Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “story of the man whose limbs were replaced by those of a corpse” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Story of the man whose limbs were replaced by those of a corpse

Thus, a man who had undertaken to go on a long journey spent the night alone in a deserted house. In the middle of the night, a demon, carrying a dead man on his shoulder, was about to set the corpse down in front of him; then another demon angrily chased the first one saying: “That dead man belongs to me; why are you bringing him here?” The first demon replied: “He is my property; it is I who took him and brought him here myself.” The second demon continued: “No, it was I who brought that dead man here.” Each seizing the corpse by one hand, the two demons argued with each other. The first demon said: “There is a man here and we can ask him.” The second demon began to question him. The man thought: “These two demons are very strong; whether I tell the truth or I lie, my death is certain; in either case, I can’t escape. What is the use of lying?” Then he answered that it was the first demon that had brought [the corpse].

Immediately, very angry, the second demon seized the man by the hand which he tore off and threw on the ground; but the second demon took an arm of the corpse which he fitted onto the man by slapping it on. In the same way he substituted the two arms, the two legs the head and the sides [of the corpse]. Together, the two demons devoured the man’s body which they had replaced [by that of the corpse], and after wiping their mouths, they went away.

Then the man thought: “With my own eyes, I saw the demons devour the body which my mother and father gave to me; now my present body consists completely of another’s flesh. Do I really have a body now, or am I only a corpse? If I think I have body, it is entirely another’s body; if I think I don’t have one, there is, however, a body that is visible.” Having had these thoughts, he was very worried and became like a man who has lost his mind.

The next morning, he resumed his journey. Having arrived at the kingdom that was his destination, he saw an assembly of monks around a Buddhist stūpa, and he asked them whether his body existed or not. The monks asked him: “Who are you?” He answered: “I don’t even know if I am a man or not.” He told the assembly all that had happened. The bhikṣus said: “This man knows for himself the non-existence of a self; he will easily be liberated.”

Speaking to him, they said: “From the very beginning until today, your body was always without ātman, and it is not just coming to the present moment [that that is so]; it is simply because the four great elements were combined that you thought: ‘This is my body.’ There is no difference between your previous body and that of today.” The bhikṣus converted him to the Path (mārga); he cut through his passions and became an arhat.

Thus there are circumstances where one conceives the idea of self in reference to another. But under the pretence that there are distinctions between “that” and “this”, one cannot say that there is a “me”.

Notes on this story:

In its version of this macabre story, the Mppś is very close to Tchong king siuan tsa p’i yu king, T 208, no. 3, p. 531c–532a (tr. Chavannes, Contes, II, p. 72–74). The story is summarized in King liu yi siang, T 2121, k. 46, p. 241a–b. – According to the legend of Aśoka, the victim of the story was the son of a noble family of Mathurā: he had become a monk under Upagupta, but decided to return to the world; on going home, he stopped for the night in the temple of a deva, where two yakṣas appeared and substituted his body for that of a corpse. The next day, he returned to Upagupta and, completely detached from his body, he attained arhathood: cf. A yu wang tchouan, T 2042, k. 6, p. 122b (tr. Przysluski, Aśoka, p. 381–382); A yu wang king, T 2043, k. 9, p. 165b.