“There is a true person of no rank coming and going through your senses’

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Zenways Sangha in October 2022

Since I started studying and practising Zen, I have come across a variety of different teachings, different ways which point to the same direction, teachings that enable students to realise what we really are, to clearly see into our true nature. One of these teachings that intrigued me from the very beginning is the one about the true person of no rank. This teaching really caught my attention and from the first moment I heard it, I have been using it a lot in my own practise. This evening talk is inspired by this interest I have for this specific teaching. 

As you most likely know, the branch of Zen we are part of, we as in Zenways, is the branch called Rinzai. It is called Rinzai after its founder, Master Rinzai or Linji in his original Chinese name. Rinzai is the Japanese translation and this teaching of the true person of no rank comes from him. 

So, one day Master Rinzai addressed one of his students and said “There is one true person of no rank, always coming out and going in through the gates of your face. Beginners who have not yet witnessed that, Look!”

Well, I am sure that we are all very familiar with the concept of a person with a rank since we live in a society based on this concept of different ranks. Master Rinzai, instead, is talking about a true person of no rank. What is he referring to and how this teaching can help us to discover what we really are? Let’s see….

I first got an idea about this teaching one morning I was out on my bike. I saw in a field a group of cows and really noticed how the difference between me and those cows were just …. mental constructions, just ideas, concepts. Well, I am not here to say that there are not differences between me and the cows, however, I am saying that there is no difference between me and the cows

Of course, there are differences in form, in how me and the cows communicate, well I like to think so, in what we do and so on. However, our true nature is the same one, the true nature of the cows and humans’ true nature is the same one. We do not belong to different kinds of essential natures or different essential ranks.

The mind, rightly so, notices the differences and “produces” opinions and differentiations which ‘forces’ us to see only the world of ranks, of separation, of me and the cows and so on and so forth. In reality, if I was to paraphrase Master Rinzai, “There is something truer, something that doesn’t belong to any rank which always arises and passes. That is always coming out and going in through the gates of your face, of my face of the cows’ faces.

Of course, at one level, through our discriminating mind, the differences are many. Cows walk on 4 legs and graze grass; humans walk on 2 legs and eat… other things. Or, differences between humans can easily be noticed by our discriminating mind. Differences in what we call races, cultures, educations, opinions, ranks and so on. However, before any of these mental based conditions, before any idea we might have about things in general, there is already something going on regardless of all the differences just mentioned, nationality, culture, education, ranks…..  There is not a single existential difference between us, simply the expression of the same very thing which appear, to our eyes, different, which might be perceived by our conditioned mind as different. However, right here, right now, the moment before we attend any thought, any idea, any concept popping in the mind, there is a person of no rank always coming out and going in through the gates of our face. Whether we recognise that or not, this true person of no rank is always here. And, this true person is not coming from anywhere special, from any highly developed world or planet. This true person has always been coming out and going in through the gates of our face from the very moment we were born, regardless of what we have grown up to be. And, how about before we were born? 

I have a very recent episode that got me thinking of the true person of no rank. The other day, I went for a cycle ride, I got home and since I had an appointment in town soon after, I didn’t eat or drink, I just jumped in the car and went to town. On the way back home, suddenly, I had this strong sense of thirst, the body was clearly demanding water. That, of course, was not intellectual. I didn’t have to work anything out in my mind. It was a clear something that was clearly telling me something. And that something, didn’t have anything to do with Riccardo specifically, it didn’t have anything to do with my past, what I did, what I studied, whether I was a Zen practitioner or not, whether I was Italian, English or Spanish. It was not conditioned by anything mental but it was a direct clear experience coming through this body. Was that the true person of no rank? We might differ in answering this question, but there is definitely something happening there that didn’t need any idea of ranking to manifest what was required and then make me do what was really required, simply drink a glass of water. 

In addition to that (drinking when the need is clearly felt), this person of no rank would simply put a coat on when it feels cold, it would take off a jumper when it feels hot, it would eat when there is a sense of hunger, would sleep when feeling tired and would drink a glass of water when feeling thirsty. Nothing exceptional, nothing extraordinary, just the very ordinary manifestation of our humanness….. No effort in there, no mental struggle, no need to try to work anything out, simply remaining connected with the very reality of the present moment and respond to that. It is an alignment, an intimate alignment to what is real, felt directly, here and now, unconditioned by fixed ideas and concepts. 

Sometimes, we just need to drop our ideas, our fixed ideas and what is required just become very very clear. Embodying this teaching is in this spontaneous responding. When we embody this teaching of the person of no rank, we are acting in a sphere which is not just our personal, ‘separate’, individualistic sphere, but we are taking responsibility for the whole, for this ungraspable, nameless one thing that we all together happen to be and experience, in different ways, of course but, at the same time, in the same way.   

And, the shift from living as a person with a rank, a fixed rank of various mental identification to living as a person with no rank is key to liberation. From mind imprisoned, or mental imprisonment to truly acting spontaneously in response to what the present moment reallyrequires, no what I, Riccardo would like or would not like but what the requirement of the moment is? The person of no rank eats when is hungry and sleeps when is tired. At the same time, it acts when action is required. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I would not eat a pizza or an ice-cream anymore in my life, that would be tragic! It is more about seeing our own delusions, our own personal agendas that, at times can make us act selfishly, that can make us create the conditions for suffering, at times our own suffering and other times we can make people around us suffer too. 

There is a nice Zen story which encapsulates this idea of simply doing what is required, of simply allowing this person of no rank to come through and I think it goes something like that. 

A new monk just entered a monastery to study Zen with a Master: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

The Master asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied: “I have eaten.”

The Master said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

Apparently at that moment the monk was enlightened. 

As simple as that. The monk might have expected some great, exceptional teachings but all we really need to know is just here in front of us. What we are required to do is just be here open and allow the present moment to show it to us. 

How do we embody this teaching? I have heard Daizan many times saying that realisation is important but of course, actualisation is what really matters here. This is the difficult part, at least for me, as the tendency is to come back to what the discriminatory mind, hence the practice. So, how do we embody this person of no rank, this true person of no rank?

Now, we are going to do a period of walking and sitting meditation. We can try altogether to just align with what the present moment really requires there. When walking, just walk, dropping all our fixed ideas of good or bad walk, just drop the attention in the body, an upright posture and just simply walk. When sitting in meditation, again, dropping the attention in the body, having an upright posture which is conducive to alertness and then just do what it is required to maintain that posture, nothing else, nothing to work out, just observe the true person of no rank coming out and going in through the gates of your face. Master Rinzai is encouraging us to look, just to look. So, let’s do our best to look attentively and rest our awareness in this sense of the underlining person of no rank that is there anyway, whether we recognise it or not. 

This teaching, this unconditioned observation can enable students, us, to realise what we really are, to clearly see into our true nature.