Once upon time, the King of Benares had a royal bull elephant who was kind, patient and harmless. Along with his sweet disposition, he had a lovely gentle face. So he was affectionately known as ‘Ladyface’.
One night, a gang of robbers met together just outside the elephant shed. In the darkness they talked about their plans for robbing people. They spoke of beating and killing, and bragged that they had given up ordinary goodness so they would have no pity on their victims. They used rough he-man type gutter language, intended to scare people and show how tough they were.
Since the nights were quiet, Ladyface had nothing else to do but listen to all these terrible plans and violent rough talk. He listened carefully and, as elephants do, remembered it all. Having been brought up to obey and respect human beings, he thought these men were also to be obeyed and respected, even as teachers.
After this went on for several nights, Ladyface decided that the correct thing to do was to become rough and cruel. This usually happens to one who associates with those of a low-minded cruel nature. It happens especially to a gentle one who wishes to please others.
A ‘mahout’ is what the Indians call the special trainer and caretaker of a particular elephant. They are usually very close. Early one morning, Ladyface’s mahout came to see him as usual. The elephant, his mind filled with the night’s robber-talk, suddenly attacked his mahout. He picked him up in his trunk, squeezed the breath out of him, and smashed him to the ground, killing him instantly. Then he picked up two other attendants, one after another, and killed them just as ferociously.
Word spread quickly through the city that the once adored Ladyface had suddenly gone mad and become a frightening man-killer. The people ran to the king for help.
It just so happened that the king had an intelligent minister who was known for his understanding of animals. So he called for him and asked him to go and determine what sickness or other condition had caused his favorite elephant to become so insanely violent.
This minister was the Bodhisatta, the Enlightenment Being. Arriving at the elephant shed, he spoke gentle soothing words to Ladyface, and calmed him down. He examined him and found him in perfect physical health. As he spoke kindly to Ladyface, he noticed that the elephant perked up his ears and paid very close attention. It was almost as if the poor animal were starved for the sound of gentle words. So the understanding minister figured out that the elephant must have been hearing the violent words or seeing the violent actions of those he mistook for teachers.
He asked the elephant guards, “Have you seen anyone hanging around this elephant shed, at night or any other time?” “Yes, minister,” they replied, “for the last couple of weeks a gang of robbers has been meeting here. We were afraid to do anything, since they were such mean rough characters. Ladyface could hear their every word.”
The minister returned immediately to the king. He said, “My lord king, your favourite elephant, Ladyface, is in perfect physical health. I have discovered that it was by hearing the rough and vulgar talk of thieves during many nights, that he has learned to be violent and cruel. Unwholesome associations often lead to unwholesome thoughts and actions.”
The king asked, “What is to be done?” The minister said, “Well my lord, now we must reverse the process. We must send wise men and monks, who have a high-minded kind nature, to spend just as many nights outside the elephant shed. There they should talk of the value of ordinary goodness and patience, leading to compassion, loving-kindness and harmlessness.”
So it was carried out. For several nights the kind wise ones spoke of those wonderful qualities. They used only gentle and refined language, intended to bring peacefulness and comfort to others.
Lo and behold, hearing this pleasant conversation for several nights, Ladyface the bull elephant became even more peaceful and pleasant than before!
Seeing this total change, the minister reported it to the king, saying, “My lord, Ladyface is now even more harmless and sweet than before. Now he is as gentle as a lamb!”
The king said, “It is wonderful indeed that such a madly violent elephant can be changed by associating with wise men and monks.” He was amazed that his minister seemed to be able to read the mind of an elephant. So he rewarded him appropriately.