30 – The Elephant


Pain is a prize to the virtuous, if its end be the happiness of others.

Once the Bodhisattva took birth as a huge elephant who lived in a forest far remote from civilization. A lake both deep and wide ornamented this wilderness, which was surrounded on all sides by a barren desert. But the forest of this oasis was well-suited for elephants and many other forest creatures. The trees were laden with flowers and fruit; young shrubs and grasses carpeted the earth. Mountain ridges and plateaus bordered the forest, as if detained there by its charm.

Here in the forest the elephant lived the solitary life of an ascetic, satisfied by the leaves and lotus roots, the clear lake waters, and the virtues of contentment and tranquility. One day while wandering near the edge of the forest, the Great Being heard what sounded like cries coming from the desert. “What can this be?” he thought. “No road, no path, no trail leads here, and it is unlikely a hunting party would cross a desert so large as this.

“No one would take any such trouble to come here to capture my fellow elephants. Surely, then, this sound comes from people who have lost their way … or perhaps from people who have been banished because of a king’s anger or their own misconduct. Yes, such is the nature of the noise I hear: not joyful cries and laughter, but sounds of weeping and great grief. I will investigate the cause of this.”

Rushing toward the sound compelled by feelings of compassion, the Great Being heard ever more distinctly the sad and piteous laments of people in distress, crying for help. He ran still more swiftly, compassion urging him on.

Once out of the thicket the elephant could see a large body of men, women, and children, numbering in the hundreds, headed toward the forest. Although they were still a great distance away across the open desert, he could see they were all clearly afflicted by hunger, thirst, and fatigue. When the wanderers saw the Great Being bearing down on them like a snow-covered mountain, a mass of white fog, an autumn cloud driven by strong wind, they thought: “Alas! Now we are certainly lost!” Though peril seemed imminent, they were unable to move, for hunger, thirst, and fatigue had drained all their energy away.

Perceiving their fear, the Bodhisattva called out: “Do not be afraid! You have nothing to fear from me.” Coming closer, he lifted his trunk, showing its broad tip as dark red as copper, and spoke compassionately to them: “Who are you, and how have you come to this state? Clearly you are suffering from sorrow and despair, your faces weathered by the fierce dust and harsh sun. What cruel misfortune has brought you here?”

On hearing the elephant speak such peaceful, comforting words in a human voice, the people regained their composure and bowed humbly to him.

“O lord of elephants, our king’s explosive anger has blown us hither, far from the eyes of our kin, who, full of sorrow, were forced to behold our banishment. Yet some shred of good fortune must have remained to us, for now we have come to your attention, you who are greater than friend or relation. The very sight of you tells us we have passed through the worst. Having seen a being such as you, though even in a dream, who would not feel relieved from distress?”

“How many are you, good people?” asked the elephant. “We numbered a thousand at the time the king banished us, Oh fair one. But many have already perished from hunger, thirst, and sorrow. Now, Oh lord of elephants, we estimate only seven hundred are still alive. About to sink into the mouth of Death, we look to you as refuge embodied come to help us.”

These words moved the Great Being to tears. Commiserating with them, he cried: “Alas! Alas, how heartless, how shameless this king, how little concerned for the next world! Entranced by royal power, which is as fleeting as lightning, his senses must be blind to his own good. He must not know that Death is always near; he must never have learned the unhappy end of wickedness.

“Alas for those poor and helpless kings whose judgment is so weak and emotions so strong that they will not listen to words of good counsel! How is such lack of compassion possible ― all for the sake of one single body ― which is nothing but a breeding ground for illness! Oh ignorance is terrible!”

As his eyes, full of pity and tenderness, surveyed the group before him, the chief of the elephants thought: “Being so tortured by hunger, thirst, and exhaustion, with bodies so weak, how can these humans pass through the desert to the other side? The desert extends for hundreds of yojanas with no food or water or shade. Even this forest contains no proper food for them, not even enough for one day. Their only hope would be to take their provisions from the flesh of my limbs and use my bowels for bags to carry water. Otherwise there is no way for them to survive as they cross the desert.

“I will therefore use this body, abode of many hundreds of ills, to help these people who are so overwhelmed by suffering. May my body be a raft to carry them over the desert of their suffering! How difficult it is to attain a human body with which one can reach enlightenment. May they not lose this advantage!

“Since they have come within my dominion, they are by all rights my guests. As they are bereft of kin and in great distress, they need my pity all the more. This vessel of infirmities, this ground of unceasing toil, this assembly of miseries whose name is `body’ now at last will find its proper employment: serving to help others.”

As the elephant was thinking this, some of the people who had suffered most intensely from hunger, thirst, fatigue, and heat bowed low to him. Their eyes wet with tears, they made signs to show their need for water.

Others spoke to him with pitiable words: “We have lost our families ― to us you are the closest kin remaining, our recourse and our refuge. Shelter us as you think best, Oh Illustrious One.”

Others with more energy asked where water might be found ― a pond or river, a waterfall, a shady tree or a plot of grass. “Pray tell us, Oh chief of elephants,” they said. “Show us mercy and point the way out of this desert. For many days we have wandered in this wilderness! Show us mercy! Pray help us, O lord, to get across it.”

The Great Being felt his heart almost burst with pity at their prayers. Raising his trunk ― which was as big around as the coils of a mighty cobra ― he pointed out a mountain beyond which they could escape the wilderness. “Below that mountain is a large pure lake adorned with red and white lotuses. Go by way of that lake. The pure water will quench your thirst and dispel your fatigue, and relieve the suffering caused by heat. Not far from the lake you will find the corpse of an elephant, fallen from the mountain top. Its flesh will serve as provisions for your journey, its bowels as bags for water. Then continue on in the same direction, and you will pass through the wilderness without much hardship.”

With these words of comfort the Great Being encouraged the group to set out, while he, going quickly by another route, climbed to the top of that very mountain. Standing at its peak, about to give up his body for the sake of the banished ones, he strengthened his resolve by thinking in this way:

“Not to obtain a high state for myself, not to win the magnificence of a sovereign’s power or heaven with all its enjoyments, not to experience the bliss of Brahma’s world, not even for the happiness of nirvana do I perform this action. If there be any merit in my act, may it serve to make me the Savior of the World and of all beings wandering in the wilderness of samsara!”

Then, in great joy, oblivious to the painful death below, the Great Being gave up his body by throwing himself over the precipice ― thus fulfilling his design. Like a shining autumn cloud he fell, like the moon sinking behind a mountain, like an avalanche of snow stirred up in the wake of a garuda’s wings. With the wild sound of a whirlwind he fell, shaking the earth and the mountains, shaking as well the mind of Mara, self-infatuated lord of the desire realm.

As forest vines bowed low under the weight of his body, so forest deities bowed low in awe at his act. The gods of that forest were utterly astonished. So great was their gladness that the hairs on their bodies stood on end, and they raised their arms high, hands reaching to the sky.

Some showered the Bodhisattva’s body with sweet-scented flowers and powders of sandalwood, others covered him with unwoven celestial cloth, resplendent with gold and jewels. Some worshipped him with hymns newly composed, their folded palms like opening lotus buds; others honored him with bowed heads, their beautiful diadems lowered in veneration.

Some fanned him with a breeze perfumed by the pollen of flowers, like the wind that arranges garlands of foam on ocean billows. Others held a canopy of dense clouds in the sky above his head. Some beat celestial drums to make the heavens sound out his praise; others ornamented the trees with new twigs, flowers, and fruit, all appearing out of season.

The sky assumed the splendor of autumn, the rays of the sun grew longer, and the ocean trembled and shook, as if to visit him in joy and gladness.

Meanwhile, the group of exiles had reached the lake and had refreshed themselves, recovering from heat, thirst, and exhaustion. Following the Great Being’s directions, they discovered the body of the elephant not far away. “How like that chief of elephants he looks!” some said. “Is he perhaps a brother, or perhaps some other kin? One of his sons perhaps? Though the body is crushed, it is the self-same figure, beautiful as a snow peak, like the luster of water-lilies, the tangible form of moon glow-like his image in a mirror.”

But those with keener perception thought: “As far as we can see, this elephant, whose beauty surpasses that of any other elephant in any part of the world, is in fact that selfsame elephant. He has thrown himself from the mountain in order to save us.” To their friends, they said: “That noise we heard like a whirlwind, like an earthquake, was certainly caused by his fall. This body is his: It has the same yellow white hue of a lotus root, the same hairs white as moonbeams, the same tortoise-shell-like feet with alabaster nails, the same backbone, like a bow gracefully curved.

“This is the same face, long and full, this the same head, noble and auspicious, furrowed by sweet-smelling juice, and untouched by the driver’s goad. These are the same honey colored tusks, covered with the red dust of the mountain slope, as a mark of his glorious deed. And this is the same trunk, with its finger-like tip, with which he pointed out the way to us.

“What a wonder! What great friendship he has shown us, total strangers, without the slightest concern for our name, our conduct, or our faith! How great must have been his kindness to his friends and relatives!

“Let all revere this Illustrious One who embodied the finest behavior of the pious. How he assisted us, we who were overcome with fear and misery! How he benefitted us! What Great Being has appeared as an elephant? From what teacher could he have learned such fine behavior? m

“Of him it is justified to say: `The only beauty that truly pleases is the beauty of virtue.’ Look how he has manifested the lofty nature expected from such an auspicious figure! Even his corpse shines like the snow mountains, as if it laughed with joy. Who would dare feed on the body of this virtuous being, the one who helped us with a love greater than from any kin, who sacrificed even his life for our benefit? No, rather we should pay our debt of gratitude by offering him a proper cremation.”

Thus they mourned, as if a family disaster had occurred, their eyes dim with tears, their voices faltering.

But some, whose frame of mind was stronger, comprehended the true nature of the situation, and said: “By cremation we would neither be worshipping nor showing respect for this elephant. Only by accomplishing his design can we truly honor him. He gave up his body with the intent of rescuing us; he died out of affection for his guests. If we do not fulfill his hopes, his action will have been fruitless. He offered us everything he had, and with affection. We should accept his body with respect, like the word of a teacher, and thus secure our welfare.

“Once we have overcome our difficulties, there will be time enough to worship him and perform for this wonderful elephant all the funeral rites due a deceased kinsman.”

And so the exiles obeyed the words of the elephant. Taking their provisions from his body, filling his bowels with pure water, they followed the path he had indicated, and safely crossed the wilderness.

From this story one can see how the virtuous hold even suffering in high esteem as if it were a benefit, if by suffering they may also bring happiness to others. This account is also relevant when praising the qualities of the virtuous, when praising the qualities of the Tathagata, or when discoursing on how to listen with attention to the Dharma. When explaining how to acquire a good nature, this may be said: “A good nature obtained by the practice of virtue will stay with you even in the next life.”

This story also demonstrates the virtue of habitual charity and shows how the habit of giving up material objects makes it easy to give up even self-love.

This account is also useful when telling of the Bhagavan’s final words at the time of his Parinirvana. When he was worshipped with celestial flowers and celestial music, the Tathagata said: “In truth, Ananda, this is not the right way to honor the Tathagata.” And so he explained that true worship consists of fulfilling the design of the person honored, not in offerings of perfumes, garlands, and the like.