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Buddha and the Elephant

May all sentient beings be healthy, happy, free, and at peace.

by
Charlie Martin

Bio

August 18, 2013 - 4:00 pm

TRI-10595053 - © - Jan Roberts

There is a story in the Jatakas about the time a mad elephant, released by the Buddha’s enemies, charged down the street toward the Buddha. People are screaming and running, the elephant is tearing up shopkeepers’ displays and smashing things, and Buddha’s disciple Ananda tried to drag him out of the way. Buddha said “Relax, Ananda, I got this,” and stood in the elephant’s path. The elephant was used to people screaming and running, and here’s this guy in an orange bath sheet just smiling at him. Uncertain, confused, the elephant — his name is Nalagiri, by the way — Nalagiri hesitated, and the Buddha walked closer, confidently, like the king of mahouts. He gestured, and Nalagiri knelt, his madness gone, and presented his head to be scratched.

You might as well remember Nalagiri, he’s one of my favorite characters and I’m sure he’ll be back again.

One of the first things that attracted me to Buddhism was that it treats animals as first-class citizens. I’m one of those people who never met an animal he didn’t like (although I’m a little jittery about spiders) and I never really got why the pastor said my dog didn’t have a soul but the obnoxious kid sitting behind me in Sunday School did. I had also learned, even at eleven, that someone who treated animals badly usually didn’t treat people very well either. But it wasn’t until much later — really, it wasn’t until the months after 9/11 — that I understood how important that feeling toward animals is.

So here: I googled for the “cutest kitten picture ever” and as you can imagine I got lots of hits. It was hard to choose just one, but here’s my choice for today.

cutest-kitten-denim

If you have the sensitivity of three rocks in a river, your instant reaction to that is at least in part that whole “awwww” feeling. In Sanskrit, that feeling of compassionate good will is called maitri, in Pali, metta; for some reason the Pali term has caught on in English, so that’s the term I’m going to use. The point of the Jataka story of Nalagiri is that the Buddha, through his immense metta, was able to calm Nalagiri.

Now look: Jatakas are basically childrens’ stories, and I’m not suggesting that if you meet a charging bull elephant on the road you should expect smiling at him will make him kneel to be scratched. But metta practice, literally practicing that feeling of metta, is an important Buddhist practice, and it has been very important to me personally.

Here’s how the practice of metta is done. You start with yourself; remember that feeling, and then focus on yourself, saying

May I be well,
may I be happy,
may I be free,
may I be peaceful.

Then pick a loved one. Call them to mind, focus on them, saying

May you be well,
may you be happy,
may you be free,
may you be peaceful.

Now pick someone you know who you feel more or less indifferent toward — the checker at the grocery store, the person who was sitting at the next table at lunch yesterday. Bring them to mind, focus on that feeling of metta, and repeat the same four wishes.

This is not a mantra, by the way — there’s no special power assumed to be in the words. In this practice, it’s focusing your mind or your heart on that feeling of metta.

nalagiri-and-the Buddha

Now we step it up. Think of someone you know and dislike, someone at whom you’re angry. Same practice: focus your mind, find that feeling of metta, and wish them health, happiness, freedom, and peace. Think of someone you don’t know personally but feel good about; same focus, same practice. Step it up to someone you dislike — for this audience, maybe President Obama or Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush or Chris Christie or Keith Olbermann. Find that feeling of good will — look at the kitten to remember it if you need — and wish them health, happiness, freedom, and peace. Extend this to groups, nations, the whole world, all the sentient beings in this universe, all Gods, angels, demons, ghosts and fairies if you believe in them.

Think of the members of al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood: wish them health, happiness, freedom, and peace.

Wait, what? Al Qaeda, the Brotherhood? But they’re our enemies!

Well, yeah. Remember the purpose of all Buddhist practices is to reduce suffering, and particularly to free yourself from suffering. If you’re consumed with anger at someone, you’re suffering. This isn’t casting a spell to make things better for them — it’s a practice to make things better for yourself. But let’s assume it were a magic spell: if Adam Gadahn were healthy, happy, free, and at peace, would he be calling for killing US diplomats? If Usama bin Laden hadn’t been consumed by anger and hatred, if he were healthy, happy, free, and at peace, would he have spent his life and his wealth trying to force the world to give in to his will?

If there is someone you’re personally angry at, invoke them in particular. I started metta practice when I saw a video slideshow of scenes from 9/11 along with a version of this practice; I did it to relieve the sick anger I felt, and the horror of what had happened to people on those flights, people I’d known and people I hadn’t. But I realized, as I did it, that down deep I still had some of those feelings of impotent anger toward my ex-wife. Justified or unjustified, all those feelings were keeping me from being healthy, happy, free, and at peace.

This is the real key here: metta practice isn’t about all those other people, just as meditation isn’t about other people. It’s all about you, baby, and for a lot of people, the hardest lesson of metta practice is learning the degree to which you yourself are one of those people toward whom you feel displeasure, disgust, anger, disappointment, even hatred.

Learn to feel the same kind of compassionate good will toward yourself that you feel toward a kitten in an Internet photo.

Charlie Martin writes on science, health, culture and technology for PJ Media. Follow his 13 week diet and exercise experiment on Facebook and at PJ Lifestyle

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All Comments   (25)
All Comments   (25)
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I just re-read this and recalled a phrase that was particularly descriptive to me. We hold on to anger because it can be so delicious. Eventually though, it becomes bitter and poisonous. Letting go is the only way.
48 weeks ago
48 weeks ago Link To Comment
Jesus taught the same thing.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I regularly practice Buddhist meditation here in Western Australia. There is a thriving Theravada Forest tradition Buddhist community here.http://www.dhammaloka.org.au/ There are plenty of meditations and some live streaming is available on Friday nights. I just did their Early Buddhism course and and it should be on that site somewhere. They have some excellent scholars. I'm into Buddhism enough to say that Charlie know what he is talking about. Thanks Charlie
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
BTW, my friends at The New Atlantis pointed out that they have an article this issue that fits into this: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/do-elephants-have-souls
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
If I were not a happy Christian, perhaps I could embrace a religion like Buddhism. Islam, however, makes me pretty sick.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
BTW, nothing about Buddhism prevents Christians from practicing Buddhism (there may be something about Christianity that prevents it).
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Too bad Buddhist monks in Japan have to have thousands of raccoons trapped and killed each year, to stop them from chewing up their temples.

At least they didn't eat the raccoons!
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Too bad why?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
if Adam Gadahn were healthy, happy, free, and at peace, would he be calling for killing US diplomats? If Usama bin Laden hadn’t been consumed by anger and hatred, if he were healthy, happy, free, and at peace, would he have spent his life and his wealth trying to force the world to give in to his will?

Perhaps doing those awful things is what makes them feel happy, free, and at peace. The traditional response is, well, they can't really be happy, No True Scotsman would be made happy by killing people. They only THINK they're happy, they're just confused. If they could be reached somehow they'd see that and stop doing it...

But that's just refuge in tautology, and it's deadly when dealing with human wolves. There's no point in trying to convince a wolf that vegetables are more tasty than lamb surprised and running. For wolves this is in fact not true and a diet of vegetables would be very unhealthy, no matter how healthy and tasty they may be for you. The wolf is not confused about this and does not spend time trying to get you to see things his way.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your point about the wolf is a good one, though -- and leads to the Buddhist answer, too. Buddhism is meant to reduce suffering; killing a mass murderer before he kills again tend to decrease suffering. As the Dalai Lama noted, if someone is shooting at you it's perfectly reasonable to shoot back.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Do you really think Adam Gadahn, with his repeated expressions of rage, plus the fact that he's got to worry every day about someone dropping a Hellfire on his house or turning him in for the million bucks, is "well, happy, free, and at peace"?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Only Adam Gadahn can ever know the answer to that question, since he is the only one inside his own head. There are serial killers who have said that only after they kill do they feel at peace. Adam Gadahn is not a serial killer, he is a passionate idealist who does what he does at great personal risk to himself and his family, and it's not like it pays that well or he's forced to do it. Judging from his behavior, I'd say that his dedication to his cause is a revealed preference that Islamic terrorism is deeply satisfying to him in some way that it is not to me or you, just as a Buddhist monk's lifestyle would not be satisfying to me. Can it ever be "true happiness" to be a terrorist? We can argue about that, but it's the "no true Scotsman" fallacy of defining away inconvenient observations that for some people it appears to be.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
"well, free, and at peace." Maybe it does make him happy, but what about the other three? In any case, as I noted in the article: it's not about him; that whole question is in the subjunctive. And as I mentioned in the comments, even the Dalai Lama said sometimes you've got to shoot back.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Growing up Catholic, I also wondered about that pet-soul thing. Anyone who's ever had cats or dogs and interacted with them on a daily basis will likely become convinced there is something more to them than energized meat no matter what some guy in a cassock says. One different explanation, the Law of One, whose source many might find suspect but nevertheless resonates with me, suggests animals are also souls, just not as well developed (as high on the spiritual ladder) as we are. As we work our way up, so do they - someday, Fluffy and Fido's spirits may inhabit bodies like ours while we (some of us, anyway) move up to ???? Yeah, I laughed too. At first....
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Your idea of animals as "souls in development" translates very well into the Buddhist idea of the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhist teachings, there are ten levels, the first six of which are subject to the cycle of rebirth: hell beings - tormented souls - animals - asura - humans - deva. Upon achieving enlightenment, the soul transcends the wheel of life as an enlightened being, pratyeka buddha, bodhisatva, or a buddha. I am not a Buddhist theologian, so Mr. Martin can probably provide greater insight and information.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
And for someone who's not a Buddhist theologian -- a fate I also hope to avoid -- that's quite a summary.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
yeah. Interestingly enough, a lot of people would say you have to have a human rebirth to become Enlightened -- things are too easy for Devas. But I see that to some extent a syncretism with Hinduism and various animistic local religions -- reincarnation and the doctrine of anatman are hard to reconcile.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, that's the sort of Buddhist-Hindu syncretic view too -- Buddha didn't really teach that people (of any species) are reincarnated.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
After a quick first glance at the photo, I thought: "Why is that Elephant worshiping Captain America?"
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Because he's awesome and U!S!A!
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh MY! Very Provocative post, Charlie.. I happen to agree with all of it, from a Christian standpoint, but I am learning a lot of methodology (stuff to do) from your Buddhist posts. I will smash a mosquito and a palmetto bug in a minute though. Excellent reading Thank you! :)
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
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