The Elephant Rope

Have you heard the story of the elephant rope? It is one of the well-known anecdotes for a life lesson. And, interestingly, there are two different interpretations. One is for potential. The other is for mindfulness.


One day a traveler visited one of the rural villages where many elephants are for their daily works. And only one single thin rope tied to the pole was taming each elephant. It seems the rope was so thin that the elephant could easily cut it to be free. But they never tried.

“Why are they so obedient? Why don’t they cut the rope or pull the pole to be removed?” The traveler asked the villagers.

The villagers’ answer was this.

When the elephants were still a baby, the villagers tied them to the rope. In the beginning, they tried to get rid of it. They tried it repeatedly. And eventually, they gave up, learning that they could never cut the rope or pull the pole. And it became part of their beliefs.

Once they have believed so, even when they grow up and strong enough to cut the rope, even destroy the pole to escape from the situation, they could no longer think of this attempt.

What tames those adult elephants? Is it the thin rope? Is it the small pole? Neither of them. What controls them is not these items anymore, but the mindsets. Their minds are taming themselves. They control themselves.

We are often like those adult elephants. Our past experiences have formed various unnecessary beliefs and mindsets, which create illusory limitations. And we become a living dead who never try anything. In these limitations:

  • We are so fearful.
  • We are so negative.
  • We are so pessimistic.

We have forgotten the truth that every moment is the gateway for unleashing possibility and potential. In doing so, we have missed every chance to grow and evolve in moving forward.

Sometimes, we should reflect on our lives, asking what the imaginary rope and poles are limiting us, unnecessarily.

Our minds should not be the enemies to belittle us but the guardians who encourage and motivate who we truly are.


This same story has another interpretation as one of the anecdotes that the Buddhist teachers often talk to their students.

The adult elephants are so calm, wise, and helpful. They always know what they should and shouldn’t. They are a sort of symbol for the minds of the Bodhisattvas. How did they achieve this state of mind and wisdom?

When the elephants were like small toddlers, they were so naughty and mindless. They were interested in anything around them, paying their attention from one to another, and more. They were so restless, jumping from one place to another.

One day, however, the young elephants got tied to the rope, which forced them to stay in one place around a single pole. In the beginning, they tried to get rid of it. They tried to escape from it. But all their efforts were in vain. And, eventually, they learned the role of the rope to the pole. They are the “guides” to make them calm, mindful, and wise. The rope is the guidance to calm their minds.

Our minds are often like those restless young elephants. It seems we never know how to control our monkey minds. Because of them, we can’t stay and sleep at peace. And because of them:

  • We are so fearful.
  • We are so negative.
  • We are so pessimistic.

So, what is the rope and pole that can tame the elephants in this interpretation? The Buddhist teachers tell us that these are the anchors for mindfulness. That could be our breathing, stepping, and Sati for every move and moment we take. With this guidance, we can be like those enlightened adult elephants.

Our minds should not be the enemies to disturb us but the guardians who lead us to who we truly are.

Two Interpretations

The story of the elephant rope seems to have two opposite interpretations and different life lessons; one is for potential, and the other is for mindfulness. Reflecting on both of them carefully, however, we could also see the messages on the same coin. How should we deal with our minds? Moreover, how do we know ourselves? After all, we see ourselves only in ourselves. Either way, the elephant rope is the guardian of who we truly are.

Image by Sasin Tipchai 

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