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Riding The Dragon: The Gifts Of Zazen

Profile image of a chinese styled dragon, green body, golden belly scales, red mane and golden horns

2024 - The Year Of The Wood Dragon

Up until now, dragons haven’t come into my purview. I wasn’t interested in mythology or stories about dragons as a kid or young adult. However, my interest was recently sparked when I saw a post by someone in the Zen community about dragons, Quan Yin, and meditation. I’ve also registered that we are entering the year of the Wood Dragon. It has me thinking, “What do Japanese and Zen cultures have to say about dragons, and how can we use the power of the dragon in our daily practice?”

Here’s what I’ve found: 

In Asian cultures, wood represents vitality and creativity, and the dragon is related to success, wisdom, progress, and transformation. The combination of the two makes the Year of the Wood Dragon full of auspicious meanings. 

In Buddhism, dragons are typically considered deities who bring sustenance in the way of rain, fertility, and wealth. Dragons are also the guardians of the temples and sutras. They can be seen on rooftops, steps, and gates, watching all who enter. 

The website Zen Fields informs:

“Dragons also symbolize enlightenment, spiritual development, Right Speech, and the forces of nature. In Zen stories and historical texts, meditation is considered the true dragon. It's said that when a novice priest enters the monastery, they go from being a fish, which is symbolic of an ordinary being, to a dragon, which is symbolic of an enlightened being.”Sagara, the Dragon King is found in Chinese mythology and also in Mahayana Buddhism. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra reveals him as the dragon (naga) that rules the rain supply of the whole world. In other mythological stories, he rules the oceans and the seas.

There is also a mythical story in which the Dragon King’s son turns himself into a fish. Fishermen then catch him. He was brought to town to be sold at the market, facing certain death. Quan Yin hears his and his father’s cries for help and saves the son. As a reward, the Dragon King sends his daughter, Lung Nue (“dragon girl”), to gift Quan Yin with the ‘Pearl of Light’. This precious jewel owned by the Dragon King shone eternally. This story has been immortalized as the statue we see of Quan Yin and the dragon.

In the Chinese New Year, held in February, we have all seen pictures of the dragon parading down streets, dancing its way along as it chases a red ball on a pole. That ball represents the 'Pearl of Wisdom'. The dance symbolizes that the dragon is continually in pursuit of wisdom.

In the 12th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the eight-year-old daughter of the Dragon King rises from her palace beneath the sea to give a gift of a precious jewel “worth equal to the entire system of three thousand great thousand worlds,” to the Buddha. This is also the chapter that points to the capacity of women to become enlightened. 

We can see the common thread that dragons are wise, transformative beings who help us awaken and guard and protect us. 

All of this gives context to the post I read; Why do we meditate?

The person who wrote the post is terminally ill. They were wrestling with their declining health, and the anger, pain, and fear around that reality. They said in a moment, while in the struggle, they identified with the dragon as the amygdala - the reptilian part of our brain that just reacts. 

The writer talked about how they’ve practiced meditation for a long time and due to this they usually can let the feelings come and go. However, sometimes it’s really hard because those feelings come hard and fast, sucking you right in. 

They thought of the statue of Quan Yin on the dragon and the notion that: you can either ride the dragon or be the dragon, came to them. They suggest that we meditate to ride the dragon. 

Quan Yin, or Kannon in Japan, hears and responds to the cries of the world. She is comfort, mercy, and compassion personified. The picture of Quan Yin riding the dragon - giving compassion, mercy, and understanding to suffering and the hard emotions that sometimes suck us in, is one I won’t forget. 

I like this person’s very pragmatic take on why we meditate, relating it to the dragon as the amygdala - the part of the brain that reacts without stopping or thinking.  The part of the brain that threatens to take us to the depths of our emotions. Reptilian and working with fear via fight, flight, freeze, or appease modes. Lashing out or shutting down. Survival mode.

Quan Yin, who hears the world's cries, hears the anguish in the stories we tell ourselves while we feed our emotions. In the story of the dragon king and his son, Quan Yin saves them with mercy and compassion. Just as we can save ourselves when we feel the reptilian dragon is near.  


We practice to ride the dragon. We can use these pieces of knowledge to find refuge. Remember that the reptilian dragon is alternately the dragon of wisdom, offering us the power to transform reactions into responses. The wise dragon and Quan Yin are always there. Both with compassion and the Pearl of Light/Wisdom/Discernment. They will never abandon us to the depths of our oceans and those survival modes we’ve previously relied on.

Every time we practice the Sacred Pause, every time we sit in zazen, every time we can say, “Not today Mara,”  as our brains, functioning from the amygdala, want us to lash out, or start weaving stories and suffering together, we win.  When we can abide with the ride, create the space to ask ourselves “What is real,” and just keep breathing until the bigness of the emotion subsides. Harvard-trained neuroanatomist, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains in her book, My Stroke Of Insight, that when we simply observe (sit with) the physiological sensations in the body without reacting, the emotion dissipates within 90 seconds. 

This “sitting with” and “observing" is what I call abiding. Abiding, whether on our cushion, in our car, or sitting at our desk at work, opens the door for calm and compassionate responses to the difficult people and situations in life. From the fish, out of its depth or on dry land symbolic of humans, to that wise dragon symbolic of an awakened being, we train through zazen, to practice both abiding with and riding the dragon. 



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