The Snake Rope: Essential Buddhist Teaching in a Simple Story

Buddhism is a large and diverse religion. It has many branches and schools of thought that might look quite different from one another at first glance. Its large corpus of texts and philosophical discourses abounds with a variety of ideas concerning life and enlightenment. Nevertheless, there are certain key Buddhist teachings which serve as unifying elements and make Buddhism recognizable as Buddhism. The story of the snake rope beautifully serves to highlight the key concept of ignorance (avidya) within all the various sects of Buddhist thought. The story goes like this:

A Buddhist monk was traveling home on a narrow county path one evening. It was becoming dark quite quickly. Suddenly the monk spied something in his path ahead. Unable to make it out, he proceeded with caution. The thing was long, thin, slightly coiled. "Snake!", thought the monk and stopped dead in his tracks. Yet, this was his only path to get home before it was completely dark. The monk experienced a moment of fear and panic, "I must get home soon, before dark! But, the snake is perhaps poisonous. I’m stuck!" he bemoaned to himself. Having some fire making tools, the monk quickly fashioned a crude torch and proceeded carefully forward. Just as suddenly ‘snake’ became ‘rope’. Some previous traveler had obviously dropped a portion of rope on the trail. And, the monk could have easily passed by it without fear. With this realization, how quickly fear became humor, panic to peace and how he had deceived himself with illusion, the monk experienced a sense of enlightenment.

This story has a very obvious surface teaching. It seems to be saying that once we perceive things as they really are, such as perceiving the rope to really be just a rope, our fear and suffering can cease. Once we are no longer ignorant and instead have a true knowledge of things, there is no need to be afraid and we can continue on our way. The reason for this is that true knowledge will tell us that all things are transitory, coming from nothing and returning to nothing. Things maybe real, but all is merely illusions.

The lesson of the snake rope story is also meant to extend even further, to the deceptive idea that there is an “I”, the self, or the ego. The ‘I’ made real the snake that was only a coiled rope. The emotions, the fear it was a snake, joy that it was rope, all of these components of the ego working to create a reality. The monk’s mind or ego could have easily worried all the way home a real snake could be further up the path creating another, illusionary reality. Ignorance about the true nature of the world causes us much suffering, but the most basic form of ignorance lies in believing that there is any true distinction between the self and the other. When the ‘snake’ was a snake, where was it? And when the rope was rope, where was it? Should the monk have found a way around the ‘snake’, would there, forever after, have been a ‘snake’ in the road the monk encountered?

We mistakenly believe the self to be real, something separate from the world. In Buddhism one might say the ego or self is just as real a rope mistaken for a snake, and so we are trapped in a fearful illusion full of suffering and despair.

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One need only to examine the snake and see that it doesn’t truly exist after all, that it is an illusion caused by false perception. The same examination should be done with this concept that we are an ‘I’ or ego and in someway separate from the world. To a Buddhist, to wake up from the illusion of the ‘I’ and see that there is nothing to fear after all, and that all there is is a world in a state transition, is a form of liberation. When we cease clinging to the idea of the self, then our suffering ceases as well.

A legend is told of a young prince to asked a Buddhist monk to create for him something that would help him keep his sense of balance throughout his reign as king. So, the Buddhist monk had a ring created for the prince and presented it to him. "How", the prince asked, "is this simple ring suppose to help me keep my sense of balance?". The monk responded, "When the crowds cheer you name or you have suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of an enemy, read the inside of the ring.". On the inner side of the ring was an inscription, "This, too, shall pass".

Interested in more on this topic? You may enjoy Who Was Buddha?.

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