A Tale of Two Solitaries

4:5 (35) The Nāga Elephant (Nāga Sutta)

Thus has it been made known. At one time the Blessed One was dwelling near Kosambī, in Ghosita’s Resort. During this interval the Blessed-One was living in over-crowded conditions, with monks and nuns, both men and women lay followers, by royal ministers and sectarians and their followers. Living under such harried circumstances, the Dharma Lord spoke thusly to himself: “Here I am being hemmed-in from all sides, by people of sundry walks of life, feeling great discomfit and very ill-at-ease. Suppose I were to live alone and apart from this overwhelming crowd?”

So the Blessed One, having donned his robe in the forenoon arose with his bowl and outer-garments and entered into Kosambī searching for alms. Afterwards he prepared to depart from the area without informing his attendants and community and set-out alone without any companion and, wandering by stages, found himself at Pārileyyaka in a well-Guarded Forest Glade beneath an auspicious sal-tree.

It just so happened that a certain Nāga Elephant was living beset by male and female elephants, by young and baby elephants, all the while feeding off grass with its tips severed as they all ate from the branches he had broken down. This Nāga Elephant was drinking from wells of muddy water and whilst going down and coming out of the water was crowded by the female elephants as they swarmed in upon his forlorn body. Living under such harried circumstances, the Nāga Elephant spoke thusly to himself: “Here I am being hemmed in from all sides, from elephants of all ages, constantly crowding me and making me feel unstable and very ill-at-ease. Suppose I were to go-off and live alone and apart from this maddening crowd?”

So that Nāga Elephant departed from his herd and soon found himself in Pārileyyaka in that well-Guarded Forest Glade and sighted and approached the Dharma-Lord at the foot of the auspicious sal-tree. While there the Nāga Elephant continually kept the height of the grass well-trimmed and also brought water with his huge trunk for the Blessed One in order to quench his thirst.

Thus the Blessed One was now living in seclusion and great solitude, away from his former populated dwelling as he thought to himself, “Before I was living hemmed-in from all sides by people of sundry walks of life, feeling great discomfort and very ill-at-ease; but now I am living alone and apart from others and am very well content indeed.” Simultaneously, this thought arose in the mind of the Nāga Elephant, “Formerly, I was living being hemmed-in from all sides by elephants of all sizes and shapes that were constantly crowding me and making me feel unstable and very ill-at-ease. But now here I am feeling perfectly content, eating unbroken-grass with none of those former elephants trampling about from the branches that I felled. I am now drinking from clear-water pools and no-longer being jostled by the worry of the herd. My life is now indeed at ease.

Then the Blessed One, observing his own solitude and discerning the train of thought in the Nāga Elephant’s own awareness, uttered on that auspicious occasion the following inspired verse:

Oh great harmony of mind with mind,
The perfected soul being at One with the Nāga Elephant,
With the great Elephant Tusks gleaming like Chariot Poles:
How each of us delights being alone in the secluded forest.

Kosambī, in Ghosita’s Resort: in the city that had acquired its name on account of its having been built at the site that had been dwelt in by the rishi named Kusumba. In the resort constructed by the wealthy merchant named  Ghosita. (Masefield)

the Blessed-One was living in over-crowded conditions: the Lord was staying subjected to congestion. But how come there was congestion for the Lord, or else association? There was none, for no one is able to approach the Lord against his will. For the Lord Buddhas are hit upon with difficulty, and those who, in themselves, remain untainted under all circumstances. But on account of seeking others well-being, they would [from time to time subject themselves to such circumstances]. (Masefield)

Pārileyyaka: A town (nagara) near Kosambi.

Nāga Elephant: Nágassa nágena. The “perfected one” or arahat and the bull-elephant, as well as the serpent deity, are all termed nága. (Ireland)

Quite a delightful little fable. Within the literature we are aware of how the Buddha would often be present to throngs of people—just witness the audiences of the sutras—yet, within his one proper and undivided nature he needed to remain true to his authentic station as a recluse, needing that extra time away from others in order to contemplate and stay-centered, otherwise his Dharma-mission to others would be a failure. The same could be said of that magnificent Nāga Elephant, a most regal being in its own right; mostly spending time with the herd, but in later years, especially when near death, sought solitude in some far-off and isolated location. Wonderful how both of their minds were in unison over such a quest for needed space and quietude. A great harmony of minds indeed! They are also both immovable in their shared regal-beingness—no outside force could ever overcome their resolute strength of mind and spirit. Two kindred spirits—no wonder they are often associated with each other.

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