I actually discover this article sometime after my experience at the Exploration 27 course. I had a Buddhist friend who I had taken a few TMI courses with and he did not know the meaning of the phrase Ride the Dragon so my search began. Below are excerpts from Divine Virtuosity’s studies and thoughts on the roots and his thoughts on the meaning of the phrase Ride the Dragon.
Divine Virtuosity – Musings on the Art and Philosophy of Good Life. (Sunday, October 17, 2010)
Riding the Dragon
From several previous musings on Zen inspired topics such as wabi-sabi and the art instinct have randomly led the fading traces in the mythical realm to a few new interesting notions and images. Somehow the often repeated idea from Zen Buddhism on “riding the dragon” captured my attention so I followed the traces wherever they might be taking me. And I feel they took me to some very inspiring and fascinating spiritual locations. So I tried to access some literary material on the notion of “riding the dragon”, but Zen apparently loves to be secretive and silent about its most substantial and powerful thoughts. Anyway, I managed to get access to some alternative resources which can help me to give clearer shape to my tentative speculations.
The easiest initial step was to look up the symbolism relevant to dragons. It is quite interesting that although dragon is a mythical animal, existent only in human imagination and ancient stories, it seems to be a widely prevalent and common notion. It is present in most of the major cultural traditions with either Occidental (Western European) and Oriental settings. In the European context, the word “dragon” is believed to be derived from the Greek “drákōn” (a large serpent-like being, water-snake) and the verb “drakeîn” meaning “to see clearly”. Dragons in most manifestations, as mythical biological forms, are not only a composite concept, but also complex beings. Dragons tend to be built of elements and qualities of numerous zoological kinds – they hatch from eggs (similarly to birds and some reptiles), their bodies are covered by either scales or feathers, their forms are prolonged with a reptilian shape, they walk on sharp claws, as earthly beings they inhabit underground lairs or dark caves, but dragons also have wings so they can fly like birds (in some Asian traditions, dragons may not possess physical wings, but they still retain the capacity to fly, because the origins of their flying ability are mystical rather than physical), dragons are respected as masters of fire (by merely breathing:-), many of them can also swim well (and are believed to be masters of the water element, many of them are specifically perceived as water- or sea-dragons). So obviously, although dragons are mythical animals, they seem to be quite sophisticated and intricate creatures with many mysterious and hidden attributes. For instance, in China they are believed to integrate qualities of all the remaining 11 signs belonging to the Chinese zodiac (e.g. the intelligence of the monkey, ferocity of the tiger, sense acuity of the dog, the crest of a rooster, legs of a horse, etc. – either the best or most typical attributes of the animals from the zodiac).
In addition to their bodily complexity, dragons are also associated with a plethora of spiritual & symbolic meanings. Even, in the West, where they bear mostly negative connotations (as representatives of evil) they are respected for their formidable elemental power and persistence in protecting an underground, hidden treasure. In contrast, in most Asian settings, dragons are perceived as a positive symbol representing wisdom (they are believed to have provided the gift of speech and language to humans), longevity, prosperity, fertility, protection, luck. Dragons are in some respect an auspicious symbol of integration, power, strength, vitality, excellence, the potency of natural forces, artful masters of all physical elements (as creatures of the earth element, they live in water palaces, they can fly to the heavens, and control fire). In Oriental contexts, dragons are mainly respected as water deities (connected with rainfall, dynamic bodies of water such as waterfalls, rivers, floods, monsoons). Dragons also are conventionally in possession of extraordinary spiritual and magical powers specializing in the art of transformation & disguise – they have demonic senses (extraordinary acuity and vigilance), they are believed to be skilful shape-shifters (able to take the form of a miniscule organism such as a silkworm or achieve unusually great sizes – they can become as large as the universe; they are also believed to take on human shapes at will), like chameleons they can blend in colour-wise with their surroundings, they can become invisible through artful camouflage or by imitating the qualities of water, etc. It seems quite apparent that a part of admiration & reverence addressed to dragons is down to their exquisite flexibility, nimbleness (as masters of all natural elements) and ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions (transformation, camouflage, mimicry, shape-shifting). In China dragon (yang – male principle) is a noble mythical animal, a member of a royal animal couple together with the Chinese phoenix (yin – female principle), depicted in the coat of arms of the Chinese emperor (dragon) and the empress (phoenix – associated with high virtue and grace).
Another interesting element of the Oriental mythology of dragons is the common and wide- spread portrayal of dragons in company of Bodhisattvas (awakened beings, analogical to saints) or the Buddha himself. Spiritually accomplished beings are the only ones who can take a ride on the back of these noble & fierce mythical creatures. Especially images of Kuan Yin (Chinese Bodhisatva of compassion and mercy, also known in Japan, Korea, Vietnam under different names; a counterpart of Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit) travelling on the back of a dragon. Even in Indian Buddhism, the Buddha is often represented with a naga (snake-king, the Indian variant of a dragon) protected and sheltered by the enormous hood of the snake from negative external influences.
In spite of my research attempts, dragons still remain covered in a mist of secrets and allusions. What do they stand for in the individual spiritual life? (Do they have anything to do with spiritual awakening?) What are they guardians of? (A primordial, ancient reservoir of potent life energy and creativity?) From the usual illustrations it seems that dragons cannot be harnessed neither by constraint or physical force, nor can they be domesticated, tamed by harsh discipline. Quite on the contrary. Dragons’ friendship can be apparently only attained by compassion, gentleness, and wisdom (as in the cases of the Kuan Yin Bodhisattva and Buddha). Somehow the unfolding story of these noble mythical creatures brings me back to the story of “The Beauty & the Beast” and the thesis of art instinct. Could it be that dragons are symbols of our own powerful instinctive basis that needs to be cultivated with compassion in order to attain a fuller, richer existence and deeper spiritual life? Does the phrase “riding the dragon” suggest the necessity of an urgent peace pact between the upper (reason, intellect, spirit) and the lower (instinct, intuition, embodiment, elemental nature) realms of our own lives mediated by the welcoming space of our hearts? Can dragons stand for our own abilities of balance, harmony, flexibility, adaptation to the changing life condition and graceful responding to life’s ongoing challenges?
Honestly, I do not know. What I am aware of is that the symbol of the dragon is a timeless source of wisdom, inspiration and fascination recurrent in various contexts and at various periods.
To complement my musings, below, you can find a diverse compilation of poems, stories, sayings, quotes, thoughts revealing some new aspects of the dragon mystery.
A deeply moving excerpt from the breathtaking book by Brian Swimme entitled “The Universe Is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story”:
“I condense our contemporary cosmological scientific story of reality by saying that the universe is a green dragon. Green, because the whole universe is alive, an embryogenesis beginning with the cosmic egg of the primeval fireball and culminating in the present emergent reality. And a dragon, too, nothing less. Dragons are mystical, powerful, emerging out of mystery, disappearing in mystery, fierce, benign, known to teach humans the deepest reaches of wisdom. And dragons are filled with fire. Though there are no dragons, we are dragon fire. We are the creative, scintillating, searing, healing flame of the awesome and enchanting universe…. By pursuing your allurements, you help bind the universe together. The unity of the world rests on the pursuit of passion.”
The secret of the receptive Must be sought in stillness; Within stillness there remains The potential for action.
If you force empty sitting,
Holding dead images in mind,
The tiger runs, the dragon flees
How can the elixir be given?
- Sun Bu-er, Chinese Zen-Taoist Woman
Do you know the story of the true dragon? In ancient China, there was a person who liked dragons very much. He talked about dragons to his friends, and he painted dragons, and he bought various kinds of dragon sculptures. Then a dragon said to himself, “If a real dragon like me visited him, he would be very happy.” One day the real dragon sneaked into his room. The man didn’t know what to do! Whaaaah! He could not run away. He could not even stand up. Whaaaah! For a long, long time we have been like him. That should not be our attitude. We should not be just a fan of dragons; we should always be the dragon himself. Then we will not be afraid of any dragon. Shunryu Suzuki
I know a bird can fly, a fish can swim, and an animal can run. For that which runs, a net can be fashioned; for that which swims, a line can be strung. But the ascent of a Dragon on the wind into heaven is something which is beyond my knowledge. Confucius
If you ignore the dragon, it will eat you. If you try to confront the dragon it will overpower you. If you ride the dragon, you will take advantage of its might and power. Chinese Proverb
These days . . . we are apt to seek out a therapist to . . . help us get the dragon back into its cave. Therapists of many schools will oblige in this, and we will thus be returned to what Freud called ‘ordinary unhappiness.’ Zen, by contrast, offers dragon-riding lessons. David Brazier, Zen Therapy
The dragon rises from the mists and rolling fog of not knowing, aware that the journey has begun. It is time for the authentic self to emerge from confusion, seek its education, claim its heritage. This powerfully creative self has been obscured in the mists of life – its frustrations, its demands, its expectations.
see also: Mark Bryan. Julia Cameron, Catherine A. Allen, The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding the Dragon.