The Blind Men and the Elephant

My favorite version of the Blind men and the Elephant parable is Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young – it’s one of our all-time favorite kids books around here. Here’s a summary:

One day seven blind mice were surprised to find a strange Something by their pond. “What is it?” they cried, and they all ran home. Red mouse thinks it’s a pillar. Green mouse thinks it’s a snake. Yellow mouse thinks it’s a spear. Purple mouse thinks it’s a great cliff. Orange mouse thinks it’s a fan. Blue mouse thinks it’s a rope. And they all began to argue. But white mouse went to the pond and ran up one side and down the other and from end to end and realizes the something is as sturdy as a pillar, supple as a snake, wide as a cliff, sharp as a spear, breezy as a fan, stringy as a rope – but altogether, the Something is… an elephant! And when the others ran up one side and down the other and across the Something from end to end, they agreed. Now they saw, too. The Mouse Moral: Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.

It’s interesting to see the other versions of this tale..

From the Jain perspective:

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.

“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.

“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and everyone of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features.”

“Oh!” everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

From the Buddhist perspective:

The raja asks each man what an elephant is like. The blind men assert the elephant is like a pot (head), winnowing basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), grainery (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail), or brush (tip of the tail). The men come to blows, which delights the raja. The raja says:

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.

And from the 19th Century American poet, John Godfrey Saxe:

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, Ho! what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

I see, quoth he, the Elephant

Is very like a snake!

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain, quoth he;

‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: Even the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!?

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

I see, quoth he, the Elephant

Is very like a rope!

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

Buried Divinity (an old Hindu Legend)

I love this…

According to an old Hindu legend, there was a time when all men were gods, but they so abused their divinity that Brahma, the chief god, decided to take it away from men and hide it where they would never again find it. Where to hide it became the big question.

When the lesser gods were called in council to consider this question, they said, “We will bury man’s divinity deep in the earth.” But Brahma said, “No, that will not do, for man will dig deep down into the earth and find it.” Then they said, “Well, we will sink his divinity into the deepest ocean.” But again Brahma replied, “No, not there, for man will learn to dive into the deepest waters, will search out the ocean bed, and will find it.”

Then the lesser gods said, “We will take it to the top of the highest mountain and there hide it.” But again Brahma replied, “No, for man will eventually climb every high mountain on earth. He will be sure some day to find it and take it up again for himself.” Then the lesser gods gave up and concluded, “We do not know where to hide it, for it seems there is no place on earth or in the sea that man will not eventually reach.”

Then Brahma said, “Here is what we will do with man’s divinity – We will hide it deep down in man himself, for he will never think to look for it there.” Ever since then, the legend concludes, man has been going up and down the earth, climbing, digging, diving, exploring, searching for something that is already in himself.

Two thousand years ago a man named Jesus found it and shared its secret; but in the movement that sprang up in His name, the Divinity in Man has been the best kept secret of the ages.

(From the prologue to Eric Butterworth’s book Discover the Power Within You)

The Cracked Pot

This lovely parable was told to me many years ago by a dear friend and I was reminded of it by James at Buddhist Blog:

     An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

     For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course , the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection and felt miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

     After 2 years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.”

     The old woman smiled, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”

     Each of us has our own unique flaw. But it’s the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding. You’ve just got to take each person for what they are and look for the good in them.

Buddha and the Terrorist by Satish Kumar

While at the library returning Lost Civilizations and The Road to Heaven, I picked up a little book entitled The Buddha and the Terrorist. I didn’t much feel like going home so went to Starbucks and read the entire thing while drinking half a decaf coffee and eating a 500 calorie scone. I had no idea it was a 500 calorie scone or I wouldn’t have eaten it. And it is very rare for me to hang out at Starbucks. But I made an impulse turn because there was a long train making it’s way through an intersection and found myself at Starbucks with my 500 calorie scone.

I enjoyed the story. It was quite engaging. Satish Kumar claims he merged the Hindu tale of Angulimala with which he grew up and the Buddhist tale into his own version. (Angulimala is a man who kills indiscriminately and wears the fingers of his victims around his neck. This is one of the earliest stories associated with the Buddha. The Buddha was able to convert Angulimala psyche from one of anger to one of compassion.) Kumar used to be a Jain monk for nine years and is now the editor of the international magazine, Resurgence.

This story of Buddha and Angulimala is somewhat similar to the stories you hear about Jesus and his association with sinners. It’s not enough to tolerate your enemies, you must also love them. By loving them, you transform them. In the story written by Kumar, the Buddha gives this explanation:

“Your Majesty, violence breeds violence. Revenge and justice are not the same. Someone, somewhere, needs to take courage to break the cycle of violence. Forgiveness is superior to justice. Being kind and compassionate to those who are good to you is easy. True forgiveness and compassion come only when one is able to forgive even those who have committed barbaric acts. If Angulimala is capable of renouncing violence, then tell me, your Majesty, is your civilized society also capable of being truly civilized and renouncing violence?”

I appreciated Thomas Moore’s introduction (Thomas Moore was a Catholic monk for 12 years.)

   At root, the word “terror” means to quiver or tremble, like a bird in the hand or a leaf in the wind on a tree. It’s more than fear. Essentially it is a prfound awareness of the power of life itself….

   The holy is….a mystery that makes you tremble and fascinates you. The ultimate terror is a stark realization of the holiness and awesomeness of life…

   It’s quite proper to tremble at the sight and feel of nature’s beauty and power, but it’s a travesty for anyone to force another to tremble at the sight of weapons and savagery. The most beneficial of things can be twisted into something dangerous and ugly. When that happens, we usually ad an “ism” to the word. Community becomes communism, nationality becomes nationalism, and terror becomes terrorism. Terrorism is a sacrilege, and our task is to respond by restoring the holiness of life’s power….

   Renouncing terrorism doesn’t mean that you become passive and fainthearted. It means that you have the imagination, the self-possession, and the strength to reconstruct terrorism as awe at the beauty and power of life. You become a spiritual warrior. You discover that it takes far more courage to transform the impulse toward justified violence into the embrace of a supposed adversary. The real battle is to overcome self-interest and the tendency to split the world into friends and enemies.

   Both Jesus and the Buddha refuse to participate in a world so divided. Jesus says, “Love your enemy,” and the Buddha befriends the bloodthirsty criminal. These examples upset the “natural” urge to respond to terrorism with massive violence. But that is the nature of a religious and spiritual sensibility: It offers an alternative to raw and violent passion. It sees things differently. It has a radical mission to restore human community whenever it has broken down.

Parable of the Cows

A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate.

“Doesn’t cost a damn thing,’ he replied. ‘As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That strand of wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.”

Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!

E.B. White, One Man’s Meat

Balinese Tale of Heaven and Hell

The Balinese are Hindu. But I first heard this story told by Zig Ziglar at the First Baptist Church in Dallas and have heard it several other places since then. It has great universal appeal.

A man asks to know heaven and hell. First, he is brought to a room with a great banquet of food and drink of every kind. But the people at the table have arms made of long fork-like poles and although they are able to spear the food, they are unable to bring the food to their mouths. They sit at the table in great angrish, crying and hungry. He is horrified by the scene and wants to be taken away. That, he is told, is hell.

Next, he is taken to a room that looks exactly the same. Same great banquet of food and drink. The arms of the people are also made of the same long fork-like poles so they cannot bring the food to their mouths. But there are no anguished cries. Instead there is laughter and joy. They discovered that even though they could not feed themselves, they could feed one another. This, he is told, is heaven.

What is the difference between these two places? Nothing. They are exactly the same in every detail. The only difference is some people realize they are already in heaven. And others do not. Those who recognize they are already there feed one another with joy and laughter. Those who do not, wail in anguish and hunger because they either do not realize they can feed one another, or they do not want to.

Assume someone in the room where everyone is being fed becomes indignant because they see someone who has caused great harm to others in their past. They refuse to feed this person and work hard to get others to do the same. Is that person who chooses to punish the “sinner” by not feeding him helping to create heaven? Or hell?