The Story of The Dragon King’s Daughter

I’m trying to read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, the best-selling book by late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson that has become quite a phenomenon in the world of crime and mystery fiction. I say trying because I’m not terribly impressed with the translation so I am finding the book to be a bit of a chore.

The title refers to one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is a troubled anti-social misfit and sports a tattoo of a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

In Eastern mythology, dragons represent wisdom, power, nobility, divinity, and benevolence.  In Western cultures, however, dragons are usually depicted as being rather ill disposed, symbolizing evil. Interestingly, the word “dragon” comes from the Greek word, drakon, formed from the verb drak which means “to see clearly.”

In any case, the title of this book reminds me of the story in the Lotus Sutra about the Naga Princess, also known as the Dragon King’s Daughter. Not that there are any strong parallels, although there could be, but I’m not that far along with it.

The Sanskrit word “naga” actually refers to the King Cobra snake, but the Chinese translated it as dragon. In Buddhism, the Nagas are supernatural beings who live on Mount Semuru and in the depths of the ocean. It was from the underwater Naga Kings that Nagarjuna (“dragon-tree”) is said to have received the Mahayana sutras.

The story of the Dragon King’s Daughter is the lone example in Buddhist literature of a mortal being becoming a Buddha, with the notable exception of the Buddha himself. It’s meant to convey the universality of Buddha-nature. And it’s about a woman becoming a Buddha, which is significant not only for the statement it makes but also because it came out of a patriarchal culture that tended to view women as inferior.

Here is an abbreviated version of the story:

There was once a daughter of Sagara (“Ocean”), one of the great Dragon Kings who lived at the bottom of the sea. When the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Stura on Vulture Peak, Bodhisattva Chishaku stood up and said, ‘It took eons of practicing austerities and accumulating wisdom for even our own Shakyamuni Buddha to realize awakening. Is it possible for anyone to quickly attain Buddhahood?’

To this Manjusri Bodhisattva said, ‘With the Awakened One’s permission, let me tell you about the Dragon King’s daughter. She is just eight years old, highly intelligent, and well-versed in Buddha-dharma. In just a single moment, just one instant of time, after having generated the thought of awakening, she entered into meditation and became a Buddha.’

Bodhisattva Chishaku replied, ‘There is not even a spot as small as a poppy-seed in this universe where the Bodhisattva has not made efforts for the sake of all living beings and only after such efforts was he able to realize awakening. I find it hard to believe that a mere girl could become a Buddha so quickly.’

It was at that moment when the Dragon King’s daughter arrived and Shariputra asked her, “The Buddha Path is long; I too, have difficulty understanding how you could so speedily become a buddha.’

The Dragon King’s daughter turned, bowed to the Buddha and offered him a precious jewel. When he immediately accepted this gift, she said to Shariputra, “Did you see how quickly the Buddha took the jewel I offered. Was this action speedy?

All agreed that was most speedy. Then she replied, “Now, watch as I become a buddha even more quickly than that!”

And in a flash, she completed all the bodhisattva practices and sitting down upon a thousand-pedaled lotus, became a buddha.

At this, all in the assembly made reverent salutation, silently believing.

There is a part of the story I left out, about how it was necessary for the Dragon King’s daughter to change into the form of a man before becoming a Buddha. Diana Y. Purl, in Women in Buddhism: images of the feminine in Mahayana tradition, says that “[The] transformation of sex from female to male is a prerequisite for the Naga princess’ entrance to the path of Bodhisattvahood, presumably at the irreversible stage (because of the five kinds of status excluding females).” I think she is referring to “The Five Obstacles” which state a woman cannot become a Brahma, a Sakra god, a devil (Mara) king, a wheel-turning king, or a Buddha.

I left it out because it’s not important. It’s a piece from the past we can let drop off. It doesn’t change the prime point regarding the universal buddha nature. It certainly didn’t stop the women of Heian Japan, where the Lotus Sutra was extremely popular, from embracing the story’s message. During that period, women were barred from entering most temples and it was thought that they could never escape the realm of enlightened existence.

Yet, there were some who contested this. In Songs to make the dust dance: the Ryojin hisho of twelfth-century Japan, Yung-Hee Kim presents a number of homon uta (songs of Buddhist sutras) based on the story of the Dragon King’s daughter. One in particular he says “challenges the Buddhist theories and prejudices against women by insisting that women do posses an inborn buddha nature”:

If the Dragon King’s daughter became buddha,
why can’t we, too, somehow?
A thick cloud, the five obstacles, yes
but buddha nature shines through like the moon.

It does, indeed.

By the way, the jewel given to the Buddha by the Naga princess represents her precious life.