Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 23: The Elephant

Note: I’m going to move forward in the book to this late chapter and then skip back to a couple earlier sections. Also, the passage below, although long, is not the complete chapter, rather about 2/3 of it. I chose this particular selection from it to emphasize one point of content, honing the Manjushri sword of wisdom.

Patiently I shall bear harsh words as the elephant bears arrows on the battlefield. People are often inconsiderate.

Only a trained elephant goes to the battlefield; only a trained elephant carries the king. Best among men are those who have trained the mind to endure harsh words patiently.

Mules are good animals when trained; even better are well-trained Sind horses and great elephants. Best among men is one with a well-trained mind.

No animal can take you to nirvana; only a well-trained mind can lead you to this untrodden land.

The elephant Dhanapalaka in heat will not eat at all when he is bound; he pines for his mate in the elephant grove.

Eating too much, sleeping too much, like an overfed hog, those too lazy to exert effort are born again and again.

Long ago my mind used to wander as it liked and do what it wanted. Now I can rule my mind as the mahout controls the elephant with his hooked staff.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts. Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of the mud. — Trans. Easwaran

455 (75)

The well-trained mind will take you along the path like the well-trained elephant carries the rider.

Something about the metaphor in this chapter struck me profoundly. The image of the well-trained elephant is very clear, and yet again, we have a comparison that distinguishes the path to nirvana from the other. In this first passage, the Buddha makes clear that the best quality to cultivate is a well-trained mind. This echoes the main message in the other sections we’ve discussed so far. He emphasizes here, however, that the only thing that will allow you passage to nirvana is a well-trained mind. The previous sections didn’t emphasize this destination.

Perhaps, we should take a moment here and question what exactly nirvana is. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into undefined terms and elaborate concepts without understanding the intention of this message, rather falling prey to our own fancies and preconceptions. This task of considering nirvana may sound easy, but it isn’t and could be written about at much greater length. The word “nirvana” has a certain exotic and fantastical feel to it, at least from my perspective. I remember using it as a child to indicate having reached some ideal and unassailable state–a perfection of sorts that once attained never falls away. Such an understanding reiterates familiar metaphysical dichotomies of being fallen and transcending our state of lack to a completion in the ideal. The two phrases I just used indicate two familiar examples of this–Christianity (transcending fallen state–the lacking nature of sin–through the perfect grace of the ideal: God and Christ) and Western philosophy’s metaphysical systems in general from Plato onward (contrast of the lacking living world with the ideal one which is the Truth, the Real world behind the shadow one that we are in–appearance vs. essence). While there may be arguments for such an understanding of nirvana from passages in the Pali canon, it does not fit well with this section from the Dhammapada.

This passage makes clear that the path to nirvana is the path of the well-trained mind. The examples here show that the well-trained mind is not swayed away from the good, selfless presence in the world (as discussed in my first selection from the Dhammapada) by lust, laziness, etc. We’re shown through the metaphor of the trained elephant that the mind can be trained so that it does not wander about, and this, just this, is the path to nirvana. It’s not acquiring some special state (which wouldn’t fit with the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence anyway) or going somewhere else outside the “ordinary” world (Where would such a place be anyway???). Rather, it’s being fully immersed in the world with our mind as it is underneath all the constant layers of distractions and compulsions.

We often think of nirvana as the result of enlightenment, highlighting the profound wisdom in this path/practice (to be enlightened is to have seen the Truth), but we could also cast it as liberation; that is another, if not equally emphasized, “attainment” (there’s really nothing to attain, more like something to lose) of Buddhist practice, and with that re-thinking, we can see that the path of the trained elephant is simply that–liberation from the myriad sufferings of a confused mind. This regal animal can bear us to the core of our own happiness, revealing our own basic goodness beneath the desire, aversion, and ignorance of our untrained mind.


Walking the path step by step…

In case we conclude that a capitalized Mind is something other than our usual one, Huang Po deflates all delusions about its transcendence.:

“Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear was to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
Huang Po: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
Huang Po: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind”?”

A familiar implication is the Chan/Zen insistence that enlightenment is nothing more than realizing the true nature of the ordinary activities of one’s everyday mind. When Hui Hai was asked about his own practice, he replied: “When I’m hungry I eat; when tired I sleep.”

The Pali texts of early Buddhism do not emphasize “everyday mind” in the same way, for they often contrast the consciousness of an ordinary person (puthujjana) with the liberated mind of an awakened arahant. Yet there is the same focus on not-clinging, a notable example being in the “Book of the Six Sense Bases” in the Samyutta Nikaya. There the Buddha repeatedly teaches “The Dhamma for abandoning all.” He emphasizes that practitioners should develop dispassion toward the six senses and their objects (including the mind and mental phenomena) and abandon them, for that is the only way to end one’s suffering.

“Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It’s liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.””

Listening to this discourse, “the minds of the thousand bhikkus were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” The absence of grasping is what liberates.

“Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.
This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.”–Hakuin

Passage taken from David R. Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, pp. 50-51.

May this inspire you to train your mind and release the mind that grasps so that you too may achieve liberation–the well-trained mind will bear you on the path to nirvana.


Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Entry 12: Heartmind’s Abundance

Being dumped and left behind, completely forgotten by a great Romantic Love, feels much like being forsaken by a deity. On some level, this is precisely true. Love as great object of inspiration has forsaken you, left you alone to find your way in existence without it. Here echoes the existential dilemma of Sartre: alienation. You’re on your own in finding your meaning in life now, and your choices no longer involve the creation of a shared meaning with another person.

This feeling of forgottenness and abandonment has been biting at me for months. Social media hasn’t helped. I’ve seen the contacts I once had slowly forget my existence. Such is to be expected and is not anything wrong on their parts, but it just emphasizes the feeling of alienation even more. The constant reminder of this in the noise of social media babble has, along with a few other motivations, pushed me to close my main social media account for now. In a strange way, it’s been liberating. I feel that I’m taking up the solitary path that is discussed in the Dhammapada; like the well-trained elephant, I’m learning to take on the trek through the jungles by myself, relaxing in the journey yet staying on course.

Recently, I did a particular meditation for the first time in months. In it, you center for a few minutes while holding your hands over your heart with your thumbs and pointer fingers together in the shape of a triangle. After breathing and centering for some time, you ask yourself, or rather, plant the question: “If I planted my heart, what would grow?”  You then sit with whatever answer comes to form in your mind, not forcing, not judging, just observing. The last time I did this, I had some intense yet interesting experiences (you can read about them here). This time’s experience of the meditation was also intense but very different from the last.

My question first met with a blank, and then, a stalk with a pink flower popped out. At first, it was the bleeding heart flower but became a larger, bell-shaped flower.


From this:


To something closer to a single one of these:

Then, another and another popped up. Eventually, they started to lean down and crumple. I had a sudden fear that they were withering and dying from some blight, and indeed, they soon disappeared. However, the ground then gave birth to green leaves, like those from orchids, coming out of the ground by the hundreds, spreading out and out and out. I was struck by the abundance of this–an overwhelming sense of compassion and generosity.

I was almost in tears of gratitude as I came out of this meditation. I realized again, that the problem of this kind of pain only bites and tortures when focused on “me“. The question isn’t what I can, should, or will do for myself. That will continue the focus on the pain that is here, never getting beyond it and keeping the story locked in my orbit, reinforcing that story even. Instead, how can I give to all? If my focus becomes about abundance outward, I’ll find lushness throughout existence. Then, it’s not about me. It’s about the universe. It’s about All.

Identification born of ignorance is a source of grief, and its fading a move toward freedom, as I learned in the days following the death of my only daughter, Ona. She had been congested; her doctor failed to notice her swollen ankles and pale complexion. She was a cherubic child, and we, too, were slow to appreciate the extent of her listlessness. A trip to another physician led to a rush to the hospital; Ona died that night. Her heard had a hole in it and could not keep up with the increased burden of pneumonia.

Days and nights followed in a blur of emotion. Relatives wept with us, visitors came and went, sleep was elusive. The pain made a home in my body and lived there. I had never known such grief. Yet, sometimes, I was able to experience this grief in a nonidentified way, noticing feelings rise and fall, as I did in meditation. And I began to detect a pattern. Whenever a telephone call came–yet another person expressing sympathy–my grief erupted anew. Emotion welled up from my belly through my heart, my head flushed with sensation, my eyes filled with tears.

Watching this time and again, I saw how, at the moment of contact with the caller, an image formed in my mind: the father who lost his child. Instead of experiencing the shifting emotions of the moment–now sadness, now disbelief, now compassion for my wife–I inhabited the image of someone overwhelmed with grief. I identified with that fabricated image, stepped into it as if boarding a train, and became overwhelmed. The immediate suffering was compounded, distorted, and amplified. Knowing this was freeing. Once I discovered this pattern, I was able to watch the train come into the station but not board it. I still felt grief: Ona was of my heart; her absence was confusing and painful. But when I stopped stepping into the mental-emotional construction of “the grieving father,” that pain became less sharp and turbulent because it was not proliferated into a “second arrow” of suffering.

Insight Dialogue:The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 65-66

Later on in the evening, I read the following in Matthieu Richard’s “Happiness” before falling asleep.

As the pain that afflicts us grows stronger, our mental universe contracts. Events and thoughts continually rebound off the walls of our circumscribed inner prison. They speed up and gather force, every ricochet inflicting new wounds. We must therefore broaden our inner horizons to the point where there are no walls for negative emotion to bounce off of. When these walls, built brick by brick by the self, come tumbling down, suffering’s bullets will miss their mark and vanish in the vast openness of inner freedom. We realize that our suffering was forgetfulness of our true nature, which remains unchanged beneath the fog of emotions. It is essential to develop and sustain this broadening of the inner horizons. External events and thoughts will then emerge like stars that reflect off the calm surface of a vast ocean without disturbing it.

One of the best ways to achieve that state is to meditate on feelings that transcend our mental afflictions. If, for instance, we gradually let our mind be invaded by a feeling of love and compassion for all beings, the warmth of such a thought will very likely melt the ice of our frustrations, while its gentleness will cool the fire of our desires. We will have succeeded in raising ourselves above our personal pain to the point where it becomes almost imperceptible.

Exercise: When you feel overwhelmed by emotions
Imagine a stormy sea with breakers as big as houses. Each wave is more monstrous than the last. They are about to engulf your boat, your very life hangs on those few extra yards in the rushing wall of water. Then imagine observing the same scene from a high-flying plane. From that perspective, the waves seem to form a delicate blue-and-white mosaic, barely trembling on the surface of the water. From that height in the silence of space, your eye sees those almost motionless patterns, and your mind immerses itself in clear and luminous sky. The waves of anger or obsession seem real enough, but remind yourself that they are merely fabrications of your mind; that they will rise and also again disappear. Why stay on the boat of mental anxiety? Make your mind as vast as the sky and you will find that the waves of afflictive emotions have lost all the strength you had attributed to them.

After reading this, I lay there in bed and started winding my mind into sleep. As I closed my eyes, I saw the image of a statue of an elephant’s head facing me. It was ancient, long forgotten in some lost glade of the Indian wilds. It was overgrown with grass and hanging vines, although only partially–his regal head was still clearly visible as well as the details of the carving. The foliage hung gently, emphasizing his calm majesty, and the light green was punctuated at the crown of his head and along the edges of the ears with light pink flowers–the same that I had seen in my meditation. His calm warmth inspired me and reminded me that the selfless path to nirvana is described in the Dhammapada as the training of the elephant. This ancient wisdom is still here to calmly inspire and point out the path, overgrown as the symbols may be, even in the darkest times of our lives. That smiling, beautiful tranquility is right here to be seen. I drifted off with this serene joy.

elephant cc

Something like this guy, but just the head from straight on–face to face, and much closer…

At a retreat about 2 years ago, the shaman in charge told all of us that the point of what we were doing was to get beyond the head and into the heart. He was completely correct, but maybe, it was in an even deeper manner than he realized.

Mahayana Buddhism urges practitioners to rouse bodhicittaBodhicitta is translated usually as awakened mind or awakened heart and sometimes as noble mind or noble heart. The point I want to pull out here is that mind and heart are not clearly distinguished as separate in this Sanskrit word. When we Westerners say “mind”, we generally think only of the intellect, but ultimately, mind is all of our experience. All experiences we have in our lives are filtered by our mind. Our emotions, our thoughts, our perceptions, all take place within our receptive engagement with the universe–consciousness: mind. If anything, part of our problem as Westerners is that our usage of these words has tried to split out emotions, “heart”, from what we’ve made into a more idea-laden space of “mind”. However, psychology would show us that even emotions are tempered by our concepts, (hi)stories, and social constructs. Our experience of heart is not separate from our experience of mind. It really is Heartmind (inspired by Sanskrit’s lack of clear distinction between the two).

Opening the heart and traveling into its depths then is both getting beyond the head AND awakening the mind–the heartmind. Really reaching into these depths of mindheart is stepping past all of our identifications and constructs. It’s finding the empty and open potential for all unfolding in this moment–sheer luminosity. We can call it creative force, Source, Tao, or buddha-nature, but opening to this emptiness behind/within All, shunyata, is the great spiritual journey of the warrior who seeks to awaken the heart. Seeing this, even briefly, goes beyond intellectual constructs of self and lights the abundant fire of compassion that is bodhicitta; it makes the awakened heartmind beat with abundance.

Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao, Loy Ching-Yuen, “On Tao: §3”

May this inspire other warriors to rouse bodhicitta and let their heartminds overflow with abundance. May the training of self, the harnessing of the process of walking the path–the trained elephant–act as a guide and inspiration on the path.


Identity and Change–An Impersonal Philosophy

Here’s another philosophical jaunt through the open writing of Morning Pages.

I’m sitting here dazed. I was blinded by light as I stood in line. My eyes are still swimming from it.

What if Plato’s metaphor for seeing the truth is singularly inept? By this, I refer to walking out into the light of the sun and escaping from the cave of ignorance in The Republic. What if it’s closer to bad faith? The truth of things is always right at hand, but we don’t want to look at it. Fearing the truth of death, we instead cover it over. We build up the soul in counterpoint to the ultimately impersonal–Death. Death comes for all in every moment. It does not respect us as individuals. Every moment dies. The secret here is that Death has a Janus-mask which has opposite faces–the old, stern, grinning skull alongside the crying baby’s soft face full of potential. Death is a Janus-mask with Birth as Birth and Death come together. Separating them is impossible. Each arising signals an eventual departing. Each departing brings a new arising. The Janus-mask covers the true face: Change.

All of this, Birth, Death, Change, is utterly impersonal. It all happens no matter what we want and, sometimes, despite what we want! However, these events don’t happen due to the consideration and judgment of our personal circumstances by some divine personage who denies or accepts our pleas. They simply happen. It’s nothing personal.

We try to cope with these changes by finding meaning behind them. We ascribe some personal consideration behind them that explains them away. These prayers were answered because God had mercy, but those weren’t because in his infinite wisdom He knew better than I did and is teaching me a lesson, etc., etc., etc. With such explanations, these events have a personal story rather than the mysterious unfolding of a cosmic emergence. They become known to me rather than questions, difficulties, problems that I have to grapple with. It’s a lot easier to cover over the difficult truth–Being is mysterious, and “I” am just another dying process in the middle of it that doesn’t know/understand the significance of the whole thing–than to face it. Facing it takes an existential courage: resoluteness. It takes a willingness to look at it directly and continue despite all the niggling stories, thoughts, and ideas that come up and try to make us look away. These thoughts and ideas churn on in desire, aversion, and ignorance, and they try to make the ultimate counterpoint to this Truth; they aim at building an edifice that will provide undying security from the impersonal cosmic process of Birth/Death/Change. The ultimate security?–A stronghold, a cut off piece of territory from the whole that asserts its independence from the process of change–the sovereign nation of “Self”. It is “identity” in the strong, logical sense of “A = A”. Here Death is denied and fought off, again and again, as the attempted castle crumbles day by day, made of sand–constantly built up anew while denying that this never-ending rebuilding occurs. Identity–a form of bad faith? In a sense, the ultimate form: that which chooses to misunderstand being by overlooking the ongoing impermanence of everything.

It’s been a while since I wrote the entry above. It came out so powerfully, much more charged than many of my posts while riffing off of Plato, Buddhism, Sartre, and Heidegger all in one go.

Please don’t misunderstand, however. I’m not saying that we aren’t individuals. If I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach. However, we grab onto our bodily existence as separate and emphasize this over and above the elaborate interconnectedness and interdependent nature of everything about existence. Your body is a product of an elaborate history that goes back to the Big Bang. Exploding stars, crashing asteroids, mass-extinctions, forgotten civilizations, and so many more moments have factored into your existence, and you breath air, shed skin, and digest other organic and inorganic matter that recycles into the Earth. Light from a nearby star powers your entire physical existence, directly or indirectly-it warms your planet, makes plants grow which feed animals (including you), and makes life on this planet possible. Furthermore, your body releases heat–IR radiation–some small amount of which vibrates out throughout the greater planet and universe. You are part of the cosmos. You aren’t separate at all. Not really. You are like a flower–growing from a seed, turning into a bud, blossoming into a wondrous natural emergence, slowly withering away, and falling off the plant. However, just like the flower, the flower is not separate from the sun that nurtures its growth, the water that falls as the rain, and the dirt which holds the rainwater for the roots and provides nutrients as well, also offering a place for the fallen flower to be shuffled back into the cycle of life. It’s all one interdependent arising. You are a process, an unfolding of the universe–a human becoming–not a thing, not an it, not a permanent identity.


Our identities are concepts, impermanent by nature. Such concepts are clearly known in the cessation of ignorance. One does not enhance the happiness or compassion of the “I”; instead one sees through the “I” concept entirely. The Buddha said, “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations [of wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace].” In the moment when conceiving stops–especially self-conceiving–we are freed from the selfish hungers, because we are freed from the constructed self-concept that sustains them. In this moment we are freed from what practitioners of Ordinary Mind Zen call “the self-centered dream.” This freedom is possible. Indeed, if we are attentive, we will notice that freedom visits us each time the mind relaxes out of self-sustaining tensions.

These specks of liberation multiply and link together as understanding grows. This is the alchemy of non clinging. Sometimes, too, there is an avalanche of awakening, which may be sustained by the steadiness of mind engendered by meditation. In the moment of liberation, we cease to cling to an imagined stability or security in what is always changing. We cease our quest for pleasure in what is painful and for an enduring identity in the flux of personal and social fabrications. In the absence of clinging something wonderful is possible.

Beyond the hungers and ignorance is a very high happiness. The self is no longer birthed, in this life or in others. More simply, we cease to believe in the dream of “me” that the mind continually weaves. In this joy, rapture and equanimity conjoin. Wisdom vanquishes constructed identities which liberates generosity and love from the anchors of self. There is acceptance without greed, discernment without rejection, and stability without the illusion of permanence. This is an ongoing moment in life’s process that the Buddha described as “beyond reasoning” and “sorrowless” and “the stilling of the conditioned–bliss.” Nirvana is also called the deathless. It is what my teacher Ananda Maitreya simply referred to as coolness. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk and translator, refers to nirvana as unbinding.

It is tempting, almost unavoidable, to idealize this unbinding. We take it to be inhuman, almost sterile in its purity. But logic and the very earthy stories of the Buddha’s later years tell us otherwise. Even when ignorance has vanished as a dominating force in our lives, we still have bodies, and they still defecate, age, and hurt. We still engage in relationships, and it is still complex. The body still hungers, and the mind still constructs. The key difference is that we do not react to the hungers of the body and heart, and we do not believe the constructs of the mind. We remain human–just not ignorant.

–Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 67-69.

May this help others see Truth without being blinded by their own stories.