Delight in diligence!
Watch over your mind!
Pull yourselves out of misfortune
like an elephant sunk in mud
~ The Dhammapada, Chapter 23 Elephant
In Buddhism, the wild elephant represents our uncontrolled, passionate minds. Just as the rampaging elephant is controlled by unregulated passions, we often find ourselves ruled by our desires, fears, and resentments. We think that suffering arises from what others do to us, or what happens to us; as self-perceived victims, we suffer.
The Buddha taught another view, that suffering arises internally, in our minds’ untrained responses to events. To free ourselves from suffering, we train and subdue our minds. The elephant, tamed rather than rampaging, symbolizes a mind disciplined through meditation, stable, majestic in its power. With that tamed mind, we answer difficult circumstances not with sullen forbearance but with spiritual alchemy, transforming adversity into growth. As such, the degree to which we experience unhappiness and pain depends on our internal responses, not on external conditions.
The Buddha's main teaching is non-violence towards oneself and others. We practice this in daily life by committing to relieve suffering, and to develop engaged compassion in our relationships. Spiritual growth results from mastery of verbal, mental, and physical restraint. Such restraint enables us to avoid both suffering and causing suffering. The method for achieving this is Mind Training, a discovery process identifying and uprooting self-cherishing thoughts and replacing them with pure concern for others' welfare. The taming of the wild elephants of our minds with courage, patience, and utmost kindness simultaneously frees both us and others from restless dissatisfaction.
Meditation helps identify the suffering of others, as well as our own. Why is this important? The more profound our understanding of the infinite varieties of suffering, the more intensely our compassion and loving-kindness arise, eventually becoming a natural response. This is muscled and discerning kindness, not wispy, self-indulgent, or evanescent.
Turning again to the elephant for an example, families who go to the circus, or see circus elephants paraded through the streets of D.C. this week, may be unaware of the entertainment industry's track record of mistreatment of elephants. Violent training methods break their spirit through repeated humiliation and physical abuse causing injuries and psychological trauma. Elephants reportedly have been beaten with bull hooks about tender areas, subjected to electric shocks, chained, and confined in small spaces.
Responding to such cruelty with commitment and compassion, rather than indulging in ineffective hand-wringing, Rep. Jim Moran introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act.Eventually, the USDA fined Feld entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers, a record penalty of $270,000 for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act since 2007.
When we learn of such longstanding abuses, we suffer feelings of anger and revulsion. Often we don't know what to do. Undoubtedly, Rep. Moran (and others) had the same reaction when faced with this horrifying situation. Yet they did not just create an inner drama-- “Oh this is so awful—it makes me feel terrible!”-- but rather their reaction fueled an intelligent effort to create positive change. Taking effective action requires discipline, analysis and clear thinking.
With a well-trained mind, we do not feel angry disdain but instead concern for the circus workers. Overcome by delusions and greed, the trainers and everyone who tacitly support the inhumane conditions, will face the karmic consequences of the circus's atrocities.
As the master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh affirms, we definitely can train ourselves to extinguish self-indulgent reactions and instead respond with courage, clarity and compassion. The trained mind observing suffering becomes the most powerful agent of change. Cultivating such a mind ensures our own inner peace – peace that stems from knowing that a meaningful life is a life devoted to working solely for the benefit of others.
Losang Tendrol is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She teaches meditation at the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center in Reston. The Center is affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The Center follows the Geluga tradition, the same lineage as His Holiness The Dalai Lama.