The Blind Men and the Elephant: More than Perspective

The Blind Men and the Elephant’ story is being used with pre-teens as teaching story illustrating how people can have differing perspectives, a great idea. Yet the original story as told by The Buddha, was more than that. It was an explanation for the sometimes violent conflicts between religious authorities.  Following is the story from a Buddhist online source:

This was the Buddha’s response to followers who asked about all the arguments and fights among the hermits, scholars and monks about meaning of life, the soul, God and such.

A raj had a group of blind men gathered together:

He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”

Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift

          O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim 
          For preacher and monk the honored name! 
          For, quarreling, each to his view they cling. 
          Such folk see only one side of a thing. 

Udana 68-69

If only more of todays’ so called religious leaders grasped this basic wisdom, then religion would actually be more of a force for peace and understanding rather than conflict and division. The more that all of us are humble enough to recognize that we can see but one facet of the Truth (or God), the more we can be open to learning from one another.

I am interested in your responses to this.

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9 Responses to The Blind Men and the Elephant: More than Perspective

  1. Jim Gordon says:

    The story is familiar, but I didn’t know it came from the Buddha.

  2. Miriam says:

    Ah, yes: one can hope. Doubt this will happen in my lifetime, however, and in the meantime there is so much pain. Thanks for your blog, Dave.

    • While I empathize with your doubts, I also suspect there are more religious leaders who do get it. There seems to be a message out there that if you are not a fundamentalist ( or pseudo-fundamentalist) you are NOT really a believer. In reality, it is just the opposite: those claiming to be literal believers are modern day idolators, holding onto a dead, static image just as the blind men in the story. Thanks

  3. Rebecca says:

    I liked that last comment, Dave, about “modern day idolators, holding onto a dead static image just as the blind men…” This puts a new spin on it for me, and I’ll probably be sharing it with others. I had a recent discussion of sorts on political/religious issues with friiends on another friend’s facebook page. Ended up with everything getting deleted–reminds me of this elephant story. Moral: Don’t talk religion on FB. P.S. I like your Levenger Baggallini tote commercial in the middle of the blog. Classy! (I’m serious–I love Levenger–as I reveal my materialism).

    • We with the western traditions, Judeo-Christian-Muslim, take the prohibition against idols too literally. The result is we wind up worshiping the symbols including books of our faiths as if they are God. (I can hear ‘but this the word of god.’ Perhaps the word of god, but heard by men in a different time and place, and distorted by multiple translations.) To me that is the definition of idolatry. Oops, another blog!
      I am glad you liked the commercial, Rebecca, but frankly I have never seen a commercial on my blog, so I am a bit confused how you got one. Must be a miracle; now we can start a new religion 😉

  4. Rebecca says:

    It shall be called the Dave Cooperberg Internet Blog Religion, Reformed. It includes miracle commercial visions. I see another vision right now. It says: “Advertisement.” Office Depot. Fast and free delivery on qualifying orders of $50+ (Excludes furniture). It shows a picture of the office chair I ordered for my home computer. I guess that explains it. The visions are of the material things coming back to haunt me. Either your religion is powerful to induce such guilt at my purchasing ways…or the internet institution has crept in and corrupted the purity of the faith.
    : )

    • LOL. Although really, I wonder if others are seeing ads as well. If so, it would lead me to consider seeking another site for the blog. I do find that, after shopping online, I start getting commercials for those items when I visit different web sites. When it gets annoying, I clear the “cookies” on my computer.

      • Rebecca says:

        I wasn’t so bothered by the ads. There is only one “vision” when it happens. There isn’t one there this time. They are similar to the Facebook ones but it shows up in the center of the blog. This seems like a nice site so I wouldn’t jump to change right away. I will try clearing cookies and see what happens (if I can remember how to do that).

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