When I heard this part, I shifted my attention from listening to the sutra to focusing on our surroundings.
At this time, we had arrived at Juxian Hall. I put the herdsman on the platform, noticing how tired he looked after the long journey. When he read up to this part, he suddenly stopped reading aloud, as if he realized that he had read something extraordinary.
There must’ve been a lot of content after that, but there were some strange coincidences and confusing details between the content here and the story he told me before.
He looked at me and stammered, “Wait a minute. What you recorded in this sutra may not be true, right? It may just be a hallucination you had.”
“I don’t know.” I looked at him. In the story he told me before, I left the cave, made it to the surface, met him, and then persuaded him to come back and explore the mystery together with me.
But in my sutra, I saw the herdsman in the mummy’s body. There seemed to be some kind of mechanism in the mummy’s body, which was similar to a shadow play,(1) and that was why I saw a shadow moving inside.
And that shadow looked just like a herdsman.
The events covered in the sutra must have taken place over a long period of time. In fact, I had been trying to calculate the time as I listened to it. The timeline the herdsman had given me must have been out of sync with the timeline I experienced in the sutra.
My whole body was covered in a cold sweat. I had never encountered such a complicated situation before, and there was no one to discuss it with.
The herdsman had an embarrassed expression on his face as he asked, “You don’t think that the herdsman in the mummy mentioned in this sutra is me, do you? But how is that possible? I’m a living person.”
“I didn’t say you weren’t. Why are you so nervous?” I looked into his eyes and found that I couldn’t glean anything from them.
“I’m definitely a real person,” he said. “You can touch me and even see my sense of humor.”
I looked at him, suddenly thought of something, and went to touch the rocks next to Juxian Hall.
I pressed against the rocks hard and found that they didn’t feel like stones at all.
“Clam shells,” I said. “Do you remember? According to the sutra, everything in that corpse’s body was made of shells. This is a special technique called li qiao.(2) The clam shells can be ground into something similar to glass and used to make glass and various translucent decorations.”
I looked up at this Juxian Hall carefully, and found that the shape of the crevice where it was located was very similar to that of a clam shell after it was closed. I tried hard to dig at the rock on the side and eventually managed to pull a large chunk off, revealing the nacre beneath it.
I was in a state of horror as I continued to break more off and immediately realized that what I thought was the rock texture was just a layer of black dirt, and all the things behind it were nacre.
I looked back at the herdsman, and then looked up again.
“What, what’s going on here?” The herdsman was also very surprised and went to look at the nacre.
My mind was a complete mess, and I couldn’t make sense of anything. I stared blankly at him and saw that he was in the exact same state as me.
I carefully began to climb up until I quickly reached the body with the cloth on its face that I had swept with my flashlight before. Once I was in front of it, I pulled the cloth back.
It was the same. That corpse’s face had been replaced with a face door.
I slapped myself a few times and then heard the herdsman below ask, “What’s going on?”
“Are we in a one-person burial?” While talking to myself, I removed the corpse’s clothes and shined my flashlight on its body.
Under the flashlight’s glow, I saw a forest appear in the corpse’s body, along with an ivory pagoda in the middle, and a man and a dog sitting in that pagoda.
Am I Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly,(3) where the hell am I?
Did I enter the body of that one-person burial from before? But how did I get in? No wonder Brother Gan Shan kept pushing me to enter. Was it really possible to come in?
But how did I get in? Did I just enter like some kind of software?
If so, then what was this herdsman? Was he a puppet made by the clam host?
Or, were the records in this sutra all a hallucination that I imagined?
I looked at the herdsman, who was in a state of complete shock.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. I’ve figured it out. We’re both real, and your record in the sutra is fake!” He shouted. “Do you remember? You said in the sutra that there’s a kind of hazy light in the sky above that forest. Do you think it looks like the light coming from your flashlight?”
I looked at it and found that it was indeed very similar.
“So, it was your flashlight shining on the ancient corpse, which triggered some kind of mechanism. The inside of the corpse’s body was decorated like a forest, and then the mechanism made you hallucinate!” He shouted. “You thought you went into the corpse’s body, but then you overcame the hallucination, lost your memory, and then thought these memories were real, so you wrote them in the sutra!”
He was also sounding a bit incoherent now.
I was completely confused, but when I thought about it carefully again, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on with the cave walls here. It was impossible that such a big clam shell existed in this world. Could it be that this place was inside the fossilized body of an ancient giant clam?
I looked at the herdsman and suddenly thought of a detail: Black Glasses. The herdsman seemed to have said something about Black Glasses before, which I felt was a bit unnatural at the time.
(1) Shadow play, also known as shadow puppetry, is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment which uses flat articulated cut-out figures which are held between a source of light and a translucent screen or scrim.
(2) Per Seph: it’s an ancient technique in the Qing and Ming dynasties where shells were ground down to very thin pieces and used to make windows (it was a kind of glass substitute). Mainly found in Jiangnan architecture. I found this article (it opens as a pdf) that discusses it a bit. Left pic found here; right pic found here:
(3) Zhuangzi (369-286 BC) was a Daoist author/philosopher who dreamed of butterflies. He didn’t know whether he was really a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Info here.
I’m over here wondering what kind of bad acid trip Wu Xie’s on