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.