Goodwill for Snakes
March 09, 2024

When I first went to stay at Wat Dhammasathit with Ajaan Fuang, he had me go up and meditate on the hill. And I kept running into snakes. I’d be doing walking meditation and notice that there was a cobra lying by the path. This happened more than once. I’d go to the little bathroom there, and as I was walking down toward it, a snake would go zip between my legs.

I reported this to Ajaan Fuang, and at first he said, “Well, yes, we live in a jungle of snakes. You have to be careful.” But this kept up, day after day after day, until finally he said, “This is not normal. They’re coming to check you out.”

That’s when he told me to chant the Khandha Paritta. It was one of the first chants that I memorized, the one that begins, “I have goodwill for all four families of snakes,” and goes on to having goodwill for footless beings, two-footed beings, four-footed beings, many-footed beings, all kinds of beings. You make your protection with your goodwill—and then you ask for them to go away.

I memorized that, chanted it every day, and the snake problems subsided. They were still there, just that I didn’t have so many encounters. And I learned some important lessons. One, the quality of metta is not necessarily love. The snakes didn’t want my love. They wanted me to leave them alone, and I didn’t want to hang around with them, either. If I had tried to pet them, of course, they would have bitten me. And as Ajaan Fuang said, “We’re different species, and there are so many different ways we can come to misunderstandings, so if we can go our separate ways, that’s the best.”

Goodwill doesn’t mean that you’re there for them. You simply wish them well, and as that phrase says, “May you look after yourself with ease”: May you look after yourself, may I look after myself, may we all be capable of looking after ourselves without needing a lot of help.

Another lesson, of course, is that the power of goodwill is a positive force.

In Thailand they talk a lot about the currents of the mind. And you always want to be sending out good currents, because if you send out bad currents, such as ill-will toward others, they’ll pick it up. Animals in particular are very sensitive to this kind of thing. So goodwill is your protection. In the Canon they talk about how people who are really good at goodwill, who totally master the practice of goodwill, will not die by poison, will not die by fire, will not die by weapons. It is a kind of protection but, of course, the protection is not absolute if your goodwill isn’t absolute.

In the case of someone like the Buddha, who had fully mastered goodwill, that was what protected him from getting assassinated. It was because of his goodwill for the archer who was sent to kill him that the archer put down his weapons, came in, listened to the Dhamma, and greatly benefited from listening to the Dhamma. That was because the Buddha’s goodwill was so solid. Ours, however, still needs practice, which means we can’t rely only on good intentions. We have to be heedful as well.

That chant reminds you, if you chant it every day, that there are snakes out there. You have to be careful. You have to be heedful. Remember, heedfulness is the beginning of all skillful qualities. It’s where goodwill comes from. At the same time, we have to keep reminding ourselves that there are difficult people in the world, and we can’t let our goodwill be affected by them.

The passage in the Canon that goes most into detail about developing a goodwill so that it’s large like the earth, cool and large and non-inflammable like the River Ganges, and like space; you can’t write letters on space because space has no surface; in the same way, you want to develop your goodwill so that people can’t write their nasty things on your mind and have them stay: This long discussion is in the context of a discussion of people saying nasty things, people having ill will for you. We have to have goodwill even in a dangerous world—especially in a dangerous world. Animal snakes are bad enough. Human snakes are out there, too. And in spite of them, because of them, you have to be able to protect your goodwill.

This is what that simile means, the one about the mother protecting her only child. You protect your goodwill in the same way, which means you have to be really diligent. A mother protecting her only child has to keep watch because the child can do all kinds of things to get into trouble, and there may be people who wish ill to the child. So the mother has to be very diligent. So remind yourself, “Yes, we have goodwill, we have to keep developing goodwill, but we also have to be heedful.”

As Ajaan Fuang would say, the forest is our big ajaan. It has its dangers, and it requires that you be very, very careful.

I had a student one time who was doing a project up on Axel Heiberg Island, which is one of the northernmost islands in the Canadian archipelago, and the deal was that she going to stay there for a month, all alone on the island, doing her research. It was into the seam of mummified wood they have up there. As the plane dropped her off and then flew away, she suddenly realized: She was totally alone. Totally alone. Anything could happen. So she had to be very careful. If she twisted her ankle, who would be there for her? The deal was that she had to radio back every day—7 a.m. / 7 p.m.—and if she missed two of those sessions, they were going to come and get her. If it turned out that she had missed those sessions out of negligence, they were going to make her pay for all the gasoline they used to fly up and fly back. But that also meant that if she got into trouble, it was going to be a good 24 hours before help could come.

So she found that she was very, very careful, very alert, very mindful, because she had to be totally self-reliant. Most of us, as we live in this world, depend on one another, and sometimes that makes us lazy and careless. It’s good that we can depend on one another, but it’s also good to have the sense that you need to be very, very careful about what you do, say, and think.

With animal snakes, as we saw last night, there are times when you may have goodwill for them and you may be careful, but still something happens. But you want to reduce the likelihood of that as much as you can. With human snakes, you realize there are people out there who really wish you ill—and you can’t let that fact get to you. You have to maintain your goodwill at all times, you have to maintain your carefulness at all times. It’s when you’re challenged like that that you really have to be impeccable in your behavior.

Ajaan Fuang had a student who was psychic, and she had to deal with spirits every now and then. His advice to her was, “When you deal with a spirit that seems dangerous or seems like it has ill will for you, one, you have to protect yourself.” His way of protecting himself, he said, was to fill his body with light, fill his body with good breath energy. So it’s mindfulness, one, and then goodwill. That was the second part of his instruction: “Extend goodwill as much as you can to that being.” This way you protect yourself all around. The attitude that you’re radiating out is a good attitude. At the same time, you have your shield: the shield of heedfulness, the shield of mindfulness.

This is useful for spirits and it’s useful for human beings too.

So remember this combination of goodwill and mindfulness, goodwill and heedfulness. If you can, learn how to memorize that chant. It keeps reminding you that you need to have goodwill for all kinds of beings. Learn to have sympathy for snakes. They don’t have many of our advantages: They don’t have hands, they don’t have arms or legs, they just have their mouths. So treat them with care. Radiate good energy, but at the same time, be heedful. Keep reminding yourself: There are dangers out there, and there are dangers in your own mind. So be heedful all around.