In this piece I will talk a little about “serpent power.” Each of us has patterns of thoughts and behaviors which hold our sense of self together. However, we also have the potential to shed those old, dried out skins that no longer help us move gracefully and fluidly through life. If we never shed these old skins, we are forever confined and constrained with their extra weight.
How can we tap into our serpent power, our “naga” power which infuses Buddhist imagery and teaching going back hundreds of years? We can only do this by releasing the layers of limiting beliefs and habitual behaviors that burden us.
Buddha supposedly experienced his great awakening with the help of the Nagarjuna, the serpent king, Mucalinda, when he was being accosted by all kinds of negative thoughts and images as he sat under the tree of awakening, the Bodhi tree. And it was the serpents who protected the foundational Mahayana Buddhist texts, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, from being stolen from the cave where they were protected for 400 years after Buddha’s death, before meditators were mature enough to be ready for them.
And it is the Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna, who is considered the supreme teacher of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist wisdom. He did this through a series of dialogues with seekers during which he demolished every belief that they presented to him. Nagarjuna was a master of skin shedding. He is best known for the tetralemma or fourfold understanding. You might be suffering a lot from the social isolation of this pandemic which seems to be going on forever. The first side of the tetralemma is then, “I am suffering.” But if you really are engaged in reading this blog, at this moment, you are probably have forgotten you suffering. If you broaden your awareness you may notice that you are both suffering and not suffering. But “I am suffering, and I am not suffering” are simply two thoughts and thoughts are only a component of your reality. So, you are neither suffering nor not suffering.
When Buddhism comes to China, the dragon replaces the serpent as the shape shifting archetypal being. His undulations enable him to traverse the sky, the earth, and the water, and he brings good fortune to all who honor him.
If we do Naga (or dragon) practice, we gradually find ourselves shedding one skin after another. With each skin we shed, we experience more lightness and freedom because each skin is more porous, more sensitive, and more permeable than the previous one.
Mark Nepo refers to “taking the exquisite risk.” Every time we shed a skin, even though we are taking a risk, we touch aliveness more fully. Of course, when we shed the memory of an experience or belief that gave us comfort, we expose ourselves to danger and loss. But spiritual practice is all about living more fully by letting go of the comforting and the familiar.
This path of exquisite risk arises in each moment that we are willing to be fully present. Meister Eckhart realized this when he said “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart… thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
And Nietzsche also realized this when he said, “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”
Many Indigenous people believe that humans originally had the power to rejuvenate and live fully only by shedding their skins. The Navajo people value “skinwalking,” the ability to transform into the bodies of bears, wolves, and eagles for the purpose of healing and protecting their communities.
When I lived at the Tassajara Zen monastery, our teacher, Suzuki, gave talks each night. But back then we had no electricity in the meditation hall, so only lanterns showed his face. My friends and I observed that sometimes it seemed like he was a man teaching us and sometimes it seemed like she was a woman. The original gender switcher in Buddhist mythology is the bodhisattva, Avalolikitesvara, who is bi-gendered as s/he moves to being female as Kuan Yin and Kannon.
Our ego-self is organized around controlling; trying to hold on to security and comfort and push away fear or pain. And, in one sense we need skins to survive. But it’s also part of our potential as meditators to let go of all of our habitual projections and protections, in spite of our instinctual dependence on them.
We feel more of a sense of belonging and kinship with others when we take allow these thick layers of armor to fall away. And when all of our skins drop away, we realize that our own heart-mind is the heart-mind of the universe, the heart-mind of all life.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher