Sitting next to Xi on the plane out of Lhasa, I ask her if she knows the story of Buddha and the snake. I tell her it’s my second-favorite Buddhist story. I first heard it from Lama Surya Das, a Dzogchen Buddhist.
Xi frowns. Once again I’ve proven that I know more about Buddhism than I’ve let on.
Snakes and humans were always close friends until one summer a cobra was dozing on a rock in the sun and a farmer accidentally stepped on his tail. Before he was even fully awake, the startled cobra bit the farmer on the ankle. When the snake and the farmer realized what had happened, there was nothing that could be done. The farmer’s ankle swelled and turned purple and a streak of black traveled up a vein in his leg. When it reached his heart, the farmer gasped and stopped breathing, his soul slipping out of his eyes like it was wiggling out of a sack.
Hearing his screams, the villagers rushed to the farmer just as he expired. The cobra wished he could explain that he meant no harm and was sorry, but when their attention turned to him, he felt their anger and hurried off. The villagers saw him slide away just as they found the two holes in the center of the blackest part of the wound. There was no doubt what had happened. The farmer had no reason to harm the snake. Every farmer thought well of snakes because they kept the rodents down. And the bite was at back of his foot, which means he was attacked from behind. The humans had a new enemy.
The villagers were too afraid to harvest the fields. Instead they armed themselves with rakes and shovels and fortified their village, keeping a fire burning through the night. But they knew that if they did nothing soon, the vegetables they would need to survive the winter would rot in the fields.
One day news arrived that Buddha had arrived in the next town on pilgrimage. The fastest runner in the village ran half a day to find him. He found Buddha on the road, and threw himself at his feet. “Oh, Lord Buddha, my entire village may not live through winter if we cannot make peace with the cobra that is terrorizing our town. We will die without your help.” Buddha had other obligations, and told the boy they would have to solve their problem without his help. But the boy persisted and prostrated himself and asked Buddha three times, and Buddha could not refuse him.
Buddha followed the young man back to his village and walked into the fields, calling for Mister Snake. He eventually found him sleeping in the withered cornfield. “Mister Snake,” said the Buddha, “Why did you bite the farmer? The wailing you hear is his family weeping over his blackened body. What will come from that bite? Famine for others I fear, and a painful end for yourself. Worse, there will be enmity between humans and snakes for generations to come. Who will pity you when you have brought this catastrophe on your entire species?”
“I do not need justification for what I have done,” answered the snake. “I was startled and my instincts bit him and the poison that Nature put in my tongue killed him. If you are looking for someone to blame, blame the one who designed it so. If there is anyone else to blame here, the farmer is more at fault than I am. If he had stepped on my head instead of my tail who would be wailing now? Still, I grieve his inattentiveness and my part in his death more than anyone will ever know.”
“Believe whatever you wish, but the villagers do not know you were stepped on, nor do they care to question the obvious—you bit the farmer and he’s dead. When the head of a clan has been killed, it is as natural to want revenge as it is to strike when one is startled out of sleep. It is too late to change the past, but you can still influence the future. If this is not your fault—as it seems not to be—you will earn extra merit for behaving nobly in a difficult situation and earn heavenly grace, I am certain. Would you rather wither with your cornfield, nuzzling your pride, or behave like the King of Snakes you are and go to meet the enemy, without shield or weapon, and negotiate peace, not only for your sake and the farmer’s family but for generations yet unborn? Two futures are possible for you, depending on what you choose to do next.”
And with that Buddha blessed the snake, and urged him again to consider well what he did next, and then the Awakened One continued on his pilgrimage.
Two days later the Awakened One was returning from his pilgrimage and decided to see how the situation with the snake had worked out. As he approached the village he saw a flock of vultures, circling a spot in the cornfield. Buddha made his way through the stubble and found the snake, who was barely breathing, his body bloodied, twisted, torn. “Mister Snake,” sighed Lord Buddha, “What has become of you?”
“Oh, Lord Buddha, I heard the wisdom in your words and knew what I had to do. As you advised, I approached the farmer’s house, without shield or weapon. I pledged myself not to strike, even at the risk of my own death. I approached the young boy who was on duty and he rang a bell to alert the townspeople that they were under attack. When the villagers assembled I saw the faces that used to nod and smile when we passed on the road now darkened and disfigured by fear.
“I slid closer and turned my back to them and rolled over, defenseless, and waited for what was to come. After a few moments, I felt someone poke me with a stick, and then someone threw a stone that struck me. When I didn’t flee, they kicked me and crushed my spine with a stone. Then they picked up my limp body with a rake and threw me deep into the cornfield, where you found me.
“At first, the pain didn’t feel like pain; it was like drinking bubbles in champagne. And I even laughed at the absurdity of what was happening—that a guiltless death would be paid for by a guiltless one’s sacrifice, and the final irony was that no one but he would ever know of his sacrifice. For the villagers this would be the story of a cobra that went crazy and how the village rose to defeat him. The villagers would look at snakes more cautiously in the future, perhaps, but there would not be a war between the snakes and mankind for all time.
“But slowly that feeling passed and my mouth was full of dust and blood and I could not move my body out of the blistering sun and instead could only cough in the dirt. The day dragged painfully into evening and a frigid night followed. And then the morning sun swelled to fill the afternoon sky, and the vultures began to circle, and I realized that I was going to die of thirst, but not for another day or two.
“Why hadn’t I been allowed to die at the height of ecstasy, before the pain began, I wondered. Why was my sacrifice not enough? Why was it fated that I should also suffer this additional agony and indignity as well?
“And I remembered your advice—that two futures lay in store for me, depending on my choice, and I suddenly realized how I might have misunderstood your advice. How could it have ended worse if I chosen differently? Even the farmer died quickly and was mourned by his family. He was even mourned by the one who would be one day asked to pay the price for his misstep.
“But now, in my darkest moment of doubt and grief, you have returned to fulfill your promise. You have returned to rescue me from my suffering, to personally escort me into heaven in return for the merit I have earned by following your advice even unto the ultimate sacrifice. And in return, the Great Lord Buddha himself has come to end my suffering and take me with him into Nirvana!”
“But Mister Snake,” sighed the Buddha, “I never said you couldn’t hiss.”
Xi makes a face. “That is your second favorite Buddhist story? It does not make a Snake any more trusting to me. That does not sound like my Buddha, encouraging hissing. What do you like about this story?”
“Well, I think it says a lot about the relationship between a teacher and a student, for one thing. How often the teacher says one thing and the student turns it into something very different. And that’s true of the students who love you and the students who hate you too. And I like what it has to say about how we can trick ourselves into thinking we’re acting unselfishly in those moments when we’re acting most selfishly of all. I also like what it has to say about how we keep moving forward, even though we always have less than complete information and we’re often mistaken. Plus it has something to say, I think, about the suffering we create for ourselves in life, and how it differs from the suffering that we can’t avoid. I know what it’s like to feel compelled to heal the suffering of others, often feeling that I’m strong enough to carry my own responsibilities and someone else’s as well. But that’s never really worked well for both of us in the end, and I’m more cautious now. Now I think the greatest thank you I can give for the wonderful amazing incomprehensible gift of life is to live my grandest life. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about others, but it does mean that my feelings are more complicated than before concerning my responsibilities and my relationship to others. When I hear that story I think that maybe I’m not crazy after all.”
“That’s not a joke, actually.”
“You hear all of that in there?”
“Yeah. Kind of. I think so. Don’t you? What do you hear?”
“I think that is more you and less story.”
“There could be some of that, yeah.”
“I think you think it is funny.”
“It is funny.”
“I think you like it because it is a little naughty.”
This wasn’t one of Xi’s questions that was actually more of a statement. She really wanted to know me better.
“Yes, I do believe it’s irreverent, and in a way that I believe it’s important to be irreverent. I believe it’s possible to waste a life looking in the wrong place for the wrong things. We want to be happy but we’re choosing ways that won’t bring happiness. It’s what we call a Catch-22 or a situation where you’re doomed because the two things necessary for you to be happy are contradictory. In this case, we realize we’re not happy, so we go seeking happiness. But true happiness can only come from inside, and a part of us realizes that, even as we go looking for happiness outside. We want them both—we want happiness outside and inside—and we think we know how that will look, but what if it looks very different than we imagined, like what about those times when everyone hates us, because it feels like that sometimes. Happiness that comes from outside is always uncertain, but the happiness found inside is difficult, or we’d all just decide to be happy and be done with it.
“Once I grasped that the problem was insoluble, my mind sort of short-circuited. I had to go on, I had to keep making choices, but I no longer believed in the power of choice because I realized that every choice would eventually deadend in a different way. So I did something rash. I simply decided to be happy. And once I made that decision I noticed that the voice that was trying to question my decision to be happy continued, but I wasn’t listening any longer. It was as if someone or something had changed the channel, or some phase in my evolution was just done, and what used to be foreground disappeared into background, and what I hadn’t been aware of suddenly jumped forward. The whole film sort of flipped.
“Since then there have been lots of situations where I’ve been appropriately unhappy, but when I’m alone I’m well aware that I can be happy or not, it’s up to me. And it’s clear to me that I could spend the rest of my life appreciating and celebrating being alive if I choose not to waste my time on pursuits that don’t lead to greater appreciation and happiness.”
“The story says all of that to you?
This was another real question. So I turned away from her and for the first time saw the blue-white Himalayan peaks that separated Tibet from China where they poked through the cloudcover.
I wanted to make sure that I respected Xi’s sincerity, so I listened until I was absolutely certain of my answer.
“I think so.”
“When I asked you on the bus if you were a Buddhist or a Christian or something else, you told me you were a nothing. You do not sound like a nothing to me.”
“I’ve been thinking about that too. I don’t know where that answer came from, but I haven’t stopped thinking about the question. And I realized that I do believe in something. There is so much good and beautiful in life, and people are the ones who created the ideas of “good” and the “beautiful.” I believe in our ability to find things good and beautiful. So I want to change my answer. I believe in human beings. I believe in human philosophers, I believe in human spiritual leaders, I believe in teachers and artists and musicians and politicians and historians, I believe in laws and government and civilization. I believe in concern for others. I believe in empathy and doing good for another’s benefit. I believe in what is underneath what Buddha taught, what it was that Buddha tried to describe before there was a Buddha. I believe that what the Buddha experienced is available to everyone, whether we’ve heard of Buddhism or not, in a thousand different, personal ways, and in many different languages and traditions throughout human history. Maybe we’re experiencing those moments all the time, if we knew how to look.”
“You are a people person.”
“No, I am so not a people person. If you could see inside my head you’d realize how little I am a people person. I’m like that line from John Lennon: “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.” When we were sitting in the airport I got so sick of my judgments about other people I decided to get them out of my head by writing them down in my notebook. I wrote “My Resentments” at the top of a page and then I wrote as many as I could as quickly as possible and I didn’t even slow down until I was more than halfway down the second page.”
“Resentments? What resentments? What is your list?”
“Oh, no, I’m not going to read you my list. You’d think I was a terrible person.”
We sat for a moment in silence. I smiled that I’d once questioned her patience.
“Okay, I’ll tell you one. You know how there are signs all over about not touching stuff? What’s wrong with us?”
“But I do not like that either. That is not resentment, that is being aware of what others are not aware. I bet if you go through your pages of resentments many of them are not resentments; they are where you are more sensitive and aware than others.”
“It still feels like resentment on the inside though.”
“If you want to finish your favorite story you should start now as we are not much longer in the air.”
“Okay, yeah, this is one I first heard from Pema Chodron.”
“Pema Chodron? You know Pema Chodron? Do you know the book I am reading is by Pema Chodron? I do not know the title in English. It is called Finding Happiness in Bad Times in Chinese.”
“I bet it’s When Things Fall Apart.”
“Yes, that’s it!” She claps her hands in surprise. “Have you read that one?”
“Actually, no. What I do for a living is I record people like Pema and edit the recordings into audiobooks. That means that for forty hours a week for the last fifteen years I’ve been listening to spiritual instruction. I’m not about to seek out more on my downtime.”
“But you know Pema Chodron.”
“Well, not personally, no. We’ve never had a conversation. But I work with her recordings. That’s what I do. I’m an audio producer and editor.”
“Why did you not tell me this before? You can see the book sitting beside me on the bus. You have seen me reading it. Her picture is on the cover.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t bring it up before. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to tell you, it’s just that I didn’t want to blurt it out. I was waiting for the right time.”
“Can I believe anything you have told me?”
“Oh, that’s not fair.”
“Okay, Mr. Snake, tell me the story you learned from Pema Chodron.”
“Well, actually, to be clear, just like with Lama Surya Das’ story, Pema told this story very differently. These are very much my versions of their stories. But I think they capture what I liked about the stories in the first place.”
Immediately after his enlightenment, Buddha stood up and began the long walk back to Ispitana, near Benares, where he had left his students. On the road he came upon a pilgrim he recognized, an advanced student of a well-known monk in the area. Buddha grabbed both of his hands and smiled, his eyes full of love. He told the pilgrim that he had news of great joy to share, about how in a single vision he had seen all of his prior lives and all of his future lives as a single continuous thread in a tapestry, and how everyone and everything that happened and all of time was being woven into that tapestry as well. And he saw that everything was perfect and could never be anything less than perfect or more or different than it was because everything was everything that was and is and will be and everything could never be more or less by even a single grain of sand. And he knew that there was nothing other than what was and is and will be and they are all the same, and that this was the one thing that would never change—that the sum of all that is must be constant. In this way it takes the entire universe to create each and every flower, each bead of sweat, every kiss. And our seeking will cease when we realize the limits of our ability to understand the universe, this moment, and life itself, and trust that all is well. Think of an ant that you toss out of your porch door. Could it ever possibly understand what just happened?
And the silence that followed Buddha’s first words after his enlightenment was filled with love—for the pilgrim, for life, for everything—until Buddha’s eyes were overflowing. He and the pilgrim were so close that he couldn’t tell if it was the pilgrim’s or his hands that were trembling. But he could feel the exchange of energy between his palms and the pilgrim’s, and in that moment he understood how the universe remained the same while at the same time was always changing. And he understood his desire for and yet the impossibility of equilibrium, as we will forever be changing in response to our constantly changing environment, and still, and always, at one.
And this understanding radiated out of his eyes into the eyes of the pilgrim. It had no choice, just as the warmth of his palms had no choice but to blend with the cooler palms of the pilgrim. And from this intersection of the physical—palm to palm—and this intersection of spirit—eye to eye—Buddha saw how the whole tapestry was woven together in all directions at once, and how he and the pilgrim were connected as well as everyone he saw and everyone who saw him. And that this was as true when he wasn’t aware of it as it was now that he could actually see this web with his eyes open. And he knew that what we were looking for is looking for us too, but we cannot understand what we do not already know, except through grace. And it’s grace that’s weaving this tapestry, a grace that holds even the smallest sparrow in its hands. And there is no difference between grace’s hands and his hands as they hold the pilgrim’s hands.
And he could feel the hands of the pilgrim stirring, and saw the impatience in the pilgrim’s eyes, and his haste to get going, so Buddha let go and the pilgrim pushed past him and continued without time for a blessing or even a goodbye.
Buddha continued walking until he reached Ispitana. There he met his students and they made their helloes and pleasantries. As soon as they were settled, one of his students asked him, “We can tell that you are different. What happened to you while you were away?” Buddha took a deep breath and answered with a question of his own, “Oh, Bikkhus, have you heard of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path?”
Written by Randy Roark
The columns of A Poet’s Progress are mostly parts of a work in progress inspired by John Bunyan’s poem The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, published in 1674. Since 2007, Roark has been writing his way through a planned ten-year pilgrimage to explore sacred destinations throughout the world in hopes that he will be able to see whether or not there is a discernible path to an individual life, outside of the Christian model. From 1979 until 1997, Roark worked in various capacities with poet Allen Ginsberg; from 1997 until 2001, he worked with artist and filmmaker Stan Brakhage, and since 1998 he has been working as a producer and editor for Sounds True, where he was edited audio programs by William Burroughs, Alex Grey, Krishnamurti, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Alan Watts; and produced audio programs, on-line courses, and books by many of today’s leading spiritual leaders—including Robert Thurman, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Lama Surya Das, Tara Brach, Matthieu Ricard and Dakota elder Joseph Marshall—and neuroscientists including Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson, and Andrew Newberg.