“Don’t worry,” said Nan-in, “I will show you a trick that will work anyway.” There was a pile of seeds lying nearby that someone had presented to Nan-in. Nan-in took a handful, gave them to the widower, and said, “Take these home in your closed fist, and when your wife appears let her say all she has to say. And then you ask her, ‘How many seeds are there in my fist?’ If she cannot tell you the right number, then you will know that your ghost is all nonsense.”
The man ran home, and when his wife appeared, as usual she recounted to him everything that had passed. “I know very well that you went to see Nan-in,” she said, “and that he told you to ask me how many seeds are there in your fist. But your little trick won’t work!”
At these words the man became terrified, but still he plucked up the courage to make this last attempt to be rid of her, and asked, “How many seeds are there then?” And the ghost disappeared. Astonished, the man returned to Nan-in and asked him what the secret was.
“The secret,” said Nan-in, “is that the ghost can only tell you that which is already known to your mind. If you do not know, the ghost cannot tell, because the ghost is only an extension of your mind. If you had counted the seeds in your fist, then your ghost would have been able to tell you the answer. That ghost was your own shadow, your own projection.”
But we do fear ghosts – are already afraid of them in fact. What Shankara means when he calls the world maya, illusion, is that this whole world is a ghost. The world is not, yet it seems to be. It is not, and still it is. But all its isness is poured into it by you. First you fill it with isness, and then you get caught up and bound by what you have created. You have the power to convert dreams into reality. You get lost in it, you simply forget that you are. Your body experiences hunger, and you think you are hungry. This is illusion. The body may be hungry, but you are never hungry. You cannot be hungry. It is true you are very close to your body – there is virtually no gap between you and your body – but still you are separate. The illusion of identification begins because you are standing too close to your body.
The old scriptures say that if you keep a piece of glass close to a sapphire, the glass also flashes blue. Of course it has not turned blue; it simply falls within the shadow of the sapphire’s blueness. So it is with you and your body. You stand very close to it, but you are not it. But being so close, whatever happens to your body, the shadow of that happening falls on you. You say that you are hungry, but this is an illusion, and in this illusion the world of maya begins. It is the body that hungers, and you say it is you. It is the body that suffers, and you say it is you. When the body grows old, again you say that you have grown old. And when this body is on the verge of death, you say that you are on the verge of death. The mistake has begun.