Indra is one of those deities borrowed from Hinduism. He was integrated into Buddhism as a guardian of the dharma, and we know him primarily in relation to Indra’s Net; we also find him in the Avatamsaka Sutra. As this exchange with seven women unfolds, Indra tells the women he will give them anything they want. The eldest sister, who was pretty incredible, asked for three things: a rootless tree, a piece of land with no north and south, and an echoless valley.
This is where we get to the heart of the koan, and this is a classic Mahayana koan. The whole scene takes place in Nirvana Forest, a burial ground, which is a natural place to confront the question of life and death. Now, we should understand right from the beginning that the question of life and death is the question of duality. It’s the question of separation, of this and that. It has to do with the way we perceive ourselves and the universe, and at the heart of this duality lies the root cause of pain and suffering.
The seven wise women confront the matter of life and death with a question: “The corpse is here, but where has the person gone?” The koan says that at that moment, all seven women awakened to the truth and entered the way. What does it mean to awaken to the truth? What does it tell us about our lives or the universe? What does it mean to “enter the Way”? The Way is not a narrow trail through the woods; it reaches everywhere. Since the Way reaches everywhere to begin with, how can we speak about entering it? The commentary goes on to say, “But say, if the corpse is there, where would the person have gone?” So we need to ask ourselves, what is the corpse and what is the person? We need to ask ourselves, “Who am I?”
If any of you have ever experienced someone passing from this life, you can probably appreciate the question of “where does the person go?” When someone is on the verge of death, there are the moments before they pass, when they are so-called “alive” and all the instruments measuring heartbeat and so on indicate they’re alive—and then there are the moments following, when they’ve “died.” The person doesn’t look any different. Yet at that moment, the person is not there; the corpse is there, but the person is not there. The corpse is the bag of skin; the thing that encapsulates what we think is our self. Is that who you are? A bag of skin?