In Search of Dragons…
As you may know, Chinese New Year is today, and Tibetan New Year is one lunar month later, on February 22nd. In both astrological systems, it is the Year of the Water Dragon.
I don’t celebrate Chinese or Tibetan New Year, or follow either astrology closely, although I always write about them at BellaOnline this time of year, because they are celebrated as Buddhist holidays in many countries. But this year I felt myself called to dragons (or by them!), and embarked on a ‘dragonquest’ to see what they had to say to me. Whether you view this kind of message as psychological – symbols speaking to us from our subconscious – or spiritual – actual beings communicating – doesn’t really matter (and really, I view it as both.) But it pays to listen to them. I thought I would share some of what I found here, in case dragons have something to say to you too. I should tell you right now, this post has no ‘point’ – it is just a sharing of dragons, largely through images, so enjoy! (And most of the images are public domain, those that aren’t link to the source.)
One thing I found very interesting is that although European and Asian dragons are vastly different in their appearance and mythology, they are both connected to the serpent. The European word dragon is rooted in the word for snake or serpent, and in Asia dragons literally look like serpents.
Spiritually, serpents have very different connotations in the East and the West. Of course in the standard interpretation of the Old Testament, the serpent is seen as the bringer of evil, tempting Eve to eat the apple that leads to her and Adam’s exile from Eden. In the East, there are many conflicting legends of serpents, and nagas – their deity counterparts, but they are certainly not simple bringers of evil. In fact, the kundalini itself, the spiritual energy that moves up through the chakras, is often depicted as a rising snake, as are the nadis, or spiralling energy lines through which the kundalini travels upward.
These differing views of serpents carry through into the views of dragons. In European tales they are usually troublemakers, hoarding wealth or kidnapping princesses, and the hero of the story sets off to vanquish them. In Asia, they are mostly symbols of power, protective forces, and good fortune. It’s so interesting to me how this parallels the differing views towards evil that you find in Western and Eastern religions (and forgive me for painting in broad strokes here) – Judeo-Christianity focuses on evil as a force outside of ourselves, that needs to be vanquished, while the Eastern take is that evil is the result of an internal misperception or misalignment – our own delusion that we are separate from light.
Either way, I found that dragons, wealth, and royalty are linked in both European and Asian lore. Of course in the Arthurian legends Arthur’s royal lineage is of the Pendragon – ‘ultimate dragon’ – line. In historical China, dragons were associated with the Emperor, and also considered symbolic of wealth. In Tibet, White Jambhala is sometimes referred to as the ‘wealth deity’ and is shown riding a dragon. Of course there are exoteric and esoteric interpretations of the link between wealth and these deities – in the esoteric interpretations, wealth is associated with spiritual insight, much as the ‘gold’ of alchemy traditions is interpreted by some to be symbolic of enlightenment.
Across cultures dragons are also considered an old power, part of the ancient order of the world, and linked to old magic. In Asia they are often depicted as sea creatures, the sea being the primordial source of life. In this, they are also linked in some spiritual traditions to the ancient pathways to enlightenment. In other traditions, dragons are themselves representative of the seeking, as in Chinese depictions of a sea dragon chasing a pearl, which itself represents a closed lotus blossom. Lotuses represent enlightenment, and the dragon swallows many ‘pearls of wisdom’ along its path.
In some Tibetan traditions, dragons are seen more as ‘dharma protectors’ – protectors of the sacred teachings for true seekers. Dragons are also one of the ‘Four Dignities’, along with the snow lion, the tiger, and the garuda (a large mythical bird), each representing a different aspect of the Boddhisattva. The dragon represents compassion, and sound, as in true hearing, and the way that both compassion and true hearing can break through delusion.
In Japan, there are a lot of dragon legends, but not many of them linked to spiritual traditions, although I did find this fascinating picture entitled Buddha Riding a Dragon (I couldn’t find much more information about it, however.)
Another favorite dragon depiction of mine was also 18th-century Japanese, by Hiroshage, who painted in a Chinese style, and entitled Dragon in a Cloud. It speaks more to the ethereal or ‘spirit dragon’ idea, which is also prevalent in Asian tales.
Interestingly, the idea of a spirit or guiding dragon is one that has taken off in contemporary Fantasy fiction. Although interpretations vary, in most totem systems dragons represent the ability to burn through obstacles with their fire-breath. As companions to ‘dragonriders’ in contemporary Fantasy series such as Eragon or The DragonRiders of Pern, dragons are fierce in battle, and intimately, spiritually linked to their riders. I actually think the artwork done for the Eragon books is lovely, and conveys a lot of depth – this eye of Saphira from one cover is an example:
The prevalence of the dragonrider concept in Fantasy fiction (it’s part of the Game of Throne series too, although as of the fifth book still undeveloped), is really fascinating. The dragons are usually depicted more like winged European dragons, but have spiritual symbology more connected to the Asian interpretations. Either way, these dragons are spiritual guides, and spiritual warriors. I love this one, which I think is based on some of the Pern books, although I am not sure:
Exactly the opposite in many ways of the sea serpent-like Asian dragons we started with. And yet throughout all the dragons and dragon lore I encountered, the connection to ancient knowledge, enlightenment, burning through obstacles, the feminine, and dharma protection shone through. For me, these are the themes of 2012.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this dragon tour, and that these dragons speak to you in some way. Happy Year of the Dragon!
P.S. I will soon be combining this blog with my teaching site into a new site, and will begin posting weekly, including a once a month guest post or interview. If you write or teach something related to the themes of this blog, and would like to share it here through an interview or guest post, please email me at LAmeditation [at] earthlink [dot] net. Namaste-