Linji – The True Person Without Rank

While today Soto Zen teachers see themselves as heirs to Dogen who taught in the 13th century, Rinzai Zen teachers tend to trace their lineage to a much later figure of the 18th century, Hakuin (1686-1768), described by scholars as both a revitaliser and a reformer of Rinzai Zen. Rinzai teachings and practice had originally been brought to Japan in the 13th century by Eisai who had traveled to China before Dogen, and Dogen had himself practiced in the Kenninji monastery, which had been founded by Eisai. But, as Kenninji had remained nominally a Tendai monastery, it had failed to give rise to a distinct Japanese Rinzai Buddhist tradition. The latter was in fact the result of a succession of Rinzai teachers in the following centuries. The Japanese Rinzai tradition developed over the centuries in the context of the samurai class which played a prominent role at a time where competition for land was rife. Because of their privileged position, the families of the samurai class were well-educated, had a strong interest in all things Chinese, and had the time and resources to read and practice. Even though Hakuin can be seen as having expanded the appeal of Rinzai teaching and practice to a much wider audience, the Rinzai school has remained up to this day the first choice of Japan’s educated upper classes in preference to the Soto Zen school often associated with the practice of ordinary people.

Linji Yixuan (Jp Rinzai Gigen) is regarded as the founder of the Chinese Linji school of Chan Buddhism, which became the Rinzai Zen school in Japan. Linji (c. 810-866) taught at the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907). He was a “dharma great-grandson of Mazu Daoyi (709–788),”who traced his lineage back to Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, and through him to Daoxin (580-651), the Fourth Patriarch, and more broadly what is referred to as the East Mountain School, in today’s eastern Hubei province, whose teachings strongly focused on meditation. More likely than not, the Zen lineage going back to Bodhidharma was reconstructed by the East Mountain teachers, including Huineng, to provide an ancient origin to teachings that were in fact new.

Dogen saw Mazu as “a master who was a vehicle of the authentic Buddhist teachings before the Zen tradition separated into the Five Schools.” As noted in one of the pages on Soto Zen, Mazu was associated with two famous sayings“: “The mind is itself Buddha” and “Ordinary mind is the Way.” “Seeing ultimate reality (li) within concrete phenomena (ji) was the basis of Mazu’s teachings and that of his disciples. “In other words, they taught that Buddha nature is not something hidden in living beings. They said, rather, that all concrete phenomena and all beings are themselves manifestations of tathata, or ultimate reality …

Barbara O’Brien, whose history of Zen Buddhism in “The Circle of the Way” I will follow for the Chinese origins of Rinzai teachings, writes that Linji “had a strong background in Huayan Buddhism as well as Yogacara.” This is not, however, what Linji is best known for! Linji is “famous for shouting, nose tweaking, and smacking students with his horsehair whisk,” but, she adds, “neither his physicality nor the main points in his teaching were new.” In fact, Mazu was also “remembered for punctuating his teachings by striking students, probably with a horsetail whisk … that Buddhist and Daoist masters carried as symbols of authority. This was not done as punishment, mind you, but in the spirit of compassionate encouragement … It is true that a sudden sensory jolt sometimes can shock someone into an awakening experience.” During zazen, a flat stick called a “keisaku” – “warning stick” or “awakening stick” was used to wake up the meditators showing by their slouched posture that they had got lost in thought, or even fallen asleep.

O’Brien notes that what we know about Linji “appears to be the later invention of the Linji faction of the Song dynasty,” reflecting the way that this faction wanted to promote their teacher.

Linji is associated with the concept of the “true person without rank.” This is a rearticulation of what Mazu has referred to as the “Ordinary Mind,” which was a mind “that is devoid of [contrived] activity, and is without [notions of] right and wrong, grasping and rejecting, terminable and permanent, worldly and holy.” In Linji’s more colourful language:

“The master, taking the high seat in the hall, said, “On your lump of red flesh is a true man without rank who is always going in and out of the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet confirmed this, look, look!”
Then a monk came forward and asked, “What about the true man without rank?”
The master got down from his seat, seized the monk, and cried, “Speak, speak!”
The monk faltered.
Shoving him away, the master said, ‘The true man without rank – what kind of dried piece of shit is he!’ Then he returned to his quarters.”

O’Brien comments: “What’s Linji saying here? You are not your rank. You are not your position in society. You are not the office you hold; nor are you your place in the unemployment line. You are not the robe, uniform, suit, or cast-aside rags you wear.”

It is said that Linji is the author of the famous statement “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The Buddha here stands for any reified view of anything as “separate.” Strong and iconoclastic words as well as deeds were used by Linji to convey what traditional schools such as the Huayan school had taught through philosophical arguments.

Whereas Dogen’s training was aimed at “softening” the ego-self, the strategy used by Linji was designed to “explode” it. Bret Davis writes: Linji “teaches a more dramatic route through an intense state of meditative concentration … in order to cultivate the “great ball of doubt.” This is what koans are meant to achieve. Koans are apparently irrational statements or stories presented as short exchanges between master and disciple, meant to shock the mind into “glimpses” (kensho) wherein the non-dual nature of the mind is directly intuited. Instead of being encouraged to relax into a state of “goallessness,” Rinzai practitioners are required “to break through all dualistic oppositions, of subject/object, inner/outer, pure/defiled, being/nothingness, speech/silence, etc … The entire world of relativities in which we live must be transcended … before it can be reaffirmed … The relation between emptiness and form must itself be understood non-dually … Even the duality between duality and non-duality must be let go of. To attempt to do this by means of analytical reason, however, only produces yet further dualities. This Gordon knot cannot be teased apart with the fingers of the intellect; it must be cut directly and holistically with the sword of intuitive wisdom.”

Koan practice requires the koan to be held in one’s mind, not only during zazen, but during the entire day, and possibly into the night as well, as monks are invited to sit beyond the set zazen periods, with the most determined sitting all night long, sleeping in the sitting position, vowing not to lay down to sleep for months on end. Once a day at least, one has to face the teacher at dokusan to propose one’s answer, only to be rebuked, and sent back to the cushion. There is a build-up of frustration and eagerness for the truth that grows into a crisis that, at one point, blows up the sense of self into a kensho. This is what the teacher was waiting for: the moment when the practitioner having become “a great mass of doubt” dies to himself and is suddenly revived into an experience of awakening. In the words of Takusui, a disciple of Hakuin, describing the practice of the Great Doubt:

“And after that, when you are no longer aware of your being completely like a dead man, and are no more conscious of the procedure of the Great Doubt but become yourself, through and through, a great mass of doubt, there will come a moment, all of a sudden, at which you emerge into a transcendence called the Great Enlightenment, as it you had awoken from a great dream, or as if, having been completely dead, you had suddenly revived.

During the Song dynasty (969-1279), even though Buddhism as a whole came under suspicion as a foreign religion, the Zen schools continued to flourish. Zen split into Five Houses, Linji and Caodong being two of these. Dogen had enrolled at the temple on Mt Tiantong where Eisai had spent four years training in that tradition focusing on meditation and koan practice. But he had met the man he regarded as his true teacher, Rujing, belonging to the Caodong lineage, when the latter had been appointed as head of the Tiantong temple.

Barbara O’Brien – The Circle of the Way
Bret W. Davis – “Forms of Emptiness in Zen” (research paper)

Ink portrait of Rinzai (Linji) by Soga Jasoku (fl. c. 1300)