When I began Panom and the Stone of Light, I initially intended it for an adult to read to a child or for a child to read to herself or himself, and possibly for an adult to read to himself or herself. But in the decade of its being, I’ve come to believe it might be served best when read by a child to an adult. In any variation of exchange, however, let it be seeded.
Just over 2200 years ago, in the month of May, where the continent of India rises toward the blue ice of Nepal, a great prophet and teacher was born. His father, from the Sakya Clan, was King Suddhodana and his mother was Queen Maha Maya. The child was called Prince Siddhartha.
The summer before his birth, the palace held a traditional festival that brought hundreds of guests. The court was filled with music and laughter and much dancing. By the end of the last day of the celebration, the Queen had grown exhausted; she retired to her bedchambers where she fell into a deep sleep. Soon four angels appeared in a dream. Gently they carried her higher and higher to a golden palace at the top of a mountain. She was led to a vast yet pleasant bedchamber to a sleeping couch on which she then lay. Then standing before her appeared a white elephant. Its trunk held a white lotus. The elephant approached the queen and gently touched her side with the luminous flower.
The next morning, the King’s counselors were brought forth to interpret the dream. The queen, they agreed, would give birth to a boy. He would either assume the Crown and govern the people, or he would become a great teacher and lead the world toward peace.
Prince Siddhartha’s childhood was spent entirely inside the palace, living a life of luxury. Anything he wanted or needed, he was given. He had no idea what life was like for those less fortunate outside the palace. The prince grew to be a man, married and had a child secure in the grandeur of his father’s realm.
One day the Prince wanted see what life was like outside the palace. He insisted on spending a day among the citizens of the city. Here, for the first time, he discovered poverty, hunger, and sadness.
Siddhartha witnessed the suffering of the aged and infirmed, beggars, and children without food or clothing. Suddenly, in his heart, a monumental and historic transformation occurred. As much as he loved his family, he knew he would serve the good of all humankind
Siddhartha left the splendor of the palace, his friends, family, and counselors. He had his hair and beard shorn, and he cast away his gold and silver clothing; he now wore the simple cloth of the monk. When he set out into the world, barefoot and unadorned, accompanied only by his curiosity and his search to understand the cause of man’s suffering, Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old.
He soon shed his name and became known as Gotama. For six years he wandered the countryside and meditated, often practicing with other great ascetics. But none could answer the questions he carried.
Gotama, at last, came upon a place in the forest, full of peace and serenity. Here, beneath the shade of a pipal tree, he remained in austere meditation for another six years.
Through strict self-discipline, steadfast resolve and intuitive wisdom, he became fully enlightened; he achieved perfect Buddhahood. The word Buddha comes from ‘budh,’ a Pali term, and means to be awakened, to understand, to be lighted from within. From this bud of awareness blossomed the Four Noble Truths, the understanding of Man’s suffering. Fundamental to his teaching is that suffering comes from our worldly attachments. The less we need, the less we become victims of illusions—power, wealth, and fame—that offer nothing but fear and suffering. Tolerance, compassion, and mindfulness enlighten us; these philosophical precepts hold the treasures of reciprocity; they are part of us and have existed long before the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato.
Though there are countless variations on the legend of his birth and the history of his life, the influence of Buddhist thought is undeniable, Buddhism spread like a wind across the plains of India to Tibet, China, Japan and all of Southeast Asia, and finally taking root in the West.
In Thailand, the elephant and Buddha are inseparably linked in history, and the evolution of that mythic relationship stems further back into ancient Hinduism; The Hindu god Indra is carried across the universe on the white elephant, with his many trunks as well as the elephant-headed Ganesh.
‘Panom’ is the Thai word expressing the gesture of placing palms together to the forehead. The act itself is called a ‘wei.’ For Thais, among peers, it’s an informal greeting, much like our handshake. Between young and old, it’s a courtesy of respect, and before the King, Buddhists monks, and in the temples, it represents utmost humility before Lord Buddha.
Panom also happened to be the name of an elephant I discovered in Northern Thailand in 1998 when I was filming for an independent project to raise money and awareness for the elephant hospital in Lampang, Thailand.
Panom was a tall, beautiful elephant with amber-colored eyes.
Occasionally, when I would visit her home, near Pai, Thailand, she would carry me to the river and we’d swim together. I’d straddle her neck and hold fast to her large ears while she dove beneath the surface. She’d surge upward again and spray me with her trunk filled with water. Sometimes I’d lean over and kiss her on her domed head while scratching her ears. And sometimes I’d place my forehead against hers, the minds of two mammals, two different species, vastly different in size and appearance. If I’d been able to understand her pips and squeaks and rumbles, what amazing things might have learned?
For the story of Panom and her blue sapphire, I have stitched together all the elements that have informed me—the meaning of the word, the real elephant Panom and the white elephant that appeared before Maha Maya. In the mythological pantheon, it is Airavat who creates the storms that nourish the earth. Like most deities, Airavat is male, yet the social structure of elephants is matriarchal; Panom is the female counterpart. Let’s imagine Panom in the turbulent heavens of tropical storms millennia before the birth of Lord Buddha. Imagine the vastness of her wisdom illuminating the universe with her spinning stone of light, her white lotus unfolding, each petal a lesson for Peace. Galen Garwood