Arhat and the Elephant

Once upon a time, there were two brothers in the Dharma. The first liked to study the sutras, and thus diligently cultivated wisdom, while the second preferred to cultivate compassion, by generously helping the poor.

In these two ways, the duo veered off towards opposite ‘extreme’ directions. Of course, both practices are wonderful and praiseworthy in themselves, but they were far from being ideally balanced in their cases. As such, their karmic results were naturally extremely different as well.

In their future lives, the first eventually attained Arhathood. However, he received little food offerings and hardly had his fill, often ending up with an empty bowl on his alms rounds. One day, on yet another futile trip, he walked by a king’s garden, and saw an elephant heavily adorned with gold and silver necklaces.

Even the animal’s lodging was lavish. It had a mosquito net above to shield him from insects, and a comfortable carpet below for him to lay upon. Given good food and water, he was treated as part of the royal family, and was probably the most doted beast in the entire kingdom and region.

Recollecting what happened, the Arhat went to the elephant and gently whispered into his ear, ‘Dharma brother! In our past lives, our paths of spiritual cultivation were both biased and partial. I only paid much attention to the cultivation of wisdom, and refused to sow the seeds of blessings, which is why I now often hold an empty alms bowl… sometimes with a meal, and sometimes without, having great hardship.

Yet you, in your past life, joyfully practised generosity, cultivating only blessings but not wisdom. In this life, although your life is without worry, receiving others’ care, it is a pity that you have fallen into the animal realm!’ Hearing this, the elephant wept tears of sorrow and regret, and did not eat or drink for days.

Concerned, the king with an assembly, went to seek the Buddha’s advice. Taking the opportunity to teach, the Buddha uttered this verse, ‘Cultivating blessings and not cultivating wisdom, an elephant is decked with necklaces. Cultivating wisdom and not cultivating blessings, an Arhat holds an empty alms bowl.’
(修福不修慧,大象披瓔珞; 修慧不修福,羅漢托空缽。)

On one hand, mere cultivation of worldly blessings does not free us from rebirth, especially when not guided by wisdom. Such positive karma can easily lead to animalistic indulgence in sensual pleasures, spiritual complacence and growth of ignorance, with potential for downfall when blessings run out.

On the other hand, mere cultivation of wisdom could lead to lack of karmic affinities for connecting with others to receive support and share the Dharma – even if one is already self-liberated. This is why we should cultivate blessings (via compassion) and wisdom together (福慧雙修). Just as a bird can take proper flight only with two equally well-grown wings, so do we need this dual cultivation to become perfectly adequate as Buddhas (福慧圓滿具足的’兩足尊’).

Arhat and the Elephant