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Cobra in a Chinese cave

Country: China

(By George) 
As a student in China in 2001 I visited Jiuhuashan - one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains of China. Several friends and I were planning to spend the night at a monastery at the top of the mountain but we started out a bit late on our hike. By dusk we still had 1/3 to go so we were walking briskly to get to the top before night fall. 

Slightly sideways from the path I noticed a cave with Buddhist statues in it. Every cave in this mountain was a shrine but this one was bigger than the average. My friends were already 10 m ahead of me but I decided to have a look in 30 seconds. I took the 20-m detour up to the entrance of the cave. 

When I got within 5 metres of the cave I froze in my tracks. There was a cobra in the middle of the entrance, with its head in an aggressive position 50 cm above the ground and the body curled up underneath. I couldn't believe my eyes. Was this for real? I had to make a quick decision: yield to my curiosity and approach it to find out if it was real, possibly risking my life, or run back down to the path to catch up with the rest of the group. I turned back and ran away.

Ever since then I've been wondering about that snake. There are no cobras in China so could it have been a monk's pet snake? Or maybe a plastic toy put in the entrance to reduce the flow of tourists? Or a toy put there as a joke? Or a Buddhist apparition? The last possibility I have been considering was that this entire episode was a dream. Was the sacred Buddhist mountain trying to teach me the lesson of Zhuang Zhou and the butterly? (Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly but when he woke up he started wondering whether he might actually be a butterfly dreaming it was Zhuang Zhou.)

I'll never know. I have plenty of photos from the mountain and the hike but I did not take a picture of the snake - that was before the digital photography era. So in a very Buddhist way I have accepted I'll have to live with the uncertainty of my memories.

Themes in story:
  • nAs
  • China
  • sideways
  • flow
  • Zhuang Zhou
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