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The Story of the Elephant and the Blind Men


The story of the blind men and the elephant is a well-known Indian parable that appears in the scriptures of multiple traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sufism. The Buddha refers to it in the Tittha Sutta of the Udana, part of the Pali Canon of Buddhist scriptures.

Although the story varies slightly in each of the different tellings, the basic premise is always the same. In the Tittha Sutta, the Buddha and his bikkhus (monks) are living in the woods amongst many other spiritual recluses, including Brahmins and teachers from other sects. Arguments frequently break out over theological and religious issues, or as it is put in the sutta:

"There were some recluses and brahmans who asserted and held this view: 'The world is eternal; only this is true, any other (view) is false.' There were some recluses and brahmans who asserted: 'The world is not eternal; only this is true, any other (view) is false.' There were some who asserted: 'The world is finite... The world is infinite... The life-principle and the body are the same... The life-principle and the body are different... The Tathagata exists beyond death... The Tathagata does not exist beyond death... The Tathagata both exists and does not exist beyond death; The Tathagata neither exists nor does not exist beyond death; only this is true, any other (view) is false.' ...[or]... 'Dhamma is like this, Dhamma is not like that! Dhamma is not like this, Dhamma is like that!'" - (taken from John Ireland's translation available at Access to Insight.)

The continuous quarrels led a group of monks to approach the Buddha and ask him which views were true. In response, the Buddha tells them of a King that used to live in the same area. The King had become disgusted with the constant arguing amongst sectarian leaders in his kingdom. In response, he gathered them all together, and requested his aides to also bring an elephant and all the men in the area that had been blind since birth. He asked each of the blind men to feel a different part of the elephant, and then describe what an elephant was like based on their experience.

Of course, since each man was feeling a different part of the elephant, they each had a different description. The man who felt the tail said an elephant was like a thick rope. The man who felt a leg said an elephant was like a strong post. The man who felt the tusk said clearly an elephant was like a plow tithe. The man who felt the head said it was like a huge water jug. And so on, leading to an immense argument. After quelling the debate, the King made the point that the numerous arguments of his leaders were no different - they each could only see one part of the kingdom, one set of concerns, and their own point of view based on their limited experience.

In the Buddha’s telling, he goes on to compare this to the theological debates raging around the monks. He says,

"Some recluses and brahmans, so called,
Are deeply attached to their own views;
People who only see one side of things
Engage in quarrels and disputes."

This sutta is also often used to characterize the difference between Buddhism and most other religions - that in Buddhism, the emphasis is not on 'belief' or the acceptance of doctrine or theology, which is necessarily always limited in its view. Instead, the focus is on personal experience, with the adoption of teachings designed to support and strengthen individual practice.
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Content copyright © 2013 by Lisa Erickson. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Lisa Erickson. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Lisa Erickson for details.

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