1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, 3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
—Matthew 18:1-4 (KJV)
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
—John 3:3 - 7 (KJV)
Great spiritual teachers often use metaphors. Jesus taught the metaphor of becoming like a small child, a baby. What is this baby metaphor? Babies represent complete, utter openness, magical-ness and nonconceptuality. The baby is a representation of not clinging, a mind that isn’t filled with ideas and preconceptions.
Jesus is cautioning against being arrogant. True humbleness is a clear, nonconceptual mind. It requires an act of humility for an adult to become like a small child and let go of conceptual arrogance and egotism. Think of it scientifically: to have an open mind like a baby, what will you have to do? You will need to humble yourself regarding who you think you are and all of your self-importance because a baby is nonconceptual. The baby’s mind is open and simultaneously aware. That teaching could go on and on.
In Dzogchen the main teaching is about awareness. A baby has pure awareness, but the adult’s awareness is obscured because of clinging to concepts and ideas. It takes humility, courage and wisdom to let go of conceptual mind and become like a small child again.
Nicodemus asks how can one be born again when one is old. Of course no one goes into their mother’s womb again. Nicodemus is right. You don’t do it that way; you do it spiritually. For an adult, like Nicodemus, to become open-minded like a baby, not literally like a baby, but spiritually like a baby, he must let go of all of his self-concepts. Spirituality isn’t a belief: it’s closer to playfulness and naturalness. Jesus said not to hinder the little children. Babies have direct being-ness, a gestalt of experience without being full of preconceived ideas, opinions and egotism.
Don’t think for a minute, however, that being reborn into a body makes you pure. It’s only an analogy: a little baby has no thoughts and concepts about right and wrong, good and evil, I’m cool or I’m not cool, I’m a great person or I’m a bad person. He’s simply open.
A baby is born with karma, and he’s going to grow into his karmic tendencies. He’s too small to hurt anybody now. He might punch someone in the nose if he were large enough. If he were big and strong, what would a little baby do? He might be dangerous, like a baby lion. There are people who believe in a perfection of physical nature, including some witches and ersatz religionists. They think that physical beings are perfect when born, but then they get corrupted. People who hold this type of belief are looking for a conceptual sixth ray perfection. Why? Even in their clumsiness they may be sensing something important—actual perfection—but responding immaturely to their senses with their imagination. There is, in fact, actual All Good Great Perfection (Samantabhadra rDzogs chen)! So what is it that people cling to? They cling to their ideas of what reality is, lacking the direct experience of spiritual penetration. This is ersatz spirituality, or you could say displacement spirituality, to think that babies are born pure and then when they grow up they become bad, or to build hopeful ideas about what perfection is.
Jesus isn’t saying to go back into your mother’s womb or that you’ll be pure again in your next life. Nicodemus’ problem is that he is thinking of the material world as ultimately real. He only believes in the physical world: money, power and control. Jesus is trying to get him to think about the spiritual world. He used an analogy that would blow Nicodemus’ mind. Nicodemus, being a materialist, is wondering how he could go back and start over as a baby—it’s too late. There’s no big argument there. Jesus is advising to become like a baby spiritually. To become spiritual you have to be similar to a baby because your mind is totally open.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, thinks he’s only a physical being. He doesn’t see himself as spiritual, nor does he see a baby as very magical. When Jesus said you have to be reborn, he knew full well Nicodemus would be confused. Is Jesus talking about reincarnating as a baby? No, he is alluding to the mindset of a baby, which is not set at all. The baby’s heart and mind are wide open. Jesus is encouraging Nicodemus to achieve a baby mind.
Jesus isn’t saying to become literally like a small child and crawl around going, “Goo-goo.” Acting like a child to some degree might be good for you, but Jesus is not implying to lose all of your intelligence. There is a level of absolute, natural purity to which Jesus is alluding when he says to become like a child. It’s a critical statement. Unfortunately, the meaning of it is mostly overlooked by the Christian church. It doesn’t mean that you become naively childlike, and then your subconscious mind takes over and makes you do a lot of stupid, childish things. In fact, Paul implied to put away your childish things.
When Jesus says to become like a small child, he means to let go of your conceptual idea of reality. He is referring to a little baby, not a troublemaker five-year-old. A baby has no preconceptions about anything. Jesus is talking about becoming that wild baby in your mind.
Jesus is discussing humility, but he’s not referring to the baby. A baby cries unabashedly; that’s not humble. It’s the adult who needs to be humble in order to let go of ideas about the world, conceptions of being loved and not loved, the eight worldly concerns. If you let go of the eight worldly concerns, you become like a small child. In Buddhism there are exercises in which one reflects on various contemplations that turn the mind around. Those make you into a small child.
As he grows up, a wise person engages in activities but doesn’t get caught up in them. He remains simple, like a little baby. As the Tao Te Ching says, “A great tailor cuts little.” Creating an elaborate, overly conceptual mind about everything is unnecessary. It’s better to keep a clear, simple naturalness, without overdoing. The real power would be to integrate that with life itself, with adult responsibility, and go to work, deal with your family, pay the taxes, and so on and so forth. To completely integrate that is tantra. To totally incorporate that understanding in the Christian sense is the kingdom of heaven. In the Taoist sense, it is to be a sage, become an immortal and return to Tao.