A Timeless Elephant Parable

Blind_men_and_elephant3Once in a while I come across something which is so oddly profound to me that I can’t help but share it. I’ve read this story before, what I’ll call the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, but I came across it again recently and have learned a little more about it since.

Here is the most relevant excerpt, borrowed from Udana 6:4 (Tittha Sutta):

“Once, monks, in this same Savatthı, there was a certain king, and the king said to a certain man, ‘Come, my good man. Gather together all the people in Savatthı who have been blind from birth.’”

“Responding, ‘As you say, your majesty,’ to the king, the man—having rounded up all the people in Savatthı who had been blind from birth—went to the king and on arrival said, ‘Your majesty, the people in Savatthı who have been blind from birth have been gathered together.’

“‘Very well then, I say, show the blind people an elephant.’

“Responding, ‘As you say, your majesty,’ to the king, the man showed the blind people an elephant. To some of the blind people he showed the elephant’s head, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’ To some of them he showed the elephant’s ear, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’ To some of them he showed the elephant’s tusk… the elephant’s trunk… the elephant’s body… the elephant’s foot… the elephant’s hindquarters… the elephant’s tail… the tuft at the end of the elephant’s tail, saying, ‘This, blind people, is what an elephant is like.’

“Then, having shown the blind people the elephant, the man went to the king and on arrival said, ‘Your majesty, the blind people have seen the elephant. May your majesty do what you think it is now time to do.’

“Then the king went to the blind people and on arrival asked them, ‘Blind people, have you seen the elephant?’

“‘Yes, your majesty. We have seen the elephant.’

“‘Now tell me, blind people, what the elephant is like.’

“The blind people who had been shown the elephant’s head said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a jar.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s ear said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a winnowing basket.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s tusk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like plowshare.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s trunk said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like the pole of a plow.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s body said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a granary.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s foot said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a post.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s hindquarters said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a mortar.’

“Those who had been shown the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a pestle.’

“Those who had been shown the tuft at the end of the elephant’s tail said, ‘The elephant, your majesty, is just like a broom.’

“Saying, ‘The elephant is like this, it’s not like that. The elephant’s not like that, it’s like this,’ they struck one another with their fists. That gratified the king.

“In the same way, monks, the wanderers of other sects are blind & eyeless. They don’t know what is beneficial and what is harmful. They don’t know what is the Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma. Not knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, not knowing what is Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma, they keep on arguing, quarreling, & disputing, wounding one another with weapons of the mouth, saying, ‘The Dhamma is like this, it’s not like that. The Dhamma’s not like that, it’s like this.’”

So the blind men are brought in, instructed to perceive the elephant, and then discuss it’s qualities. I’ve thought this was an awesome metaphor for so many differences of opinion, not just that of religions (or elephants, for that matter). Every view from musical tastes to politics can also be moderated through this lens, by realizing that it is impossible for us to see the entire story, the whole world, from our ridiculously tiny vantage point.

But I think one of the most interesting things about this story is how well traveled it is. It is canonized in both Buddhist and Jain scripture, is propagated by followers of Hinduism and Islam and is probably familiar to others due to it having been distributed in modern literature and poetry is various forms.

The actual origin of the story may be impossible to pin down, but the moral of the story can probably be seen by all who really want to see it.

I hope you are well, friends. I will write again soon.

Advertisements

One comment

  1. lovely…want to see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

BuddhistPoetry

Now..... Free... Peace.....

The Art of Manliness

Contemplative Thoughts

One Man And His Mustang

A Classic '66 Ford Mustang Coupe v8 Full Restoration Guide

The Good Sit

An accessible guide to mindfulness meditation

Applied Buddhism

Applying Buddhism to Everyday Living

Lucas Henriksson

A Joyful Heart

Exploring Life

Be kind, be compassionate

Follow the Wheel: Journey of a Modern Wanderer

Camping, hiking, meditating, and philosophizing across America

Buddhist Global Relief

Worldwide relief funded by a Buddhist organization

Harmony In Motion

The universe in the form of a human girl

%d bloggers like this: