SuttaCentral

The Taming of the Nāga

Below is an excerpt from EĀ 24.5 (original Chinese), which is a story of the Buddha’s taming a nāga when he arrives to convert Uruvilvā Kāśyapa. There’s a shorter and less literary version of this story in the Theravāda Vinaya.

I’m posting this translation with a couple ideas in mind. The first is to invite discussion of the story and suggestions for improving the translation. A second goal is to find parallels that exist in other Buddhist sources. The themes in this story are representative of many root values of Buddhism, ranging from compassion for all beings (human and animal) to the principle of de-escalation in the face of violence and hatred. Though, I must admit that, being someone who loves the vast variety of sentient beings that exist in the world, I find the story personally touching, so I’m considering writing more about this particular story and similar ones in Buddhist myth and lore.

The Bhagavān then went to the region of Uruvilvā. Kāśyapa was living near there on the shore of the Nairañjanā River. He knew astronomy and geography, and there was nothing he couldn’t comprehend. He even knew how to calculate the number of tree leaves that there were. He led 500 disciples, whom he instructed daily. Not far away from Kāśyapa, there was a cave where a poisonous serpent lived.

It was then that the Bhagavān visited Kāśyapa. When he arrived, he said to Kāśyapa, “I’d like to stay for the night in the cave. If you would permit me, I’ll go there to stay.”

Kāśyapa replied, “I don’t care about it, but there is a poisonous serpent there that’s frightful and dangerous.”

The Bhagavān told him, “Kāśyapa, that’s no problem. That serpent won’t hurt me. I just need permission to stay there for the night.”

Kāśyapa replied, “If you want to stay there, then do as you like.”

The Bhagavān then went to the cave and prepared a seat for the night. Sitting down cross-legged with upright body and mind, he fixed his attention to what was in front of him. The poisonous serpent saw the Bhagavān sitting there and spat flaming venom at him. The Bhagavān at that moment had entered a concentration of kindness. He emerged from that concentration of kindness and entered a concentration of blazing light. The serpent’s fire and the Buddha’s light met at the same time.

Kāśyapa got up that night to look up at the stars, and he saw the light of a large fire in the cave. Seeing that, he told a disciple, “This ascetic Gautama is handsome looking, but now he is being killed by that serpent. What a pity! I told him earlier that it was there. ‘There’s an evil serpent; you can’t stay the night there.’” Kāśyapa then told his 500 disciples, “Get pitchers of water and high ladders and go douse that fire! Save that ascetic from this danger!”

Kāśyapa then led his 500 disciples to the cave to put out the fire. Some of them carried water and others brought ladders, but they weren’t able to put out the fire. It was the Bhagavān’s power that made it happen. The Bhagavān then entered the concentration of kindness and slowly made that serpent stop being hateful. The evil serpent’s mind then became fearful. It ran east and west, trying to leave the cave, but it wasn’t able to find the exit. The evil serpent then went up to the Tathāgata and coiled up in his alms bowl.

The Bhagavān stroked the evil serpent’s body with his right hand and spoke these verses:

“Serpent, exiting is so hard to do,
One serpent and another have come together.
Serpent, don’t have harmful thoughts;
Exiting is so hard to do, serpent.

Numbering like the Gaṅgā River’s sands,
Buddhas [have attained] parinirvāṇa.
You haven’t met any of them;
That’s the reason for your hateful fire.

Have good thoughts towards the Tathāgata;
Quickly abandon this hateful venom.
Once the venom of hate is gone,
Then you’ll be born up in heaven.”

The evil serpent then stuck out its tongue, licked the Tathāgata’s hand, and looked up at his face.

Early the next morning, the Bhagavān carried the evil serpent in his hand and went to Kāśyapa. He said to Kāśyapa, “Here is the evil serpent that’s so dangerous. I’ve tamed it.”

When he saw the evil serpent, Kāśyapa was terrified and said to the Bhagavān, “Stop! Stop, ascetic! Don’t come any closer! That serpent looks ready to strike!”

The Bhagavān said, “Kāśyapa, don’t be afraid. I’ve tamed it. It’ll never harm anyone. The reason is that this serpent has accepted my instruction.”

Kāśyapa and his 500 disciples then praised this unprecedented thing. “Amazing! Extraordinary! This ascetic Gautama has such miraculous power; he can tame this evil serpent and make it do no evil. Even so, it’s not the same as the truth that I’ve attained.”

Kāśyapa said to the Bhagavān, “Great ascetic, will you accept my invitation to stay for 90 days? I’ll supply you with all the clothes, food, seats, bedding, and medicines that you’ll need.”

The Bhagavān then silently accepted Kāśyapa’s invitation.

The Bhagavān released that magical serpent into the ocean, and that evil serpent lived a short time longer. After its life ended, it was born up in the heaven of the four god kings. The Tathāgata then returned to the cave to stay.

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Wow…really looking forward to seeing more. :slightly_smiling_face: I really like your work. I especially like the plain, direct vocab and style. So easy to read! People mightn’t know just how difficult this material is when you make it look so easy…

If I had a comment, it would be on the word 三昧 (samādhi).

爾時,世尊入慈三昧,從慈 三昧起,入焰光三昧。爾時,龍火、佛光一時俱 作。

I’m not saying that I invented this point, because obviously Ven. @sujato has been telling us this for years. But there might be other options than concentration for samādhi (which as a word by itself, probably wouldn’t suggest concentration- at least not to me). As 三昧 is itself already just a transliteration, one option might be to follow the lead of the Chinese text itself and render as samādhi without translation. Although obviously that would impact the beautiful clarity of your style a little and give a small blow to comprehensibility with non-specialist readers. These are just things to weigh up.

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Thanks! That’s exactly what I’m aiming for. To make the narrative feel as natural as possible, especially for stories like this.

Oh, yes, the dreaded samadhi translation issue. I’m still using my old standby “concentration” (which is somewhat encouraged by Agama glosses that suggest a meaning like concentration), but you are right that in this case, the Chinese isn’t taking a stand. Once upon a time, I always transliterated when the Chinese does, but these days I’m trying to eliminate transliterations except for proper names (people, places). I think Sujato’s preference is “immersion”? I can see that meaning in the term, too. Hmm. I’ll have to ruminate on it some more.

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I just wanted to say as well, that this is my favourite Chinese-English translation of 2020. If you have time, would you care to share more about your Chinese learning/translation journey?

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Sure.

It’s been a long but unorthodox journey. I began teaching myself to read classical Chinese around age 23 or so. At the time, I had been reading popular translations of the Daodejing and Zuangzi as well as reading about Zen. I met someone who had a Japanese-English Kanji dictionary and began learning the basics of writing and recognizing the characters and radicals. I slowly upgraded my references, but they were pretty woeful. I wasn’t in academia and this was right when the WWW and modern internet began to take shape. So, there weren’t any electronic texts or dictionary projects like CBETA or Charles Muller’s DDB at the time.

So, I graduated from experimenting with the Daodejing to translating the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. It’s quite bemusing to remember those times. Transliterated names were just mysteriously garbled nonsense to me! Only once in a while did to the Chinese-English dictionaries (like Liu’s and Matthews’) I had on hand include them. This was still a long time ago, in the late 1990s.

Well, I did attend a local branch of a major university in the US for a couple years, which gave me access to a physical set of the Taisho Daizokyo at the main library. I began borrowing volumes and photocopying them wholesale when I realized what a ocean of Buddhist texts it contained. Until CBETA converted the entire canon to Unicode, I had several crates of photocopied Taisho stacked in a closet.

Anyway, as time went on, the online resources gradually improved. I helped out Muller’s dictionary project in the early years and even tried my hand at inputting Chinese texts with OCR software. But it was before Unicode, so it was a mess. So many classical characters were missing from the Big5 encoding, and the Japanese SJIS encoding was even worse.

Until about seven or eight years ago, translating Buddhist Chinese was an off-again on-again hobby that I desperately wanted to pursue but didn’t know a way to finance. I starting working on an ambitious project in my spare time in the later 2000s: The Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa. I found a supporter in the Chinese Buddhist community who did his best to support the work, and we started a translation project that has lasted since 2014. We’ve about 17 fascicles of the DZDL drafted, but the editing has been slow going.

Then a couple years ago I revisited my older attempts at translating Agamas and realized that there was a need for someone with more of an East Asian studies background to work on it, so I came and offered to contribute to SuttaCentral’s open source project. I set up my own site at Github to publish my translations in the meantime, but we’re planning on releasing segmented side-by-side translations sometime in the future.

To be honest, it was only in the past five years or so that I’ve felt really competent as a translator, and that was a result of focusing diligently on the DZDL project. There’s also a huge difference today compared to 15 or 20 years ago in terms of the electronic reference sources and research that’s available. Being able to text search CBETA’s entire corpus or Edgerton’s BHS Dictionary is a huge timesaver and puts information at my fingertips that I didn’t have before.

We’re living in interesting times.

[Edit:] I should add that I did get a BS in Information Technology, and I’ve always been a creative writing hobbyist alongside the interest in Buddhist texts. I spent a few years as technical writer for an engineering company and as a freelance copywriter. So, my English language skills (well, written English language skills) are pretty good. Better than they would be, I dare say, if I had taken the academic route.

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Wow. :slightly_smiling_face: Muller’s dictionary is a wonderful source. Thank you for everything.

P.S. CBETA’s search function is incredible, isn’t it? Glad to meet another fan.

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