When the inner demon of self is exorcised,
all outer demons are powerless.
In the country of Gandhara there was a troupe of entertainers known throughout the land. One year a famine occurred and the troupe was forced to take to the road in search of food. Their travels took them as far as a neighbouring land. As darkness fell on their first day there, they passed Mount Bala, where it was said many flesh-eating demons made their home. Despite this, the troupe decided not to go any farther, but to huddle closely together and spend the night on the mountain. They made a fire to dispel the cold wind that circled through the darkening trees, and then went to sleep.
Among the entertainers was one man who had trouble sleeping because he was suffering from a cold. After everyone else had fallen asleep, he got up, put on one of the costumes to keep warm, and went to sit beside the fire. He had chosen the costume of a demon. When one of the others awakened, he saw the man in the demon costume and, without looking too closely, he shouted and ran away. The others woke up in a fright and, when they saw the man beside the fire looking like a demon, they too ran off into the night.
The man in the costume, thinking he must also be in danger, followed them, running as fast as he could and waving his arms. This only increased the others’ fear and so they ran all night, crossing mountains and rivers, falling into ditches, getting banged up and bruised, and becoming thoroughly exhausted. Finally, at daybreak, the other entertainers saw that the demon was just one of their friends in a costume, and with great sighs of relief they brought this foolishness to an end.
Many people are like this. Caught up in their passions, they starve for good teachings and sincerely long for the nourishment of Dharma and the bliss of Nirvana. But they mistakenly see a self in the five skandhas (aggregates: form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness) and believe it is really so. Because of this notion of self they run on and on through birth and death, controlled and pursued by their passions. They cannot become free of them and end up falling into the ditch of the three unwholesome realms, suffering great harm in the process. When wisdom finally begins to shine, it is like the coming of daybreak, ending the long night of birth and death. Now they realize that in the five skandhas there is no self at all.
A Flock of Fools: Ancient Buddhist Tales of Wisdom and Laughter from the One Hundred Parable Sutra
Translated and retold by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt
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