“My God!” he said. “I hadn’t noticed. How unobservant can one be?”
“Is this the first time you’ve seen the Buddha in this context?”
“The first time. Is there some legend?”
She nodded. “One of my favorites. You know about the Bodhi Tree, of course?”
“Yes, I know about the Bodhi Tree.”
“Well, that wasn’t the only tree that Gautama sat under at the time of his Enlightenment. After the Bodhi Tree, he sat for seven days under a banyan, called the Tree of the Goatherd. And after that he moved on to the Tree of Muchalinda.”
“Who was Muchalinda?”
“Muchalinda was the King of the Snakes and, being a god, he knew what was happening. So when the Buddha sat down under his tree, the Snake King crawled out of his hole, yards and yards of him, to pay Nature’s homage to Wisdom. Then a great storm blew up from the west. The divine cobra wrapped its coils round the more than divine man’s body, spread its hood over his head
and, for the seven days his contemplation lasted, sheltered the Tathagata from the wind and rain. So there he sits to this day, with cobra beneath him, cobra above him, conscious simultaneously of cobra and the Clear Light and their ultimate identity.”
“How very different,” said Will, “from our view of snakes!”
“And your view of snakes is supposed to be God’s view— remember Genesis.”
” ‘I will put enmity between thee and the woman,’ ” he quoted, ” ‘and between her seed and thy seed.’ “
“But Wisdom never puts enmity anywhere. All those senseless pointless cockfights between Man and Nature, between Nature and God, between the Flesh and the Spirit! Wisdom doesn’t make those insane separations.”
“Nor does Science.”
“Wisdom takes Science in its stride and goes a stage further.”
“And what about totemism?” Will went on. “What about the fertility cults? They didn’t make any separations. Were they Wisdom?”
“Of course they were—primitive Wisdom, Wisdom on the neolithic level. But after a time people begin to get self-conscious and the old Dark Gods come to seem disreputable. So the scene changes. Enter the Gods of Light, enter the Prophets, enter Pythagoras and Zoroaster, enter the Jains and the early Buddhists. Between them they usher in the Age of the Cosmic Cockfight—Ormuzd versus Ahriman, Jehovah versus Satan and the Baalim, Nirvana as opposed to Samsara, appearance over against Plato’s Ideal Reality. And except in the minds of a few Tankriks and Mahayanists and Taoists and heretical Christians, the cockfight went on for the best part of two thousand years.”
“After which?” he questioned.
“After which you get the beginnings of modern biology.”
Will laughed. ” ‘God said, Let Darwin be,’ and there was Nietzsche, Imperialism and Adolf Hitler.”
“All that,” she agreed. “But also the possibility of a new kind of Wisdom for everybody. Darwin took the old totemism and raised it to the level of biology. The fertility cults reappeared as genetics and Havelock Ellis. And now it’s up to us to take another half turn up the spiral. Darwinism was the old neolithic Wisdom turned into scientific concepts. The new conscious Wisdom—the kind of Wisdom that was prophetically glimpsed in Zen and Taoism and Tantra—is biological theory realized in living practice, is Darwinism raised to the level of compassion and spiritual insight. So you see,” she concluded, “there isn’t any earthly reason—much less any heavenly reason—why the Buddha, or anyone else for that matter, shouldn’t contemplate the Clear Light as manifested in a snake.”
“Even though the snake might kill him?” “Even though it might kill him.”
“And even though it’s the oldest and most universal of phallic symbols?”
Shanta laughed. ” ‘Meditate under the Tree of Muchalinda’— that’s the advice we give to every pair of lovers. And in the intervals between those loving meditations remember what you were taught as children; snakes are your brothers; snakes have a right to your compassion and your respect; snakes, in a word, are good, good, good.”
“Snakes are also poisonous, poisonous, poisonous.”
“But if you remember that they’re just as good as they’re poisonous, and act accordingly, they won’t use their poison.”
“Who says so?”
“It’s an observable fact. People who aren’t frightened of snakes, people who don’t approach them with the fixed belief that the only good snake is a dead snake, hardly ever get bitten. Next week I’m borrowing our neighbor’s pet python. For a few days I’ll be giving Rama his lunch and dinner in the coils of the Old Serpent.”

Aldous Huxley, Island.

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