"Let the Bodhisattva look upon all things as having the nature of space,—as permanently equal to space; without essence, without substantiality."—SADDHARMA-PUNDARIKA.
I have wandered to the verge of the town; and the street I followed has roughened into a country road, and begins to curve away through rice-fields toward a hamlet at the foot of the hills. Between town and rice-fields a vague unoccupied stretch of land makes a favorite playground for children. There are trees, and spaces of grass to roll on, and many butterflies, and plenty of little stones. I stop to look at the children.
By the roadside some are amusing themselves with wet clay, making tiny models of mountains and rivers and ricefields; tiny mud villages, also,—imitations of peasants' huts,—and little mud temples, and mud gardens with ponds and humped bridges and imitations of stone-lanterns (toro) ; likewise miniature cemeteries, with bits of broken stone for monuments. And they play at funerals,—burying corpses of butterflies and semi (cicadae), and pretending to repeat Buddhist sutras over the grave. Tomorrow they will not dare to do this; for to-morrow will be the first day of the festival of the Dead. During that festival it is strictly forbidden to molest insects, especially semi, some of which have on their heads little red characters, said to be names of Souls.
Children in all countries play at death. Before the sense of personal identity comes, death cannot be seriously considered; and childhood thinks in this regard more correctly, perhaps, than self-conscious maturity. Of course, if these little ones were to find, some bright morning, that a playfellow had gone away forever,—gone away to be reborn elsewhere,—there would be a very real though vague sense of loss, and wiping of childish eyes with many-colored sleeves; but presently the loss would be forgotten, and the playing resumed. The idea of ceasing to be could not possibly enter a child-mind: the butterflies and birds, the flowers, the foliage, even the sweet summer itself, only play at dying; they seem to go, but they all come back again after the snow is gone. The real sorrow and fear of death arise in us only through slow accumulation of experience with doubt and pain; and these little boys and girls, being Japanese and Buddhists, will never, in any event, feel about death just as you or I do. They will find reason to fear it for somebody else's sake, but not for their own, because they will learn that they have died millions of times already, and have forgotten the trouble of it, much as one forgets the pain of successive toothaches. In the strangely penetrant light of their creed, teaching the ghostliness of all substance, granite or gossamer,—just as those lately found X-rays make visible the ghostliness of flesh,—this their present world, with its bigger mountains and rivers and rice-fields, will not appear to them much more real than the mud landscapes which they made in childhood. And much more real it probably is not.
At which thought I am conscious of a sudden soft shock, a familiar shock, and know myself seized by the idea of Substance as Non-Reality.
This sense of the voidness of things comes only when the temperature of the air is so equably related to the temperature of life that I can forget having a body. Cold compels painful notions of solidity; cold sharpens the delusion of personality; cold quickens egotism; cold numbs thought, and shrivels up the little wings of dreams.
To-day is one of those warm, hushed days when it is possible to think of things as they are,—when ocean, peak, and plain seem no more real than the arching of blue emptiness above them. All is mirage,—my physical self, and the sunlit road, and the slow rippling of the grain under a sleepy wind, and the thatched roofs beyond the haze of the rice-fields, and the blue crumpling of the naked hills behind everything. I have the double sensation of being myself a ghost and of being haunted,—haunted by the prodigious luminous Spectre of the World.
There are men and women working in those fields. Colored moving shadows they are; and the earth under them — out of which they rose, and back to which they will go—is equally shadow. Only the Forces behind the shadow, that make and unmake, are real,—therefore viewless.
Somewhat as Night devours all lesser shadow will this phantasmal earth swallow us at last, and itself thereafter vanish away. But the little shadows and the Shadow-Eater must as certainly reappear,—must rematerialize somewhere and somehow. This ground beneath me is old as the Milky Way. Call it what you please,—clay, soil, dust: its names are but symbols of human sensations having nothing in common with it. Really it is nameless and unnamable, being a mass of energies, tendencies, infinite possibilities; for it was made by the beating of that shoreless Sea of Birth and Death whose surges billow unseen out of eternal Night to burst in foam of stars. Lifeless it is not: it feeds upon life, and visible life grows out of it. Dust it is of Karma, waiting to enter into novel combinations,—dust of elder Being in that state between birth and birth which the Buddhist calls Chu-U. It is made of forces, and of nothing else; and those forces are not of this planet only, but of vanished spheres innumerable.