There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: An eagle flying across the sky, a snake crawling across a rock, a ship finding its way across the sea, and a man and a woman falling in love. (—Proverbs 30:18-19)
Ever since I was a little boy I have loved snakes. If I am walking through a forest and see a snake – especially if it's a big one – I am overjoyed and spontaneously gush love and blessings to it. This isn't a conscious strategy for protecting myself from them by sending metta, as with the Khandha Sutta (see Appendix). I just genuinely love snakes.
I'm not entirely sure why this is. I feel that part of the reason is that snakes are beautiful and powerful in a very alien, non-human way, and I like that. It intrigues me. Octopi are the same way, and the octopus is another one of my favorite non-human creatures. For most of my life I have not had a profound love for the human race, and have tended to prefer the company of trees, reptiles, molluscs, etc. That's something I've been working with over the past several years.
Perhaps another reason for loving snakes is that, assuming that rebirth (a.k.a. reincarnation) happens, I may have been a member, maybe even a priest, of a snake-worshipping cult in some place like prehistoric India. Cobras especially have been venerated religiously; and there are still places on this earth where they are regarded as sacred. It's not difficult to understand why: a king cobra, for example, can grow almost twenty feet (6m) long; when it stands up on its, eh, hind legs it can be more than six feet high, with a spread hood more than a foot wide; and if it bites you, you die. It's no wonder that since prehistoric times all sorts of mysterious superhuman powers have been attributed to them.
Judging from the Pali texts, there were such cobra cults in the Buddha's time in northern India. The cobra (nāga) is portrayed in the texts as having approximately human intelligence and the power of human speech, the ability to assume human form at will, the capacity to grow to really immense size, and, interestingly, the ability to breathe fire. I make a wild guess that this fire-breathing trick had its origin in some cobras' ability to spit their venom: spitting deadly, eye-burning poison may have been poetically translated into spitting deadly fire.
I also guess, maybe less wildly, that the legends of fire-breathing dragons found across the supercontinent of Eurasia may have had their origin in this kind of cobra-worship, possibly centered in the Indus Valley Civilization, on which ancient Indian culture was largely based, and which apparently had cultural ties with China and the Middle East in prehistoric times. I suspect that some fire-breathing dragons were artificially introduced into medieval Europe by crusaders returning home with souvenirs of Asian culture. (The dragon destroyed by St. George was not a cobra, however: it was in fact none other than St. Athanasius of Egypt, a much saintlier saint than George was – but I digress.)
Anyway, since my arrival in Burma more than twenty years ago I wanted to see a cobra. I think if I ever came across an eighteen-foot king cobra standing up as tall as I am and looking me right in the eye, and making the wheezing, moaning sounds they make instead of hissing, I'd drop dead of sheer rapture right then and there; it wouldn't even have to bite me. The last word to leave my mouth would be "Cool!" I toyed with an idea that I saw on and old TV show called "Kung Fu"; in it, a Shao Lin Buddhist monk named Kwai Chang is told by his master that when he can snatch a pebble from the master's hand, it will be time for him to leave. Sometimes I would think that seeing a cobra would be the sign that it was time for me to leave Burma.
But I didn't see one. I saw all kinds of other snakes, including venomous ones: Russell's vipers, banded kraits, some kind of little green viper with a red tail that I met at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, and a snake that I assume is a krait which the villagers called a than gwin sut ("iron chain"). I also saw monitor lizards and several species of turtle. But although I lived in cobra country for many years I never saw a wild cobra. In 1999 I was staying at a monastery known to be haunted by at least one large cobra, and once I saw a big, dark-colored snake chasing a pothinyo lizard through the weeds outside my window. I was sorely tempted to run outside and get a better look at it to see if it was in fact a cobra, but I was bathing at the time and had no clothes on. (I was still tempted though.) A few years later a man brought me a little baby one someone had caught in a bucket, because he knew that I wanted to see one, but it just wasn't the same as coming upon a wild one in the forest. I was glad to see it, but still somehow it didn't count.
It seemed like everyone was seeing cobras except me. An American monk friend of mine stayed in a forest area that he said was "teeming" with cobras – also with leeches and anopheles mosquitoes, although I wasn't eager to see those. I heard of one monk who actually had a cobra crawl over his lap while he was meditating; he wisely continued meditating instead of jumping to his feet in alarm. A Burmese village lady told me that once after visiting me, on her way back to the village, she saw one on the hill above the cave, standing erect with its hood spread. When venerable Iddhidaja's father came to Wun Bo for a visit, on the very first day he claimed to have seen a big black king cobra; venerable Iddhidaja says he's seen it too. And at one point the only other monk who lived at Wun Bo with me was very likely mortally bitten by a cobra (see "The Noble Flight of U Nandiya," posted March 2). The situation reached such a stage that when somebody would come tell me about another cobra they'd seen, I'd be like, "Don't even tell me. I don't want to hear about it." After 18 years in Burma I returned to the USA without having seen a cobra – except for one unverified sighting and a baby one in a bucket that didn't count.
So on this, my latest trip to Burma, I made a special effort to see one, or maybe more than one. While staying at Wun Bo I went down the hill and bathed at around sundown, and prowled around the lower monastery compound and by the river, when and where they were most likely to be seen.
Then on my 11th day there, on February 14th – St. Valentine's Day – which by the Burmese reckoning was also my birthday (i.e. a Thursday), I was outside in front of the upper cave, when two village dogs that came almost every day to eat my leftovers were barking their fool heads off on the hill above the cave. I hollered at them to be quiet, but they paid no attention. Finally I became rather annoyed at their constant noise, and I grabbed a handful of rocks and sand clods and charged up the hill to chase them away. When I got up there I saw that they were intently barking at something in a pile of leaves. At first I thought maybe they were ganging up on another dog; but when I drew closer I beheld, to my unspeakable delight, an Indian spectacled cobra (Naja naja), or in this case a Burmese one, standing up out of the leaves, hood spread, staring down the two hysterically barking dogs. It couldn't have been much more than two feet (60cm) long, certainly less than two and a half, but it was magnificent. It was a dead-leaf brown in color, with the characteristic black and white "spectacle" mark on the back of its hood, and in front two eyespots, one on either side of its throat. I chased the dogs away, partly for the snake's sake and partly for their own, as one of them was poking his nose within a handspan of the snake's head as though he wanted to sniff it. The dogs moved away, and it slowly sank down and disappeared into the leaves.
Then I did something that might have some good Burmese villagers throwing fits: I took a stick and stirred the leaves in order to get another look at it. It rose up again with its hood spread, and then silently glided away, still with the front third of its body erect. I was in a state of exultation and gratitude almost continuously for the rest of the day. Sometimes I still get a rush from thinking about it.
The emotional exhilaration inspired by the sight of that cobra puts it on a relatively short list of other sights I have seen in my life that have had a similar effect on me. A bright starry sky in the mountains, with no air pollution or city lights to obscure the sheer miracle of it; an electrical storm in upper Burma at the end of the hot season, with thunder roaring continuously and the entire sky flashing like a bank of strobe lights from horizon to horizon; a heavy downpour in the desert after weeks or months of no rain (with that heavenly smell, almost like baking bread), bringing life and, to one foreign monk at least, intense joy; a beautiful naked woman, flushed with passion (I've been a celibate monk for a long time, but still I gotta admit…); the raging of a stormy sea from the vantage point of a ship's helm, with the wind screaming and the waves like grey hills moving, the ship climbing up, up, up a huge wave and then Smash! down the other side, green water gushing over the prow, the whole fore end of the ship shimmying as it rises out of the water to ascend the next surging hill; and a really good fireworks display can do it too. In all cases except, I suppose, for the fireworks, the stirring impact is inspired by the stark power and awesome beauty of nature (with, in the case of desert rain and the naked woman, some intense, though temporary, relief through fulfilled desire). I've had many lovely experiences on this most recent trip to Burma, but I think seeing the cobra was the highlight of the whole journey.
After that day I remained on the lookout, just in case, and the very next day I got the frosting on the cake: not another cobra, but another kind of snake I'd never seen before. It was a speckled water snake swimming in the river, its body compressed and narrow like the body of an eel.
So, I have seen the necessary sign; I have snatched the pebble from the master's hand, and don't have to come back to Burma any more. I may come back anyway though.
"I am Nag. The great god Brahm put his mark
upon all our people when the first cobra spread his hood
to keep the sun off Brahm as he slept. Look, and be afraid!"
—Rudyard Kipling, from The Jungle Book
Appendix: The Khandha Sutta
This text is found in a section (Kandhaka) of the Vinaya Cullavagga, which is said to account for its title; it is also found in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. According to the story, a monk was bitten by a snake and died, so the Buddha told the Sangha to cultivate mettā by reciting this Sutta. If the Sutta is recited as a protection chant (paritta), even if one is bitten one will not die. So sayeth the Vinaya Pitaka.
virūpakkhehi me mettaṁ
mettaṁ erāpathehi me
chabyāputtehi me mettaṁ
mettaṁ kaṇhāgotamakahi ca
apādakehi me mettaṁ
mettaṁ dvipādakehi me
catuppadehi me mettaṁ
mā maṁ apādako hiṁsi
mā maṁ hiṁsi dvipādako
mā maṁ catuppado hiṁsi
mā maṁ hiṁsi bahuppado
sabbe sattā sabbe pāṇā
sabbe bhūtā ca kevalā
sabbe bhadrāni passantu
mā kañci pāpamāgamā
ahi vicchikā satapadī
uṇṇanābhī sarabū mūsikā
katā me rakkhā kataṁ me parittaṁ
sohaṁ namo bhagavato
namo sattanaṁ sammāsambuddhānaṁ
* * *
With the virūpakkha snakes is my loving-kindness;
My loving-kindness is with the erāpatha snakes;
With the chabyāputta snakes is my loving-kindness;
My loving-kindness is with the kaṇhāgotamaka snakes.
With legless beings is my loving-kindness;
My loving-kindness is with two-legged beings;
With four-legged beings is my loving-kindness;
My loving-kindness is with many-legged beings.
Let the legless being not harm me;
Let me not be harmed by the two-legged being;
Let the four-legged being not harm me;
Let me not be harmed by the many-legged being.
All beings, all breathing things,
And all creatures entirely,
May all encounter blessings;
Let them not come to any evil.
Limitless is the Buddha,
Limitless is the Dhamma,
Limitless is the Sangha;
Limited are crawling things:
Snakes, scorpions, centipedes,
Spiders, lizards, and rats.
Completed is my guard; completed is my chant of protection;
Let the creatures go away.
I pay respect to the Blessed One;
I pay respect to the seven Truly, Fully-Enlightened Buddhas.
A few notes:
~The traditional form of the Sutta used as a protection chant in Burma includes two non-canonical introductory verses which are omitted here. Probably most Burmese monks, and many Burmese laypeople, have the whole thing memorized by heart and chant it regularly.
~The four kinds of snakes mentioned in the first verse are supposedly named after four nāga kings, although this may not have originally been the case. Virūpakkha literally means "ugly eye," so maybe the name refers to vipers(?). I think I remember reading somewhere that the kaṇhāgotamaka ("dark cow herder") snakes are cobras.
~The sarabū mentioned in the fifth verse is allegedly the large house gecko, or tokay gecko, which, however, strikes me as being completely harmless. Venerable Pah Auk Sayadaw has said that the turds of this gecko, if they fall into water, cause the water to become poisonous; and other monks have assured me that they can indeed bite; but I remain skeptical. Perhaps the word refers to a kind of biting or stinging insect? I don't know.
~This Sutta belongs to the so-called Core Texts, and so presumably was part of the earliest orthodox Buddhist Canon; yet there are signs showing that the development of the cult of Buddha-worship had already begun – an obvious example being the seven Sammā-Sambuddhas invoked in the very last line of the Discourse. These seven are, at least in the established tradition, the Buddhas of this world cycle, or kappa: Vipassī, Sikhī, Vessabhū, Kakusandha, Koṇagamana, "our" Buddha Gotama, and the future Buddha Metteyya, who will arise some time after "our" Buddhism disappears from this world. (For a discussion of whether or not it already has disappeared, see "On the 500-Year Lifespan of Buddhism," posted on September 8.)