The Five Ranks of Master Dongshan speak to what it means to attain complete realization. It begins with total abandonment, relinquishment of everything, until it all collapses into a place of utter stillness, of utter blankness, of utter completion. It’s out of that darkness that something emerges, that a bit of light bursts forth, a little bit of clarity just on the cusp of that darkness. This clarity immediately turns into action and offers somebody a helping hand. It becomes so perfected that at a certain point one cannot even recognize what is going on. It’s so plain, it’s so basic, that a particular action at precisely the right time makes someone feel just a little bit better.

A monk asked Zhouzhou, “Everything returns to the one. What does the one return to?” Zhouzhou replied, “I made a shirt that weighs six pounds.” Puhua, a contemporary of Linji, used to walk through the town, ringing his bell, singing a song: When brightness comes, hit the brightness. When darkness comes, hit the darkness. Where up and down and the ten directions come, give them a swirling hit. When emptiness comes, shuck it. Linji saw a monk one day, told him to grab Puhua and say, “What is it when there is no brightness, when there is no darkness? What’s it like then?” The monk did as he was told and Puhua said, “Next week there’s a banquet at the temple of compassion.”


Photo by Felix Jaegle


The meal gatha that we chant everyday is an opportunity for us to recognize what is happening in the midst of a meal. What is oryoki, our formal meal? What does it mean to receive food? What is being asked of us? What is being given to us in the midst of simply receiving some rice, some beans, some salad? Listen to the words that begin, “First, seventy-two labors brought us this food.” It arrives through labor, through work, through an infinity of conditions. It is the universe itself packaged in the seventy-two labors. Where are we in this? Do we deserve it with respect to our practice, with respect to the virtue of giving? Where is non-greed? Where does our desire reside at this particular moment? It is necessary to study the self in the middle of that meal. The gatha goes on to give us many opportunities to recognize what this meal is really about. It’s about our parents. It’s about our teachers. It’s about the Three Treasures. It’s about all beings in the six realms. It’s about the precepts. It’s about our lives. It’s about everybody else’s life. Suddenly there is simply giving and receiving. Who’s sitting in the middle of it? Does there need to be anybody sitting in the middle of it? In that moment of non-greed, in that moment of being ready to receive that meal, the middle falls out. We are the link within the universe, of the first seventy-two labors, of all beings in hell, in heaven. And it’s passing through our hands, through our eyes, through our body. Sometimes we worry. We worry what will happen when we shed the layers of the self. What if it all goes? Well, it may be that for the first time we’ll be able to really give something, the first time we’ll really understand and embody the reality of oryoki.