Zhaozhou’s “A Newborn Baby” (Koan)

Small Group Koan Work

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Tonight, we took up this month’s case, Zhaozhou’s A Newborn Baby (Blue Cliff Record, #80).


The Players

Zhaozhou Congshen (778-897, 10th gen) was a disciple of Nanquan (748-835), who was a disciple of Mazu (709-88). Touzi Datong (819-914, 11th gen) was a disciple of Cuiwei. Touzi and Zhaozhou also both appear in “Zhaozhou and the Great Death” (BCR #41/BOS #63). Touzi was forty-one years younger than Zhaozhou. Touzi settled down in his temple when he was sixty-one years old. The incident related in this case must have taken place when both he and Zhaozhou were quite old.


The Case

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby have the sixth consciousness or not?”

Zhaozhou said, “(Original translation: “Nen after nen, without ceasing.”)

The monk later asked Touzi, “What is the meaning of ‘throwing a ball into the rapids’?”

Touzi said, “Moment-to-moment nonstop flow.”*

*Original translation: “Nen after nen, without ceasing.”


Xuedou’s Verse

The question: the six senses. Purposeless.

  Inactivation of the six consciousnesses presents a question:

Well acquainted with it, the masters.

  The adepts both discerned where it comes from.

A ball is thrown into the rapids;

  A ball tossed on boundless rushing water —

Do you know where it is carried?

  It doesn’t stay where it lands; who can watch?


Hakuin’s Comment [Hakuin was the reviver of the Rinzai school of Zen; 1685-1768]

Although none of the examples in the Blue Cliff Record are fatuous, this one is particularly outstanding, so even the ancients over the generations have misperceived it. Xuedou used his truth-discerning eye to select this one from among the seventeen hundred koans; it lets us know how incomparably Zhaozhou and Touzi penetrated the depths. With this example, you’ll have to give up your religion. This monk was a scary guy who tried to catch Zhaozhou. Zhaozhou’s answer, “a ball tossed on rushing water,” is amazing and swifter than a spark. That’s because he has a lot of breasts producing sweet and sour at will. There is no explanation for this; it cannot be praised enough; it is verbal samadhi. Touzi’s answer, “moment-to-moment nonstop flow,” is also amazing. Is there subtle inconceivable spiritual joy and meditative delight in this?


Tenkei’s Comment [Tenkei was an important reformer of the Soto school of Zen; 1648-1735]

This monk misconstrues the state of the mindless wayfarer, comparing it to that of a newborn infant. This monk thinks that mindlessness means the ears are as though deaf, the eyes are as though blind, the six senses and six sense fields are cut off, and one becomes like a stone Buddha, as if one had burrowed into a hole. Anyway, concluding that it means annihilating the mind, he asks if the six consciousnesses are still there or what. Zhaozhou says it is like a ball tossed on fast-flowing water. See how it flows right away, no one knows where. Focus quickly! Is there any creation, maintenance, change, and destruction taking place herein? Are there any comings and goings of the six consciousnesses taking place herein? Is it something that comes into being or passes away? Is it something that begins or ends? Is there good in it? Is there evil in it? Open your eyes and look directly. What is it that is seeing right now? Take a look. This is Zhaozhou’s underlying meaning.


R.D.M. Shaw’s Comment

That ball will not stop in the place where it was thrown. It will move relentlessly with the current. Surely there is nobody who does not know that. And so, too, life flows on from instant to instant, from thought to thought, and there is nobody in the world who can foresee or ascertain its destination.


Sekida’s Comment

Nen: either a unit of thought or a steadily willed activity of mind. The first nen always acts intuitively and performs a direct, pure cognition of the object. The second nen immediately follows the first and makes the first its object of reflection. The integrating, synthesizing action of consciousness is the third nen. Reasoning, introspection, and so forth come from the third nen. But this third nen, clouded by its ego-centered activity, often argues falsely and draws mistaken conclusions.


In Buddhist psychology the six senses are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting together with the activity of consciousness. “It is like throwing a ball into the rapids.” Moment after moment, the ball floats on with the stream. It has no time to stop and reflect upon itself. It corresponds to the action of the first nen. A newborn baby’s senses may not yet be fully developed, but such as they are, they are pure, not yet overlaid by the delusive activity of consciousness as in an adult. The baby is capable of pure cognition, though that cognition is not fully developed. Full-fledged pure cognition is achieved by the practice of zazen, in which the delusive action of the third nen is cast off.


Nen follows nen, each passing away moment by moment. In ancient times, before scientific research had begun, this knowledge could be attained only through Zen practice, in which the different sorts of nen-actions are clearly perceived.


Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara’s Commentary From Her Dharma Talk at Upaya, November 30, 2011

The  question that the monk is asking is associative. He appears to be asking about some obscure Buddhist teaching, but he’s really asking a different question. Because in the Zen tradition, when you have some insight, some sartori, some clarity, you are in a sense like a newborn baby. So he’s asking the question, “Does a newborn baby have discriminative thinking? Does a newborn baby think and plan? In other words, do I still do that if I have insight? And the answer is so beautiful! “It’s like tossing a ball on swiftly flowing water.” So yes, there’s discrimination, there’s thought processes, but it’s not attached. It’s presence to everything in each moment, and it’s the second person who explains it even better: “Moment to moment, nonstop flow.” If we can offer that kind of presence to our self and really know where we are in each moment, we can offer it to others.


Rothenberg’s Verse

A Newborn Baby

Is a newborn baby able to see?

Like throwing a ball onto swift-running water

Even a kingfisher cannot impale it.

Whose baby is he talking about?

Mountains still mountains, rivers always rivers.

He blurs all senses to one.

He uses no tools.

He covers everything deft as the sky.

He moves like the sun and the moon, never stopping.

In the midst of a stagnant haze, he is able to act.

Moment to moment, unstoppable flow.

If I call baby the path, you would misconstrue;

Consistently babbling from beginning to end.

Drifting away, you’ll grow up blind.


Hotetsu’s Verse

There’s a babe inside the adult,

Overlaid with learning, skills, delusions.

There’s no going back, and what is going forward?

This, then this, then this . . . Watch and see!

“Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”

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