Acharn or Ajahn just means teacher in the Thai language – it’s a way to address the monks (called bhikkhus).
Here, we have an interesting encounter of the great Ajahn Mun (addressed here as the Venerable Acharn) and his 2 disciples Ajahn Thongsukh and Ajahn Khao with an old elephant:
One time, when the Venerable Acharn was wandering with two disciples:
- the Venerable Phra Acharn Maha Thongsukh of Wat Suddhavas in the town of Sakol Nakhorn, and
- the Venerable Phra Acharn Khao of Wat Tham Klong Phane,
they reached a mountain, and at the narrow pass leading up to the summit stood a large elephant with long fearful tusks blocking their way. There wasn’t any other way to go around the elephant, and though it appeared to be a domestic one, it stood threateningly in front of them with its owner nowhere to be seen.
After some consultation, the Venerable Acharn told Phra Acharn Khao to address the elephant, asking it to give way to them. The elephant was then eating bamboo leaves about five metres from them, and since its back was to the bhikkhus, it didn’t see them.
The Venerable Phra Acharn Khao then addressed the elephant, saying,
‘My big brother! I would like to talk to you.’
Perhaps the elephant didn’t quite hear him, but it suddenly stopped eating.
When Phra Acharn Khao repeated himself, it turned around and faced the three bhikkhus, still unmoving, but with ears spread in full alert for any danger.
Phra Acharn Khao again said,
‘My big brother! I would like to talk to you. You are big and powerful. We are bhikkhus, being powerless and much afraid of you, big brother. We want to go past you and would be thankful if you would give way to us. As long as you stand there like that, we are much afraid and dare not go forward.’
Upon hearing this, the elephant turned back towards the bamboo clump and put his long tusks into it, showing the bhikkhus that they could pass by him without his harming them.
The Venerable Acharn said that they were now permitted to go, and they walked one after another in a line about half a metre from the elephant, the Venerable Acharn walking in the middle with Acharn Khao taking the lead and Phra Acharn Thongsukh bringing up the rear, but before they had passed beyond the elephant, the hook on the top of Phra Maha Thongsukh’s klod caught on the tangled twigs of the bamboo branches.
They had to come back and watch him disentangle the hook from the twigs, which took several minutes, and he began to sweat all over in fear lest the elephant, who was all this time watching him, change his mind. While disentangling the hook, Phra Maha Thongsukh also stole a glance at the elephant, who was standing like a big doll, and beheld eyes which were crystal clear, more lovely than frightening. At that moment, however, he couldn’t help feeling uneasy, shivering with apprehension. It was not until the hook was disentangled and all three were at a safe distance beyond the elephant that he thought that those eyes indeed were lovely!
When they had walked a little further, the Venerable Phra Acharn Khao turned back to the elephant and said,
‘My big brother! We are past you now. You may feel free to go on with your eating.’
Suddenly, the huge tusks were’ drawn out of the bamboo clump and the elephant breathed heavily through its trunk.
Later, at their shelter, the bhikkhus commented upon the elephant, saying that it was really a lovely animal, only that it couldn’t speak like a human being. Phra Maha Thongsukh asked the Venerable Acharn whether or not he had read the elephant’s mind while they were walking by, ‘When that elephant first heard Phra Acharn Khao’s voice and suddenly turned towards us, I thought he was going to charge us,’ Phra Maha Thongsukh said. ‘He looked terrifying with his ears standing out and with his huge tusks, so menacing. But after understanding our purpose, he became almost a human being in the form of an animal and put his tusks into the bamboo clump as if to say, “You small brothers can pass by now. I have put away all my weapons.”‘ Then he said jokingly to Phra Acharn Khao, ‘How clever you were, speaking to the elephant as if it were a human being, and making him our big brother! But big brother was so easily flattered. He seemed to be proud of his new title and promptly lived up to it. But the smallest brother was very careless and let the hook of his klod get caught on the bamboo branches. How frightened I was while trying to get the hook untangled, fearing that big brother would change his mind.’
Hearing this joke, the Venerable Acharn laughed a hearty laugh and said, ‘Why should I not have read his mind? It was a matter of life and death. Even in small matters such as the birds and monkeys, I also sometimes read their thoughts.’
‘What did he think of us?’ Phra Maha Thongsukh asked.
‘Well, at first he was frightened at being addressed and put up a show as if to fight. But on seeing the colour of our robes he knew that we were harmless to him. He was used to seeing this colour and his owner had taught him not to be afraid of it. When he heard Acharn Khao calling him big brother, he was more than satisfied.’
‘Did it know what it was he said to him?’
‘Why not? If he couldn’t, his owner would not have put him to work lumbering in the forest. This elephant must have been at least 100 years old. Just look at his tusks, they must have been about two metres long. He must have lived with human beings for quite a long time. His owner must be much younger than he is. That’s why he was able to understand human language.’
‘What was he thinking when he put his tusks in the bamboo clump?’
‘He just gave us the right of way.’
‘Did the Venerable Acharn read his mind while we were walking past him?’
‘Of course I did, and I saw that he was only too willing to let us pass by.’
‘But I was afraid that he might change his mind and charge us, at least for amusement.’
‘There you are, distracted by your own wild thoughts,’ the Venerable Acharn reproached him. ‘If your mind would be equally industrious and tireless in thinking about the truth it would be far better for yourself, but such is the habit of most people. They like to cherish thoughts that only cause them trouble and then neglect to think about the truth. What do you want to do now, linger on this thought of the elephant all night and pay no attention to the dharma whatsoever?’
Phra Maha Thongsukh kept silent, knowing that he himself was wrong. This account was related by Phra Maha Thongsukh.
Extract from biography of Venerable Phra Acharn Mun
Compiled by Ven. Phra Acharn Maha Boowa Nyanasampanno