The Dragons' Call

By Eloise Hart

There is a magic in our souls that can reveal fairies in a shaft of golden light, dragons breathing fire atop a sun-drenched wall; a magic that responds to the power in cyclones, in silence, in the incomprehensible intelligence of cosmic life.

Sages of old China understood this enchantment and embodied its force in symbols and stories that not only transmit wisdom, but that also awaken the spirit in man. From the earliest time they extol the virtues of four supernatural creatures: the Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger, and the Black Warrior or Tortoise. No ordinary beasts, these four were born from the dark Unknown at Life's beginning, and later assisted P'an Ku, the Great Architect, in quarrying, sculpturing, and floating the heavenly orbs in space and in generating and shaping the classes of beings that make up the earth. Since then, according to the innumerable legends and art-forms of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and of the Imperial Court, they assist in the protection and evolution of all levels of life. For humans, this assistance is given in the passage in consciousness from earthly concerns to spirituality -- from mortality to immortality -- for it is with this inward journey that these four intelligent beings are most intimately concerned.

In their role as protectors of earth and her kingdoms -- and of mankind facing the trials of advancement -- each of the four successively presides over and guides the vital, spiritual, and psychological emissions that flow from his quarter of the cosmic domain. First it is the sacred Blue Dragon who reigns, protecting us from the influences that flow from the seven constellations, or "mansions," in the eastern quarter of the heavens. He presides also over the "sunrise" season or " adolescence" of the year, of the day, and of the human life cycle. When his term is completed, the Vermilion Bird or Phoenix takes over, regulating both visible and invisible properties from the seven celestial mansions of the south, and ruling the summer months, the afternoon hours, and the mature years of a man's life. Next the White Tiger reigns over the regions of the west, dusk to midnight, the autumnal "passing" of the year and the life. Finally, the Black Warrior completes the year's circle by controlling the emissions from the north, the hours from midnight till dawn, and winter -- the time, mystically speaking, of beginnings, of births. Thereupon the cycle and the succession ends, to begin anew.

Thus, we may say that each of the four embodies characteristics particular to one season and, in a way, embraces aspects of knowledge that pertain to one of the seasons or stages of the ssu tao, the great way to spiritual attainment. For example, the tortoise by his peculiar nature and habits reminds one of the first path, and of the ascetic who, no longer dependent on formal religion or delusions, withdraws, and attains the first vision of truth. The tiger exemplifies by his nature the next path, and he who conquers both cravings for, and the karma that binds him to, earth and its heaven. The phoenix, rising in glory, suggests one who "shall be reborn on earth no more," unless he so choose. And the dragon, personifying the highest degree of human attainment, is the man become god.

In this way the wise of the past seem to be telling us that every being, thing, and event is more than appears, each is four-sided, four-seasoned, four-leveled; that wisdom is gained and "magic" beheld when we perceive in one dimension the other extensions -- an idea that illumines the descriptions of the tortoise, tiger or unicorn, phoenix, and dragon.

The Tortoise or Black Warrior is perhaps the most extraordinary of the four creatures that in the beginning helped Pan Ku carve out the planets and stars. Fascinating legends are told to illustrate his fabulous strength, endurance, and knowledge, and to hint of his spiritual nature: how he was virgin born, "conceived by thought alone" -- as is every disciple advanced on the path; how he possesses powers of transformation -- and lives for at least 3000 years. His color, like the blue of the dragon, red of the phoenix, and white of the tiger has particular meaning in relation to the seasons, degrees of awareness, areas of the heavenly sphere, etc. Black denotes, among other things, the bleakness of winter, fear of the unknown, and darkness, not only that of our ignorance, but of the "light" beyond understanding, the pre-cosmic Darkness.

His shell is considered by the philosophic East a miniature copy of the cosmos. The dome-shaped back represents mystically the positive yang qualities in nature, and schematically a map of the constellations, and of their influences; the undershell corresponds to the quiescent yin, to the earth and its geographical system. In addition, when the shell is regarded as T'ai Chi, the Great Monad, encircled by the eight trigrams, it is the basis for the intricate system of mathematics, science, and divination known as the Science of Numbers to Chinese adepts.

The Tiger who turns "white" after 500 years, is often presented as if in conflict with a dragon in order to dramatize artistically the yin-yang balance produced and maintained throughout nature by both the cooperation and antagonism of opposites. In this case the tiger represents the yin or quiescent and receptive attributes of manifest life, and also darkness, the moon, and matter. All of which contrasts with the dragon's yang qualities of expansion, causation, and also light, the sun, heaven (or spirit), and water. At other times the tiger is definitely yang. Thus soldiers and sages alike, recalling perhaps the lines from the Tao Te Ching --

The best fighter is not ferocious;
The best conqueror does not take part in war --

venerate the invincible powers of controlled self-restraint, action-in-inaction, and tranquillity exemplified by this king of beasts and champion of those who not only would face danger, but would conquer themselves.

Some legends replace the White Tiger with the Unicorn, Ch'i-lin (lit. male-female). One such beast is said to have stepped from the Yellow River during the reign of the first Legendary Emperor, and since has appeared only rarely to portend the reign of a philosopher-king or the birth of a sage. He is represented in Chinese art as a dragon-headed horse surrounded by flames or by clouds. (All four spiritually-endowed creatures have characteristics of dragons; in fact, they have been called the "Four Hidden Dragons of Wisdom.") From his forehead projects a single flesh-tipped horn, incapable of harm for he is the gentlest and most benevolent of beings. His hide is scaled, black, blue, red, white, and yellow, suggesting the aspects of the elements -- water, wood, fire, metal, and earth the bearer -- of which he embodies the "spirit" or essence.

These elements are also identified with the four supernatural animals: water with the tortoise, wood with the dragon, fire with the phoenix, metal with the tiger and, in addition, earth with mankind. However, the Chinese believe these elements which we touch and perceive are but the lowest expression of rarefied, imperceptible energies that are a part of, and that flow through, all beings who make up the inner and outer realms of nature. Further, they believe these higher energies are eternal and beyond our power to know or describe: that which can be seen and named is not the real or enduring. To them, the lines from their ancient "Book of History" (Shu Ching, c. 1000 B.C.) refer to these causal, energic essences when they describe the eternal yin-yang balance of nature:

Water produces Wood, but destroys Fire;
Fire produces Earth, but destroys Metal;
Metal produces Water, but destroys Wood;
Wood produces Fire, but destroys Earth;
Earth produces Metal, but destroys Water.

The Phoenix or Vermilion Bird is symbol the world over of the spirit's renaissance. The Chinese species, however, is more elaborate: born of the sun it represents heaven, the divine, and also the creative element in nature. It is distinguished by twelve gloriously colored, flowing tail feathers that indicate, among other things, the months of the year; and their five colors denote the virtues: benevolence, purity, propriety, wisdom, and truth. Omen of good fortune, it appears only in eras of reason, peace, and prosperity; and when it rises to heaven, flocks of lesser birds follow in attendance. And yet, the phoenix, like the other intelligent creatures, lives mostly in seclusion and silence -- as an ascetic who is no longer accompanied by temptation and delusion. It resides in the Vermilion Hills where it perches on branches of the legendary wu t'ung tree.

The Dragon, whose characterizations are the loftiest and most mystical of the spiritually-endowed creatures, is referred to in China by two names: na-chia (Sanskrit naga), a wise man, an arhat or lohan, one who having traveled the four paths is master of life and of truth; and lung-shen, dragon-spirit, a person possessing divine wisdom and virtue, or a celestial inhabiting the body of a man. In another usage, the dragon symbolizes the divine spirit that resides in the heart of every being. Hibernating in most, this "serpent" is active in those who purposively and intelligently awaken their spiritual potential. They, it is said, are then able to win the respect and cooperation of the highest immortals. Taoists synthesize these ideas with typical brevity: to them the dragon is Tao, the Law, the Way to the ideal life, and the oneness or harmonious blending of one's inner nature with that of all beings -- or of spirit with matter, heaven with earth.

The reality of the dragon is so much a part of the human psyche that Orientals can vividly describe various species and the functions and characteristics of each. For instance, there is t'ien lung, the celestial dragon who guards and supports the home of the gods, who is a symbol of the supreme Deity, of the Tree of Secret Knowledge, and of the sun; shen lung, the spiritual dragon who gathers and disperses the clouds and, by controlling the rain and the wind, rewards or punishes mankind with bountiful harvests or with deluge and drought; ti lung, the earth dragon whose concern is especially the setting of the courses of rivers and streams; and fu-tsang lung, the dragon of hidden treasures who vigilantly guards earth's treasures as well as the secrets of sages and kings. There are others -- the five-clawed dragons who, representing imperial power, adorn the palaces, temples, and apparel of sovereignty; the four-clawed, who indicate princely authority; and the three-clawed, the power of certain courtiers, lesser officials, and of the people.

So much has been written of these dragons that it takes little imagination to identify them with particular forces and qualities in nature, or with those in our own constitution -- with the constructive powers, that is; for however their appearance, whether scaly or homed or winged, the dragons of China are generally beneficent beings. And they possess marvelous powers: dragons can transform themselves into any shape and become in a twinkling infinitesimally small or large enough to encompass both heaven and earth.

These various characterizations of the four supernatural creatures embrace such vast fields of knowledge, and resemble so remarkably other mythologic traditions -- like that of the Christian Four Beasts of the Apocalypse, the Angel-Guardians of Earth's Four Corners of the Qabbalah, and the Four Maharajas of Brahmanism -- one cannot help but marvel at the skill of the dragon-sages who in this manner instruct and inspire generations; who patiently endeavor to awaken in man the realization that every facet of knowledge, every aspect, every moment of life is permeated and encompassed by deeper levels of being; that, in actual fact, the entire cosmos is overseen by spiritual protectors whose power is ours to command provided we are trained and prepared to safely receive, focus, and transmit constructively these spiritual forces.

There are many today who feel something special about a carved or painted dragon, phoenix, tiger, unicorn, or tortoise: there are others sensitive to the presence and wonder of intelligences unseen. Such people, if attuned to the spiritual, may hear in some magical moment, the call of the Dragons to the dragon within: "Awake, arise, step from clouds into Light!" Then, if their aspirations are for the good of the world, as Chinese tradition has it, they will in time, and by patient exertion, ascend to the Dragons' estate.


  • (From Sunrise magazine, December 1978. Copyright © 1978 by Theosophical University Press.)

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