Can the power of love stop an elephant?

Steve Goodheart Essay

Can the power of love stop an elephant?

As I explain in my “About” page for Metta Refuge, it’s been my experience that metta practice can not only transform our minds, but also bless and heal our own and others’ bodies.  I’ve also seen metta have remarkable effects on sick pets and injured wild animals.  Animals just seem to respond naturally to a genuine, radiating love.

Radiant love can also be a protection to ourselves and to others.  In street encounters and in counseling work I’ve done in prisons, I’ve seen genuine love and compassion avert imminent violence and calm dangerous individuals. And more than a few times, I‘ve been protected from an attacking dog by stopping and fearlessly embracing it with love and empathy.

Of course, avoiding dangerous situations is the wisest course!  But if we’ve been developing genuine love and compassion in our hearts, my experience is loving-kindness is a great aid and comfort in difficult or even dangerous situations.

I guess this is why I’ve always had a special affection for the story of the Buddha and the raging elephant found in the Pali scriptures.  Yes, it could be an apocryphal story, but from what I’ve seen of the power of love in my own life and the lives of others, I have a feeling it’s not, and that something remarkable happened on that day.

Here’s what one Buddhist teacher, Acharya Buddharakkhita, writes about the famous encounter:

The Buddha and the Mad Elephant Nalagiri

“The subjective benefit of universal love is evident enough. The enjoyment of well-being, good health, peace of mind, radiant features, and the affection and goodwill of all are indeed great blessings of life accruing from the practice of metta-meditation. But what is even more wonderful is the impact which metta has on the environment and on other beings, including animals…as the Pali scriptures and commentaries illustrate with a number of memorable stories.”

“Once the Buddha was returning from his almsround together with his retinue of monks. As they were nearing the prison, in consideration of a handsome bribe from Devadatta, the Buddha’s evil and ambitious cousin, the executioner let loose the fierce elephant Nalagiri, which was used for the execution of criminals.”

Madness Meets Metta!

“As the intoxicated elephant rushed towards the Buddha trumpeting fearfully, the Buddha projected powerful thoughts of metta towards it. Venerable Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, was so deeply concerned about the Buddha’s safety that he ran in front of the Buddha to shield him, but the Buddha asked him to stand aside since the projection of love itself was quite sufficient.”

“The impact of the Buddha’s metta-radiation was so immediate and overwhelming that by the time the animal neared the Buddha it was completely tamed as though a drunken wretch had suddenly become sober by the magical power of a spell. The tusker, it is said, bowed down in reverence in the way trained elephants do in a circus.” (From: Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love, by Acharya Buddharakkhita. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009)

Love your own tuskers!

If we encounter a raging elephant, it’d certainly be wise to take cover! I know I would!  But I also know I’m going to be working on taming the “raging elephants” in my own heart and mind that wreak havoc in my life—anger, fear, selfishness, and all the rest of the “tuskers” I’ve created, fed, and given refuge to in my heart.

After years of trying to destroy and annihilate these angry inner “elephants” by attacking them or trying to deny them or suppress them through sheer human will, I now know that only a non-violent approach works.  With mindfulness, attention to what’s going on, and loving-kindness, we can actually tame these wild energies and transform them into gentle but powerful friends that kneel before enlightened goodness and serve a higher purpose.

If you’d like to learn more about the skillful means to bring about this transformation, please take a look at my next post:

Taming Elephants-How to Transform Negative Habit Energies


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

6 Responses to “Can the power of love stop an elephant?”

  1. Honestly, I never really felt like a “mark” for anyone. And, even if I had been, no one ever hit me up for anything I wouldn’t have wanted to give him or her anyway–a couple of extra dollars, a sandwich, a hot dog–nothing I couldn’t have easily lived without, and nothing they couldn’t really use. If it could help them get through a night in a little more comfort, whatever that meant, it was worth it to me. And I learned so much from so of them, and really enjoyed their company. I’ve felt much more like a mark for people who HAVE everything they need, and more, and still take a weird kind of pride in getting all they can. There’s desperation, and then there’s just plain greed. Desperation I can understand.

    Of course, I did take things a little far, I suppose, by falling in love with one of my “clients,” and more or less moving in with him until he died 8 months later (that was David). I suppose that I “touched and changed” the little that was left of his life in some ways, but in a much bigger sense he touched and changed mine, and gave me a gift. In many ways, he probably saved MY life.

    And I definitely concur with your opinion of psychologists, some of whom (and psychiatrists tend to be even worse) are some of the most insane (and sometimes dangerous) people in the world…

    Enough with the goats and sheep already! I love reading the Gospels, but Yeshua was kinda heavy on the livestock! 🙂

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving…I assume that, like me, you “eat around” the turkey?


    • >Honestly, I never really felt like a “mark” for anyone.

      Gosh, I hope I didn’t imply that in any way that I thought *you* were “mark!” You come across as anything but a “mark!” I’m just saying that’s how some inmates looked at some counselors—very predatory, but on the whole, that was rare. Mostly just huge, huge, needfulness, which anyone with a heart can relate to.

      Agree with the rest of that first paragraph, too.

      After you said more in a previous post, I thought that your beloved David might have been someone you met that way. By the way, I don’t think “touching and changing” another is in any way trivial, believe me. I can only get a faint glimpse of what you both did for each other, and in the presence of it, I remove my shoes in respect and awe.

      Ditto on your take of many “shrinks”……some of the weirdest, most wounded people I ever met, and in a few cases, some of the most humane and unselfish. Psychiatry has mainly devolved to pharmacopeia. I’m in total agreement with what Peter Breggin says in is groundbreaking book Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock, and Biochemical Theories of the “New Psychiatry”

      You have a wonderful Thanksgiving too. (I do eat “around the turkey” but I’m not a total vegetarian, though I have been for long periods of my life.)


  2. Prison ministry, huh? That’s something that I would love to do, except that I assume that one has to ascribe to/be ordained in a certain faith in order to do it, and I could not do that.

    Back in the late ’80’s/early ’90’s, I was a counselor/case manager for people with AIDS, many of whom, of course, were addicts, former inmates, etc. I always had a strong sense (that worked very well in practice) that if you treat someone with love, compassion, trust, understanding, and respect (and, for people with those problems, those things were often sorely lacking in their lives, sometimes from Day One), he or she will respond. When I was able to do it, it worked wonders (kind of like when you water a wilted plant with that crazy Miracle Gro stuff–LSD for plants, as I like to call it!). But doing that was for the most part frowned upon–even forbidden. People called it “enabling.” People said that you can never trust a single word that an addict says to you, and that doing so will only make them “worse” somehow. I got into a lot of trouble with my co-workers/bosses in those days, I’m happy to say…It was well worth it.

    Devadatta…I’ve got a post on him called “Buddha’s Judas.” It seems that I had a dream about him before I ever heard of him. Is there any possibility that he committed suicide? I read a biography of the Buddha that said that he may have, but I haven’t been able to find anything else to corroborate that.

    I’m loving your blog!


    • (Yeah, that was back when I was involved with the Christian faith.) But I understand there are secular and non-denominational ministries, too, and certainly, Buddhist ones.

      Your 80’s/90s counseling must have been immensely rewarding and immensely challenging. That’s some pretty tough stuff to see, especially since AIDs was and often still is, a death sentence. I know that sometimes after visits, it would take me days of self-metta to heal myself and overcome the anger, grief, sorrow, and sense of loss that I felt for and from the inmates.

      I met a few good psychologists in this work, but most were worse than useless and happy to just medicate and maintain the status quo. (I usually knew more about psychology than they did too.)

      But bring in love, compassion, trust, understanding, and respect? Whoa, no way.! You might actually stir things up and people might actually start changing. Too much work. Too much trouble! So, these quacks would roll out terms like “enabling” to cover their own inadequacies. I know it sounds harsh, but they shouldn’t be in the g-damn business if they aren’t in it for HEALING!

      This isn’t to say there isn’t such a thing as “enabling,” especially with addicts, and some of these guys could sniff out a soft-hearted “mark” like sharks. But what you brought is simply bottom-line humanity. You start with those qualities and then you can sort of the sheep from the goats, so to speak.

      So, good for you! I bet you touched and changed some lives.


  1. Skillful Ways to Deal with Your Demons | Metta Refuge - 2011/07/17

    […] Can the Power of Love Stop an Elephant? […]

  2. Taming Elephants-How To Transform Negative Habit Energies « Metta Refuge - 2009/11/25

    […] Can the Power of Love Stop an Elephant? […]

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