Buddhism has the Rope and the Snake, Christianity has Jesus and the Pug

Look closely… who do you see?

Well, they’re not exactly equivalent, but bear with me.

Who… or what, do you see in the image above?

Yes! Wow! Oh, wait?! Ewwww. Really?

Here’s the whole image:

As much as I love Jesus, I’m just as happy to see that its a pug! (And I’m sure my pug-loving girlfriend will agree.)

Ahhh, just look at that face. A bit blurry, but anyhow….

That is just one of (apparently many) photos of dog’s rear quarters that amazingly resemble what some people would swear is a miraculous image of Jesus.

The simple, natural explanation, is that we see things that we want to see, sometimes when they aren’t really there.

The flip-side of this is that we just as often see things we’re afraid of even though they aren’t there. That is where the Buddhist story of the snake and the rope comes in. As far as I can tell, the story isn’t found in the early Pali sources. The story, as I was first told it, goes something like this: A man, filled with a mind of fear, walks in to a shed and sees a snake coiled in the corner. Fearful, he runs away. Later, with a mind cooled of fears, he returns to the shed. There he sees that the snake is just a rope, coiled up in the corner. A recent Tibetan master elaborates thus:

“Sentient beings, self and others, enemies and dear ones—all are made by thoughts. It is like seeing a rope and mistaking it for a snake. When we think that the rope is a snake, we are scared, but once we see that we are looking at a rope, our fear dissipates. We have been deluded by our thoughts. Likewise, mentally fabricating self and others, we generate attachment and aversion.”

~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

In science, this is called confirmation bias: the process of actively searching out or interpreting evidence to support your own preconceptions. In Buddhism it is simply our ignorance, perpetuated by saṅkhāra/saṃskāra (mental formations). One of the powerful effects of meditation – for most of us – is the ability to see our own mental formations. If we are angry people, we ‘see’ images, thoughts, and feelings of anger arising in our mind. We might try to externalize these, thinking, “this meditation teacher is an idiot, meditation is stupid, and so on.” Or we might observe them, noting “anger… judgment… unpleasant… etc…”

Trained meditation teachers will go into much greater detail than this, but it’s a very basic start. If you find yourself fearful of something – like snakes – and seeing them in every rope, stick, shadow, etc that you come across, you can sit in meditation (in an appropriately ‘safe space’) and call the fear to mind, simply observing memories of ropes-turned-into-snakes in your past, or calling to mind an imaginative rope and ‘watching’ the mind twist it into a living snake before your mind’s eye. Notice the visceral, bodily sensations of fear arising from this simple process. Again, one can say here that, “meditation makes me fidgety and uncomfortable” (sometimes that’s exactly what it should do), but if you sit with it and observe it, this sensation too will pass.

Easy enough in words, but the practice can and often will be incredibly daunting (and again should be done in the guidance of a qualified teacher). But as I mentioned last month in writing about Buddhism and Mental Illness, I credit this practice with helping me move through the clinical depression of my early 20s. And still today when heavily depressive thoughts or feelings arise it seems that I am faced with a choice: sink in to them, listen to them, treat them as if they are real and have power over me, or… watch, note: “fear… heavy feeling… anxiety… etc…”

Ven Sochu retells the rope and the snake story:

There is an old Buddhist parable that tells of a man walking home one evening. In the half-light he sees on the path a snake apparently crossing in front of him. He starts and jerks himself away, heart beating fast, wide-eyed and alert. Peering closely he suddenly realises that he was mistaken, in fact it is an old piece of rope! Relieved and laughing to himself at his foolishness he goes to step over it and glancing down suddenly realises the rope is a string of jewels. He gasps in awe!

A simple story and we nod and ‘get the point’. But do we realise how often each day opportunities arise for such ‘mistaken identities?

The playwright Alan Bennett tells the story of a holiday at a hotel in Harrogate with his mother. They were taking tea, one afternoon, when a smartly dressed middle-aged woman entered the room with a younger man in tow. Alan’s mother turned to her son and said, “She’s here with her boyfriend, I see!” The next day, while taking tea again, the woman enters alone. Alan’s mother says “I see they’ve had a row then!”

It’s not just that I continually commentate and interpret what goes on around me, but that this ‘story’ – of thoughts and feelings I weave filters my perception of what is real. If I think you are a great person then I see you as one. If I feel the world is a hostile place then I see other people out to get me everywhere I go. Once I think something, it is as if it becomes real and I cannot distinguish between what the situation is and what I think and feel about it.

Walking home at twilight in India it would not be unrealistic to see a cobra slithering across the path. An expectation, a flutter of fear, the half-light, an ambiguous object across the path, imagination can supply the rest. It might be worth remembering that next time you meet with someone you have a bad feeling about and they seem to be antagonising you.

For me the ‘mistaken identity’ was of myself as a depressed person. As a Satrean aside, there is great value in “owning” one’s facticity, which is fancy-talk for simply acknowledging where you are right now. If your mind is dominated by anger, greed, depression, etc, it’s best to say so. The mistake is in projecting that out into the future. It is “how things are right now” but thanks to impermanence, things can and will change. It is perhaps all too human to spend countless hours building one’s story, fine tuning one’s filters. Doing this is like returning to that first picture at the top and really staring at it to find all of the Jesus-like features.

Good luck with that.

I should note that this isn’t meant to be a slight against Christians. Most Christians I know would find the Jesus-in-the-pugs-butt ‘miracle’ as silly as anyone else. And part of the rise of Secular Buddhism seems to be the recognition that there are plenty of Buddhas-in-pugs-butts (or similar) among traditional Buddhists. That’s not to say such wondrous images don’t have value, even in a secular sense. Beyond a good laugh, which can be highly therapeutic, they might spark genuine awe and wonder into the workings of the mind.

And perhaps, just as much as for the person who sees a miracle ‘out there’ the reaction of the secular Christian or Buddhist can be a movement to practice (be that charity, loving-kindness, generosity, etc).

  • urownexperience

    “a movement to practice (be that charity, loving-kindness, generosity, etc).”

    Actually, those don’t really help much because they are usually ego driven (What a nice person I am and I love how people like me.) We have tried these throughout history and people still kill themselves. Only meditation, the observation of ego, works long term.

    • mufi

      I’ll take those (charity, loving-kindness, generosity, etc) with or without the ego-driven motivation, thanks.

      • justinwhitaker

        Yep – and hopefully even if they start out a bit ego-driven, the action itself will help un-wind the tight ball of self in the process. In both Buddhism and Christianity, these are often seen as the most basic acts of goodness – things that any human is capable of.

        • mufi

          For that matter, how ego-driven can a suicide bomber’s last act be?

          Of course, the suicide bomber is in violation of the first precept to abstain from killing, and so his act can hardly be sanctioned by a Buddhist. But what if an act does not violate a Buddhist precept, but is nonetheless “negligent” in the sense of doing unintentional harm?

          Negligence is a familiar concept in Anglo-American ethics and law, but does it occur in any Buddhist tradition? or do Buddhists tend to assume that it’s a non-issue for someone who has taken refuge in the three jewels?

          • justinwhitaker

            Negligence, if we lump it in with ‘accidents’, is thought by Buddhists to have no karmic effect (which sets Buddhists apart from Jains). On the other hand, mindfulness, which would presumably reduce our negligent harmfulness in the world, is a positive virtue to be cultivated.

            • mufi

              Thanks, Justin. That makes sense (vis a vis negligence).

              BTW, I’m not sure that mindfulness by itself is necessarily incompatible with having an ego – so long as one is mindful of having an ego. :-)

              • justinwhitaker

                not necessarily incompatible, certainly; but if the Buddha’s teaching on not-self is correct (and when we talk of ‘ego’ we are talking about the same thing) then eventually what is thought to be an ego is seen through as a conglomerate of ever-changing parts, thus in at least some sense unreal… That said, I try to shy away from discussions of the ‘ego’ because it gets used in so many different ways in English; from rather common-sense to rather complex Freudian understandings.

                • mufi

                  Yeah, I was using “ego” in the proud, self-congratulatory sense used above (“What a nice person I am…”), understood as a cognitive trait that can emerge from a “conglomerate of ever-changing parts” like me or you (or just me).

                  Those of us who, for whatever reason, value humility may feel averse towards such a trait, were an example to arise unbidden into conscious awareness, let alone if someone were to outwardly express it.

                  But if it’s merely a symptom or side effect of doing what’s right (or so one thinks), then I suppose that I can live with that!

  • Ambaa

    As a young Hindu, I heard that rope and snake story often! :)

    • justinwhitaker

      I’m not surprised! From what I could find, it seems to be one of those pan-Indian stories, like the blind men and the elephant. Such wonderful, simple wisdom…


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