The Dancing Snake

by Julia Stenzel

In the spring of 2006, I arrived at Shamar Rinpoche’s Bodhi Path residence and center in Natural Bridge, Virginia. It is a wonderful place, lushly green at that time of the year, with dogwoods and other trees and bushes blossoming. One morning in April, everyone had left, with some business to tend to, so Shamar Rinpoche decided to go for a walk and I accompanied him. We walked to the pond at the bottom of the hill. There were wooden benches and a table beneath the trees on the edge of the pond. Rinpoche took a seat at the table, and started whistling an old Tibetan tune. Sitting nearby and listening, I looked at the beauty of the land.

After some time we walked onto the wooden bridge. The dark water held a special attraction, and so we just stood and watched the movements on and beneath the surface while Rinpoche took up whistling the Tibetan song again, a tune of melancholic nonchalance. Suddenly, there was an unusual movement in the water. We did not recognize it as a living being at first; we just saw something slim like a blade of grass or a thin root, golden yellow in color. There seemed to be no head either, just a plant moving in the water. Then, however, we realized it was a miniature snake which seemed to be dancing with its tiny body to the rhythm of the melodious tune. Rinpoche noticed it at the same moment and pointed it out to me. The small snake was turning left and right, left and right in the water and its body took on the shape of a vertical wave.

At first, when Rinpoche noticed the creature’s dance, he exclaimed a joyful shout of surprise, and right then, the snake stopped the movements and temporarily sank into the darker and deeper layers of the pond. As soon as Rinpoche continued the tune though, it continued its water dance. In this way things continued for a while. As soon as the song would end, the yellow snake relaxed and sank to the bottom of the dark water, and when Rinpoche took up whistling, it would rhythmically move to the surface. I think I even saw it take a breath from time to time, but I can’t be sure. The longer we watched, the greater Rinpoche’s delight grew. He expressed his amazement at the rarity and wonder of such an experience. He told me then and many times afterwards that I was a machine-minded person who had to be told to rejoice, as I wasn’t able to recognize something wonderful on my own. Rinpoche regretted deeply that he hadn’t brought anything with which he could film the snake’s dance. After a while, the rain set in and we walked back.

Some years later I met Rinpoche in Kalimpong, West Bengal, and once again he started talking of the dancing snake. Leaning on a chair in his living room, he whistled the same Tibetan tune and imitated the dance movements of the snake with his hand. Then he stood there for a while, apparently savoring the memories of that April morning. I am not sure, but I think I received another exhortation to abandon machine-mindedness. As Rinpoche has asked me several times to share this story with others, I am happy I finally found an opportunity to do so!