The Blind Men and the Elephant

Seeing the Complete Picture

The story of the elephant and the blind men illustrates 2 things:

      1. That we need to approach situations from different angles to give us different perspectives - different takes on the situation
      2. If our own vision of the problem is deficient – then we need to engage the help of people with better vision than us

THEN, using the above 2 – we need to fit the pieces of the puzzle together appropriately to give us a complete picture.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

In the Tittha Sutta, the Buddha relates this story…

Suppose that there are a few blind men who are led to an elephant.  They are then asked to describe what an elephant is like:

  • One blind man feels the elephant’s ear and says, “An elephant is like a big fan”.
  • Another blind man then feels the elephant’s leg and says “What nonsense, it’s not like that at all!  An elephant is like a tree trunk!”
  • Then another blind man holds the trunk of the elephant and says, “You are both wrong!  An elephant is like a big thick snake.”
  • And yet another blind man is holding on to the elephant’s tail and shouts, “You guys are idiots!  You are all wrong!  An elephant is like a brush!

And then they all keep arguing with each other, each one saying of themselves that only they are right and everyone else is wrong.

So then, a man with good sight takes each of the blind men to feel all the other different parts of the elephant.  “Oh!” they all say…  “Whereas before, I only had limited information – now I have a more complete understanding!”

Key points…

People who only understand a small part o the whole situation and insist that only they are right and everyone else is wrong – are attached to their own opinions.  So they can end up arguing with everyone else unnecessarily.

They are like the blind men who only know a small part of the elephant and try to tell all the other men that they are wrong.  And if they try to teach that wrong view to others – they’re like the blind leading the blind.

Not only does this increase the confusion of the people listening to these blind men, but if you follow a blind man down a road – who knows where that will lead…

So:

  1. Don’t just see 1 side of the problem.  Don’t just rely on 1 bit of limited information and then infer that that is representative of the whole situation.  You’ve got to look at different aspects of the situation and then relate together all the pieces of the puzzle – this will give us a more complete understanding of the situation.
  2. And especially if we are complete novices – rather than insist on relying on our own limited experience, we may need to engage and put our trust in to people who have far more experience, far more knowledge and far more understanding of the situation than we have.  Perhaps these people are experts, perhaps they are friends and family – these are people who can act as sounding boards to see whether our own view of the situation is complete enough.
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