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The Strong-Minded Snake or How To Get What You Want by Really Trying

Back in the fall of 2019 (pre-pandemic times, seems an age and a half ago now), I was waiting in my doctor’s office for the annual flu shot. My doctor at the time worked out of an old 1930’s era west-side building, a nondescript, two-story half-empty walkup that has remained entirely unchanged all these many years. In fact, the place wouldn’t have been out place as a backdrop in the movie Chinatown.

The doctor had two small examination rooms for patients and a miniscule waiting area that somehow managed to contain 7 mismatched chairs, a coat rack and an antique wooden stand, littered (more or less) with a variety of the usual magazines one finds in such places: dated copies of The Economist, Reader’s Digest, Macleans, etc.

While most of the patients kept their heads down studying their cellphones, I became attracted to a rather unusual book half-hidden amidst the pile of journals. It was the following: King Fruitful/King Six Tusker and The Queen Who Hated Him, Buddhist Tales for Young and Old, Volume 2, Stories 51-100. (Published by the Buddhist Literature Society, Inc, New York, 1996, but printed and distributed for free by The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan).

Not the best cover design (or inside illustrations) I’ve ever seen (sorry to say), but the subject matter was certainly out of the ordinary and the stories were as uplifting and meaningful as originally intended. Buddhism not being a part of my upbringing, all were completely foreign to me. Naturally, I was drawn to them because many use animals to get their point across. As I do.

I asked the doctor if I could borrow it and he answered, of course I could. (It should be noted that the following is written on the back cover: “As this is a Dhamma text, we request that it be treated with respect. If you are finished with it, please pass it on to others or offer it to a monastery, school or public library.”)

The fifty Jataka stories included here are essentially morality tales – they “highlight aspects of human character” and are aimed at the “cultivation of moral conduct and good behavior” (p. xiii). According to the introduction, the Buddha used Jataka stories to explain concepts like kamma and rebirth. Although the introduction focuses on their link to Sri Lanka, I have read elsewhere that the origins of these tales lies rather in India. I am not an expert and could not hope to make a reasonable claim for either side. Whatever the case, many of the stories have traveled far and wide, influencing literature all the way into Europe and Japan. (One is easily reminded of Aesop’s Fables, which leads one to question which of the two came first.)

The stories either promote good behavior (sobriety, moderation, carefulness, gratitude, self-acceptance, prudence) or condemn bad behavior (adultery, laziness, betrayal, deception, cheating, extremism, ingratitude). Most are brief, being not more than a page or two; others are quite involved, with several chapters each.

As noted above, many of the fables deal with animals – Mr. Monkey and Sir Crocodile (on the subject of good manners) or The Careless Lion (on the merits of circumspection), and each story ends with a clear message. Many of these will be familiar to western readers – “if you don’t help others, you can’t expect them to help you”, “appearances can be deceiving” and “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today”.

I’ve chosen one story to highlight – The Strong-Minded Snake (#69), which focuses on the merits of determination. The story deals with a poisonous snake who has bitten a man. A doctor, the local expert in such matters and brought in to help the poor victim, declares that for the patient to survive, the villagers must find the snake and get it to suck out its own poison.

The snake, once found, protests – it avows that it has never done such a thing (suck out its poison, that is) and never will. In fact; it declares it would rather die first. Accepting its fate, the snake approaches the fire into which it will be thrown. At this point, taking pity on the brave creature, the doctor stops the execution. He decides instead to use his medicines and magic spells to cure the suffering man. (Although I’m tempted to ask why he didn’t choose this option the first time, I admit it would have spoiled a good story.)

The doctor, admiring the snake’s determination, realizes that, if the creature used this trait for good, it could improve itself. He then teaches the snake the Five Training Steps to avoid “unwholesome actions”, sets it free and tells it to “go in peace and harm no one.” The moral of the tale is – determination wins the respect of others. (I might add it’s also well rewarded.)

So why is the tale especially relevant to these posts? Only so far in that I consider this a character trait of mine – determination (tenacity may be a better word) – as epitomizing my approach to producing this seven-book series. I began the first volume of what has become The Ravenstones in 2006; I finished the last one in 2012. Although I was satisfied with the storyline, the basic contents and the conclusion, it became clear to me that my abilities as a writer had grown over those six years.

I realized then that the first books were far from adequate and needed to be redone. The subsequent processes (the rewriting, editing, proofreading and publication) took another eight years. I’d like to think that – through such resolve – the series is good enough for publication. I trust my many readers will agree with me. Naturally, at the end of the day, only they can make that assessment.

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