February 25, 2013

Elephant Tears.

photo by Jenna P. Lyons

When I felt hundreds of mites biting my legs, I began to know what life is all about.

I thought I would share a journal entry I found in my tattered Moleskine notebook. I wrote it while I was in Thailand working at an elephant sanctuary, and this particular entry is interesting to me because it sheds light on the raw experience I had while I was there.

I did not fully understand many of the ideas I articulated while I was there, but after further review, I think I understand the concepts I was tormented with internally and spiritually.



Last night in bed, I got eaten alive by mites and fleas, which hitchhiked into my bed via a dirty cat; all I could think about was how awful it would be to live here permanently. I thought about the concept of transcendence, especially as put forth in all the transcendentalist and Buddhist literature I’ve been exposed to as of late.

It seems as if the possibility of a person overcoming the nature/culture divide were viable, any kind of ecological crisis could be averted. The Western ideal of keeping animals out of all things human is not evident here.

They come in anyway. And they bite.

I visited the Buddhist temple across the street today…so beautiful and peaceful there. It’s like glass waiting to be broken. On each Buddha, there are gold and silver foil pieces—offerings from followers. 95% of Thai people are Theravada Buddhists, and the act of placing these foil pieces on the shrines is called tam bun—making merit.

The orange-robed monks wander, all day. And when they’re not wandering, their minds are wandering.

Conversely, people everywhere here have built tiny dollhouse-like houses on their plots of land; spirits from the supernatural inhabit these houses and the Thai people try to keep the spirits satiated so they stay out of their houses.

There is a disgusting, stagnant pond across the road from the refuge and, on its banks, a pink lotus flower is in bloom. Buddha is often shown meditating on a pedestal in the shape of a lotus blossom to show that purity and good intentions can overcome even the most dire or desperate of circumstances—like the lotus in the dirty pond.

Thai nibanna (nirvana) embraces the idea of reincarnation; to the Thai people, an insect or a snake is the soul of a person reincarnated.

They feel that they themselves or someone they know was once akin to that creature, so they regard creepy-crawlies with respect…avihiṃsā (ahimsa). This is a religious-based sense of humility and interconnectedness with nature.

Many Thai tribes are spiritually animistic; there is an interaction and network of interaction and mutual respect that determines rules of non-violence, toleration and peace among all beings.

In Buddhist belief, the elephant is a symbol of steadfastness and mental perseverance—the uncontrolled mind in the beginning of one’s practice of Buddhism, meditation, etc. is represented by a gray elephant who runs wild and can destroy things on a whim.

After practicing dharma and learning to tame one’s uncontrolled mind and desired, the mind is represented as a white elephant, pure and powerful.

Buddha Shakyamuni was born as elephant in some of his previous incarnations; during his last incarnation as Siddhartha Gautama, he entered his mother’s womb in the form of a white elephant.

In the mandala offering ritual, one offers to the Buddha what is called the Precious Elephant, which can circumnavigate the entire world in one day and has the strength of a thousand elephants—the elephant also appears as a guardian of the temples and of Buddha himself.

Elephants—and all species—deserve to be worshipped, respected and to be left alone to live in peace as the Buddhist religion advocates. I believe that an emotional attachment comes only from spending time caring for these animals, from developing friendships and respect for their power and beauty.

We are just like them, and the ethics with which we treat one another as humans must be extended into the natural world.

The religious meaning of the elephants—and a compassionate respect for all living things—must be restored and practiced if the human race wants any chance of remedying its current environmental crisis. Science may have the answers, but human emotion is the impetus for solving any kind of problems dealing with non-human species.

Don’t do harm to the people you love…or any living thing, for that matter.

All the things I’ve read about animal and human relationships made more sense as I stood there looking into the eyes of a [crying] elephant named Boon-Mee. The chains, the bull hooks, the starvation, torture, use for logging, circus acts—where will the line be drawn?

However, even in a country which reveres elephants as sacred, they have been used for logging purposes and in circus-like events and trekking for tourists.

We need to start caring about other living things, caring about ourselves, and loving without bounds.

So, the fleas, mites and mosquitos continue to bite me.
J. Bird

Live and let live. Love and be loved. Take others in and let others take you in. See the tears of another and understand them as a compassionate, loving, and empathetic friend.




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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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