Book review: “How to Train a Wild Elephant (& Other Adventures in Mindfulness)” by Jan Chozen Bays

how to train a wild elephant

I have been a wannabe Buddhist for decades now. I love its core ideas, and I accept the Four Noble Truths, but I find it difficult to practice any of the devotions or the meditations. My mind is just too busy and clouded with samsara.

So I was pleasantly attracted by the title of this book.

The human mind – your mind, my mind – is the “wild elephant” of the title. It runs in all directions at once. How do we tame it? This book offers suggestions.

I’ve found some of them very useful.


Take three deep breaths. I close my eyes while doing this. Here’s the thing: don’t think. Slowly: inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale, inhale/exhale. Now open your eyes.

This is not just a calm-down exercise, or a “Serenity Now!” mantra. Just think about yourself, and your breathing, for a few seconds.

It works.

Whenever you see someone during the day, think: “This may be the last time I ever see him/her.” It reminds you of mortality. It keeps you from treating them slightingly or badly. And who knows? Once in a while it may be true.

Notice the color blue. This sounds stupid, but it’s very effective. Blue is the sky color, but it’s also everywhere. Take a moment and notice all the bits and pieces of blue around you. You’ll be astounded.

And the most difficult of all: When you’re eating, just eat. Take a bite, chew it, and swallow it. Do not take another bite until you’ve completely chewed and swallowed the first one. Make yourself aware of the taste of the food. Don’t read, or watch TV, or talk. Just eat, slowly and with appreciation.

Slowly, step by step, breath by breath, bite by bite, we may actually achieve nirvana.

The hundred-and-eight sorrows

108 sorrows

I am not a Buddhist really. (Just ask Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse about that, and he’ll agree.) But I know some Buddhist doctrine, and it has actually helped me stumble through life.

How many different ways to suffer are there, do you think?

There are exactly one hundred and eight.

There are six senses in the Buddhist world view: smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, and (the one we Westerners forget) the mind. Suffering can enter through all six of these.

What enters? The six stimuli: things we like, things we dislike, things we don’t care about, things that bring us joy, things that bring us suffering, things that make us feel nothing at all. Things we like may be bad for us (like alcohol). Things we dislike (like bitter medicine) may make us suffer, though they’re good for us physically. Things we don’t care about may be vitally important, but we don’t realize it. Joy is wonderful but it never lasts, and its departure causes suffering. Unhappiness is suffering itself. Indifference can lead to suffering later, through regret.

Six senses x six stimuli = 36.

All six stimuli can be past (remembering the six stimuli), present (experiencing them in the moment), or future (anticipating them).

36 x the three time periods of past / present / future = 108.

These are the hundred-and-eight sorrows.

In some Buddhist practices, there are commemorations of the number 108: 108 prostrations before the Lord Buddha, 108 circumambulations of his statue. Sometimes they ring a bell 108 times at the New Year.

Try this exercise: think of something you do, something you love or hate or don’t care about in the least. It will be one of the hundred-and-eight.



How about smoking? I smoked for fourteen years. I liked the way it tasted back them.



So: (sensation: taste) x (stimulus: liking) x (time: past).



And now I have throat cancer, almost certainly as a result of those fourteen years of smoking. (See also karma.)



The one-hundred-and-eight sorrows go on and on, endlessly, so long as there’s a single unenlightened being in the entire universe.



We need to realize them, and name them, and let them go.



Then we can move on to whatever comes next.

What makes me not a Buddhist

what makes me not a buddhist

Alfred North Whitehead said that Buddhism is not so much a religion as a philosophy. Here is its root teaching, the Four Noble Truths:



–         Life is suffering.

–         Suffering is caused by desire.

–         To stop suffering, you must cut off desire.

–         Desire can be cut off by following Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path: right intention, right resolve, right speech, right livelihood, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.



Notice there’s nothing about god here, or creation, or the fate of the soul, or life after death. There is only the nature of our life here, now.



Different schools of Buddhism have emphasized different aspects of the path. The Theravada emphasizes individual renunciation and monasticism. Mahayana believers say that we all need to help one another toward enlightenment. There is the Vajrayana of Tibet and Mongolia, which invokes the aid of spirits and gods, which are – after all – manifestations of our own minds. There is also Zen, whose practitioners defeat their own minds and end by living in the moment perfectly.



I love reading about Buddhism. I have a large collection of Buddhist texts: the Sutras, ancient and modern explanatory texts, collections of koans, translations of Tibetan scriptures. I can quote them endlessly, and I sound very wise and mysterious when I do.



But I’m a fraud.



A Bhutanese monk named Dzongsar Jamyang Khentse wrote a book a few years ago entitled “What Makes You Not A Buddhist.” He explains in great detail that Buddhism is not vegetarianism, or non-violence, or a method of interior decoration or flower arrangement. It is a way of life, a way of thought.



Well, sometimes I’m a Buddhist and sometimes I’m not.



I am sincerely sick and tired of the Wheel of Life and Death. I long for Nirvana, which is not extinction, and which is not not extinction. (See, I’ve read the Heart Sutra.)



But there is a special Buddhist condemnation for people like me, who read and quote, but who don’t follow the path. I paraphrase the following story (which I believe I read in “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”:



In a monastery there was a monk named Bright Star. He was the most learned, and had read the most books of study and teaching, and the other monks were in awe of his erudition.



One day suddenly he died.



A few weeks later, the abbot saw a stirring in the garden outside his window. It was the spirit of Bright Star, moaning and suffering, begging for release from his punishment.



I understand. Reading is not Buddhism. Learning is not Buddhism.



But I’ve had glimmerings of understanding – what the Japanese call “kensho,” the lesser enlightenment. You know? Those quick moments in which you almost understand how the universe really works.



So maybe there is still hope for me.


Burning down the school


I do not make efficient use of Facebook, I think; I just sort of mooch around and look at this and that.  I only have about thirty friends, which (my student employees tell me) is completely pathetic.



The other day I was looking through my various Facebook affiliations, and I noticed that, a long time ago, I’d joined a group called “Battle Ground High School Alumni.”  I looked in, and learned that –



That they just burned down my old elementary school.



It was on purpose.  The school was an old building, very dilapidated, and completely unused for a number of years.  All the local fire departments got together and used it, this past December 10, for a training exercise.  



Why am I so strangely saddened by this?



I remember the building vividly.  I remember how enormous the front steps seemed to me, and how vast the playground; I remember lining up two by two to go to recess and to come back inside, and I remember buying little red tickets for two cents each, to redeem for half-pint cartons of milk.  I remember Miss Plowman, and Miss Marvin, and Mister Ellertson.  (All of these memories are drenched in bright sunlight, for some reason, which seems odd, considering that it rains a lot in Battle Ground.  Could it be that my memory isn’t perfectly accurate?  Hmm.)



Back in 2008, Partner and I walked through Battle Ground one quiet afternoon and explored the school grounds.  The building was there – see above picture (drenched in bright sunlight) – but it was so small!  It was much bigger when I was a kid.  We played on the swings for a while (I will spare you those photos), and I took pictures and felt somehow comforted that this small piece of my childhood still remained.



And now it’s gone. 



The first house I lived in as a child was torn down years ago.  The other house I lived in was sold in 2000, and has been so completely renovated that, even on Google Earth, it’s almost unrecognizable.  Partner’s childhood home was sold a few years ago.  The restaurant in which Partner and I shared our first dinner burned down in 2006.



From the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:



“Monks, everything is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Burning, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.


“Seeing this, the disciple grows disenchanted with the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, disenchanted with tactile sensations, disenchanted with consciousness at the body, disenchanted with contact at the body. He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect.


“Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he discerns that ‘Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’ “ 



So there is a lesson here.



But it is a painful one.



Goodbye, school.




A fine secular Christmas


Neither Partner nor I practices any particular religion.  I spent a couple of years in the mid-2000s trying to recapture my Catholicism, but found it ultimately futile.  Partner and I talk about Buddhism a lot, but I am uneasily aware that Buddhism is easier to talk about than practice.  (For those of you who use “Zen” as an adjective, I recommend a wonderful and very acerbic book called “What Makes You Not A Buddhist,” by a wonderful Bhutanese lama / film director / author (!) named Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.)



So how did Partner and I, both filthy heathens, spend this Christmas season?



Let’s see:



        We saw “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” on Christmas Eve.

        We exchanged gifts.  Partner gave me a lovely sweater and two lovely shirts.  I like pretty colors, but am often confused by the bright lights in the department stores; Partner corrects my fashion sense, and I invariably get compliments when I wear the things he’s bought for me (so long as I wear them in the combinations he very carefully specifies).  I gave him, among other things, a mounted 1957 one-dollar Silver Certificate.  (I was born in 1957, before the Space Age, so it was a little symbolic.)

        Next morning, we sleepily wished each other a Merry Christmas.

        After some discussion, we went to the closest casino, Twin River, in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

        We left at 1:00 pm with considerably more money than we arrived with.  Merry Christmas!

        We went to a Chinese restaurant and ordered everything on the menu. 

        We ate until we were sick.

        We took our leftovers and went home and napped a bit.

        In the evening, I baked cookies.



This is the perfect secular Xmas, as far as I’m concerned.  And here’s why:




        We both spent it with someone we loved.




And that’s all it takes.



Happy holidays, kids.



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