Thursday, January 05, 2006

Six wise blind elephants

This afternoon I visited our Amsterdam office of The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

The FWBO is an international network dedicated to communicating Buddhist truths in ways appropriate to the modern world. The essence of Buddhism is timeless and universal. But the forms it takes always adapt according to context.

Now that Buddhism is spreading around the globe, the task is to create new Buddhist traditions relevant to the 21st century. During the past 35 years the FWBO has become one of the largest Buddhist movements, with activities in many cities and rural retreat centres around the world.

After group meditation, one of the students told following funny analogy:

Six wise, blind elephants of Indostan were discussing what humans were like.

Failing to agree, they decided to determine what humans were like by direct observation.

The first wise, blind elephant felt the human, and declared, "Humans are flat."

The other wise, blind elephants, after similarly feeling the human, agreed.

I have looked up the original parable from John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), here it goes:

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: “E’en 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!


Vee said...

I've heard the blind men and the elephant story before. I think someone was trying to explain different pespectives to me. It worked! I guess everyone brings with them what they have experienced and learnt or not learnt from that experience.

FWBO sounds interesting.

Lindsay Lobe said...


I'm with Vee on this one.

Our life philosophy, what is true for us, depends upon where we are sitting on the elephant.

Don’t be timid about changing positions, for a change of mind is the mark of a flexible mind, a free flowing spirit with courage to accept we can be mistaken but we can grow from our mistakes and our new understanding, in wisdom.

We will never see all the entire elephant exactly as we are all sitting in different positions.

I think maybe we could consider that elephant to be a specially rounded one, like a sphere with no boundaries.

Best wishes

Rachael Byrnes said...

Thanks for your comment on my site! I like this elephant analogy. On a side note, I came across this amazing cult website today which you may be interested in
Basically, this guy accidently started a massive cult dedicated to random acts of kindness. I've joined it. It's bizarre but really inspiring!

Rachael Byrnes said...

I just left $2 next the computer where I am sitting now in a net cafe with a note saying "Hello I'm giving you $2 as a random act of kindness" (I'm gigling to myself) Feels good to be nice!

Pirate said...

this is one of my favorite stories.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

I had heard this story somewhat differently.

There was a 7th blind brother, you see, and he never made it quite to the elephant. Instead, he was upon his knees behind the elephant. Reaching out to touch it, his hands fell in to the creature's waste. "An elephant is soft and mushy," he proclaimed.

From the book An Elephant Is Soft and Mushy by S. Gross

DA said...

I like the thought of a sphere with no boundries Lindsay and agree with Vee indeed.

Rachael, you should be on stage at this very moment. Hope all goes well. I visited the join me site today. This is indeed a great boys dream. Starts you thinking. I Like the 2 dollar gesture, if you could only see the reaction :-)

Pirate, always honoured to visit you here!

Thanks for stopping by P.T. I'm gonna find out more on that book. I have a weak spot for obstreperous books..