TEMPLE SECRETS, ESSAY 4
Phra Kru Wimon Boonkosol of Wat Nimmolwiwat in Roi Et was featured in an article in the Bangkok Post two months ago with a rather remarkable claim about the mythological dragons represented in nearly every Buddhist temple in Thailand.
"The naga is a mythical creature in Buddhist mythology. The animal is a half-serpent, half-human deity. When he is in human form on a path to salvation after redeeming himself from his bad karma, he still yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds," the abbot explained.
My interest in the venerable abbot’s assertion goes far beyond the literal matter of whether an animal, mythological or biological, can be invested with speculative, philosophical concerns. I am interested in how the Thai Buddhist scholar can come to such a conclusion. How, in fact, can Christian scholars come to conclusions about dragons, or saints, or God? What rules are there? This very issue is at the heart of the most profound theological battle of Christianity in 21st century America. But I will limit my analysis to Phra Kru Wimon’s statement, “The naga … is a half-serpent, half-human deity. …he yearns to study dhamma and do good deeds.”
It is the abbot’s belief that the naga is or ought to be a role model for Buddhists in that regard. The abbot is designing his temple to feature the naga as an aspirant for human beings to emulate.
The first matter is how the naga appears in Buddhist mythology. Foremost among the naga’s appearances in the central narratives of the Lord Buddha is the story of a naga protecting the Buddha as he was in his trance acquiring the dhamma. The naga, named Mucalinda, raised the Buddha above a flood that had been provided to delay the demonic forces sent to prevent the Buddha being enlightened. The Buddha seated on the coils of a naga and being sheltered from the deluge is a major symbol in Thai Buddhist art.
Would that we all had such an opportunity to provide heroic service for the Self-Enlightened One! Phra Kru Wimon wants us to know that we do have countless such opportunities, although they may not be so dramatic. We are at the frontier, as was the naga, between the serene Holy One and the attacking forces of chaos and enslavement to Evil.
The naga, however, has other roles in Buddhist mythology. Our own first encounter with a naga might come as we approach a Buddhist temple where a pair of nagas guards the entryway and the stairs into the main assembly hall where a re-enactment of the Buddha teaching his disciples often takes place. We would do well to suspect that the naga is not unambiguously a docile creature. Those whose intentions are pernicious are duly warned. Overhead, along the eaves of the buildings, are other nagas swimming in cosmic space between heaven and earth.
If the naga is a mythical creature, the realm of discourse about it is mythological. The line of such discourse can be traced with methods used to study mythology, including narratives, linguistic analysis, sculpture and architecture, and applications in other realms of discourse such as philosophy or religion.
Here is a basic fact: a mythic entity is never entirely contemporary. A narrative cannot be a myth if it has no mythic roots. Myths have an independent existence. No matter how a myth has been adapted and manipulated, it is from an earlier time all the way back into the mists of pre-history. The validity and relevance of a myth is that the message it conveys is derived and not simply concocted. So, it is important that the naga as it appears in Buddhist mythology has connections to earlier mythology before the time of the Lord Buddha. The naga of Thai Buddhism is related to Sheshanaag of Hindu mythology, upon whom Vishnu reclined afloat on the cosmic sea of milk before the earth was formed. There is a mythic trail that traces that lineage. It can be confirmed through study of symbolic representations from archeology and Buddhist temple art. What can be concluded from this is that the abbot has not misrepresented facts to say that the naga is a mythical creature. Nor has he tried to obscure the fact (as many religious pundits do about sacred beings) that the naga is mythological. Its relevance depends on it being representational and metaphorical. Oh, what a mess religions get themselves into when they are careless with their symbols.
However, the abbot of Wat Nimmolwiwat has gone further than to say, “Nagas are doers of good deeds. The naga that protected the Lord Buddha was doing what its ancestor did in supporting Vishnu, and as the dragon was doing in transporting the Chinese-Buddhist avatar of the Buddha, Mae Kwan Im.” Phra Kru Wimon also takes pains to connect the naga to the philosophical core of popular Buddhism.
I believe the reasoning is something like this: the naga was stuck in animal form as a result of its demeritorious behavior in past existences; but through one supreme act in safeguarding the Lord Buddha the naga was delivered from that karmic punishment. Thus it could proceed on its path to release from the endless round of birth, suffering, and death. Release comes through realizing the real nature of existence is not permanence but constant change. This realization is enlightenment. It breaks the cycle.
There is mythological support for this. The cosmic serpent is famously represented holding its tail in its mouth. The Greeks called the serpent Ouroboros. This is what it came to mean to Gnostics at the time Buddhism was gaining traction in India:
From a Gnostic viewpoint, the opposing ends of the ouroboros were interpreted as the divine and earthly in man, which, despite being at odds with one another, existed in unison nonetheless. In this sense, it is comparable to the Chinese yin and yang, depicting the harmony of contrary forces, as well as the cosmic dichotomy of light and darkness in Manichaeism and the Zoroastrian philosophy of the farvahar, which first posited that each soul was composed of a pure, divine component, as well as a human one. …the ouroboros went on to enjoy much popularity among Renaissance alchemists. Again representing the infinite nature of time and the eternal, it was seen in the eyes of the alchemists as the ultimate obstacle to be overcome in the Magnum Opus, their incessant struggle; for to become immortal – their chief aim – meant to break the incessant cycle of the ouroboros once and for all.
It is striking to me that in Thai Buddhist temple art the naga is emerging from the mouth of another serpent. But that is the end of it. The naga is no longer grasping anything. Its avarice is ended. It has broken the incessant cycle.
The abbot’s campaign is to enhance the relevance of the naga as a mythic symbol for the cosmic context of human existence into a symbol for a specific item of philosophical dogma, namely, that after balancing karma one must study Dharma ( i.e. dhamma in Thai, the Truth that the Lord Buddha discovered which leads to enlightenment and release). This must be accomplished through study.
To accommodate this concept the abbot declares that the naga is “half serpent, half-human deity.” This may be more than previous mythology will support. The most famous text about the naga yearning to become a monk actually describes how it was prevented by the Lord Buddha, himself. The naga had transformed himself into human form.
“Shortly after, when asleep in his hut, the naga returned to the shape of a huge snake. The monk who shared the hut was somewhat alarmed when he woke up to see a great snake sleeping next to him! The Lord Buddha summoned the naga and told him he may not remain as a monk, at which the utterly disconsolate snake began to weep. The snake was given the Five Precepts as the means to attaining a human existence in his next life when he can then be a monk. Then out of compassion for the sad snake, the Lord Buddha said that from then on all candidates for the monkhood be called 'Naga' as a consolation. They are still called 'Naga' to this day."
Indeed, there are examples of Thai Buddhist temple art in which the “human deity” is part naga or emerging from the mouth of a naga. But they are all modern. According to widespread narratives about karma, an animal would have to be reborn as a human with enough karmic accumulation to be able to attain enlightenment. Human beings must work at it. One of the pathways is study which is a cognitive undertaking. Divine beings can achieve the benefits of enlightenment instantly through direct contact with a Buddha. In the Thai Buddhist narrative the Lord Buddha spent part of his final compassionate delay from Nirvana by visiting divinities in their heavenly abode. It would seem, then, that the naga was not entirely divine or human. Mucalinda was not transubstantiated into Nirvana by his meeting the Lord Buddha in person, nor was he human enough to study dhamma and be enlightened without being reincarnated as a human and ordained as a monk. Nor would his being “half animal and half human-divine” be an example for us to emulate. It is tricky to use a mythological example for a religious purpose.
Perhaps it is best just to agree with the abbot that the naga is an appropriate symbol for the two most important undertakings of a Thai Buddhist: study of dhamma and doing good deeds. The abbot’s declaration that the naga is “half animal, half-human divine” is a homiletical device. It appears his intention is to reinforce the interpretation of the ever-present naga in Thai Buddhist symbolism as a metaphor for Buddhist endeavor. But the abbot’s sermons would be weakened if his mythology had been flawed.
I probably should leave this discussion at this point, but I want to add a note to be developed some other time. I have tried to sketch how the use of a mythic symbol (an archetype in the terms of Carl Jung) has roots that can be traced. This lineage substantiates the legitimacy and intrinsic meaning of the symbol. By the same token, a symbol can be identified as mythic by tracing its heritage. That is the bind in which contemporary popular Christian theology finds itself. Christian thinking has detached itself from its mythic heritage. Simplistic Christians have decided that biblical narratives, for example, cannot be mythic. They must not be myths. That would ruin things. But the obvious fact is that a great deal of Christian symbolism is profound precisely because it is mythic with roots deep in human experience, maybe even in our DNA. No religion can be sustained after it has been thoroughly demythologized. This is the failure of post-Enlightenment liberalism. Nor can a religion be profound that treats its myths derisively. That is the flaw of alt-right conservatism.
Previous essays in this TEMPLE SECRETS series include:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.