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.

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18 thoughts on “The Story of The Dragon King’s Daughter

  1. In “The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra V.III, in a dialogue on this topic, Daisaku Ikeda says: “The Buddha’s acceptance of the jewel indicates that the lives of the dragon girl and the Buddha have become one. In other words, by this action Shakyamuni provides actual proof of the dragon girl’s attainment of Buddhahood. We could also say that the jewel is the jewel of three thousand realms in a single moment of life. By making this offering to the Buddha, the dragon girl indicates she has awakened to this mystic principle.”

    Endo: “The ‘Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings’ says: ‘At the time when the precious jewel was still in the hands of the dragon girl, it represented the attainments inherent in her nature. But when the Buddha accepted the precious jewel, it became the representative of the attainments acquired through religious practice.’ (Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, Vol.III, pp. 98-99)

    1. If by citation you mean title of the painting, I don’t know. I imagine it is “Dragon King’s Daughter” or something similar. I saw it on a number of websites and I don’t recall that the original source was cited.

  2. It’s worth noting that Shinran left the monastic life to marry and have children after receiving a vision that his future wife, Eshinni, would be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Also, if you read the letters of Eshinni, you’ll see that she expected to be reborn into the Pure Land as a woman and not as a man.

  3. It’s also worth noting that Jodo Shinshu is around today due to the efforts of Shinran’s youngest daughter, and the head priest of Nishi Hongwanji is her blood descendant.

  4. In the Lotus Sutra’s story, the dragon princess became a man in the process of becoming a Buddha. But when the story began, the sutra says that she was already enlightened:
    http://www.rk-world.org/publications/lotussutra_B12.html

    The dragon princess only transforms into a male after Shariputra doubts her spiritual attainment. The dragon princess’ changing her gender is an act of expedient means, for those who need to see her in a male form, just as Avalokitesvara morphs into a female form.

  5. Yes,

    I have been studying a certain wee extract of the Lotus Sutra and the Dragon King’s Daughter referred to. I questioned why she had to turn into a man and what does that mean for us women and the validity of the Sutra etc, but of course, she was already enlightened before “trans-ing” 😉 Ha! And I love that she was spurred to do this purely so that Shariputra got the message – i.e. he wasn’t able to see/listen – FATHOM!! that a being of the “fairer” sex had become enlightened. Ha! So really, we women folk have oft had to change “for the sake of others”, the lengths we have to go to in order to be taken seriously!!! To be “heard” – even by “voice-hearers”. Proof that a) we are all human and b) we are all buddha!!

    Thank you all x

    1. Hi Renee. Thanks for leaving this comment. Just one small point: I am not sure that the Naga Princess was already enlightened. Some modern translations have Manjusri Bodhisattva saying that she has an excellent mind and “has attained enlightenment” while earlier translations put it as she is “fit for enlightenment.” I think the latter is probably more accurate, for if she were already enlightened there would be no need for the demonstration and transformation. On the other hand, maybe it has to do with the difference between ‘regular’ enlightenment and ‘complete, perfect’ enlightenment. I don’t think anyone knows the original point of the story (it is doubtful that it was about the universality of buddha-nature), or for that matter the point of the Lotus Sutra itself, as this text was compiled from numerous sources over a 500 year period.

      Personally, I think there are some other scenes in Buddhist literature that better demonstrate that women should not have to go to such great lengths to be taken seriously.

  6. David, here’s an academic paper written on the subject:
    “The vision manifested by the Dragon Princess should be understood in the same way as the Goddess’ sex change. As Zhiyi made clear, the princess did not need to abandon her body and take up another body, even if it were the body of a Buddha. However, to emancipate Accumulated Wisdom and ??riputra from their biases and limitations, as an expedient means, she kindly manifested a vision of her attaining Buddhahood in the manner they are able to understand and “swallow” even with their imperfect abilities.”
    http://nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/nfile/4400

    The dragon princess transforming into a man is no different than Avalokitesvara transforming into a woman. It says in the Lotus Sutra that, from the perspective of emptiness, there is neither male nor female.

    1. I think there is a significant difference between Avalokitesvara and the story of the Naga princess. The former is a celestial being with “superpowers,” the ability to shape-change being one of them. The Nagas are supernatural, but as far as I recall, shape-changing is not one of their abilities. Regardless, it is clear that the story of the Naga girl is a unique incident, and no matter how you interpret it, changing from female serpent to male human is an act of transformation, in the sense of a psycho-physical metamorphosis.

      The Lotus Sutra barely deals with the concept of emptiness (if it is mentioned at all), and I’m not sure about how big a role non-duality plays. From the viewpoint of the Lotus, emptiness is a concept belonging to the Two Vehicles, and is therefore, a provisional concept.

    1. Renee, there is the story of the Goddess in the Vimalakirti Sutra, which I just posted today. Also the Tibetan story of “Yeshe-Tsogyal who attained enlightenment in the supreme body of a woman.”

      I think there is a way of viewing Kuan Yin (Avalokitesvara) in the Heart Sutra that is quite revolutionary, in that you can have Shariputra receiving dharma instruction from a woman. Thematically related is the “Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Sutra”, a female dharma teacher.

  7. Here is the quote from the Lotus Sutra I was referring to:

    Also [if] he does not discriminate,
    ‘This is a man’ or ‘This is a woman’;
    [If] he discovers no laws
    Nor recognizes nor sees them;
    This then is called
    A bodhisattva’s sphere of action.
    All laws [or things] are
    Void and nonexistent,
    Without permanence,
    Neither beginning nor ending;
    This is named the sphere
    To which wise men resort.
    http://www.rk-world.org/publications/lotussutra_B14.html

    Please also read the article I shared regarding the dragon king’s daughter. It is a legitimate interpretation that she was already enlightened, had already attained bodhi, before turning into a man.

  8. This quote alone, David, shows that you don’t know what you are talking about when it comes to the Lotus Sutra and the doctrine of emptiness:

    Also [if] he does not discriminate,
    ‘This is a man’ or ‘This is a woman’;
    [If] he discovers no laws
    Nor recognizes nor sees them;
    This then is called
    A bodhisattva’s sphere of action.
    All laws [or things] are
    Void and nonexistent,
    Without permanence,
    Neither beginning nor ending;
    This is named the sphere
    To which wise men resort.
    http://www.rk-world.org/publications/lotussutra_B14.html

    1. Perhaps I did not phrase it well, but the bottom line is that emptiness (sunyata) is not an important concept for the Lotus Sutra. If you disagree, fine. But there are plenty of scholars who share that view. Hunt them down and tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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