A monastic asked Zhaozhou, “Does a newborn baby also have the sixth consciousness?” In order to appreciate this question, you need to understand what the basic Buddhist teachings on consciousness are. Buddhist psychology is quite different from Western psychology in the way it elucidates the functioning of the mind. According to the teachings, there are eight consciousnesses which can be represented as a wave. At the top of the wave we have the six sense consciousnesses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Mind is considered to be an organ of perception just like the eye or the nose.
What we call reality occurs when the object of perception, the organ of perception, and sense consciousness come together. For example, when the eye, the organ of perception, comes together with a book, the object of perception, and they come together with the sense consciousness, in this case eye consciousness, altogether they create the reality of “book.”
So it is with thought. Thought, mind, and consciousness together create a reality that’s just as real as any tangible reality in front of me. Consequently thoughts create karma. When we chant the Gatha of Atonement we say, “All evil karma ever created by me since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and thought…” We need to appreciate that we constantly create karma by what we do with our bodies, what we do with our words, and what we do with our thoughts.
Under the six consciousnesses there’s a seventh level called manas or ego consciousness. That’s the continuous awareness of a self. This is the consciousness that creates and perpetuates the illusory sense of reality. From a Buddhist point of view, a dream is just as real as what you are experiencing right now. In a dream, you’re being chased. You are running and panting, maybe even breaking out in a sweat and trembling with fear. Suddenly, you wake up. Relieved, you say to yourself, “Oh, it was only a dream. It was only in my mind.” This is only in your mind as well. All of it is nothing but a dream.
But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we stick to the dream like flypaper. We create elaborate stories about the way things are, and completely ignore the fact that the ten thousand things are in a constant state of becoming. Nothing is permanent.