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Like a Rhinoceros

In the Khaggavisāna-sutta (Pali for "The Rhinoceros Sutra") the Buddha says one should wander lonely as a rhino.  The verse also suggests that a non-violent disposition and an intentional lack of desire for companionship are qualities of this animal and should be emulated:

Renouncing violence for all living beings,
harming not even a one;
You would not wish for offspring,
so how a companion?
Wander alone like a rhinoceros.

And Buddha-nature acts in the same way as the mythically pure rhinoceros.  The Pure Land school of Buddhism that emphasizes faith in Amitabha through the recitation of his name teaches that, as a consequence of this practice, after death one will inevitably achieve rebirth in his paradise.  There he or she will surely achieve Awakening, and this is explained by the following simile:

Just as a chen bird kills fish and shellfish when it enters the water, but the dead fish all revive when a rhinoceros enters the water, just so Buddha Amitabha enables Shravakas (Skt. hearers) to awaken. [Something they could never do by their own power.]   

Rhinoceros' Ferocity

Lao-tse (Tao Te Ching, chapter 50, para. 4):

But I have heard that he who is skilful in managing the life entrusted to him for a time travels on the land without having to shun rhinoceros or tiger, and enters a host without having to avoid buff coat or sharp weapon. The rhinoceros finds no place in him into which to thrust its horn, nor the tiger a place in which to fix its claws, nor the weapon a place to admit its point. And for what reason? Because there is in him no place of death.

Natural Science

Rhino means "nose" in Greek, and ceros is "of horn."   However, the " horn" is not like that of cows or antelope.  It is not actually attached to the skull, but is composed of agglutinated fibres like whiskers.  (The tough skin of the tank-like creature is bare except for a fringe of whiskers around the ears and at the tip of the tail.)   

Once, the one-horned Indian rhinoceros was found in all the regions of northern Indian drained by the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers.  Today, it is found only in pockets of the Indian state of Assam, in northern Pakistan, and in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.  Assam's Kaziranga National Park on the Brahmaputra covers 430 sq. km.  Its swamps, thickets of elephant grass and of ever green forest support the largest population on the subcontinent.  Manas and Laokhowa are other, smaller, sanctuaries but all are frequented by poachers who not only slaughter the adults, but also kill up to 85% of calves. 

There are five varieties of rhinoceros in the world classified as two basic species:  the African white and the black rhinos, and the Asian type comprising the Indian rhino, and the Javan and Sumatran rhinos.  Today, the Asian ones are mainly of only two sub- species:  R. sondaicus (Javan rhinoceros), originally found from Sikkim, Bhutan and eastern India to Vietnam, southern China, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java, and R. unicornis (greater Indian rhinoceros) of northern Pakistan, much of northern India, Nepal,  and northern Bangladesh.   

Asian rhinos are distinguished from the African rhino by the single horn, since both the white and black African species have two.  The Indian rhino weighs about  2,000 kg. (only the elephant and the African white rhino is larger.)  Its skin falls in deep folds at the joints, so the animal seems to be wearing a suit of armour.  The crease behind the head of R. unicornis (the species found in Nepal) does not continue right across the back of the neck contrary to that of R. sondaicus.  The hide of unicornis is lumpy, while that of sondaicus has polygonal disks.   

Rhinos tend to be active in the morning and evening, avoiding the heat of the day. All species are vegetarian, subsisting on grass and leaves but also fruit and the crops of peasants.  In fact, there was once a bounty on them during the height of the tea plantation economy.  Their well- developed upper lip grasps a tall clump of grass to bend it sideways into the mouth.  However, it also enables them to rip out aquatic plants by the roots.   Poor eyesight but excellent hearing causes rhinos to be especially wary and so a cow can be a dangerously unpredictable animal for an unsuspecting visitor who may merely be admiring its calf.  A beast weighing a ton does not change direction, nor stop easily once it has begun to charge.  

The Precious Horn 

India's rhino is designated Rhinoceros unicornus, which denotes the single horn variety, but the term also carries connotations of the mythological horse-like creature that was solitary, gentle and virtuous.  In fact, in Europe until the 18th century, rhino horn was sold as unicorn horn.   

In medieval Asia, exquisitely carved cups made of a hollowed rhino horn were used in the belief that any liquid they contained would froth, or even that the cup would split in two, if a poison were in it.   Therefore, the horn was considered among the rarest of treasures, and in Buddhist iconography it features as one of The 7 Precious Objects.

The horn was also used for kukri (Nepali dagger) handles, and inset into Indian rings that ostensibly protect against evil spirits. 

The normal lifespan is about 50 years, however few animals reach that age nowadays.  Even when the horn is sawn off to protect the life of the animal poaching is rampant.  This is due to the fact that still today the hide, internal organs, blood, and even the urine and dung of the rhino are all valuable.  But it is the horn, a mere 20 cm. long and weighing about 720 g. and of no greater physiological importance to the animal than our fingernails are to us, that is the real prize.   

Shaved or powdered it is worth more than 3 times the price of gold.  Rhino horn is used in Chinese and some other traditional medical practice.  It is prescribed as a pain reliever, fever suppressant and a "cure" for numerous ills ranging from lumbago, arthritis and haemorrhoids to polio.  In India it is also mixed in drinks for use as an aphrodisiac.  

The blood is used as a tonic, the meat as a cardiac stimulant and to alleviate nosebleeds, and the fat for the treatment of skin disease.   Other uses include as a fixative in the dyer's art, and in the making of counterfeit banknotes.  

Entire body parts are featured elements of the "decorative arts"   -- a set of feet for a bed or table; a head for over the fireplace.

Say good-bye, Rhino.    " . . .   ."

Apr. 2008:  It is estimated there are fewer than 2,400 left in the natural habitat.


A reification is a kind of fallacy where we avidly discuss something which cannot be shown to exist.  That is, we discuss abstractions as if they were real, or we mentally create something from notions about its supposed qualities.  However, we can argue that reification is merely an extension of the normal process whereby all language "creates" phenomena through labelling.

Influential British philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1967) at one time disputed Wittgenstein's position regarding the use of such discussion.

"My German engineer, I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable -- I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn't."

  • Pietro Longhi's painting (1751) which captures the stir among European gentry when the animal went on exhibit.  Until that time, the animal could only be treated as if it "neither exists nor does not exist."  Notice that, although the size and general shape of the animal is portrayed, its details are a mystery.  

Emblem of the Absurd

In the late 1950's, the Rhinoceros became the symbol for an artistic and intellectual movement that viewed any position not Existential as absurd. In his play, Rhinoceros (Paris, 1960) Eugene Ionesco wrote of a village whose inhabitants, absorbed by ideologies, turn into rhinoceroses one after another.  Stubborn and blindly charging, their hides are so thick that any stone would just bounce right off.  

The animal continues to stand for satire and absurdity, but the connotation today is not a critical or serious one, but fun-loving.  

  • About Canada's Rhinoceros Party, whose original platform included a promise to ban winter.

There is also a web site by the name that tracks raves and parties. 



"North East," Janmanch.

"Perissodactla: Rhinocerotidae," Walker's Mammals of the World.

"Rhinoceros," US Foreign Wildlife Service.


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