The year of the dragon, (tatsu, ryu or ryo in Japanese) is upon us — and now just hours before the New Year, I can see the dragon peeking out of his lair, counting down the seconds until he is allowed to take over the world for a year. As midnight approaches, he waits . . . 10, 9, 8, 7, ready to pounce . . . 6, 5, 4, breathing fire 3, 2, 1. . . . Happy New Year! We are engulfed in flames.
Japanese dragons are said to be benevolent but don’t be fooled. They can still be very wrathful.
Take the legend of Burning Mountain, for example. Burning Mountain is in Shikoku, between temples 11 and 12 on the Shikoku 88-Temple Pilgrimage. The name Burning Mountain comes from a legend that Kobo Daishi (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, subdued a fiery dragon who lived there.
The dragon set fire to the mountain, probably while eating too much wasabi, the combination of which caused flames to leap out of his mouth like fireworks. Kobo Daishi ascended the mountain and extinguished the fire. As a result, the people and their property were spared. It’s a wonder that no one seems to notice that dragons are a fire hazard. People just don’t see them for what they really are: pyromaniacs.
Nonetheless, dragons are said to be the guardians of Buddhism. Temple 21 on the Shikoku pilgrimage is called the Temple of the Great Dragon and temple 36 is Temple of the Green Dragon. The deity who looks after this temple is called Dragon Fudo Myo-o, who also serves as the guardian deity of the local fishermen. Lastly, temple 41 is the Temple of Dragon’s Ray.
Dragons can be found at temples all over Japan, though, and dragons figure in Shinto folklore as well. While the Buddhist temple on Shiraishi Island is called Open Dragon (kairyu), we also have a shrine named Flying Dragon (hiryu).
Legend has it that the Shinto goddess Benzaiten (sometimes called just Benten) created Enoshima Island (just off Shonan coast in Kanagawa Prefecture) to thwart a dragon that had been menacing the people in the area for over 1,000 years. And this was no ordinary dragon — it had five heads! I suppose five heads is better than one, which made the dragon harder to outwit, but Benzaiten did it.
First, she raised Enoshima Island from the bottom of the sea to give her a place to live and plan her attack. The dragon took notice of Benzaiten and fell inextricably in love with her. Under this lusty spell, the goddess was able to convince the dragon that he was doing very bad things to the people. Being a Japanese dragon, he profusely apologized to the people and then committed suicide — by turning himself into a hill, which can still be seen today. It’s called Dragon’s Mouth (Tatsu-no-kuchi) Hill. Enoshima Island is dedicated to Benzaiten and there is a shrine there in her honor.
We also find dragons in Japanese mythology. “Ryujin shinko” is the worship of dragons as water gods who can bring rain to farmers and fortune to fisherman. You’d think dragons would stay away from water, which can put out their fire, but perhaps the reason they’re associated with water is because it is said that their powerful movements cause thunder and rain to shake from the heavens.
With this association of dragons as water gods, it’s no surprise that the Japanese Imperial Navy also used dragon references. Midget submarines were called “Sea Dragons” and suicide scuba divers, who used explosives to blow up ships from underneath, were called “Crouching Dragons.”
Since the dragon is most powerful of all beasts, the Japanese emperors are said to be descendants of dragons, and thus the dragon became a symbol of imperial power.
Now, to be descended from dragons indicates there must have been some kind of dragon-human tryst along the way. Now we get to the exciting part! Indeed, it is believed that Japanese dragons can mate with humans. (And you thought there were no good men out there). The trick is that dragons are said to be able to turn into humans and vice versa. So you never really know who is a dragon, I suppose, unless of course, you get pregnant and lay a large egg. And what would a dragon-human look like? Just like that one person at work who really drives you crazy.
But the good news for 2012 is that the dragon, full of myth and magic, should bring us wealth and fortune in the New Year, which is optimistic news in these tough economic times.
People born in the year of the dragon (years 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928) are energetic and short-tempered. Oh yeah, and stubborn. But they are also honest and brave. If you’re a dragon, you probably have the ability to breathe fire but have never told anyone.
Whether you were born in the year of the dragon or not, I hope you will find all seven Dragon Balls in 2012, and that you take on the challenges of the New Year with equanimity. It is a good year to develop friendships and work on your martial arts skills in order ensure victory over the evils in the world.
In the year of the dragon, walk softly and carry a fire extinguisher.