How to Face Suffering and Happiness-Taming the Mind as in Taming the Elephant

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
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Taming the mind is like taming an animal. When the mind is desolate and in despair, we should practice how to face suffering and transform adversity into courage and determination on the path to liberation; when it is immersed in pride and carried away by success, we should contemplate all things are impermanent and all defiled phenomena are suffering to overcome arrogance. We must avoid the two extreme states of mind and abide in the middle at all times.

Only the Buddha knows the most complete and effective way to tame the mind. This is a singular approach that scientists, philosophers, non-Buddhist yogis with miraculous powers, and self-proclaimed masters have not grasped.

There is a story in the sutras:

During the Buddha’s time, many monarchs of the small kingdoms in India were devout followers of the Buddha; however, one king did not understand Buddhism and was not a follower.

On one occasion, the king acquired a very precious elephant. To train the elephant, he found a trainer who was well known for his skills. Using many different techniques, the trainer eventually succeeded in taming the elephant. He then invited the monarch to confirm his effort.

The king and the trainer rode together on the back of the elephant and set out to see the sights. Suddenly, the elephant started to go wild; charging forward, it crossed one mountain after another, completely ignoring the trainer’s instructions. When the elephant came to a forest, the trainer -- who was helpless at this point -- quickly called on the king to grab onto a tree branch, thus bringing him to safety. Meanwhile, the elephant continued to charge ahead with complete abandon.

Once out of danger, the king went into a rage. He pointed to the trainer and shouted, “How dare you lie to me! You put me on the elephant’s back without having trained it, what is your motive? I will have you beheaded in public!”

Feeling wronged, the trainer answered, “I have indeed tamed the elephant. If you do not believe me, please wait another three days. The elephant will return by itself, and you can see for yourself.”

Although the king was still angry, he was nonetheless curious and reluctantly replied, “I will give you a few more days and wait for the elephant to return. If things do not turn out as you say, I will definitely have you beheaded.”

After three days, the elephant returned just as the trainer had predicted. To demonstrate he had tamed the elephant, the trainer placed a red-hot steel ball in front of the elephant and instructed it to grab the ball with its trunk. Without hesitation, the elephant got ready to carry out his instruction. At this instant, the trainer turned to the king and said, “Because the elephant has been trained, it will grab the steel ball; however, it will die immediately upon grabbing the ball. If this elephant is important to you, you must stop it from touching the steel ball before it is too late.”

The king’s initial skepticism turned to belief when he saw the elephant head toward the steel ball. He quickly called the demonstration to a halt. But he was also puzzled and proceeded to ask, “Why did the elephant go wild the other day and disobey you? Why is it obedient today?” The trainer said, “I can only train the elephant’s body, but not its mind. It was the scent of a female elephant in its mating period that drove the elephant wild. Under the circumstance, the elephant could not possibly have followed my instructions. Today the elephant is willing to follow my instructions because it is behaving normally.”

The king was convinced after listening to the trainer. He then asked, “Is there anyone who can tame the mind?” The trainer said, “Yes, Buddha Sakyamuni can.” The king instantly developed incomparable faith in the Buddha and set out to take refuge and make offerings to the Buddha.

This story tells us that however effective the laws in this world are in governing our speech and actions, they cannot subdue the mind. The only teacher who can tame the mind is the Buddha.

The methods for taming the mind are precisely those which we have discussed above.

Without these methods, many people who encounter great adversity fall into despair and may even commit suicide to end their precious lives. According to a 2003 report in The Guangming Daily, there were 200,000 people in China who committed suicide in the year 2003 alone.

Ordinary people have a common problem – either they cannot endure the slightest bit of suffering and want to take their own lives, or they become instantly self-important with the slightest accomplishment.

The history of mankind is replete with tragedies and endless wars which all resulted from the mind and are the product of excessive desire. We all know about the inhumane treatment of slaves in the West over a period of four hundred years in which black people were bought and sold like animals. This is a manifestation of mankind’s unrestrained desire at its very extreme.

Therefore, we must subdue the mind and prevent it from steering our body and afflicting us. By taming the mind, we will have the courage to transform suffering into strength and the hope to retake the path to liberation.

Both suffering and happiness are unavoidable in this ever-changing life. If the mind is not tamed, how can it stay calm?

Whether we are undertaking our practice or facing problems in everyday life, we should always rely on the Dharma to regulate our state of mind. This approach not only benefits everyone at the present but also produces inconceivable conditions for the future of all sentient beings.

The specific methods we have already mentioned are all techniques for integrating the Dharma in our daily life. A lot of people also recognize the need to bring the teachings into their life; however, without practice and the right view and understanding, what is there to bring into real life?

The practice after meditation is to apply the right view and understanding which we realized during meditation to everyday life.

I hope everyone can put these methods to practice. This is our only opportunity and one which we must not miss. If we are not diligent in our practice in this lifetime, it is difficult to say when we will encounter the teachings again. Therefore, we must cherish these methods and this opportunity.

People now enjoy a more prosperous material life than at any time in the past, but they are also under greater pressure than ever before. Intense stress and competition have already pushed us toward the brink of collapse. We truly need the Dharma! Only with meditation practice can we help ourselves and others.

Although we are under a great deal of pressure, we are blessed with precious human birth endowed with leisure and freedom to practice. If we do not practice, no one can say for sure what will happen in the future. Even if everyone says “tomorrow will be better,” who can give us that guarantee? Natural disasters, famine, war, and violence can descend on us at any time. Let us seize this opportunity now!