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Verse 55: The crazy elephant

Verse 55: The crazy elephant

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • By holding onto negative thoughts towards others, we damage relationships
  • Reflecting on the kindness of others helps us to see how others have benefited us
  • In the end, holding onto harmful attitudes towards others really hurts ourselves

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 55 (download)

“Who is like the crazed war elephant that turns and destroys its allies?”

This is ancient Indian context, when they used to go to fight with an elephant. An elephant could be a really powerful tool in a battle, but if the elephant got scared or freaked out then it turned and would harm the person who was riding on it, or turn and harm its own troops. So, who is like that? Turns and destroys its allies?

“He who holds negative thoughts and harmful attitudes towards others.”

Who is like the crazed war elephant that turns and destroys its allies?
He who holds negative thoughts and harmful attitudes towards others.

Here’s the elephant, you’re riding on top of it, it’s on your side, you can go really far. But if you’re like the crazed war elephant you get freaked out—when maybe there’s nothing to get freaked out about—and then you throw off your rider, you turn and you trample the other elephants and the other people that are all on your side. We’d call it, maybe, shooting yourself in the foot? Something along that line?

“Somebody who holds negative thoughts and harmful attitudes towards others.” How is this like the war elephant that turns and destroys its allies? Because when we really think about it—as we did during the retreat—that sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, and they’ve been kind to us in this life, in previous lives. Even friends, enemies, strangers this life we’ve received benefit from all of those sentient beings.

If you look at other living beings in this way they are all our allies. Aren’t they? None of them are our enemies. Even people who we might say, “Oh, they’ve harmed me,” or, “they were my enemy,” or whatever…. If we look at the situation from a different perspective we’ll see that they put us in a hard situation, but that hard situation made us grow, and we developed—as a result—qualities and abilities to handle situations and to do things that we would not have had had that person not harmed us. So, even looked at that way, even an enemy can be an ally in the sense of making us grow.

When we have negative thoughts about others, negative thoughts and harmful attitudes. So when we hold that against sentient beings then we’re turning against all of our allies who are helping us in one way or another.

Also, when we have negative thoughts and harmful attitudes, we’re making ourselves quite miserable. Because nobody likes having that kind of way of thinking. And yet sometimes we have these habitual emotional patterns that we just slip into and then we start going around and around and around.

I was reading this morning the notes you took from the last NVC session where they were talking about anger, shame, guilt, and disconnecting— That those four things were things that we do quite frequently but they prevent us from healing a situation and growing because we stay stuck in being disconnected or in feeling shame, or feeling guilty, or being angry. And how important it was to deal with those situations so that we can really heal from something and go on.

When we stay in those negative thoughts, and we’re spiraling around in them—because those four are the ones we get stuck in, and so then we just go round and around and around, “I’m so guilty, I’m so bad.” Or, “I’m so shameful, I’m worthless.” Or, “I can’t stand those people, goodbye.” Go sulk. Or, “I’m angry I’m angry I need them to apologize.” But they never do. So, I mean, those are four ways that we go around in circles. Isn’t it? And they’re also four types of harmful attitudes. They harm ourselves, they harm others. Through that we wind up turning on our allies, who are all sentient beings. Saying, “I’m angry at you, I can’t relate to you because you do blah blah blah, and I don’t want to speak to you for the rest of my life.” Or, “I’m so unworthy, get away from me….”

It’s all our mind that creates all these difficulties between us and other people. It’s nothing in the situation. It’s our mental responses, the stories we tell ourselves, the emotions we have, and then how we get totally tangled up in these things. Like a crazed war elephant. And we turn on other sentient beings.

Now, we’ve all had the flip of this situation. Have you ever had the situation where you’re trying to be friendly to somebody, and you like somebody, and then they go, “Nrah nrah nrah, you do this, you do that, you’re competing with me, you’re getting in my way, you’re taking my good qualities, you’re taking all the credit for this, you’re doing this….” And it’s somebody that we want to be friends with and they turn on us. We’ve all had that happen, right?

Did we ever consider that maybe sometimes, reverse the situation, we’re the one making up the story about somebody who wants to be friends with us, and we’re the ones making all those false accusations against the other person? Did it ever occur to us, when we’re having a problem with somebody, that maybe the problem is being made up in our own minds?

No, it never occurred. It’s always the other person’s fault. [laughter]

But you know, if we maybe start challenging things and give somebody else a little bit of credit, you know? And think, “If I reach out to this person there may be some change in the relationship.”

I’ll give you one story. I was visiting a Dharma center one time and the person at the Center who was assisting me, there was that person, and there was another person who I had known for many years. And the person I had known for many years—when I came to the Center—completely ignored me, just literally walked right past me, didn’t say hello. Nothing. And this person had never been very friendly, but there had never been any conflict or situation between us before so I didn’t understand that. And the person I was staying with, who was kind of helping me said, “Well, she’s like that to me, too.” You know, just cold, but there was no reason for it. So I said to her, “Let’s invite her to lunch.” And my friend said, “Huh?” I said, “No, we’re going to invite her to lunch.” And we invited her to lunch and we had a really nice conversation over lunch, and after that she was talking to me, she was talking to the other person, and everybody was getting along fine. And it was really kind of surprising. I mean, all that was needed, really, was somehow breaking that ice and extending a hand in friendship.

What the Tibetans often do in certain pujas is—when you’re talking about interfering forces—you offer them a torma, a little gift, something that you offer to these spirits and whatever. So I had told my friend, “We’re offering torma, we invite her to lunch.” It’s the same idea, you know? If there’s somebody who the relationship isn’t kind of nice with, give them a gift, make some contact, and see what happens. And so it actually worked quite well, it was really surprising. The other person wrote me several months later and said, “Oh, we were just working on something together and it was very smooth.” So that often works. Okay? Instead of dreaming up stories about how mean somebody is to us.

[In response to audience] If you’re having some tension with somebody, if you go in—and your motivation has to be a certain way, your motivation has to be one of really wanting to see the goodness in the other person—if you have that motivation and then you compliment somebody on something, or point something out that they did that you really appreciate, that then it really works to kind of soften everything. And you find that afterwards the tension is gone. But if you do that with the sneaky motivation—where it becomes kind of like flattery— “I’m going to say something nice and then that person will like me.”—then of course, then they pick up that we’re not being sincere and it doesn’t work. But when you really have a sincere mind, then it often cuts the uneasiness with someone else.

[In response to audience] So you’re referring to the kind of discussion groups that we have here at the Abbey, where we ask people to really apply the Dharma to their own lives, and they wind up sharing in a very personal way. And that when that happens all of the tension of, “Well, I’m a new person here and other people all know each other, and do I fit in?” All of that fades away because we’re being kind of open and honest. And they’re heard. Yes. Very important. They’re heard.

Because often when we go in new situations it’s like, “Ahh…. Are they going to like me? Am I going to fit in?” And we make up all sorts of stories. And some people get over their stories very quickly, and some people stay attached to their stories for a really long time.

Another situation of how we do what brings the opposite result of what we want, that when we’re nervous or shy going into a new situation it comes across as being aloof and cold, so of course the other people don’t come up and talk to us. And then of course we feel left out. We all have a need to belong, and some people are more touchy about it than others. And so when you’re really sensitive then you become quite shy.

I have a friend who’s very shy. She told me she realized—this is a Dharma friend—that it was actually pride, because she didn’t want to say or do something that could possibly be criticized, that would exclude her, so she didn’t engage very much. But then of course she felt excluded because she didn’t engage.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.