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 and figures in more koans than any other master. 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.” I love this; it covers so much. It’s such a great teaching, not to deceive ourselves. The mind is so wily, so cunning, and there are so many ways that we are in denial. In so many ways we are 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, and these deceptions seem to stretch on endlessly. As we continue to practice we start seeing all 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, superior or inferior. As we continue to practice we have some insights into that mechanism, into the different veils we have that obscure the Mind, that obscure our true nature – but then, I can say as one who has practiced a long time, we just keep running into new ones. More and more subtle, but still there. Zhaozhou goes right to that point with his simple answer: the principal concern is to not to deceive yourself.

A monk once asked him, “I am a stupid person – floating, sinking, floating, sinking. How can I be released from the suffering of this world?” Zhaozhou just kept sitting silently. The monk said, ”Master, am I not sitting here appealing to you?” Zhaozhou said, “Where on earth is it that you are floating and sinking?” We can suppose that this monk is quite captivated by his own image of himself, being buffeted about, rising and sinking in the Sea of Samsara. There is an element of melodrama to this question, and when he asks how he can be released, Zhaozhou responds by sitting silently. There’s your answer, monk. But this goes over his head and he appeals again: “Look, give me something, throw me a bone here.” “Where on earth is it that you are floating and sinking?”

I remember going to dokusan after few years of practice and being just appalled at how clogged my mind was with concepts and thoughts and I said to Roshi, “I can’t believe how clogged my mind is.” He didn’t even look up. He was looking at something else, and he said, “Your mind is no different from anyone else’s, Peter.” He’s right. I’m still trying to tell people the same thing in dokusan. Everyone thinks that their mind is so out-of-control, it has all these special unique problems. You have to be on a teacher’s mat for a while: you hear pretty much the same thing 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 said, “That’s it, isn’t it?” Zhaozhou said, “Alas, they won’t even let me cough.”

The other monk in the koan, Tosu (819-914) 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 Tosu. (Masters often took the name of the mountain that they were living on.) For more than 30 years Tosu remained in a thatched hut he built on the mountain, living in obscurity until the great Zhaozhou came looking for him. After their initial encounter, which is the heart of another koan, Zhaozhou said to Tosu, “I’ve long committed thievery but you’re worse than me.”

This was high praise in Zen. You refer to a master teacher as a thief because they’ve taken away your obstructions and defilements. It’s a good reminder that there’s nothing we need to acquire in practice, that everything we do in practice is for the purpose of getting rid of what is not essential. 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

Now, back to the case. A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby possess the six senses or not?” The six senses are basic Buddhist psychology. They include the five we are accustomed to along with the sixth, which is thinking. This is considered a sense, like the other five. They are also sometimes called the six consciousnesses, and are followed by the seventh level of consciousness which interprets the data of the senses; that is, what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think about then gets conveyed to the seventh level, which is called the conveyor consciousness. Then all that data is conveyed to the eighth level which is the level of the of the alaya-vijnana,  the “storehouse consciousness.” According to this understanding of the way human consciousness works, everything we hear, see, smell, taste, touch, and think about is filed away in this storehouse consciousness as seeds, and this is the mechanics of karma.

This brings us to a very important and rich word, the Japanese word nen which is virtually impossible to translate. There is a translator and assistant to the roshi of one of the temples I trained at in Japan who once came to me and – she’s American – said, “How do you translate nen?” and I was a loss, as she was, but we can try with a few words. There is what we call the first nen, the second and third nen, and subsequent nen. The first nen is direct perception: the direct activity 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 that’s once removed now, or to have an association of the train, to have a memory of the train. This all happens in nanoseconds. The third nen is another one — another thought about that thought –  and then the fourth, fifth, and subsequent nen all pile on and form a train of thoughts or nen..

Perhaps the shortest translation of nen, although still inadequate, is a thought or “thought moment.” When we say in the Kannon Sutra, “This moment arises from mind. This moment itself is mind,” that’s nen. We used to translate it, “This thought arises from mind. This thought itself is mind.“ Both of them are nen, and both translations are unsatisfying.

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 consciousness, which aggregates the data from our six senses, creates our core sense of identity. 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 how much can anyone know about the experience of a newborn baby? Certainly their senses don’t seem to be fully developed; for example, they can’t quite focus their eyes at first. And then there’s 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 that its sixth sense, its intellect, is not completely blank. We know that a newborn baby’s brain is just sucking up all of this sensory data and developing the capacity to learn and then eventually to speak, and so forth. It’s a human being, a newborn baby 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. Z’s answer, still reverberating down from the centuries: it’s like a ball bouncing on swift flowing water. The monk asked Tosu about it later, so this was working on him. Z’s answer didn’t catch him in a way that he could appreciate and understand it, so he asked Tosu, “What is the meaning of a ball bouncing on swift flowing water?” Tosu said, “Moment by moment it flows on without stopping.”

Awareness, flowing on. But self-awareness? Not so much. Here is a commentary on this koan by Yuan Wu, one of the co-authors of the Blue Cliff Record: “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.”

And then he quotes someone else: “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 course, about 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 the Hakuin chant, 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, the development of the brain and the whole socialization process. We learn to distinguish this from that, right from wrong, what’s proper from what’s improper, what’s harmful from what’s not harmful. We all have this equipment, it’s all up and running just fine now. We’re not going to lose that. 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 to lose is this incessant, unnecessary discriminating and judging, evaluating, categorizing, classifying, when it’s unnecessary. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary but often it’s not – the mind just churns away, discriminating all the time when it’s not necessary, and as a result we become separated from our life. We lose our direct experience with the six senses, those incredible gifts. 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.” Of course, it means without understanding anything up in the intellect. 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 quality that is often seen in people with long training, a kind of childlike quality. A lack of deviousness. Disingenuousness. And then a later master, Master [Shang Zao?] of the Stone Grotto spoke to his monks about the responses of both Zhaozhou and Tosu: “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 Scriptures?” 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 as we chant 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 do this discriminatory thinking about what she wishes things could be like…why does it have to be this way…I would prefer that…I don’t like this…and so forth. This is the source of our 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. Simplicity, ultimately, where we see things simply, respond simply. We don’t indulge in hypothetical things. 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 a self, every time we think about ourselves, 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 wonderful present moment. ///