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The Elephant

Chapter 23 of the Dhammapada for Awakening

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In India the elephant is King of Beasts because of its intelligence. Although elephants are often used in forestry, they can be taught amazing skills. Only recently I reread Mooltiki and Other Stories, a collection of true stories by Rumer Godden. The last story was about Mooltiki, an elephant that showed amazing intelligence and had a very definite (sometimes difficult) personality. Mooltiki was living in a hunting camp on the border of Bhutan. It was essential that a fire be kept burning all night to keep away the many tigers and leopards that lived in the area. Mooltiki was the fire tender. Three times a night she brought small tree trunks, made a pyramid shape of them on top of the low-burning fire, and got them to blaze up, even moving the hot coals around with her foot. In the day she gathered the fuel, but if it ran out she went into the jungle in the deep of night and got more. She never ripped leafy branches off trees and waved them about the way other elephants do. Rather, when she saw a particularly beautiful flower she would delicately pick it and carry it in her trunk. When she crossed a river she loved to put her trunk under the water and blow bubbles–another thing elephants do not usually do. Though Mooltiki was cantankerous and often unkind to Rumer Godden, still she liked going for jungle walks with Mooltiki because she knew she was with a real person, not a “beast” at all.

Buddha takes the good qualities of elephants and uses them to teach us how to live.

Patient endurance

I will bear criticism like an elephant in battle bears an arrow from a bow. Most people are bad in behavior (Dhammapada 320).

Narada Thera: “As an elephant in the battlefield withstands the arrows shot from a bow, even so will I endure abuse; verily most people are undisciplined.” Thanissaro Bhikkhu: “I–like an elephant in battle, enduring an arrow shot from a bow–will endure a false accusation, for the mass of people have no principles.”

People in difficult situations are often advised to be thick-skinned like an elephant and not get pierced with the arrows of negative speech and acts directed toward them. Sri Ramakrishna often said that when an elephant walks down the street all the little dogs bark, but the elephant pays no attention and just keeps on walking. So must the sadhaka be.

The continual straightforwardness of Buddha’s speech in the Pali Sutras is a welcome break from the mindless, false “positivity” of popular metaphysical philosophers. Everybody is not just wonderful, wonderful. Plenty of people are real stinkers. So Buddha counsels us to be aware that most people are uncontrolled and unprincipled, that we should just accept the fact without negative reaction and go on with our life just like Sri Ramakrishna’s elephant.

The best of men

One can take a trained elephant even into a crowd. The king himself will ride a trained elephant. He who is disciplined is the best of men, since he can bear criticism (Dhammapada 321).

This verse continues the theme of the previous one, but it contains a valuable implication. Many people undergo all types of ascetic disciplines, especially in the matter of diet, living frugally and even uncomfortably. Yet when confronted with negativity from others they explode and are more abusive and violent than ordinary people. One of my friends in India, a remarkable yoga-siddha, told me one of his disciples ate nothing but sal leaves (the kind that are usually stitched together and used as leaf plates), that she gave him some she had cooked up and he could not bear to eat it. She slept very little and lived in a bare room with almost nothing. Yet all his other disciples detested her because she was so nasty and contemptuous of everybody. In his autobiography, In the Vision of God, Swami Ramdas tells of several ascetics who were colossally egotistical and incredibly rude to others. According to Buddha such people are not truly disciplined at all, so we should not be impressed with external disciplines that the great Thai master, Ajahn Lee, said is usually nothing but an expression of self-loathing.

Reaching the Unattainable

Trained mules are excellent, and so are thoroughbred horses from the Sindh, and so are great battle elephants, but more excellent than them all is a disciplined man.

There is no reaching the Unattainable with mounts like these, but with himself well under control a disciplined man can get there (Dhammapada 322, 323).

Narada Thera: “Excellent are trained mules, so are thoroughbred horses of Sindh and noble tusked elephants; but far better is he who has trained himself. Surely never by those vehicles would one go to the untrodden land (Nirvana), as does one who is controlled through his subdued and well-trained self.”

Nirvana is unattainable, is untrodden, by earthbound consciousness, but it is attained by one who has cut off the sensual and egoistic life and risen above them. The necessity for this is given by Buddha next, when he says:

Dhammapalo, the elephant, is hard to control in rut. Even when tied up, he refuses his food. The great tusker is thinking of the elephant forest (Dhammapada 324).

This is a perfect picture of the human being whose mind has been seized by moha (delusive attachment/attraction) and addiction to both senses and the ego. It cannot think of anything but what it wants, or thinks it wants. It refuses even food, for nothing can distract it from its passionate desire. The desire may be for things material or abstract but the root–delusion–is the same. At such times we experience the incredible ability of the mind to focus on a single thing and direct all its energies toward it. The ability is a great virtue, but it is directed to vice. Buddha is hinting to us that we must discipline the mind before it gets into the Dhammapalo state. There is more regarding this:

When a man is a lie-abed and over-eats, a lazy person who wallows in sleep like a great over-fed hog, a fool [dullard] like that will be reborn time after time (Dhammapada 325).

Some people are like this physically, and some are like this mentally (quite a few are both), but the result is the same: continual rebirth. Such a one does not even merit hell.

The needed resolve

My mind used formerly to go off wandering wherever it felt like, following its own inclination, but today I shall control it carefully, like a mahout does a rutting elephant (Dhammapada 326).

This is a most wise and necessary resolve. Just because the mind has roamed about for lifetimes does not mean that it cannot stand still. How does a mahout control an elephant? First, by sitting atop it, being above it. This is accomplished by simple attention, strange as that may seem. By calmly observing the mind, it also becomes calm. However, at times a sharp prick with a goad is required. The goad we need is discipline, however little the mind may like that. It may be unpleasant, but it saves us from much greater pain. As Krishna says in the Gita: “With the buddhi firmly controlled, with the mind fixed on the Self, he should gain quietude by degrees. Let him not think of any [extraneous] thing whatever. Whenever the unsteady mind, moving here and there, wanders off, he should subdue and hold it back and direct it to the Self’s control” (Bhagavad Gita 6:25-26). “He who by the mind controls the senses, and yet is unattached while engaging action’s organs in action, is superior” (Bhagavad Gita 3:7).

Meditation is essential. As Krishna further says: “With mind made steadfast by yoga, which turns not to anything else, to the Divine Supreme Spirit he goes, meditating on him” (Bhagavad Gita 8:8). “In this matter there is a single, resolute understanding. The thoughts of the irresolute are many-branched, truly endless” (Bhagavad Gita 2:41). Buddha did not gain enlightenment through philosophy or austerity, but through meditation.

Intelligence and will

Take pleasure in being careful. Guard your mind well. Extricate yourself from the mire, like a great tusker sunk in the mud (Dhammapada 327).

Narada Thera: “Take delight in heedfulness. Guard your mind well. Draw yourselves out of the evil way as did the elephant sunk in the mire.”

True heedfulness, or sati, is not a dose of bitter medicine, but actually brings happiness and delight. It only needs to be carefully attended to, and we soon discover the great peace and relief it brings. When we are intelligently aware, by our own will we can lift ourselves out of the aeons-old muck of ignorance that has been blinding and tormenting us for so long. We need not depend on any other than ourselves. This is a cardinal teaching of Buddha.

All religions (including popular Buddhism) cater to human laziness and lack of will by recommending good deeds and calling on external powers such as devas and ancestral spirits. Taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is made into a fetish in much of modern Buddhism, even though teachers such as Ajahn Lee of the Thai Forest Tradition have explained that these three Gems are really internal, part of each one of us, and taking refuge is purely psychological. In Mahayana Buddhism people become obsessed with going from teacher to teacher and holy place to holy place, “taking the refuges” and “taking the precepts,” as if there will be a magical effect, that suddenly everything will straighten out for them without their doing anything but hitting on the right person or place to make it all work. What could be further from Buddha’s teaching?

Good company

If you find an intelligent companion, a wise and well-behaved person going the same way as yourself, then go along with him, overcoming all dangers, pleased at heart and mindful (Dhammapada 328).

Good company is a valuable factor in spiritual life. In Hinduism it is called satsang, company with Truth or company with the True (Real), because a good and wise person who diligently cultivates The Way brings us into contract with liberating reality by his mere presence. Notice that Buddha does not tell us to grovel before a guru and consider ourselves helpless without him. Rather, he tells us to find a fellow-seeker (not someone who claims enlightenment) and travel along with him to the Goal. As I mentioned before, when Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, the guru of Paramhansa Yogananda, instructed someone in yoga he would ask them if they knew anyone else who did the same practice. If they did, he would advise them to make that person their only friend and to meditate and associate with them as much as possible. The value of real spiritual companionship can hardly be overestimated.


But if you do not find an intelligent companion, a wise and well-behaved person going the same way as yourself, then go on your way alone, like a king abandoning a conquered kingdom, or like a great elephant in the deep forest (Dhammapada 329).

Valuable as a spiritual companion is, next best is striking out on your own, completely independent and moving silently through the world like a silent elephant deep in the inner forest of your own cultivated awareness. Certainly we would like some kind of spiritual company–that is understandable. But we must not settle for association with the half-sighted, those that do not understand the goal or the means of the Buddha Way. For the company of those who do not comprehend higher truth–and especially those who have no effective cultivation practices–will only acclimatize us to a half-way status and perhaps halt our progress. No matter how sincere and good-hearted and well-meaning people may be, ignorance is still ignorance and is a mark of the bound, not the free. Their company is not better than nothing, it is worse than nothing. Therefore Buddha continues:

It is better to travel alone. There is no companionship with a fool. Go on your way alone and commit no evil, without cares like a great elephant in the deep forest (Dhammapada 330).

This implies that the company of the ignorant exposes us to evil and care, which it most certainly does. Go on alone.


There are many definitions of good, and now Buddha lists some factors of life that both are good and bring good to ourselves and others.

It is good to have companions when occasion arises, and it is good to be contented with whatever comes. Merit is good at the close of life, and the elimination of all suffering is good.

Good is filial devotion to one’s mother in the world, and devotion to one’s father is good. It is good to be a sannyasi in the world and to be a brahmin too.

Good is good behavior up to old age, good is firmly established faith, good is the acquisition of understanding, and abstention from evil is good (Dhammapada 331-333).

It is good to have companions when occasion arises. Lest we think from what has just been said that Buddha wants us to become anti-social recluses, he tells us that on occasion we will meet worthy people, and that when we do it is good to be with them for however long they will be in the orbit of our life. And of course, if one or more begin living right near us, permanent association will be a great good.

It is good to be contented with whatever comes. Easily said, not so easily done. Meditation is the key.

Merit is good at the close of life. Indeed so, for accumulated merit can ensure that we will leave this world “in knowing, not in unknowing” (Maha Rahulovada Sutra). At the time of death everything distills and the state of mind that most arose during our lifetime will be that at the time of our death. So also Buddha is warning us that waiting till the end of life to follow dharma may have very little effect. It does become a matter of: “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still” (Revelation 22:1). As another Buddhist texts says: “I have nothing but my actions; I shall have nothing but my actions.” So the wise begin accumulating merit right now and keep on doing so. Merit can also guarantee an easy transition from this plane to another.

The elimination of all suffering is good. I should say so! But easier said than done. Cultivation is the only way to eliminate suffering, and the only way to rid ourselves of all (actual or potential) suffering is to free ourselves from the bonds of rebirth. Here, too, Buddha is reminding us that it is a lifetime project.

Good is filial devotion to one’s mother in the world, and devotion to one’s father is good. Sad to say, there are people who think that rejection or neglect of their family is spiritual. Buddha tells us otherwise. Even though parents may not be the best, still a great debt is owed them, for without this human birth there would be no way to strive for liberation. Often parents do not earn respect from their children, but respectful attitude and behavior is a must–even though done from a distance if the parents are incorrigible. This is not always easy, but it is a mark of progress and lessening of ego when we can manage.

It is good to be a sannyasi in the world and to be a brahmin too. It is good to be a renouncer of the artificial world of deluded humanity, but mere renunciation does not guarantee true wisdom. Many monastics are mental and moral ruins because they have no real insight or knowledge. They must also be “brahmins”–knowers of Brahman.

Good is good behavior up to old age. Lifetime goodness is a good investment.

Good is firmly established faith. Such faith produces positive confidence in dharma and in our following of dharma. It also ensures steadiness of practice and focus of will.

Good is the acquisition of understanding. That is why the Bhagavad Gita says: “From destruction of intelligence one is lost.… As the kindled fire reduces wood to ashes, in the same way the fire of knowledge reduces all karmas to ashes. No purifier equal to knowledge is found here in the world. He who is himself perfected in yoga in time finds it [knowledge] in the Self” (Bhagavad Gita 2:63, 4:37-38)

Abstention from evil is good. No one is good who engages in evil, no life that has even a taint of evil can be called a good life. Absolute purity is a requisite for enlightenment. No one rises above this law.

Next article in the Dhammapada for Awakening: Craving

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Chapters in the Dhammapada for Awakening:

Introduction to the Dhammapada

The History of the Dhammapada

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