Title

Elephant Symbolism in Thailand

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

Recently, I traveled to Thailand to work at an elephant sanctuary. I had many questions about Thailand, religious climate, and the exploitation of elephants there. I wondered how such a majestic animal could be mistreated on such a conjoint level in a Buddhist nation that considers elephants so sacred. Based on my observations, I determined that this developing nation has been forced to exploit its own natural resources in order to meet the demands of a global economy.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Asian elephant is 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. After studying the dharma, the psyche is represented as a pure white elephant. The elephant also 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 monks regard the elephants, as they would occasionally stroll through the refuge and admire the elephants. However, I was also able to witness tragedy; each day, thousands of elephants are forced to haul tourists up and down mountains on tourist treks. Prior to 1989, Asian elephants were used for logging purposes; forced to drag heavy loads up and down plots of land, many of them now endure wounds that will never heal.

As a culture highly focused on communication, we subvert silence. And, although beings such as the sun and moon make no noise, we understand their movement as symbols of transience and cyclical existence. Similarly, in the words of a contemporary Thai monk, the entire cosmos is a cooperative, and the key to understanding non-human species lies within the human-animal connection—a bridging of human nature and animality.

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Apr 12th, 4:20 PM Apr 12th, 4:40 PM

Elephant Symbolism in Thailand

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Recently, I traveled to Thailand to work at an elephant sanctuary. I had many questions about Thailand, religious climate, and the exploitation of elephants there. I wondered how such a majestic animal could be mistreated on such a conjoint level in a Buddhist nation that considers elephants so sacred. Based on my observations, I determined that this developing nation has been forced to exploit its own natural resources in order to meet the demands of a global economy.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Asian elephant is 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. After studying the dharma, the psyche is represented as a pure white elephant. The elephant also 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 monks regard the elephants, as they would occasionally stroll through the refuge and admire the elephants. However, I was also able to witness tragedy; each day, thousands of elephants are forced to haul tourists up and down mountains on tourist treks. Prior to 1989, Asian elephants were used for logging purposes; forced to drag heavy loads up and down plots of land, many of them now endure wounds that will never heal.

As a culture highly focused on communication, we subvert silence. And, although beings such as the sun and moon make no noise, we understand their movement as symbols of transience and cyclical existence. Similarly, in the words of a contemporary Thai monk, the entire cosmos is a cooperative, and the key to understanding non-human species lies within the human-animal connection—a bridging of human nature and animality.