Buddha and the Elephant

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.


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.