Dragon Head, Snake Tail4 min read

Dragon Head, Snake Tail is a Chinese phrase meaning something that starts out very impressively but ends up as commonplace.

An example is the following folk-tale, found all over the world.

A father leaves to his children not much more than a house and an adjoining field, his last words being that there is a family tradition of a treasure hidden in it. He dies before he can explain further, but they know that in past wars, rich people have buried valuables before fleeing, hoping to come back later and recover them. The children dig hopefully for a time, but with steadily decreasing enthusiasm as they find nothing. One gives up, but a couple go on out of reverence for their father. They know they are just tilling the soil, digging a bit deeper perhaps, and throwing the occasional stone on to the rubbish heap in the corner. They never find any tangible treasure, but the repeated deep digging has made the field very fertile, and they realize that this must be the treasure their father meant. They would not have dug it so well all over unless they had expected some treasure somewhere.

This story of plodding repetition powered by a sort of myth, with its told-to-the-children moral, is indeed a dragon head with a thin snake tail. Its message is that of the atheist arms manufacturer in Shaw’s play Major Barbara, who nevertheless supports the Christian Salvation Army because it makes workers honest, hard-working, and sober, and that is good for the factory.

In actual fact, spiritual training does often bring some advantages in worldly life. But that is not its purpose. They can become distractions and even temptations, first to secularism, and finally to scepticism. In such cases, the spiritual practice becomes no more than a shell.

Let us try re-writing the story on more fulfilling lines. We will make the children idealists, who vow that when the treasure is discovered, they will use it to help the whole community. Things go as before, but one day, when they are feeling dispirited, a deep spade-thrust unearths a small silver ring. It is worth little in itself, but it tells them that someone has indeed dug deep in this field, someone who wore a silver ring which slipped off. Now their attitude is transformed, and they dig very carefully and steadily.

Nothing more for a time, until one of the girls notices a curious carrot-shaped stone. She is about to throw it away, when she recalls that they have come across a couple of other unusual stones like this one. She shows it to her brothers, and they rummage through the rubbish heap to collect the other ones. They agree that there is something unusual about them, and the eldest brother says very seriously: “Not a word to anyone. Tomorrow when I make my monthly trip into the town, I’ll show them to our cousin who has that little jeweller’s shop. He’ll tell us what they are. But don’t tell anyone about it.”

When he gets back from the jewellers, he looks solemn. “He took me to an expert, who told us what they are. It’s called kimberlite, and it contains diamonds. These are like uncut diamonds; they look like stones. Our rich ancestors, before fleeing, would have buried them in different parts of the field, reckoning that even if one was found, it would just be thrown away and no one would have any reason to look for others. They hoped that if they ever got back, they would at any rate have saved a good deal. In fact their descendants had to surrender most of the lands, but they hung on desperately to this field, because of the tradition about it. Though of course there was only half of that left. Now we have got to do it gradually and very carefully, so as not to arouse envy. But we are going to be able to help our community. Yes, we’re certainly going to be able to help our community.”

There is no need here to interpret the story in its new form. The point is, that the holy texts are not presenting myths and poetic illusions which, when persisted in, may nevertheless serve to improve outer circumstances. The teachings are concerned with discovering truth, first inwardly where we stand, and then universally. In the end it is our present world-experience which is a myth, an illusion.

Anyone who makes serious efforts to practise Austerity (tapas), to reduce personal selfishness, and Giving (especially the gift of Courage by helping others to self-reliance), and Worship (of the innate aspiration for God or the universal Self) will have a breath or flash from an unknown region. It changes the whole attitude to inner practice, as the discovery of the silver ring changed the digging.

Later on there will be another kind of glimpse, of the true nature, unnoticed so far in the things of the world. The later developments of the story are symbolic; they can be disentangled, but it is more rewarding to practise them.

© 1998 Trevor Leggett