The Maddened Elephant

In Japan, Bodhi Day, the day of Sakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, is traditionally observed on December 8. This year we invite you to join us for a special Bodhi Day Service on Sunday, December 3 at 9:30 a.m. Bodhi Day is a time when we reflect on Siddhartha Gautama’s heroic journey in search of the light of clear wisdom that shines through the darkness of ignorance and mistaken thinking. When he fully realized that light of wisdom in his mind, he became a Buddha, or “Awakened One,” who would come to be revered as Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakya Clan.

The 45 years of Sakyamuni’s life that followed his realization of Buddhahood, provide a model for manifesting the awakened mind in the midst of the violence and chaos that has existed in our world since ancient times and sadly continues to this day. The following episode from the traditional biography of the Buddha describes how Sakyamuni relied on the wisdom and compassion of awakening to respond to the mayhem caused by his cousin Devadatta, who envied the Buddha’s renown and sought to usurp his leadership of the Sangha.

At that time, when Devadatta saw the excellence of the Buddha’s qualities, deep in his heart he felt jealous and withdrew from the trances. He used evil means to destroy the order of the Right Law.

[Devadatta] ascended Mount Grdhrakuta, let a rock fall, and tried to hit the Buddha with it, but the rock split in two and fell to the Buddha’s left and right.

On the level and straight royal road [Devadatta] let loose a maddened evil elephant. His rolling roar was like thunder. His ferocity burst forth, forming a cloud. He rushed on like a storm, mighty as a fierce wind.

His trunk, tusks, tail, and four feet—coming into contact with them would absolutely bring destruction. In the alleys and streets of the city of Rajagrha, those he had killed and injured lay scattered about. After their violent deaths, the corpses lay spread out in the streets. Brains and blood were spattered all around.

All the men and women were afraid to go out. The whole city trembled [in fear]. One heard only voices calling out in panic. Some left the city
in a hurry, and others hid in caves.

The Tathagata and a group of five hundred then arrived and entered the city. The people in the windows high on the pavilions advised the Buddha not to proceed.

The Tathagata was composed at heart and complacent, and his countenance was free from distress. He was mindful only of the suffering of envy. His compassionate mind wished to put [the elephant] at ease.

As a multitude of gods and dragons followed all around, [the Buddha] gradually approached the place where the maddened elephant was. All the bhiksus had fled, so he was accompanied only by Ananda. Just like the one specific nature of all kinds of characteristics of the Law, he did not move.

The maddened elephant burst forth in a rage, but when he saw the Buddha, his mind immediately became calm. He threw himself down and made obeisance at the Buddha’s feet, as if Mount Tai had crumbled.

With his lotus-like palm, [the Buddha] patted [the elephant] on the head, just like the sun shining on a dark cloud. As [the elephant] knelt at the Buddha’s feet, he expounded the Law to him, saying:

“No elephant may injure the greatest dragon! It is hard for an elephant to fight a dragon, but if an elephant wants to injure the greatest dragon, he will never be reborn in a wholesome destination!

“The infatuations of greed, anger, and delusion are difficult to subdue, but the Buddha has subdued them. That is why you should now reject greed, anger, and delusion. If you do not reject them, [you will be] sunk in the mud of suffering and they will further increase.”

When the elephant had heard the Buddha’s exposition, his madness was destroyed and his mind immediately gained insight. He was content in body and in mind, as when one is thirsty and drinks the nectar of immortality.

(Buddhacarita: In Praise of the Buddha’s Acts, translated by Charles Willemen, pg. 153-154)

Because the Buddha does not feel threatened by the elephant, he is able to meet it with compassion rather than aggression. This story illustrates the power of patient compassion to transform even the most terrifying adversary. I find it exceedingly difficult to exhibit such awakened compassion in my own life. Nevertheless, I take comfort in Shinran Shonin’s assurance that the nembutsu is indeed the path to a life of boundless compassion:

Compassion in the Pure Land Path should be understood as first attaining Buddhahood quickly through saying the nembutsu and, with the mind of great love and compassion, freely benefiting sentient beings as one wishes.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 633)


Namo Amida Butsu