Zhuang Zi went to Jou and saw a stark, empty skull by the roadside. He struck it with a horsewhip and asked, “How did you come to this? Did you live an extravagant life and abuse your constitution? Were you a condemned criminal and killed by the executioner? Did you do something wrong which shamed your parents and your wife and children (and commit suicide)? Or did you die of hunger and starvation? Or did you live to an old age and die a natural death?” After saying this, he took the skull and, using it as a pillow, lay down to sleep. At midnight, the skull appeared to him in a dream, and said to him, “You talked like a sophist. What you mentioned are the troubles of mortal life. When one dies, one does not have such troubles. Do you want to hear about life after death?” “Yes”, replied Zhuang Zi. “In death,” said the skull, “there are no kings and no subjects and no change of seasons. One is completely free, regarding heaven and earth as spring and autumn. Such happiness exceeds even that of a King.” Zhuang Zi would not believe him and said, “If I asked the controller of life to restore your body, give you bones and flesh and skin, return you to your parents and family and let all your neighbourhood know about it, would you like it?” The skull knitted its brows and deepened its eyes and said, “How can I exchange the happiness of a king for the troubles of the mortal world?”
This story makes me think. I wonder which one is more real, life or death? I feel envious of the existence the skull now leads, if it is just like it said. Sometimes after I wake up in the morning I think it’s just another day again and I feel like my life is part of the same process as the universe. What is real? Everything that exists in this universe does so for only a time. At this moment we exist in this space and time, but something can exist longer, like star, or much shorter, like ephemera.
Through touch, sight, hearing, smelling, tasting and thinking our human bodies make us feel there is only this world and our existence; the world and our existence is real. But once we start to think that we have a real body and real life we open ourselves to suffering. Our body and mind start to produce different kinds of desires, like feeling good or trying to increase our longevity. Often suffering comes hand in hand with these desires, like feeling bad or fearing death.
In Buddhism we think life is suffering; the goal in Buddhism is to get into Nirvana. “Nirvana” means “Extinction”, to be extinguished: to be liberated from existence; “Freedom from desire”. The supreme goal of Buddhist endeavour is release from existence; cessation of becoming. The word is derived from a root meaning extinguished through lack of fuel, and rebirth is the result of desire; the extinguishing from all such desire attains freedom from rebirth. “Nirvana” is, therefore, a state attainable in this life by right aspiration of life, and the elimination of Egoism. (From a glossary of Buddhist terms)
We all like birth because we can have a body to feel it and are afraid of death because we don’t know what will happen after death. But if we pass into real “Freedom” after death then I think I would like to be the skull.