The Five Ranks is a Ch’an teaching from the 9th century.
It was created by Dongshan, one of the founders of the Caodong Ch’an lineage. It is about the nature of reality and our place in it. The Five Ranks are expressed as stages on the path which are levels of Awakening. Each of these five levels are supposed to bring us to deeper areas of Awakening.
This is a pretty heavy teaching and isn’t usually given in a setting like this.
The teaching of The Five Ranks is an essential doctrine in my lineage and in a few other ones. The famous Zen Master Hakuin Zenji considered The Five Ranks an indispensable part of Zen practice and Enlightenment.
The Five Ranks represents progress on the path and this kind of teaching has always been an important part of Mahayana Buddhism, including Ch’an and Zen. But, Dongshan’s presentation marks a turning point at which the teaching is expounded clearly and can be used as a map to Enlightenment.
Like koans or sutras, The Five Ranks is one way that wisdom can be transmitted.
Each of The Five Ranks transmits an aspect of wisdom. For those who set out on a path of deep practice, dedication and commitment to understanding, The Five Ranks is a necessary component.
The Five Ranks is among the best Dharma methods for making progress on the path to Awakening, and contain layers of wisdom.
I’m going to present the verse descriptions of The Five Ranks first, and then go into greater detail. I do believe that these verses speak for themselves, but I also understand that a lot of people are not used to studying and gaining insights from this kind of text.
The Five Ranks of Dongshan 
First Rank: Shadow Within the Light: (the relative absolute)
At the beginning of the night’s third watch, before there is moonlight,
Don’t be surprised to meet yet not recognize
What is surely a familiar face from the past.
Second Rank: The Light Within the Shadow: (the absolute relative)
An old crone, having just awakened, comes upon an ancient mirror:
That which is clearly reflected in front of her face is none other than her own likeness.
Don’t lose sight of your face again and go chasing your shadow.
Third Rank: Coming from Within the Light: (coming from within the absolute)
Amidst nothingness there is a road far from the dust.
If you are simply able to avoid the reigning monarch’s personal name,
Then you will still surpass the eloquence of previous dynasties.
Fourth Rank: Going Within Together: (arriving in both)
Two crossed swords, neither permitting retreat:
Dexterously wielded, like a lotus amidst fire.
Similarly, there is a natural determination to ascend the heavens.
Fifth Rank: Arriving Within Together: (attainment in both)
Falling into neither existence nor nonexistence, who dares harmonize?
People fully desire to exit the constant flux;
But after bending and fitting, in the end still return to sit in the warmth of the coals.
Dongshan’s student Caoshan added further commentary to this teaching:
The Shadow Within The Light: A piece of emptiness pervading everywhere, all senses silent.
The Light Within The Shadow: The moon in the water, the image in the mirror—fundamentally without origin or extinction, how could any traces remain.
Coming From Within The Light: The whole body revealed, unique; the root source of all things, in it there is neither praise nor blame.
Arriving Within The Shadow: Going along with things and beings without hindrance, a wooden boat empty inside, getting through freely by being empty.
Arrival In Both At Once: The absolute is not necessarily void, the relative is not necessary actual; there is neither turning away nor turning to.
The light represents our Buddha nature—our nature that is fundamentally one with everything; our true and highest Awakened self. The shadow represents our minds as they are before Awakening, obscured by delusion.
So, in more detail:
1) The Shadow Within the Light:
At this level we realize emptiness. An awareness of our Buddha nature has risen in us. We have become aware of how things are interconnected but, in spite of this, our minds are still obscured by delusion. We might understand the Dharma intellectually, but we don’t understand it intuitively.
2) The Light within the Shadow
Here our focus begins to shift. We come to an understanding that everything we encounter is part of our true nature. This is not limited to other beings. It includes rocks, a beautiful sunset, stars in the sky—everything. Our delusions are still present, but they are in the background. We have devoted ourselves fully to the Dharma and we spend more and more time understanding our Buddha nature. We come to the place of seeing our true selves beneath our delusion.
3) Coming from within the Light.
Here we have penetrated our delusion and spent time dwelling in our Buddha nature. Our experience has deepened. In the Buddhist context we have had experiences like Kensho or Satori. We have caught a glimpse of our Enlightenment and our separate selves fall away (at times). We’ve accessed the timeless and transcendent space of our true nature. This has a deep effect of purifying us and increasing our wisdom and compassion.
4) Arriving within the Shadow
The world around us is seen more clearly. We have let go of preconceptions. Everything we encounter: every person, event and thing is now brought to vivid life as completely unique, even as it is one with the whole. With the perception that contacting our Buddha nature has given us, we have insights into all of the things around us. We see that everything is connected to us in countless ways. Because we have integrated with our Buddha nature, we can see everything around us as it truly is, without our preconceptions skewing our image of reality.
5) Arriving in both at once
Here we penetrate our Buddha nature so completely that we aren’t held down by our delusions anymore. We dwell in Awakening. We are free from dualistic thinking and have achieved real inner freedom.
It’s my belief that simply being aware of this map to Awakening can be helpful to us. That being said, at a later time I’ll write about how it can be applied effectively in our lives.
1. Chieh, Liang. The Record of Tung-shan. University of Hawaii Press, 1986.