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Barbara O'Brien

The Real Dragon

By December 5, 2011

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Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, died 40 years ago yesterday -- December 4, 1971. At my Zen center the teachers read bits of Suzuki Roshi's talks.

One of these bits was the story of the real dragon, which was taken from a Chinese folk tale. If you're a Zen student you've probably heard it, but here it is for everyone else --

There was a man named Yeh Kung-tzu (or, in Japan, Seiko) who was passionate about dragons. He read books about dragons; he talked about dragons; he painted pictures of dragons. He filled his house with dragon figurines.

One day a dragon heard about Yeh Kung-tzu and thought, how lovely that this man appreciates us. It would surely make him very happy to have a visit from a real dragon.

So the kindly dragon flew to Yeh Kung-tzu's house and went inside, to find the man asleep. Then he woke up, saw the dragon -- and screamed. He was so terrified he could barely move, but then he grabbed a sword. Before he could strike, the dragon flew away.

This story can be interpreted many ways, but it struck me yesterday that it's not a bad metaphor for a lot of us in the West who develop an enthusiasm for Buddhism. We read lots of books and fill our houses with Buddha figures. But we may hold back from committing to a practice tradition or a teacher and feel no need to take the refuges.

And I'm saying "we" here because I've been in that same place myself.

One of my other favorite metaphors is that we all live in a box, and the walls of the box are made up of who we think we are and what we think life is supposed to be. We like to decorate the box with Buddha figures or anything else that seems to make us a little happier.

But the Buddha taught that the way to liberation is realizing the box is an illusion. If we're just using dharma as a kind of decoration, we're like Yeh Kung-tzu, who loved his dragon figurines but was terrified of the real thing.

Dogen wrote in Funkanzazengi, "I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon."

Suzuki Roshi's point seems to have been that people who have been practicing for awhile sometimes get into a rut and are just going through the motions, or we practice without right intention and right view. This is like filling our houses with dragon figurines while shutting out the real dragon. "That is why we have to start our practice over and over,"  he said.

December 5, 2011 at 2:44 pm
(1) Hein says:

‘do not take refuge’.
I have these two dear ‘Buddhist’ friends that have no difficulty in chanting before our meditation sessions the Three Refuges, but do not consider it necessary to formally ‘take refuge in the Three Jewels’. Another Buddhist friend who have taken formally Refuge in the Three Jewels do not find time for retreats and temple services although both are easily accessable to him.
Ultimately that should be irrelevant insofar as i am concerned…the way of the bodhisattva is not to slate others, but to act in such a manner that one is an inspiration to others.
Not an easy path if one takes the Four Vows seriously.
My ‘dragon’ is that i think i am a ‘rreal’ Buddhist and then gets a real fright as soon as i see during seven day retreats my own short-comings.

December 8, 2011 at 10:02 am
(2) Mumon says:

I think one gets a slightly better understanding of the story by noting what a dragon is in Chinese mythology – Wikipedia helpfully explains (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_dragon)

In contrast to European dragons, which are considered evil, Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. With this, the Emperor of China usually uses the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power.

In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to the dragon while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as the worm. A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms feature references to the dragon, for example: “Hoping one’s son will become a dragon” (望子成龍, i.e. be as a dragon).

Thus one might talk about the being that transcends suffering and “has the power” to bring all beings to transcend suffering, but to come face to face with such a being is to come face to face with such unfathomably infinite “power” compared to one’s attachment-driven “little mind” that fear and terror arise.

December 8, 2011 at 1:44 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mumon — you are right; I didn’t emphasize that enough.

December 8, 2011 at 8:31 pm
(4) kathleen says:

Well explained Muno….thank you for the perspective

December 9, 2011 at 9:01 am
(5) Bucky in Dallas says:

I am very, very new to learning about Buddhism. A real first grade student, if you will, so I have to ask, after reading the bit you wrote about the dragon. Could the “dragon” that I fear, could it be me? Meaning, can the dragon be my fear of me and the way I am now? Simply knowing that if I don’t change my thought processes about things and the way I look at myself, that the “dragon” could destroy me? Maybe I am waaaay off on the wrong side, but as I said, I am very, very new to learning all about Buddhism. Thanks!

December 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm
(6) lee says:

Bucky: I once heard it said “You are not the dragon but every part of you is of the dragon…”

December 27, 2011 at 9:22 pm
(7) mickey says:

According to Chinese astrology, this Gemini is a Dragon. But not all Geminis are Dragons. I know very little of this, but the range of animals in Chinese astrology correspond to 12 months . . . 12 animals. One is a dragon. A rat. A snake. A rabbit, ?etc. I was born in the year of the Dragon. I’m probably telling you what you already know . . . but just in case. Each animal has qualities it brings to those in its influence. So it is said . . .

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