William Blake wrote, “To see a world in a grain of sand. And a Heaven in a wild flower.” The Buddha talked about three thousand realms, and in the view of Taoism, the human body is a cosmos.
There are stories from ancient China of people entering a vast world through a small opening.
A World Inside a Gourd
There was an official named Fei Changfang in Runan who was in charge of bazaars during the Eastern Han Dynasty. An old medicine seller at the market always had a gourd hanging at the door of his shop.
Every day when the bazaar closed, the old man would jump into the gourd. None of the vendors at the bazaar or the people in the city saw this except for Fei Changfang, who happened to witness it from the second floor one day.
Astonished, he called on the old man with meat and wine. The old man asked him to come back the following day.
Fei returned the second day as instructed. The old man jumped into the gourd together with him. Although the mouth of the gourd was small, there was a vast and beautiful world inside it. There were delicacies and velvety wines everywhere.
The two men had a few drinks before they came back out. Fei became a disciple of the old man and started practicing Taoism.
A World Inside a Human Body
A story about Pingyang Sheng was recorded by Le Jun in the Qing Dynasty.
Nobody knew where Pingyang Sheng hailed from. It was said that he had gotten lost when he was a child, and when he came home at the age of 15, he had lost the ability to talk. He neither combed his hair nor bathed. He had no shoes on; only tattered clothes. He did not eat or drink water.
A scholar by the surname of Zhou noticed that Pingyang Sheng was different from others. He tried to find out the reason behind his peculiar behaviour, but to no avail.
One day, Zhou was taking a stroll in a field after a rainstorm when he caught sight of Pingyang Sheng. The latter did not get bogged down in the mud, and his feet did not even get dirty. Zhou followed him to an old temple and peeked at him from behind a door. He saw the Buddha statues get up to receive Pingyang Sheng and have a conversation with him, and he realized Pingyang Sheng was able to talk.
The following night, Zhou bowed to Pingyang Sheng and asked to be his disciple. Pingyang Sheng laughed. He said he was not an immortal, and what Zhou had seen were just magic tricks.
He bared his chest to reveal a square hole in it and invited Zhou to enter it. Zhou could not believe what he saw, but he lifted a foot nonetheless. Before he knew it, he had entered Pingyang Sheng’s chest through the square hole.
There was a vast world inside the hole. There were farmers working in the fields, people hurrying with loads on their shoulders, and children running around. There was also a bazaar selling all kinds of wares. Flora and fauna thrived.
Zhou had no problem living in the world inside the square hole. In fact, he felt so at ease that he almost forgot he was inside Pingyang Sheng’s chest.
After three days, Zhou came to a glowing palace. Everybody in the palace wore glamorous clothes. They had flavoursome food and tea made with snow water. Peacocks, phoenixes, and cranes were dancing at the door. There was no wind, but enchanting music could be heard.
Zhou travelled a long distance in the world inside the square hole. He lost count of the number of inns he had stayed at. Seasons passed and time flew by. Zhou began to feel he was heading nowhere.
He cried from loneliness. He thought he was dreaming, but it was not a dream. He thought he was dead, but he was still alive. In the end, he could not take it anymore. He shouted Pingyang Sheng’s name.
Before he realized it, he fell out of Pingyang Sheng’s left ear and was back in the real world. A candle on a table that had been burning when he left was still burning. An announcer announced the fourth watch of the night (around 1 a.m.).
Within just a few hours, Zhou had experienced almost half a lifetime.