The Blind Men and the Elephant
May 2010

Once upon a time, in a small village in India, lived six blind men. One day they heard excited talk about an elephant that had wandered in to the village.

Having no idea of what an elephant was, they went to satisfy their curiosity. The blind men stood around the elephant so they could touch and feel the animal.

The blind man who happened to be near the leg and felt it with his hands exclaimed that the elephant was certainly a pillar. The one who touched the tail disputed that and was emphatic that the elephant was a rope. The one who stroked the trunk could not agree as to him the elephant was a tree trunk. The one who touched the ear thought the others were clueless as the elephant was surely a huge fan. The man with his hands on the belly could not understand how anyone could mistake the wall he felt for anything other than a solid wall. And the sixth man feeling the tusk proclaimed the elephant was a pipe. No one could agree and they argued passionately, angrily.

An old man passing by asked what was going on. They all told him what they thought the elephant was and how the rest had to be wrong. The old man explained to them that they were all partially right. Just as we have arms, legs, trunk, face, the body of the elephant also has different parts. Each blind man had felt a different part of the body, not the whole body. The arguments stopped and the blind men went their way satisfied with the answer.

This is a Jain story. Wikipedia has several versions and interpretations.

In the Buddhist version, a king observes the blind men arguing over the elephant. They eventually come to blows. The story offers no resolution, just the king’s observation:

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarrelling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

In John Godfrey Saxe’s version (19th century English poet), the poem goes like this:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen.

Rumi, the famous Sufi poet and seer has his own version of the tale and his interpretation: “The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the beast.” His deduction is “The eye of the Sea is one thing and the foam another. Let the foam go and gaze with the eye of the Sea….You behold the foam but not the Sea. We are like boats dashing together; our eyes are darkened, yet we are in clear water.”

If we take all the versions and what they view in the story, the various view points replicate the story. Jainism, with its strict principle of non-violence uses the story to illustrate how there are different points of view, all limited and partially right; therefore we should be civil and respectful to avoid conflict and violence. Buddhism, with its emphasis on objective awareness as a spectator, walks away with an observation of human behavior. Godfrey Saxe, representing Anglo-Saxon logic and reason, talks about the disputants ridiculous and illogical “railing” and “prating” about an elephant no one has seen. Rumi, the spiritual seer, offers the all encompassing spiritual view point. We have a limited perception in the way we view life and in getting hung up on the little parts, we miss the big point. So the story has multiple levels of interpretations, all valid, all representing one aspect of the whole.

These are all aspects of our being, which is simply a reflection of existence. Which aspect will we pick and which ones will we deny? Or do we openly embrace them all?

To these viewpoints I add my own, taking off on Rumi. The elephant is life or existence. We are all blind men, feeling a little bit of existence with a sensual eye like the palm of a hand. We are unable to see the magnificence of this vast existence and have no concept of what it is. The foam is the ceaseless activities of the mind that like the foam covering the Sea, cover the essence of who we are. Meditation is a process that enables us to let go of the foam. By letting go, by peeling away the awareness from it, we can still the mind. Then we become Present (mindful, aware, Christ consciousness, Krishna consciousness) and our eyes are no longer darkened and limited with sensual vision because they are lit with inner vision. We see the clear water that was always there. This clear water is the peace beyond reason. It is felt as a quiet stillness, a calm joy. The story then is a metaphor on the possibilities of opening the mind, to opening the inner eye. The process through which that happens is called meditation.

Peace is not something out there, wherever “there” may be! It is each one of us, each one of us connecting to the Peace that we are. Ultimately, perhaps in everything we do we are striving consciously or unconsciously for that stillness within us. If only I had this I would be happy, or if only that would happen I would feel peaceful, and the ifs never seem to end and that stillness constantly eludes us.

The process of meditation enables us to get a glimpse of that stillness in spite of all the ifs. We learn how to discipline the mind, strengthen the will, and broaden our vision. There is no peace out “there,” we have to go within as it is the core of being.

We are the peace we seek.