September 3, 2013

Don’t Ride the Elephants. ~ Jenna Penielle Lyons

I understand the concept of compassion because I swam in a pond every day with a creature who could kill me.

 I am dust particles in sunlight. I am the round sun. To the bits of dust I say, Stay. To the sun, Keep moving.

~ Rumi

I went to Thailand because, like most teenagers, I was exploring the person I wanted to become and I was intrigued by other parts of the world. I read all the things that liberal young adults would tend to read… Rumi, Osho, Kerouac, Snyder—you get the gist.

I spent my time climbing rocks, beading jewelry, and mountain biking. Everything that wasn’t in Pocatello, ID–my hometown–seemed better, more cool, and more edgy. It took me awhile to reconcile with and to love the place I grew up. It took me a journey across the globe, a 40 page thesis full of research and writing, and a lot of reflection to understand and appreciate every place, every creature, and every experience that crosses my path.

As humans, we live out stories. Some of them are real and poignant, and others are tainted with our own ideas and attempts to become something we are not. The symbolism in these stories is often more important than the physical lives we live…the things we touch, the people we meet and love, and the tangible world within which we walk and explore. I would venture to argue that in today’s world, the constructs of language place concepts of animism and compassion on the backburner. The abstract, yet very real, world that constitutes today’s global economy forces us to live in terms of a language which ignores the physicality of interacting with non-human species.

As a culture, making money has become more important to us than spending time and energy helping others.

To give you an exact location of where I learned the importance of compassion, I was staying and working in Phetchaburi, Thailand at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) elephant refuge and sanctuary. Before I left, I had many academic questions about Thailand, its elephants, religious climate, its logging industry, and the exploitation of elephants within the tourism industry. Most of all, I wondered how and why the injustice could possibly exist in the midst of a Buddhist political and religious climate in which these animals are considered sacred symbols.

Based on my observations, I determined that this small, developing nation has been forced to turn its back on its religious views and exploit its own natural resources in order to meet the demands of a global economy. I wondered how the stories of the people there had become so cloudy and how such a majestic animal could be mistreated on such a conjoint level.

The answer sits within the canon of Buddhist stories… tales of humans and elephants.

There are many stories in Buddhist culture that include elephants. Queen Maya herself, the mother of Shakyamuni Buddha, dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb at the very moment Buddha was conceived. In the Dhammapada, which derives from the Pali Canon in Theravada Buddhism, there exists a lament which explains that every captive elephant has visions of the elephant grove it previously existed in; this story would be an example of a story told from the perspective of the elephant—the denigrated—itself.

More generally, the Theravadins regard the Asian elephant as a profound symbol of steadfastness and mental perseverance. The uncontrolled mind in the beginning of one’s practice of Buddhist meditation is represented by a gray elephant who runs wild and can destroy things on a whim.

After studying the dharma and learning to tame one’s uncontrolled mind and desires, the psyche is represented as a white elephant, pure and powerful. Perhaps a practitioner could even ride the elephant at this point. The elephant appears as a guardian of the temples and of Buddha himself. I was able to witness the sacred nature and reverence with which the Buddhist sangha regard the elephants, as they would occasionally stroll through the refuge and admire the elephants while I was working with them.

However, I was also able to witness the tragedy of abuse. The problem with the Buddhist symbol of the elephant is that once someone has tamed his or her own elephant (aka desire, lust, etc.), he or she is able to “ride the elephant.”

Unfortunately, riding the elephants is not healthy for them. It damages their souls, breaks down their bodies and has led to early deaths and startling mistreatment and abuse.

Each day, thousands of Asian elephants are forced to haul tourists up and down mountains and perform in street shows. Prior to 1989, Asian elephants were used for logging purposes in Thailand; forced to drag heavy loads attached to harnesses up and down plots of land, many of them now endure wounds that will never heal, abscesses on their bodies, and crippling arthritis. I worked with older elephants who had been forced to carry people around all day. I had to disinfect their harness wounds and pull massive chunks of infection out of their skin. This abuse is happening at the hands of a convoluted and religiously justified development and misinterpretation of the Buddhist myth in combination with the monster of tourism in Southeast Asia.

It needs to stop.

If you seek an experience with elephants, go to Thailand and care for the rescued ones. Make sure the place you go is reputable, not a humanitarian scam. Don’t ride them through the forest; respect them as wild, free, sentient beings.

Riding the elephants is not cute, it is not fun for them, and people do not realize that they carry tourists all day without food or water. Please do not perpetuate this abuse. Be compassionate and help others.

Find answers to your questions, and ask deep questions that require deep introspection and exploration. Question the symbols you know. Respect the elephants. Respect yourself and your friends. Respect the sun and the dust. Love everyone and everything.

And please don’t ride the elephants anymore.

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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photo by Daniel Soupir}


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