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.

eo0mAzay

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.

Gassho!

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