Year of the Dragon

Best wishes for the New Year!  In the traditional zodiac calendar of East Asia 2024 is the Year of the Dragon.  In Buddhism, dragons are revered as protectors of the Buddha’s teaching, or the Dharma.  Many temples feature dragon images on incense burners, painted doors, and altar adornments.  In his Hymns in Praise of Prince Shotoku¸Shinran Shonin describes how a dragon protects the Dharma at the Shitennoji Kyoden-in temple built in the sixth century by Prince Shotoku in the area of present-day Osaka:

On this site, there is a body of pure water;
It is called Koryo pond.
An auspicious dragon constantly dwells therein;
It protects the Buddhist teaching.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 436)

Living in modern society, we tend to think of protection as something for our property and our bodies.  We lock the doors to our house to protect ourselves and our belongings from intruders.  We install alarms in our cars to protect them from thieves.  People who play rugged sports like skateboarding, football, and ice hockey wear pads to protect their bodies from injury.  Whenever I go for a bike ride, I wear a helmet to protect my head and sunglasses and sunscreen to protect my skin from harmful ultraviolet rays.  Protection generally implies keeping something harmful out, like keeping burglars out of our homes, keeping thieves out of our cars, and keeping harmful ultraviolet rays from penetrating the delicate tissues of our skin and eyes. 

In this usual way of thinking about the meaning of protection, it might seem strange to think of dragons as protectors of the Buddha’s teachings.  In the Larger Sutra, we read that Amida Buddha fulfilled his vow for the sake of all beings to “open forth the Dharma-store and universally bestow its treasure of virtue upon them.”  (The Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, p. 31).  Open to all, the Dharma has no use for the protection of locked gates.  The Dharma is described as a great vehicle (Mahayana) which all are welcome to board that they may be carried across the ocean of birth and death.  Such a vehicle has no use for the protection of alarm systems to ward off thieves. 

Since the Dharma is not bound by physical form, it cannot be affected by human actions or the forces of nature.  The greatest potential for harm to the Dharma lies in misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  The teachings of the Buddha are damaged if we distort their meaning for a self-serving purpose.  The Dharma challenges us to set aside our narrow, self-centered way of looking at the world, and learn to see from the broad perspective of the Buddha’s enlightened wisdom. 

Even if we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings in theory, living one’s life on a practical level guided by the teachings of the Buddha requires taking difficult steps outside of our comfort zone and changing our habitual self-centered ways of thinking.  It’s not easy to let go of our ego and accept the truth of the Buddha’s teachings when it challenges our established way of looking at the world.  However, if we fail to let go of our ego-based thinking, we may wind up with a skewed misunderstanding of the Buddha’s teachings that merely serves our own self-interest.

Since ancient times, Buddhists have invoked the image of the dragon to express their wish for the precious treasure of the Dharma to be protected from the corruption of human selfishness.  Dragons are described as marvelous beings endowed with the power to move freely between the mundane realm of human existence and the lofty heights of spiritual perfection.  As we move through our everyday human lives, taking the wise precautions of locking our doors and putting on sunscreen before we go out in the bright sun, we can take comfort in knowing that our lives are guided by a wonderful teaching that has been carefully preserved and passed down just for us so that we will be able to realize the unsurpassed truth of the Buddhadharma.

Namo Amida Butsu