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Buddhistdoor View: Here Be Dragons – A Year of Transformation and Thunderstorms

Chief of the scaly creatures, it is able to be darkly obscure or brightly manifest, able to be miniscule or huge, able to be short or long; at autumn equinox it conceals itself in the watery void, at spring equinox it climbs into the sky.

Xu Shen (c. 58–c. 157 CE) Shuowen jiezi
Image courtesy of Buddhistdoor Global

According to the lunar calendar of many Asian countries, 2024 heralds the year of the dragon: an overwhelmingly powerful and capricious, yet ultimately benign creature. Its domains are the deep depths of the sea and the endless expanse of the sky. In Chinese popular imagination, the dragon embodies the country’s imperial heritage and national culture as a whole. There are 12 creatures in the Chinese zodiac, and as the children’s story of the animals’ race goes, the dragon only came fifth (with the rat, ox, tiger, and hare preceding) after having to stop at a drought-stricken village and bring some rain. Presumably, it would otherwise have been first in line to claim its constellation in the skies.

Speaking of the skies, in “prehistoric mythic territory,” the acclaimed and forward-thinking Sinologist David Pankenier wrote:

The symbolism of the long arose from close observation of nature and the stars in the Neolithic and was strongly conditioned by the implications of such observations for human adaptation to the environment.

(Pankenier, 90)

As such, the dragon represents awesome power as well as transformative capabilities and in the latter regard is able to shapeshift into whatever form it wishes. John Hay wrote:

[The dragon’s] inseparable association with the flux of substance, seen in water and mist. . . its emergence from this flux and inevitable disappearance back into it, embodied the transformational processes of actualization itself. The transformations of the [dragon] along the axes and across the categories of existence were inherent in its nature.

(Hay, 49)

The cosmo-priests of ancient China—from Neolithic settlements like Erlitou, Taosi, Yaoshan, and Puyang down to the Xia (1953–1555 BCE) and the Shang (1554–1046 BCE)—saw the draconic being as associated with clouds, thunder, rain, and the watery abyss. They can only be seen, fed, and tamed if the “Supernal Lord,” or shangdi—the high god of the Shang—is pleased with the ruling royal house. If dragons have fled or abandoned the dragon tamers, it means that virtue has declined, the ancestral spirits no longer look on human society with favor, and government has grown disordered.

Lacquer trunk from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, c. 433 BCE, with the earliest known celestial map depicting 28 lunar mansions in China. The astral-temporal diagram depicts a dragon beside the Big Dipper. From

The dragon does not play a particularly large role in Buddhist tales, possibly because by the time Buddhism trickled into China during the Han dynasty, the tradition already had accumulated a large corpus of mythical narratives about nagas—half-human, half-snakelike beings that have pre-Buddhist antecedents in the serpentine nature spirits of the historical Buddha’s world. The nagas are favored in Buddhist myth because Nagarjuna supposedly retrieved the Perfection of Wisdom sutras from the serpent-beings’ land—a realm that can also be found down in the deep depths.

Pillar with Naga Mucalinda protecting the throne of the Buddha. Railing pillar from Jagannath Tekri, Pauni, 2nd–1st century BCE. From

Furthermore, in the third scroll (Kegon engi emaki) of a 750-year-old collection found at Kozan-ji in Kyoto, there is a charming story of how a young lady called Shanmiao could appear variously as a dragon, a girl, and a stone. Shanmiao might be remembered as the lovesick pursuer of Uisang (625–702), the founding patriarch of Huayan in Korea (Hwaom), but should perhaps be given more credit for having protected his ship as it sailed back home from China. In this story and others involving Shanmiao, the dragon is a powerful—if samsarically bound—being that still assists in the establishment of the Buddhist Dharma, and helps various senior ecclesiastic figures in their endeavors.

Kano Yasunobu, Descending Dragon, c. 1683. From

The shared echoes between dragons from Neolithic times and classical, high-brow Buddhism do not end there. Not only is Nagarjuna himself sometimes depicted as having naga features, but the sage was also famous for articulating the most comprehensive and radical vision of emptiness (sunyata) in his Mulamadhyamakakarika. Emptiness is also a core theme in the Perfection of Wisdom canon—even if Nagarjuna historically did not discover the prajnaparamita sutras.

From the perspective of the Two Truths, “ultimate truth” expresses sunyata; that all phenomena lack intrinsic identity. In Chinese myth, the dragon is protean, embodying both yin and yang, and therefore embodies constant, effortless change. (Pankenier, 113–14) Yet to the ancient Chinese, the dragon was as visible as the land it purported to nurture, appearing as a great constellation during both the spring and winter equinoxes. As Shantideva argued, those that have meditated and attained insight see that all things do not have inherent natures, although the bodhisattvas, who have committed to becoming enlightened to lead others out of deluded suffering, still use language and conventional truth to help beings discern the limitations of language and conceptual thought.

In this New Year of 2024, we too can be inspired by the dragon’s powers of thunderstorms and transformations. The dragon is a being of endless potentiality, of continuous change that embodies vitality and virtue. It is a being of interconnectedness, its existence fundamentally tied to the patterns of nature and the rhythm of the cosmos. Just as nothing is permanent (anicca), and all is changing, it is precisely because the self is empty of inherent existence (anatta) that possibilities become exhilaratingly endless and expansive. Those potentialities are perhaps another way of expressing what we wish our New Year’s resolutions to be. With the spirit of a dragon in our hearts, and armed with the enlightened insight of sunyata and constant change, there is almost nothing that we cannot realize.


Hay, John. 1994. “The Persistent Dragon.” In W.J. Petersen, A. Plaks, and Yü Ying-shi (eds.), The Power of Culture: Studies in Chinese Cultural History. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 119–49.

Pankenier, David W. 2013. Astrology and Cosmology in Early China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

See more

Madhyamaka (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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