You have lived your lives – some for fifteen years and some for fifty. If you look back on the years gone by, the past events seem no more than a dream. It is, at times, hard to believe those events ever took place. So what is the difference? On looking back on the events, the honor you received, the insults you bore – did they happen in truth or were they only a dream? At the time of death what difference does it make, which life was real, and which was not? How many people have lived before us on this earth? No one knows how many people are contained in the very ground beneath us! The whole world is one big cemetery, where millions and billions of people lived and died. What difference does it make today whether they lived or not? When they existed, life must have looked very real to them also. Today nothing remains of them or their lives. All has turned to dust. A thousand years hence other people will walk on our ashes. Today we sit here, tomorrow we too will be lost. So is the life that ultimately turns to dust, how much of reality can it hold? Of what worth is that which is ultimately lost?
This same Chuang Tzu was once passing through a village. It was a dark night. As he came out of the village, and was crossing the shmashan, his foot knocked against a skull. If it had been somebody else, he would have kicked the skull out of the way and cursed it as an evil omen. But Chuang Tzu picked it up, held it against his forehead and humbly addressed it thus:
“Please forgive me, for the night is dark and I could not see. It is my fault. I beg forgiveness.” Now it was only the skull of some man and who knows how long it was since he had died. So Chuang Tzu’s friends were surprised.
“What are you doing? Are you out of your mind? Whose forgiveness do you seek?”
“It is only a matter of time,” said Chuang Tzu. “If this man were alive today, I would have had it!”
“But he is no longer alive.”
“You do not know that this is the shmashan of the rich. It is not in life alone that the rich keep away from the poor. Also in death, they keep their distance; therefore my concern.”
“But he is no longer there, so what is the difficulty?”
“I ask your pardon, but for many reasons I am going to keep this skull with me.”
He carried the skull with him wherever he went. Every morning he got up and bowed before the skull, asking its forgiveness. His friends tried to dissuade him from this practice, fearing he might lose his head. Once was enough, but this daily ritual would surely tell on his mind. To their protests, Chuang Tzu would say, “I have my reasons. The very first reason is: it is a big man’s skull.”
Chuang Tzu was joking in this way to show them that all skulls turn to dust, whether of a rich man or poor. Dust makes no differentiation between them. And if big and small all turn to dust, then it is nothing more than a dream, to be big or small. If the dust reduces all dreams to naught, there is not a grain of truth in this “being big or small.” It is all a part of a dream.
Chuang Tzu explained to his friends: “I keep this skull with me so that I am always reminded of my own skull which also, if not today, tomorrow will lie in some shmashan. It, too, will have to bear the kicks of some passerby and I will not be able to do a thing about it. If this is what is going to happen ultimately, where is the need to be angry if someone’s foot touches the head?”