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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Dragons

In the West, we frequently use dragons as a metaphor for evils, wrongs, or unnamed fears that must be conquered. In China, however, dragons are benevolent. Powerful, yes, but benevolent. One beautiful legend from ancient China speaks of the Four Dragons: Black Dragon, Yellow Dragon, Long Dragon and Pearl Dragon. Here it is, as I retold it to my daughter:


A very long time ago, there were no rivers in China. No lakes, no ponds, no streams or springs or waterfalls, either. There was only the great ocean in the east. Fortunately, the land was watered by rain, sent by the Jade Emperor, who ruled in Heaven. A time came, however, when the Jade Emperor stopped paying attention to the earth, and forgot to send the rains for a very long time. The earth began to dry out, and crops withered.


One day, as the Black Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Long Dragon and the Pearl Dragon were gliding through the air, they noticed an old woman kneeling in the dust below, her face streaked with tears as she prayed. Then they noticed that the earth was cracked and brown. "Why has the Jade Emperor sent no rain?" the Pearl Dragon wondered. "Let us go to him in Heaven and ask."


When they arrived at the throne of the Jade Emperor, he was annoyed that they had come to him, pointing out his failure. "I'll send the rain, now go away," he snapped.


The dragons left, relieved that all would be well again on earth. Yet when ten days passed with no rain falling, they knew the Jade Emperor had forgotten about the people on earth again. "Let us help them," said the dragons to one another. "We can fill our bellies with water from the great ocean and spray it onto the earth, can't we?" And so this is what they did. The moment the water touched the dry soil the wilting rice and wheat stood tall again, and the people rushed to catch the water in bowls.


Up in Heaven, the Jade Emperor caught sight of what the dragons were doing, and shouted with anger that they had taken it upon themselves to help the earth. "Bring mountains!" he roared to the Mountain God. "Crush those dragons!"


Faster than wind over rice paddies, four mountains came and bore down upon the dragons, pinning them to the earth. Yet the dragons were still full of water, and continued to pour it out, even as they were crushed. And so the four great rivers of China were formed, the Yellow River, the Long River, the Black River and the Pearl River, bringing water to the people forever.


I asked my daughter how many kind of courage she thought were involved in this story. "It took courage to show the emperor he had forgotten his job," she said. "And it took courage to go ahead and do the job themselves." "Do you think it also takes courage sometimes to pray for help?" I asked. She shrugged. "Maybe."

Compare this story of self-sacrifice to the story of Fenrir the Wolf, from Viking mythology, and The Legend of the Banyan Deer, from the Buddhist tradition. In all of these stories, the powerful put themselves at risk to help the weak. Endurance, love, charity, compassion, stewardship, responsibility and leadership are values that parents can model in their own behavior toward their children as examples of all six types of courage. Of course, it's often much easier said than done!

I know that, for myself, explaining to my daughter why I'm making a sacrifice is key. The sacrifice might be giving my money, or my mental time, or my physical effort to something other than my myself and my own immediate needs. Because fear is correlated to lack of control, we can infer that the opposite is true: courage is correlated to taking control. When I see something in the world that grieves me (poverty, injustice, hunger, etc.) I could allow feelings of helplessness overwhelm me. I could begin to fear that the world is a hopeless place. On the other hand, if I take even a small step, make a small sacrifice of money or time or effort to help alleviate that problem, I gain a measure of control. As a result, my feelings of futility diminish, and my fear subsides. Dr. Lisa has explained this eloquently in her posts about an internal v. external locus of control.

When we help others, we truly help ourselves. The greater our sacrifice, the less fear we will experience. Two quotations say this better, and more succinctly, than I have:

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage." ~ Dale Carnegie.

It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed. ~ Napoleon Hill




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