Learning truths from five blind men and an elephant

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai

A famous story told by the Buddha describes how one day a prince gathered together a group of men, all born blind, and showed them an elephant.

Each man, using his hands to feel the elephant, believed that whatever part of it he happened to be touching was, in fact, the entire animal.

One man felt the head; another man, a tusk; still another, a foot, and so on.

Finally the prince asked the men, “Now, based on your observations, what sort of thing would you say an elephant is?”

The man who had touched the head said, “An elephant is like a pot.”

The man who had touched the tusk said, “No, like a plow!”

The man who had touched the foot said, “No, a pillar!”

Every man’s opinion, shaped by his own perceptions, was quite different from the next.

Soon the good fellows began to quarrel. Eventually they even came to blows.

The prince stood apart from the blind men watching the fray, all the while laughing at their folly.

He had fully expected this to happen, and he was amused.

Perhaps this tale points to the folly of mistaking our own experience for the only pertinent one, of insisting on our own perspective as the only legitimate one or of regarding our own truth as the only possible one.

Perhaps this tale exposes how, without even realizing, we can be so sure that our way of seeing ? and being ? is the right way, the only way, that we miss out on something far greater.

Perhaps it reveals what can happen when we believe that the part of the elephant we know best is the entire elephant.

In every area of life ? family, education, religion, work, play, politics, whatever ? we have the opportunity, the obligation even, to responsibly explore the unknown.

From a Buddhist perspective, everything, everyone in the world has something to teach us.

In order to welcome the world as our full-time teacher, we must want to learn.

Then, too, we must be willing to pay full attention to whatever comes our way, keeping an open mind and heart even when it’s tough and we’re squirming with discomfort, or wanting to run away in fear, or wishing we could lash out in anger.

Finally, to welcome the world as teacher we must be humble ? as humble as we’re capable of being.

Being humble means trusting that we can stand for something while still acknowledging it isn’t everything (and may, in fact, prove to be nothing).

Being humble means accepting that whatever we don’t know, understand or agree with, may still have meaning.

Being humble means taking a risk. It means opening up, going beyond ourselves.

It means believing in the world and its ability to teach us.

Can we let go of that big, familiar flap of an ear and embrace the entire elephant?

Phyllis Cole-Dai is a practicing Buddhist. Contact her at [email protected].