Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Blind Men and the Elephant Parable

 Image by Gregory Colbert

One day the Buddha received his disciples who came to see him with a nagging problem. "Sir, in Savatthi there are many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute and we are confused by what we hear. Some of them say that the world is infinite and eternal, others that it is finite and not eternal. Some say that the soul dies with the body, others that it lives on forever. They all sound very convincing so who is right?"

To answer their questions the Buddha told them an old story: "Once upon a time there was a raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind and show them an elephant. I want to describe the elephant to me the best way they can.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled in a courtyard, 'Here before you is an elephant. The mighty raja wants you to describe it to him.' The blind men gathered around the beast and each touched a different part of the animal's body. One man touched its head, another its ears. One got to touch animal's long tusk, another touched the trunk. One man touched the foot, another the back. One man touched the tail, another the tusk.

"After the blind men touched the elephant, the raja went to each of them and asked, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what is it?'

Each man described what the felt with their hands and each said that that was the elephant. To one men it was like tree, to another like a snake. One thought it was like a lotus leaf in the pond, other thought it was sharp like a spear, yet another said it was like a rope... As each of them described the elephant to the raja in their own way, the blind men began to quarrel as each insisted that he had the right answer. Each knew better what an elephant was, but neither would agree that others got it right. To a delight of the rich man, a violent fight broke out. He then said, "Stop the quarrel at once! Elephant is neither a tree, nor a spear or all the other things you imagine it to be. Elephant is a large animal and each of you only touched a part of it.'

"Brethren," said the Buddha, "I want you to understand that these mendicants and scholars who hold various views and confuse your minds, are blind and unseeing just like the blind men in the raja's courtyard. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome and each maintains that reality is such and such."

Then the Buddha said to his disciples:
    "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." 
Buddha used this parable to illustrate the sectarian disputes that took place in India at that time, but its wisdom goes much deeper than that.

This old Indian story explains the fallacy of our beliefs and the incompleteness of our perceptions of reality. It provides an insight into the relativity, opaqueness, and the strangely inaccessible nature of truth. Our knowledge is at best fragmentary and yet we insist on knowing the absolute truth. We are like the blind men in Buddha's parable. But  just as neither of the blind men was completely right, neither was also completely wrong. This teaches us that we can only approach the truth, but we can never "see" the whole picture. To understand what things really are, we may have to consider looking at what others have to say and acknowledge that their views contribute to the whole picture. 

Some approximations of truth may seem "better" than others. To many of us the scientific method is what brings us closer to the full understanding of reality, while others insist on intuitive experience and faith. 

As our technology improves with time, we are able to see and understand things previously unknown to man. With each scientific discovery our picture fills out. Today we know more than we ever thought possible and yet, we may never be able to find all the answers. This epistemological dilemma motivates scientists, philosophers, and theologians to look deeper.

Some answers are found in deep space, others in the mitochondria. Some answers may lie deep in our psyche, while others are found right in front of our very eyes. It takes more than one approach to find the truth and yet those who only had a glimpse of, unwisely insist on knowing it all.

By Dominique Allmon


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The Blind Men and the Elephant by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.