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The Symbol of the White Elephant

Before one enters the Front Hall, one would notice two groups of animals standing near the entrance - a lion with cubs and an elephant with calves. One might wonder: what do these animals represent? In this issue, we will talk about the symbol of the white elephant.

In Buddhism, the elephant symbolizes nobility, strength, and purity. The Buddha is often analogized as the king of the elephants for his good demeanor. According to the Biography of Sakyamuni Buddha, when Queen Maya was conceiving Prince Siddhartha, she dreamt of a white elephant holding a white lotus in its trunk. It went round her three times before entering her womb through her right side. When she woke up the next day, she found out that she was pregnant. A few months later, she gave birth to Prince Siddhartha. The image of a white elephant is thus used to symbolize the Buddha’s noble birth, and to commemorate the day when he descended to the human world.

Apart from the text Mohe Zhiguan (Great Calming and Insight), the white elephant symbolizes the Bodhisattva’s perfection of the six psychic powers. The build of the elephant represents its ability to handle great responsibilities, and the color white stands for purity. Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas, one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas in Chinese Buddhism, usually rides on a six-tusked white elephant. The six tusks represent the abilities to overcome attachment to the six senses. They also represent the Six Perfections (paramitas) -- generosity, moral ethics, patience, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom -- or the six ways in which Bodhisattvas pursue their spiritual path to enlightenment. In addition, the four legs of the elephant represents the four bases for spiritual power.

The animals in Buddhism have specific meanings. When you visit the Buddha Museum, try to look for the animals and find out what each of them represent in Buddhism.

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