The Traveller and the Ghosts

From Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom
(Dharmamitra Translation)

Then again, there are people who do have the idea of a self arise in relation to other phenomena. For instance, certain non-buddhists who sit in dhyana absorption and who, when they employ the universal pervasion of the earth element to enter a contemplative state, develop the view that, "The earth is me and I am the earth." There are similar cases in relation to water, fire, wind and space. It may also be the case that, on account of inverted views, one reckons that one's self also inhabits another person's body.

Additionally, there are times where someone generates the idea of one's self inhabiting another person's body. Take for example the case of a man who had been given a mission whereby he was compelled to travel a great distance. He spent the night alone in a vacant dwelling. In the middle of the night a ghost carried in a man's corpse and laid it down in front of him. Then there was another ghost who chased along behind and angrily castigated the first ghost, yelling, "This corpse is mine! Why did you carry it in here?"

The first ghost said, "It belongs to me! I carried it in here myself!"

The second ghost retorted, "The fact of the matter is, I am the one who carried this corpse in here!" Then each of the ghosts grabbed one of the hands of the corpse and tried to pull it away from the other. Thereupon the first ghost said, "There's a man here. We can ask him to settle this."

The ghost who had come in later then asked the traveler, "Well, who was it that carried this corpse in here?"

The traveler thought to himself, "Both of these ghosts are very strong. If I report the facts, I'm bound to die. If I lie, I'm also bound to die. So, since I can't avoid being killed in either case, what's the point in lying about it?" And so he replied, "It was the first ghost who carried in the corpse."

The second ghost flew into a rage, tore off one of the traveler's hands and then threw it down on the ground. At this, the first ghost pulled off one of the arms from the corpse and attached it as a replacement. They then proceeded in this fashion with both arms, both feet, the head, the two sides, and so forth until the traveler's entire body had been switched. The two ghosts then proceeded to devour the body which they had gotten from the exchange. When they had finished, they wiped off their mouths and departed.

At that point the traveler thought to himself, "With my very own eyes I saw those two ghosts entirely devour the body born of my mother! This body which I now have here is composed entirely of someone else's flesh! Do I really still have a body now? Or is it the case that I have no body at all? If I hold the view that I do indeed have a body,--that body is actually somebody else's entirely. If I hold that I don't have one,--still, there is a body here right now! He continued to ponder like this until his mind became so confused and distressed that he became like a man gone mad.

The next morning, he went off down the road. When he reached the neighboring country he saw that there was a Buddha stupa and a group of monks. He couldn't talk about anything else. He could only keep asking whether his body was existent or nonexistent. The bhikshus asked him, "Just who are you, anyway?"

The traveler replied, "Well, as for me, I don't know myself whether I'm a person or a non-person." He then described in detail the events which had transpired.

The bhikshus remarked, "This man has a natural understanding of the nonexistence of a self. He could easily gain deliverance." And so they offered an explanation, saying, "From its origin on up until the present, your body has always naturally been devoid of a self. It's not something that just happened now. It is merely on account of an aggregation of the four great elements that one conceives of it as 'my' body. In this respect, your original body and this one you now have are no different." Thus the bhikshus succeeded in bring about the traveler's deliverance to the Way, whereupon he cut off all afflictions and immediately realized arhatship. This is a case of there being times when one reckons the existence of oneself in the body of another person.