After a thorough perusal of the text entitled ‘Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint,’ one can only conclude that the central message is summed up in the Buddha’s statement; ‘all skilled states of mind are included among the four Ariyan truths’ (Greater Discourse, 230). In this article I will attempt to explain the meaning of the above statement, from my own perspective. Firstly, I will describe the operations of the Buddhist concept of the four Ariyan truths (noble, Buddhist doctrine). Secondly, I will attempt to relate the simile of the ‘elephant’s footprint’ with the inherent meaning of the text. Finally, I will incorporate some quotes in reference to the ‘atta’ (atman, self as found in the K.R. Norman article on the ‘Alagaddupama-Sutta,’ to further reinforce my interpretation of the four Ariyan truths. The four Ariyan truths are categorized as follows:
‘among the Ariyan truth of anguish, among the Ariyan truth of the uprising of anguish, among the Ariyan truth of the stopping of Anguish, among the Ariyan truth of the course leading to the stopping of anguish.’ (Greater Discourse, 230)
Each of the four Ariyan truths can be understood as having an internal and external element. Thus ‘Truth’ is comprised in its totality of the internal and external elements of the four Ariyan truths. The internal refers to the physical body whereas the external refers to all elements outside of the physical body. The Buddhist text recommends the investigation of the intrinsic and extrinsic elements of the four Ariyan truths (that are a reflection of the first of the five skandras), so that one will come to realize the Truth. The goal of realization of ‘Truth’ leads one to the stopping of all anguish. To further understand the Buddhist operations of stopping anguish, I will explain in greater detail the four Ariyan truths.
Firstly, the Ariyan truth of anguish is birth, ageing, dying, grief, lamentation, sorrow, tribulation, despair and not getting what one wants. Moreover the five groups of grasping are also anguish. The five groups of grasping are grasping after material shape, feeling, perception, habitual tendencies and consciousness. (Greater Discourse, 231)
Furthermore, the group of grasping after material shapes is composed of the four great elements- earth ( fire, water, and air (Greater Discourse, 231). I interpret the text as saying that the same four elements have an internal existence, within our physical bodies and an external existence, outside of our physical bodies and yet are simultaneously the physical realm around us.
Secondly, is the Ariyan truth of the uprising of anguish. I understand the uprising of anguish to be when one experiences ‘sensory impingement’ (Greater Discourse, 232). According to the Buddhist text, when others subject one to annoyance or abuse, the painful feeling that surfaces is born of this ‘sensory impingement.’ The ‘sensory impingement’ surfaces due to a cause, the cause being ‘sensory impingement’ itself (Greater Discourse, 232).
Thirdly, is the Ariyan truth of ‘stopping of anguish’ (Greater Discourse, 231). The stopping of anguish is accomplished by:
‘control of desire and attachment, the ejection of desire and attachment, that is the stopping of anguish.’ (Greater Discourse, 237-238)
The basic message of ‘control,’ in relation to desire and attachment appears to be the point at which one can effectively stop one’s experience of anguish.
Fourthly, the Ariyan truth of the course leading to the stopping of anguish is ‘by means of perfect intuitive wisdom’ (Greater Discourse, 231).
Thus the course of ‘perfect intuitive wisdom results in an understanding that the internal and external elements (of the four great elements) do not really belong to the self. Since all of the internal and external elements do not belong to the self, one cultivates an attitude of disregard, indifference or non-attachment–in all conditions (Greater Discourse, 233). One also begins to perceive that everything is impermanent and thus ‘the mind rejoices, pleased composed’ (Greater Discourse, 232).
As one begins to perceive Truth as an ‘Awakened One” (Greater Discourse, 232) then ‘dhamma’ (dharma, right action) becomes apparent. Dhamma, or right action becomes the process of experiencing any of the four elements (internal or external) with an equanimity that depends on established skill (Greater Discourse, 233). The positive result becomes an insightfullness that lends itself to non-attachment and furthermore:
‘One thus, is recollecting dhamma thus, is recollecting the Order thus, the equanimity that depends on skill is established (in him), he, because of this is pleased’ (Greater Discourse, 234).
From such an experience one transcends the earth element and experiences, (even in the event of sensory impingement or death) that ‘whoever sets his heart at enmity, he, for this reason, is not a doer of my teaching’ (Greater Discourse, 232). In other words one does not become agitated or hostile under any circumstances. It is not enough to merely remember the Awakened One or dhamma, since one comes to a strongly moved condition and one will experience anguish. Conversely, the Buddhist goal is to firmly establish the skill to remain unmoved and maintain one’s equanimity, in all conditions. The Buddhist text explains that this ‘skill’ can be included among each of the four Ariyan truths–anguish, uprising of anguish, stopping of anguish, and the course leading to the stopping of anguish (Greater Discourse, 230).
The simile of the elephant’s footprint relates to the inherent meaning of the text. The simile explains that as the elephant’s foot combines all ‘pedal qualities,’ (Greater Discourse 230) so all ‘skilled states of mind’ (Greater Discourse, 230) are included in the four Ariyan truths. I interpret the simile to mean that just as an elephant’s foot is symbolic of all qualities, one will have a total understanding of all Truth, if one investigates fully the four Ariyan truths. The elephant’s foot is referred to as ‘chief among those in print of size,’ (Greater Discourse, 230) or in other words, the largest. Similarly, one understands Truth only if one’s vision is expanded large enough to be all inclusive– a vision of Truth that includes all qualities will enable one to see reality as it truly is, thereby releasing one from anguish, in order to establish the ‘skill’ of equinimity.
In conclusion, the note by K.R. Norman on ‘atta’ (atman, self) in the ‘Alagaddupama-sutta,’ reflects a similar understanding as found in the ‘Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint.’ In the note by Norman, everything is considered transitory, even the atta. It is a wrong view to think ‘That is mine, I am that, that is my atta.’ (Norman, 200). In the note by Norman, everything is considered transitory, even the atta. (Norman, 200). Consequently, one does not become anxious about ‘something which does not exist’ (Norman, 201). Everything, even the self is transitory, and does not ever really belong to oneself. All constructs are considered impermanent, painful and not self (Norman, 208). The Buddhist implicaiton is that there is no permanent individual self in existence (Norman, 209). The Buddhist statement in Norman’s article reinforces the idea found in the text of the Elephant’s Footprint. Finally, both texts conclude that through insight one can understand the Truth of impermanence and consequently the unreality of the atta and the external elements. By realizing the Truth one can understand that in reality there is no self and no external element that belongs to self. If nothing belongs to the self, then there is no reason for anguish, or grief over loss. Delighted by the awareness of Truth, one has reason to ‘rejoice’ (Greater Discourse, 230).
by Deborah Morrison
1. ‘Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint.’
2. Norman, K.R. ‘A Note on the Atta in the Alagaddupama-sutta’ 1991, Pali Text Society