The following is excerpted from White Spirit Animals: Prophets of Change by J. Zohara Meyerhoff Hieronimus, D.H.L., published by Inner Traditions.
The white elephant is portrayed with adoration in the disciplines of mythology, religion, literature, and more generally in art and culture. Elephants have been extant since at least 1600 BCE, participating in numerous human endeavors – land clearing, building, temple parades, entertainment, and war. Similar to the lion, elephants have symbolized royalty and status.
The Elephant Disposition
When we are around elephants, something magical, elevating, and awe-inspiring occurs. Simply put, elephants make us happy. They elevate our spirits. They bring peace to our hearts. They make us feel joyous. Most people today, however, encounter their first elephant in unnatural settings—in zoos, circuses, entertainment parks, or on elephant rides or other forms of exhibitions and entertainment.
Despite the abuse and violence meted out by humans, elephants seem to tolerate our species well beyond limits that we ourselves deem acceptable. They are forcibly taken from their homelands and families, almost always witnessing the brutal deaths of their mothers and aunties who desperately try to save them. Then they are brought into deplorable conditions that eventually lead to premature death. Yet even though they possess phenomenal strength—the single flick of a trunk can send a full-grown man yards away—they rarely strike out. Elephants seem to be masters of forgiveness in ways that few humans achieve. It is easy to mistake their restraint as an absence of psychological and physical pain. But their seeming tolerance comes from within, a deep and profound respect and embrace of nonviolence.
These qualities of elephants have been recognized since the last ice age when they first began to live among humans. Such is the natural disposition of the elephant, whether white or gray or any other skin tone, and whether small or large. Elephants who have not been subjected to the madness of humans who mistreat them possess a calm mind and loving heart. When we are around them we can experience this through our own heart’s rapport with theirs. Elephants embody both beauty and grace and we feel this when we see them.
A Cross-Cultural Perspective of the Elephant
The depictions of female elephants caring for their young is endearing to everyone. Elephant maternal dedication is a theme found in cave art and is found in illuminated manuscripts as well. Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE), a naturalist, author, and army commander, wrote that the elephant “in intelligence approaches the nearest to man.”2 I would add to this by saying that elephants possess qualities that we admire yet seldom achieve, and in many respects the elephant is more evolved than many human beings. This is why I believe that the elephant is an ethical exemplar, a teacher of an elevated state of awareness. I have learned this in writing this book, dreaming with them, and listening to their stories.
In Hindu mythology, the deity Ganesh (also Ganesha) has a human body and an elephant’s head. He is the deliverer of success and his elephant head represents the soul or Atman, while the elephant’s trunk of one thousand muscles represents the sound of Creation: om. It is the sound ushered in from the cosmos and it brings everything into being.
In Nepal, Ganesha is known as Hermaba and has five heads and rides a lion. Southern and northern Indian myths liken Ganesha to an unmarried brahmachari who renounces the world in service to divine enlightenment. He is the patron of the creative process in both the arts and sciences, and the deva who illuminates wisdom. The White Elephant helps birth terrestrial life and divine Creation, and creates and removes obstacles from a person’s life to further their spiritual evolution. Elephants are envisioned as being the guardians of all forms of life, and they trumpet their excitement, praising the source of all life. As Hindu tradition teaches, the holy elephant stirs the Milky Way. Different from other creatures, such as Bear who guards the North and the Great Spirit, or Lion who is assigned to protecting the world, Elephant is an agent of Creation from the Milky Way to Earth.
Meeting the Buddhist White Elephant
When I began searching for the nature, spiritual legacy, and ecological importance of the White Elephant, I was immediately drawn to Buddhism, specifically the Lotus Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra). I assumed that, as we have found with the White Bear and White Lion, there would be texts, spiritual traditions, and core values associated with Elephant and evidence of its holy place among human societies. The Lotus Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit into Chinese (265–317 CE). It contains one of the best known, if not the most significant story about the White Elephant and the Buddha, whose teachings are collated in these sutras. I suspected that the Buddha may be the human representation of what elephant consciousness is actually like—Buddhic.
While the story of the Buddha’s birth is well-known to many, it is worth sharing here because of the elephant in it and the role that it plays in the traditional representation of wisdom.
The Story of Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni was born into a royal family sometime between 600–400 BCE. His father the king was respected for his love of justice. His mother, Maha Maya (Maya meaning “love” or “beauty” in Sanskrit), was a woman of great valor. Together the two ruled over their kingdom, Shakyas in Lumbini, in what is today’s modern Nepal in the Himalayan region near Tibet.
After twenty barren, childless years, Maya dreams that she is taken by four devas to the Himalayan lake Anotatta. There they bathe and perfume her before dressing her in celestial clothes and flowers. After she is purified in this manner, according to one traditional version of the story, a beautiful White Elephant appears, carrying a perfect white lotus in his trunk. After walking around Maya three times, he enters her womb through the right side of her body and disappears inside of her.
When the queen tells her husband of this dream, he calls wise men to interpret it. They conclude that it is an auspicious dream about her having been chosen to give birth to the Purest One, who will become a very great being. But the royal parents are also told that if their son stays in the royal household, he will indeed become a world power as the king was hoping, and yet his behavior might be brutal. On the other hand, if he is raised outside the royal palace where he can see the world, he will become a great spiritual leader.
Near the time of childbirth, the queen ventures toward her hometown, stopping under a sal tree whose wood is used for building lumber, which elephants help harvest and carry. There, under the tree, she gives birth to the Lord Siddhartha, who will later become known as Buddha (“he who achieves his aims” or “he who is awake”). Seven days later, the queen dies, leaving her sister to raise her son in the royal palace. Thirty-five years after that, this same sister will become the first nun in the Buddha’s sangha (community of monks). Unlike many other traditions, women were admitted to the sangha. There was no discrimination based on one’s class, race, sex, or past history—something that is truly reflective of one of the greatest egalitarian wisdom traditions on Earth.
The years go by and Siddhartha grows up in the palace, protected by the royal household. He is surrounded by wealth, beauty, and security. But eventually, when he finally ventures outside the palace walls, he discovers that the world is very different from what he has experienced. He sees the suffering of others, learns that things die, and that people feel terrible pain and unhappiness.* The stark contrast with the life of luxury he has led leaves him restless, and at the age of twenty-nine he departs from the palace, leaving his wife and son behind, and goes out into the world as an ascetic monk committed to austerity.
*“On the first trip, the prince saw an old man. He came to know that everyone had to grow old. On the second trip, the prince saw a sick man. He came to know that everyone could get sick at any time. On the third trip, he saw a dead body. He knew that everyone would have to die one day. On the fourth trip, the prince saw a monk who was happy and calm. He made up his mind to leave home so that he could help people to find peace and happiness.”3
After six years of wandering, Siddhartha comes across the bodhi tree. He seats himself under its canopy and vows to sit there until he achieves enlightenment and an understanding of suffering. One by one, his ascetic companions abandon the young monk, leaving him alone on his spiritual quest.*
*The great mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to these solo ventures and trials as “the hero’s journey.” Also called “vision quests,” the purpose is for one to go into seclusion in order to find one’s true identity and purpose, to find meaning in one’s life.
After forty-nine days in silence, Siddhartha, who has now become Buddha, is shown what he was to call “the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Enlightenment.” The Four Noble Truths are foundational principles: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. The Eightfold Path is translated into English as qualities that each person is encouraged to cultivate. They are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Together they have become the basic precepts of Buddhism. Centuries after the Buddha, these principles guide millions of human beings worldwide.
Buddhism is often called the middle path because it requires neither indulgence nor extreme deprivation, but offers instead a modest and sincere undertaking to free oneself from ignorance, greed, hatred, and other common human challenges that are the source of suffering.
Over the next forty-five years until his death, the Buddha taught the dharma—the basic teachings of Buddhism that instruct on the manifestation of reality and the laws of the universe, including divine realization or nirvana. This state, Buddha maintained, is the birthright of all living beings who practice right thought, right speech, and right action. Liberation from suffering is accessible and achievable by all, no matter his or her station or walk of life.4
This is the primary reason that I have been attracted to Buddhism since my teens. I find it liberating to encounter a philosophy that does not require intercessory agents to broker our relationship with divinity. The path we walk in each lifetime is truly under our own direction. Each of us is obligated to become self-mastered, and the underlying process for this undertaking is the journey the Buddhist tradition honors and cultivates. We obviously benefit from teachers and guides, community and family, but at some point in every life it is the individual person who comes into rapport with the sacred within and without. This makes us, as the Buddha hoped, conscious participants in the alleviation of the world’s suffering and our own. The Buddha insisted up to the last teaching day of his worldly life that his disciples should follow no leader.5 I have taken this advice to heart and have followed it my entire life.
It’s also interesting that in Buddhist meditation the untrained mind is sometimes compared to the gray elephant running wild while the calm mind is represented by the White Elephant. The elephant is associated with the power to make rain, and elephants have been depicted as rain clouds themselves flying in the skies. I wonder if elephant tears aren’t the rain of enduring compassion?
After I began dreaming with Elephant I learned that in Buddhism enlightened people are often compared with elephants.6 I am sure I am not the only modern person with a deep affection for these wonderful creatures. In fact, a white one almost came into my life decades ago.
In the 1970s I was interested in adopting a white pygmy or Asian Borneo elephant in need of a home. At first I thought it would be fantastic to do so. I had rented a barn studio for my sculpture works at the time so it was easy to envision how to transform the stalls into an open space for the elephant. He could graze in the large surrounding fields, which included a spring-fed pond that we skated on as children. Before contacting its owner, who was advertising an available elephant he could no longer care for, I called some experts familiar with captive elephants.
Once I learned about the practical realities of caring for an elephant—they eat a hundred pounds of food a day and drop two hundred pounds of skat (dung), and they need a great amount of space, to say nothing of fencing—I went no further with this notion. I should have taken to heart instead the lessons of Elephant: humility, patience, responsibility, and commitment to family and community—personal qualities that, at twenty-one, I was not focused on cultivating. Also, I was not schooled about the deeper spiritual meaning of the Buddha and the elephant as is found in this teaching: “When Dona encountered the Buddha sitting at the foot of a tree he appeared ‘beautiful, faith-inspiring, with calm senses and serene mind, utterly composed and controlled like a tamed, alert, perfectly trained elephant’ (A.II, 38).”7
As a telepathic communicator and research dreamer, and confirming my own experience of the reality of the elephant as Buddhist way-shower, it was delightful to come across a remarkable poem in the Lotus Sutra scriptures. Buddha’s virtues are extolled there in terms of the anatomy and qualities of the noble and majestic Elephant. “Gentleness and harmlessness are his front legs; simplicity and celibacy are the hind legs. Faith is his trunk, equanimity his white tusks, mindfulness his neck, his head is careful consideration, Dharma is his belly and solitude his tail. Meditating, focusing on his breath and utterly composed, this mighty elephant walks, stands and sits with composure, he is perfectly trained and accomplished in all ways (A.III, 346).”8
It is said that prior to his incarnation as the Buddha, Siddhartha’s soul lived inside the body of an elephant. So great was this affinity that the Buddha never looked over his shoulder if he needed to see what was behind him, but rather turned completely around as elephants do because of their limited eyesight. This is called his “elephant look.”9 But most surprising was the discovery in the opening Sutra of this description of a divinely balanced and awakened human
Thus have I heard. Once upon a time the Lord was staying at Râgagriha, on the Gridhrakuta mountain, with a numerous assemblage of monks, twelve hundred monks, all of them Arhats, stainless, free from depravity, self-controlled, thoroughly emancipated in thought and knowledge, of noble breed (like unto) great elephants, having done their task, done their duty, acquitted their charge, reached the goal; in whom the ties which bound them to existence were wholly destroyed, whose minds were thoroughly emancipated by perfect knowledge, who had reached the utmost perfection in subduing all their thoughts; who were possessed of the transcendent faculties . . .10
The Lotus Sutra is cherished as the most important teaching of Mahayana Buddhism and expresses the connection I feel with Elephant as a Buddhic way-shower. Learning about these passages in the Sutras also confirmed the authentic nature of my telepathic conversations with White Elephant.*
*The Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law forms the basis of the Tiantai, Tendai, Cheontae, and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. These sutras (or threads) are arranged in ten volumes and twenty-seven chapters, addressing both personal transformation and the betterment of the world through individual practice.