snow-capped peaks. They fill their buckets with snow and they carry them down and throw the snow into the well, trying to fill it. Of course, filling the well with snow is impossible. Yet they do it, trip after trip, day after day. Saving all sentient beings is impossible, yet we practice it day after day. Putting an end to desires is impossible—desires are inexhaustible—yet I vow to put an end to them. The dharmas are boundless, yet I vow to master them. I vow to try to put a frame around them, though it can’t be done. The Buddha Way is unattainable, yet I vow to attain it. It’s an impossible task, an impossible dream, yet we practice it day after day.

In the fifth rank, all our sense of reaching a goal, of accomplishment, has completely disappeared. All that remains is putting one step in front of the other. All traces of enlightenment having fallen away, one puts on clothes and takes a meal. Just simple everyday activities. But everybody does this—what makes it so special? Misunderstanding this extraordinary ordinariness is the cause of the widespread self-styled Zen epidemic that we experience in this country. “Where spiritual powers wander at play among the ten thousand things, there is no way to frame it or to name it.” Because there’s no way to frame it or to name it, anybody with a loud voice and a little bit of charisma can deceive people. It’s hard to know if this is a sage or an ordinary being, but there’s a big difference. They may appear the same on the surface. Dogen says about the mountains: “An old master said, ‘Mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.’ The meaning of these words is not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains.” Is he just repeating himself? Clearly he’s trying to say something. It’s not that mountains are mountains, but that mountains are mountains.

The zazen of a beginner, with its beginner’s mind, is innocent. It’s free, open and receptive. After a while, as practice continues, people get very sophisticated with their Zen. They know the jargon and how to do the Zen schtick. It’s one thing to look like a Zen practitioner, to sit in the posture of a buddha and look like a buddha, and quite another to really practice this incredible Way with the whole body and mind. In the final stage of training, that same innocence of the beginner comes back. In a sense, the zazen of someone in the final stages of training is exactly like the zazen of someone in the first stage of training—very innocent, very open. But the zazen of someone in the first stage of training is not the zazen of someone in the final stages of training.