The year of the dragon has turned into the year of the snake. The dragon and the snake have a lot in common, and certain calligraphic talismans combine both elements. (Illustration #1.) In Asia there is often no clear distinction between the naga (snake) and the dragon, perhaps the main difference being that a dragon rules the heavens, while the earth—especially its wells, lakes, underground streams, and oceans—is the domain of the naga. It is believed that nagas guard the secret teachings of the universe and imparted them to Buddhism’s greatest philosopher, Nagarjuna. The nagas did not give Nagarjuna just ideas; they also gave him some magic clay that enabled him to build a host of temples and stupas.
In the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Snake is considered a lucky one, primarily because people born under this sign are so good at handling money that everyone prospers because their clever business sense builds a strong economy. They are intelligent, reflective, determined, shrewd, self-contained, and they are excellent mediators. On the down side, they can be cunning, dishonest and miserly—indeed, poison. In both East and West, “a snake in the grass,” means the same thing.
The Zen Snake in the gallery (Illustration #2) is formed by two coiling enso, perhaps suggesting kundalini, “the serpent power.” Kundalini is the sexual force that drives the universe; properly transformed kundalini can propel us towards cosmic bliss. All this can be heavy stuff, but like any good Zenga, this painting of a snake is kept to the basic form. It is up to us to make of it what we will—a tantric diagram or a Zen cartoon.