Koan Commentary by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
The Blue Cliff Record, number 80, Zhaozhou’s “A Newborn Baby”

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not?” Zhaozhou said “It’s like a ball bouncing on swift flowing water.” A monk later asked Tosu, “What is the meaning of a ball bouncing on swift flowing water?” Tosu said, “Moment by moment it flows on without stopping.”

Ancient Chinese painting of Zhaozhou
Zhaozhou was known for his amazing gift with words: people said at the time that when he spoke he “emitted light from his lips.”

Zhaozhou (778-897), also known as Joshu, is one of the most famous of all the Chinese Chan masters, figuring in more koans than any other. He had his first kensho when he was 18 and reportedly reached full enlightenment when he was 56, but didn’t begin teaching until he was 80. He then taught for 40 years until he died at the age of 120.

Zhaozhou was known for his amazing gift with words: people said at the time that when he spoke he “emitted light from his lips.” An example: a monk asked him, “What is the principal concern of the one wearing Buddhist robes?” Zhaozhou said, “Not to deceive himself.” This is a great teaching; it covers so much. The mind is cunning, and there are so many ways that we fool ourselves. We are largely unaware of what’s really happening, what we are really doing, our motives and intentions, our shortcomings, and the way that the mind tries to dress up what we are doing or saying.

Through zazen, we come to see through these deceptions of the mind. This is absolutely essential for becoming a fully aware, whole human being. Yet these deceptions seem to be endlessly layered. As time goes on we see more and more of the devious ways that the ego works, the ways that we perpetuate this fiction that we are fundamentally different from other people. We think we are special, that we are either better than other people or worse than other people. As we continue to practice we get wise to the mind’s machinations and how they obscure our true nature. But then, as one who has practiced a long time, I can say that we just keep running into new ones—more and more subtle. Zhaozhou goes right to that point with his simple answer: the principal concern is not to deceive yourself.

A monk once asked Zhaozhou, “I am a stupid person—floating, sinking, floating, sinking. How can I be released from the suffering of this world?” In response, Zhaozhou just kept sitting silently. The monk pressed, “Master, am I not sitting here appealing to you?” Zhaozhou replied, “Where on earth is it that you are floating and sinking?” We can suppose that this monk is captivated by his image of himself being buffeted about, rising and sinking in the Sea of Samsara. There is an element of melodrama in this question, and when he asks how he can be released, Zhaozhou refuses to feed that narrative. There’s your answer, monk—silence. But this goes over his head and he

I remember going to dokusan after a few years of practice and realizing as never before how full my mind was with concepts and thoughts and I muttered to Roshi, “I can’t believe how clogged my mind is.” He was glancing through one of the koan books, and without looking up, just drily remarked, “Your mind is no different from anyone else’s, Peter.” He was right. I still tell people the same thing in dokusan. Everyone thinks that their mind has all these unique problems. When you’re on a teacher’s mat for a while, you hear variations on this theme all the time. And it’s the same thing that I know through my personal experience.

A monk once asked, “What is the ultimate word?” Zhaozhou coughed. The monk exclaimed, “That’s it, isn’t it?” Zhaozhou said, “Alas, they won’t even let me cough.”

The other monk in the koan, Touzi (819–914), known in Japan as Tosu, left home as a young man. He studied sutras and meditation techniques under two teachers, coming to enlightenment with the second. He then roamed through China, eventually returning to his old home and settling on Mount Touzi. (Masters often took the name of the mountain that they were living on.) For more than 30 years Touzi remained in a thatched hut he built on the mountain, living in obscurity until the great Zhaozhou came gunning for him. After their initial encounter, which is the heart of another koan, Zhaozhou said to Touzi, “I’ve long committed thievery, but you’re worse than me.”

This is high praise in Zen. You refer to a master teacher as a thief because he or she steals away your afflictions. (Actually, no one can take away our afflictions for us, but a teacher can help.) It’s a good reminder that there’s really nothing we need to acquire, that everything we do in practice is for the purpose of getting rid of what is not essential to us. We need to get rid of everything that obscures our essential nature, all those things that get in the way of our harmonious functioning in the world. There is a famous saying: “Zen is a practice of daily losing.”

Now, back to the case. A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not?” The six senses are part of basic Buddhist psychology. They include the five we are familiar with along with the sixth, which is thinking. In Buddhist doctrine this is considered a sense, like the other five. These are also sometimes called the six consciousnesses, and are followed by the seventh level of consciousness, which interprets the data of the senses.

Before going further into this scheme, let’s tackle the Japanese word nen. It’s a very important concept in Buddhism, rich in meaning but very difficult to translate into English. The assistant to the roshi of one of the temples I trained at in Japan, an American who interpreted for him in dokusan, came to me and said, “How do you guys translate nen?” and I was as much at a loss as she was. But let’s take a stab at it. There is what we call the first nen, the second nen, and subsequent nen. The first nen is direct perception: the immediate experience of the six senses. The thought, the sound, the sight, taste, touch, and smell: just these directly. For example, there is the sound of the train. Just that. The second nen would be then to make something of that, to have a thought about the train—a memory or association, say. Now the immediate experience is once removed. The third nen is another thought form on top of the first two. And then the fourth, fifth, and subsequent nen all pile on, forming a train of thoughts or nen. This sequence rushes by in nanoseconds—and ordinarily beneath our awareness.

Perhaps the shortest translation of nen, although still imprecise, is a “thought” or “thought moment.” When we chant in the Kannon Sutra, “This moment arises from mind. This moment itself is mind,” it’s referring to nen. We used to translate it, “This thought arises from mind. This thought itself is mind.” Both of them refer to nen, and neither quite captures the original meaning.

The legendary Chinese Zen master Linji (Rinzai) once declared, “Just learn to cut off successive nen, and this is worth more than ten years of pilgrimage.” Learn—in the zendo—to leave the direct experience as it is: just the sound, just the feeling, and yes, just the thought. A thought, too, is part of human experience, and it poses no problem if we can refrain from stitching successive thoughts onto it.

The seventh level of consciousness is sometimes defined as the seat of the “I” concept. But it also connects us to that which is beyond the limitations of selfhood—undifferentiated Mind. It occupies a double role: mediating between self-consciousness and the Unconditioned, between the individual mind-body complex and capital-M Mind. The way in which we use the mind—our attention—determines the balance between these two aspects of our nature at any given time. The more we conceptualize direct experience, the more we nourish the self-concept, which only increases the number of thoughts that are self-referential: “I,” “me,” and “my.”

The seventh level is a kind of fulcrum on which our karma tips. If we could refrain from layering thoughts onto experience—if we could cut off the successive nen obscuring the bare sense impression—we would not be marring our pure, luminous Self-nature. But otherwise we’re just generating more vexatious karma.

The seventh consciousness, then, aggregates the data from our six senses: everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think. Then the synthesized data is deposited in the eighth level, the alaya-vijnana, the storehouse consciousness. There it lies as a karmic seed that will sprout into an action or reaction under certain causes and conditions. That’s what karma literally means—action or reaction—so this points to how important it is to use our senses wisely. What we look at, what movies we see, what we read, what we listen to, what we touch, what we smell, what we eat, and how we use this human mind—all of these things determine our karma, our future. These experiences all go into the storehouse consciousness where they remain in a latent form, dormant until they emerge again as the effects of our actions.

So when a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not,” we know that they do in some respects. I am no expert on newborn babies, but then how much can anyone know about the experience of a newborn baby? Certainly their senses aren’t fully developed; for example, they can’t quite focus their eyes at first. Likewise the mind, the intellect. A newborn baby does not have a developed sense of self, of course. It hasn’t yet developed self-consciousness, but we can presume that since it does have some operation of the ordinary five senses, its sixth sense, its intellect, is not completely blank. We know that a newborn baby’s brain is just sucking up all kinds of sensory data and developing the capacity to learn and then eventually to speak, and so forth. It’s a human being, but not a developed one.

This monk is no beginner. He’s raising a very intriguing question: does a newborn baby have human faculties? We know it has the equipment—it’s got the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, and brain—but that equipment has yet to be fully wired. It has the hardware, maybe, but not the software. Zhaozhou’s answer, still reverberating down from the centuries: “It’s like a ball bouncing on swift flowing water.” The monk asked Touzi about it later, so this was working on him. Zhaozhou’s answer didn’t catch him in a way that he could appreciate and understand it, so he asked Touzi, “What is the meaning of a ball bouncing on swift flowing water?” Touzi said, “Moment by moment it flows on without stopping.”

Awareness, flowing on. But self-awareness? Not so much. Yuan Wu, one of the co-authors of the Blue Cliff Record, commented, “Although a newborn baby is equipped with the six consciousnesses, though its eyes can see and its ears can hear, he doesn’t yet discriminate among the six sense objects. At this time he knows nothing of good and evil, long and short, right and wrong, or gain and loss. A person who studies, who practices the path, must become again like an infant. Then praise and blame, success and fame, unfavorable circumstances and favorable circumstances, none of these can move him.”

He then quotes an earlier master: “Though his eyes see form, he is the same as a blind man. Though his ears hear sound, he is the same as a deaf man.” Yuan Wu then continues, “He is like a fool, like an idiot. His mind is motionless as Mount Sumeru. This is the place where patch-robed monks really and truly acquire power.”

He is speaking here of samadhi: going beyond the realm of discrimination; beyond thoughts, concepts, words. In this realm we are not depositing seeds of karma in the storehouse consciousness. In fact, Hakuin, in his “Chant in Praise of Zazen,” says, “One true samadhi extinguishes evil; it purifies karma, dissolving obstructions.” When Yuan Wu says that we need to become again like an infant, of course he means in that sense. An infant has to be socialized and educated and civilized, and that happens through learning to discriminate.

We need to discriminate all the time. We’re always discriminating. People who can’t discriminate are psychotic. It’s an ability that comes with normal human development. We learn to distinguish this from that, right from wrong, what’s harmful from what’s not harmful. We all have this equipment, and by normal adulthood it’s all up and running just fine. We’re not going to lose our ability to discriminate. We’re not going to lose our sense of what’s harmful and what’s not harmful. We know right from wrong at a gut level. We’ve embodied it.

What we need do to lose is this incessant, unnecessary discriminating and judging, evaluating, categorizing, classifying. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary but often it’s not—the mind just churns away, discriminating all the time when it’s not called for, and as a result we become separated from our life. The incredible gift of sense experience is contaminated by thought. The mind grays and we find ourselves in the state of dissatisfaction, dukkha.

Yuan Wu continues his commentary by quoting an ancient who said, “My patched garment covering my head, myriad concerns cease. At this time, I don’t understand anything at all.” This means, of course, pure experience undiminished by conceptualization. Not having thoughts. Yuan Wu comments on that statement, “Only if you can be like this will you have a small share of attainment. Although an adept is like this, nevertheless he can’t be fooled at all. As before, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. He is without artifice and without clinging thoughts. He is like the sun and moon moving through the sky without ever stopping. Moment by moment it flows on without stopping.”

His phrase that “he is without artifice” describes a kind of childlike simplicity that is often seen in people with long training. A lack of guile. A later master, Master Shantao of the Stone Grotto, spoke to his monks about the responses of both Zhaozhou and Touzi: “Haven’t you seen a little one when it’s just emerged from the womb? Has a baby ever said, ‘I know how to read the Sutras?’ At that time, he does not know the meaning of having the Buddha nature or not having the Buddha nature. As he grows up he learns all sorts of knowledge, then he comes forth saying, ‘I am able and I understand’ without knowing that this is troubling over illusory dusts. Among the 16 meditation practices, the baby’s practice is the best. When he’s babbling, he symbolizes the person practicing the path with his detachment from the discriminating mind that grasps and rejects.”

“That grasps and rejects” cuts right to the heart of it, this habit of liking and disliking, which we’re warned about in Affirming Faith in Mind: “The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose. When preferences are cast aside the Way stands clear and undisguised.” Newborn babies haven’t yet fallen into likes and dislikes. Yes, there are basic physical responses to warm and cold and hunger, but the baby doesn’t conceptualize about would or could or should—“why does it have to be this way… I would prefer that… I don’t like this…,” and so forth. These are the germs of human misery. We do this to ourselves habitually. We have been doing it for lifetimes. It keeps running on its own its own power because of all those seeds that we have planted.

What zazen offers is a way to live with the immediacy of a newborn baby—with openness and simplicity. We come to see things simply and to respond simply. We don’t indulge in hypothetical conjecture. We don’t find fault with others. We don’t find fault with ourselves. That happens less and less as we go on because every time we conceive of “I,” “me,” or “my,” judge ourselves, find fault or praise ourselves, then we are stepping out of the stream. The stream of life, of movement, of flux that is reality. Every time we separate ourselves we are missing this rich, unfathomably marvelous present moment. ///