Review of Dongshan's Five Ranks - Ted Biringer

Best Contemporary Zen Book in Years

By Ted Biringer on September 15, 2014
Format: Paperback
Essential reading for all Zen students – and a life expanding experience for readers in any tradition or no tradition.

If our experience of emptiness has been genuine, it informs our engagement with the differentiated world. As the experience of emptiness fades, we don’t attempt to recreate it. Instead we enter our life fully, uniting with circumstances and facing up to challenges as they inevitably present themselves. This is the realm where we deepen our awakening through our engagement with others in the midst of a suffering world.
Dongshan’s Five Ranks, p.77

Not only is this is the first (thus only) comprehensive treatment of the classic Zen expression, Dongshan’s Five Ranks (inclusive of the ‘Cycle’ or ‘Five Modes of Merit) in English, it is a comprehensive presentation of authentic Zen in the 21st century.

Robert Aitken once said to me, “The Way is founded in true experience and poetry.” The need to clarify the Way for oneself, and to find ways of conveying it to others, inspires poetry.
Dongshan’s Five Ranks, p.77

In his profoundly insightful treatment of the Five Ranks Zen teacher Ross Bolleter demonstrates an astonishingly clear way “of conveying it to others.” Indeed, Bolleter delivers nothing less than the Lion’s Roar of the Five Ranks, complete with a grand overview of Zen doctrine and methodology. Veteran Zen practitioners will find enough knowledge and insight in this book to merit it space on the ‘frequent access’ shelf, while first time Zen readers will come away with a reliable understanding of the fundamental characteristics Zen.

Besides in depth commentary on the form and essence of the Five Ranks and Cycle of Merit, this book provides a wealth of background information and source material for allowing readers to appreciate the full context of Dongshan’s Five Ranks from an informed and accurate perspective. This information and material includes such things as sections on ‘The Philosophical Heritage of the Five Ranks’ (discussing essential Zen sources like Nagarjuna, the I-Ching, and Huayen Buddhism), ‘Working With the Five Ranks’ (discussing approaches for ‘study’ and ‘practice’ including their role in koan training, as well as possible approaches for shikantaza practitioners), and ‘The Five Modes of Time and Timelessness’ (discussing the nature of ‘time’ in Zen/Buddhism). This book also includes two translations of two of the classic treatises on the Five Ranks, one by Caoshan Benji (840-901), and one by Linji Yixuan (d. 866).

One particular characteristic of Ross Bolleter’s expression is his rare insight into the nature and role of language in Zen practice-enlightenment. Unlike many Zen writers, Bolleter does not shy away from the fact (or worse, deny it) that Zen language is not independent of Zen itself. For instance he writes:

…the Five Ranks are not simply expedient teachings. They are a direct presentation of the inexpressible, essential Way. It is true that this is the default mode for all language and communication, but, especially with regard to the Five Ranks, I feel that Dongshan consciously and deliberately crafted them to focus, and as far as possible, to directly present the timeless essential realm. The essential cannot be expressed in words; rather, it is expressed as words.
Dongshan’s Five Ranks, p.77

In short, Dongshan's Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment, is the best treatment of the Five Ranks available in English, and it is the best Zen book by a contemporary Zen teacher I have seen in a long, long time.

Thank you Ross Bolleter – Nine Full Bows

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