7 – The True Person Has No Rank

(This is the beginning of the second cycle of the Zenosaurus course. There will be six koans in this cycle.)

The Koan:

There is a true person of no rank who is constantly coming and going from the portals of your face. Who is that true person of no rank?

This koan is used to awaken the mind, and particularly to show you how you can be at home in universe and share its deep and luminous life. Probably the best way to work with it is to play with it. Don’t rank how you are doing. Just let it keep you company, like an animal would. You forget about it, but every time you look, there it is! And after a while it doesn’t go away.


Linji was a great teacher and the ancestor of most of the koan lines of Zen and this is a koan of his. It has been used since ancient times as a meditation both for beginners and advanced students.

You don’t notice how much the mind makes up stories about people until you catch it in the act. Your mind is walking down the street going, fat guy, old lady, frat boy, cute girl, scary guy doesn’t wash, guy, guy, girl, girl guy, wait is that a guy or a girl? The mind goes label, label, label until it doesn’t and a different possibility appears. If you really show up in your own life, you don’t have rank. No rank is not about humility; it is about noticing who you really are.

Here is an example of how the true person of no rank has been used as a koan.

The Story of the Doughnut Maker

Yu worked in the town as a doughnut maker. She used to visit Zen Master Langya and ask him questions along with everyone else. The Master gave her Linji’s saying, “The true person of no rank.”

One day she heard a street musician singing a pop song about lotus flowers:
“…If you haven’t heard her song, how can you find the lake?”
When she heard those words, she was greatly enlightened. She instantly threw her doughnut pan onto the ground. [Stories about women’s enlightenment often feature damage to domestic equipment.]
Her husband was startled and said, “Are you crazy?”
She said, “This isn’t your department.” Then she went to see her teacher. Even seeing her from a distance, the teacher could tell she had attained awakening.
He asked, “What is the true person of no rank?”
She immediately said, “There’s someone of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain into two with a single blow. For ten thousand years the flowing water doesn’t know the source.”

After that she became a famous teacher herself.
(The doughnut maker’s story is used in the PZI miscellaneous koan collection. It is based on Thomas Cleary’s translation of the story.)

We chop up our lives is by saying, “I’m wise, I’m happy, I should be wiser, I should be happier.” The true person of no rank steps out of all that.


Here is something a friend wrote me.

I was pondering the phrase ‘Without a trace’ while I was sitting at the Oakland Zendo, and realized it does not mean something like drawing a line in the sand and then erasing it, or stepping in the dust and then the wind blows away your tread. It means the world remakes itself moment by moment, wholly new. Second by second, there is nothing left un-refreshed.

When I’m not ranking people or experiences, I’m free, I’m independent, the world looks after me with what feels like tenderness. The koan follows me around, the koan comes near, the koan becomes me.

Questions are useful sometimes:

  • Name something that’s definitely true about yourself. Now consider, what if you’re wrong? Try out the opposite. What would it be like not to know?
  • What is a high rank for you? What is a low rank? Has that changed for you over the course of your life? Are there or have there been places in your life where you don’t have a role, a place, a position?
  • Is there a time when you have surprised yourself by not comparing yourself with others?
  • Have you ever had the line of a song or words from pop culture speak to you in a deep way? I think of “Do you know the way to San Jose?”
  • And show me someone of no rank with six arms and three heads, working furiously, smashing Flower Mountain into two with a single blow.
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