Terra Cotta Warrior Asleep on His Feet, Xian, China
Snakes and humans were always close friends until one summer a cobra was dozing on a rock in the sun and a farmer accidentally stepped on his tail. Before he was even fully awake, the startled cobra bit the farmer on the ankle. When the snake and the farmer realized what had happened, there was nothing that could be done. The farmer’s ankle swelled and turned purple and a streak of black traveled up a vein in his leg. When it reached his heart, the farmer gasped and stopped breathing, his soul slipping out of his eyes like it was wiggling out of a sack.
Hearing his screams, the villagers rushed to the farmer just as he expired. The cobra wished he could explain that he meant no harm and was sorry, but when their attention turned to him, he felt their anger and hurried off. The villagers saw him slide away just as they found the two holes in the center of the blackest part of the wound. There was no doubt what had happened. The farmer had no reason to harm the snake. Every farmer thought well of snakes because they kept the rodents down. And the bite was at back of his foot, which means he was attacked from behind. The humans had a new enemy.
The villagers were too afraid to harvest the fields. Instead they armed themselves with rakes and shovels and fortified their village, keeping a fire burning through the night. But they knew that if they did nothing soon, the vegetables they would need to survive the winter would rot in the fields.
One day news arrived that Buddha had arrived in the next town on pilgrimage. The fastest runner in the village ran half a day to find him. He found Buddha on the road, and threw himself at his feet. “Oh, Lord Buddha, my entire village may not live through winter if we cannot make peace with the cobra that is terrorizing our town. We will die without your help.” Buddha had other obligations, and told the boy they would have to solve their problem without his help. But the boy persisted and prostrated himself and asked Buddha three times, and Buddha could not refuse him.
Buddha followed the young man back to his village and walked into the fields, calling for Mister Snake. He eventually found him sleeping in the withered cornfield. “Mister Snake,” said the Buddha, “Why did you bite the farmer? The wailing you hear is his family weeping over his blackened body. What will come from that bite? Famine for others I fear, and a painful end for yourself. Worse, there will be enmity between humans and snakes for generations to come. Who will pity you when you have brought this catastrophe on your entire species?”
“I do not need justification for what I have done,” answered the snake. “I was startled and my instincts bit him and the poison that Nature put in my tongue killed him. If you are looking for someone to blame, blame the one who designed it so. If there is anyone else to blame here, the farmer is more at fault than I am. If he had stepped on my head instead of my tail who would be wailing now? Still, I grieve his inattentiveness and my part in his death more than anyone will ever know.”
“Believe whatever you wish, but the villagers do not know you were stepped on, nor do they care to question the obvious—you bit the farmer and he’s dead. When the head of a clan has been killed, it is as natural to want revenge as it is to strike when one is startled out of sleep. It is too late to change the past, but you can still influence the future. If this is not your fault—as it seems not to be—you will earn extra merit for behaving nobly in a difficult situation and earn heavenly grace, I am certain. Would you rather wither with your cornfield, nuzzling your pride, or behave like the King of Snakes you are and go to meet the enemy, without shield or weapon, and negotiate peace, not only for your sake and the farmer’s family but for generations yet unborn? Two futures are possible for you, depending on what you choose to do next.”
And with that Buddha blessed the snake, and urged him again to consider well what he did next, and then the Awakened One continued on his pilgrimage.
Two days later the Awakened One was returning from his pilgrimage and decided to see how the situation with the snake had worked out. As he approached the village he saw a flock of vultures, circling a spot in the cornfield. Buddha made his way through the stubble and found the snake, who was barely breathing, his body bloodied, twisted, torn. “Mister Snake,” sighed Lord Buddha, “What has become of you?”
“Oh, Lord Buddha, I heard the wisdom in your words and knew what I had to do. As you advised, I approached the farmer’s house, without shield or weapon. I pledged myself not to strike, even at the risk of my own death. I approached the young boy who was on duty and he rang a bell to alert the townspeople that they were under attack. When the villagers assembled I saw the faces that used to nod and smile when we passed on the road now darkened and disfigured by fear.
“I slid closer and turned my back to them and rolled over, defenseless, and waited for what was to come. After a few moments, I felt someone poke me with a stick, and then someone threw a stone that struck me. When I didn’t flee, they kicked me and crushed my spine with a stone. Then they picked up my limp body with a rake and threw me deep into the cornfield, where you found me.
“At first, the pain didn’t feel like pain; it was like drinking bubbles in champagne. And I even laughed at the absurdity of what was happening—that a guiltless death would be paid for by a guiltless one’s sacrifice, and the final irony was that no one but he would ever know of his sacrifice. For the villagers this would be the story of a cobra that went crazy and how the village rose to defeat him. The villagers would look at snakes more cautiously in the future, perhaps, but there would not be a war between the snakes and mankind for all time.
“But slowly that feeling passed and my mouth was full of dust and blood and I could not move my body out of the blistering sun and instead could only cough in the dirt. The day dragged painfully into evening and a frigid night followed. And then the morning sun swelled to fill the afternoon sky, and the vultures began to circle, and I realized that I was going to die of thirst, but not for another day or two.
“Why hadn’t I been allowed to die at the height of ecstasy, before the pain began, I wondered. Why was my sacrifice not enough? Why was it fated that I should also suffer this additional agony and indignity as well?
“And I remembered your advice—that two futures lay in store for me, depending on my choice, and I suddenly realized how I might have misunderstood your advice. How could it have ended worse if I chosen differently? Even the farmer died quickly and was mourned by his family. He was even mourned by the one who would be one day asked to pay the price for his misstep.
“But now, in my darkest moment of doubt and grief, you have returned to fulfill your promise. You have returned to rescue me from my suffering, to personally escort me into heaven in return for the merit I have earned by following your advice even unto the ultimate sacrifice. And in return, the Great Lord Buddha himself has come to end my suffering and take me with him into Nirvana!”
“But Mister Snake,” sighed the Buddha, “I never said you couldn’t hiss.”