Alagaddupama Sutra: The Water Snake

Knowledge Like A Water Snake

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Relating the ideals and concepts of texts and sutras, some written two thousand years ago to contemporary Western culture it is important that you don’t develop a wrong understanding of what is being presented because within the teachings is intent that goes beyond the word-for-word text. This issue isn’t unique to now either. The Buddha, offering a new paradigm of human behavior in the midst of long-held Hindi beliefs and practices showed the wisdom and skillful means needed to guide practitioners then and now. He made it clear that a person must engage their intuitive wisdom to test the efficacy of what they learned through study or dharma talk so that the ideas presented are not used wrongly. They must also put what they have learned into practice so that through experience they verify the value of it.

In the Winter 2014 issue of Chan Magazine is a quote from Chan Master Sheng Yen that illustrates this ideal that is practiced over 2600 years later, “I hope that you accept and practice the things that you find good and beneficial in my teachings. The parts you do not like, you can just ignore.”

From the text of the Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha offers the Parable of the Water Snake to illustrate his point.

Thus have I heard,

Just as a person walking about seeking a water snake, going after a water snake, searching for a water snake, were he to see a large water snake, he might restrain it tightly with a forked stick. Having restrained it tightly by the neck with the forked stick, that water snake might wrap itself around the hand, arm, or other limbs of that person, but from this cause, the person would not die nor experience pain akin to dying. What is the reason for this? It is because of the right graspof the water snake.


In the same way, some people study the dhamma, including the discourses, the chants, the explanations, the verses, the sayings, what has been said, the birth stories, the marvelous teachings, and the miscellanies. But having studied the dhamma, they do examine the meaning of these teachings with intelligence. These teachings that have been examined with intelligence are accepted with comprehension. They do not study the dhamma for the purpose of criticizing others, nor for the purpose of merely quoting; so they do achieve the good result for which purpose the dhamma ought to be studied. And these teachings that are rightlygrasped lead to their welfare and happiness for a long time. What is the reason for this? It is because of the right grasp of the teachings.

Therefore you should understand the meaning of what I have said, and you should remember it in this way. Were you not to understand the meaning of what I have said, you should question me about it or one of the learned.”

Do you want to know . . . or do you want knowledge? Knowing is what can be remembered, recited and regurgitated as words masquerading as knowledge. Quoting a sutra or chanting the Heart Sutra are empty endeavors without there is comprehension of the depth of the meaning of what is being uttered. Knowledge will empower you with culturally valid expressions of calm and well-being, of compassion and generosity. Knowledge that comes from a combination of study, practice and experience will lead a life as close to human excellence as possible while also serving as a wise example of what you do matters.

Are you effectively grasping what is presented? Listening to talks about meditation without engaging in a mediation practice, without experiencing there will be no right grasp of the teachings. Recognizing the value of the Four Ennobling Truths, the Three Characteristics of Existence, the Six Refinements or any of the other profound dharma lessons without putting them into practice is not right grasping of the teachings. Without realizing these practices in your moment-to-moment existence you cannot realize the encompassing and corrective value they hold. Without making these practices part of the fabric of your engagements with others they will have no value in the alleviation of suffering, yours or anyone else’s.

There is a propensity in the West to make Buddhism a purely intellectual exercise. Some scholars and academics write books and make documentaries about Buddhist psychology and philosophy without having any actual experience with it as a moment-to-moment pursuit. They might believe in the value of the ideas but fail to value the practice. Even some Buddhist monastics hold to the idea that only the more intelligent can grasp the subtle and esoteric messages buried deep in Buddhist texts. Some believe that only those who take monastic vows and spend their lives studying and practicing Buddhist philosophy can reach the ultimate end . . . nirvana. Have these individuals grasped the snake rightly? Only they can know the answer through their own experience. The Buddha did not mean for Buddhism to be theory without action, or to only benefit a chosen few. Buddhism is all about action, action you must take to make it a valuable tool for positive transition of yourself and the world around you.

Something must also be said about using Buddhist tradition to attack or criticize others. There is no call for evangelizing in Buddhism, or for viewing it as better in some way than the spiritual practices of others. In the West, as it has been in no other period of Buddhist history every tradition is represented. At the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life all traditions are welcomed but engaging in a “mine is better than yours” discussion is not. All Buddhist traditions as well as all other religious and spiritual ones are welcomed, but Buddhism is always being discussed and practiced there.

To make Buddhist practice and philosophy real you must strive to attain a right grasp of the teachings. The way to do that is study, practice and experience . . . the omission of one results in the delusion that progress in personal development is being made solely through theory. Reading sutras and the writings of legacy teachers offer great opportunities to learn. Asking questions of a qualified scholar of Buddhist teacher offers great opportunities to practice. Applying what is learned the practitioner opens up great opportunities for personal and societal transformation.

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