Since relocating to Cambodia, I’ve heard a new spin on the old parable of the blind men describing an elephant. The fable is well known in Europe, too, but few who paraphrase it are aware of its origin in the Theravada Buddhist canon.
The version of the story I commonly hear from Europeans mangles the parable to suggest that each of the blind men is equally correct in describing the elephant in accordance with however it may feel to them, personally. The Cambodian version I have heard slants it another way: the elephant itself is equated with the Buddha’s teaching, and each of us (laypeople) is imagined as equivalent to the blind men –groping toward a truth we can’t see, or can infer only partially.
Both versions are false, with one reflecting a European assumption that the Buddha’s teaching equates to their own sense of subjective truth, and the second reflecting a Cambodian assumption that the Buddha’s teaching is something unseen and, perhaps, ineffable.
The source is in the Pali canon [KN:Ud:6:4] and where the parable is introduced with a hypothesis that is neither subjectivist nor even ecumenical: the Buddha declares that the leaders of (all) other religious movements are blind, and cannot distinguish what’s meaningful from what’s meaningless, nor can they distinguish true from false in matters of religion or philosophy (сЮвсЮЙсЯТсЮЙсЮПсЮ╖сЮПсЯТсЮРсЮ╖сЮЩсЮ╢ сЮЧсЮ╖сЮАсЯТсЮБсЮЬсЯБ сЮФсЮЪсЮ╖сЮЦсЯТсЮЦсЮ╢сЮЗсЮАсЮ╢ сЮвсЮУсЯТсЮТсЮ╢ сЮвсЮЕсЮАсЯТсЮБсЮ╗сЮАсЮ╢ сЮвсЮПсЯТсЮРсЯЖсЮУсЮЗсЮ╢сЮУсЮУсЯТсЮПсЮ╖ сЮвсЮУсЮПсЯТсЮРсЯЖсЮУсЮЗсЮУсЮУсЯТсЮПсЮ╖ сЮТсЮШсЯТсЮШсЯЖсЮУсЮЗсЮ╢сЮУсЮУсЯТсЮПсЮ╖сЮвсЮТсЮШсЯТсЮШсЯЖсЮУсЮЗсЮ╢сЮУсЮУсЯТсЮПсЮ╖).
The original text does not suggest that each blind man is partly correct, nor that we could know what an elephant looks like through the combination of their descriptions (of what each of them has felt); on the contrary, the emphasis is on the fact that each of them is utterly wrong and yet confident enough to disagree with the others.
The blind men get into a fist fight, each advocating for their own view (that an elephant is like a big water jar, or else like a broom, etc.) –and this amuses the king, who apparently arranged the event for this reason.
At the conclusion of the story, the thesis is re-stated, that the leaders of (all) other religions are completely blind, and so on. The contrast is between the Buddha’s doctrine and the theories of religious leaders who speculate about things they have never seen, and never will see. They don’t see part of the truth, they see none of it; they fight over things they do not understand themselves.
The image of religion misleading the blind appears with a somewhat different emphasis elsewhere, in the parable of a blind man who is swindled by cloth merchants at the market [MN No. 75]. Pathetically, the blind man ends up standing in filthy old rags, imagining that he has just purchased a new white sheet, and remarking on how great it is to be wearing his (pure) new clothes.
In this parable, the emphasis is different: it isn’t the teachers of non-Buddhist religions who are blind, instead it is the faith of the people who follow them that is blind, and the result is a swindle. At first, this seems to draw our attention to the commodification of “purity” (and impurity) in religion: the follower wraps himself up in it, without knowing what it is that he has bought.
The role of the Buddha is compared to a doctor who, hypothetically, might cure some blind men (and, in other cases, we’re told, the same treatment doesn’t work, and merely wastes the doctor’s time and effort). If such a cure did work, with his vision restored, the man in this parable would suddenly find the filthy old rags revolting, and would be angry with the vendor whom he had formerly believed in, when he thought he was buying a pure white sheet.
The subject of the simile then shifts from deception to self-deception. Perhaps because the Buddha employs this parable in debate with a man who is a religious leader himself, the opponent is told that he will later regret having been misled (and chated) by his own thoughts (…сЮвсЮасЯЖ сЮесЮШсЮ╖сЮУсЮ╢ сЮЕсЮ╖сЮПсЯТсЮПсЯБсЮУ сЮУсЮ╖сЮАсЮПсЯД…) not by other religious leaders. At this point, the significance of gaining “vision” from the Buddha’s teaching shifts, too: it isn’t just a false religion that is rejected, but also desire itself, i.e., desire for all things arising from birth, the body and the senses. In the context of the dialogue, this is the Buddha returning to a subject he had raised earlier: contrasting attitudes toward the body, liberation, enjoyment and suffering.
Buddhism is presented as the religion of those who will know for themselves because they will see for themselves (…сЮЯсЮ╢сЮШсЯЖсЮЩсЯБсЮЬ сЮЙсЮЯсЯТсЮЯсЮЯсЮ╖ сЮЯсЮ╢сЮШсЯЖсЮСсЮАсЯТсЮБсЮ╖сЮЯсЮ╖/сЮСсЮАсЯТсЮБсЮ╖сЮЯсЯТсЮЯсЮЯсЮ╖…) in contrast to those who are blind. As with the simpler story of the blind men describing the elephant, there is no sense of a plurality of valid interpretations, nor of any equality between the religions being compared. In the source texts, the two parables have a number of phrases in common (verbatim) and are addressed to some of the same problems. It could be that the story of the elephant (appearing in the quasi-canonical KN:Ud) originated as a further explanation of the themes of blindness and belief in the core of the canon (i.e., the first four Nik─Бyas; for another example, cf. MN No. 99).
However, the parable of the blind man trying to buy a white sheet has a clear role for the Buddha (as a doctor who might restore the man’s vision) whereas the parable of the elephant has none.
The image of these blind men getting into a fist-fight over something they haven’t seen and can’t understand certainly does not symbolize a debate between equally valid interpretations. With equal certainty, I must add that the authors of this parable did not intend for the elephant to represent the Buddha’s teaching. On the contrary, the whole scenario is a somewhat jocular representation of the Buddha’s rivals, stating that religious teachers who make claims about things they have not seen (such as the creation of the world, whether the universe is finite or infinite, etc.) are no better than blind men describing an elephant.
In this, too, the two parables differ: the elephant, for its part, really exists (even if it is misunderstood) whereas the “purity” of the white sheet sold to the blind man is an illusion, created by blind faith, and ceasing with that faith.
The version of the story I’ve heard here in Phnom Penh may be purely an oral tradition, and it may be a mixup that isn’t especially influential; but then again, it may also be in printed textbooks, or it may be commonly preached in the same form that was preached to me.
One of my reasons for typing up this account is to encourage Khmer colleagues to mention to me any variations on the story they may have seen or heard. These parables circulate in the living culture (for decades or centuries) and become ever more abstracted from their origins, until somebody takes an interest and checks the primary source text.
Eisel Mazard is a scholar of Pali, the most ancient language and literature of Theravada Buddhism, and of the history, languages and politics of Theravada Asia. His research has primarily concerned mainland Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Laos, Yunnan and Thailand. He currently lives and works in Phnom Penh. Website: http://www.pali.pratyeka.org/
A list of recent articles: http://profiles.tigweb.org/EM0