Blind Men and An Elephant
This famous story is not actually an “original” Chinese story. It was recorded in a Buddhism canon (涅槃经), so it is probably from India. Anyway, since it is now an important Chengyu (Chinese idiom) with a philosophical inspiration, I decide to put it here.
You might have heard various versions of this famous story. Here I am going to present the original version from the Buddhism canon. After that, I will add my little contribution to this classic fable story. Hope you will like it.
Blind Men and An Elephant
One day, the King told his ministers, “You give a elephant to a group of blind men and ask them to touch it by hand.” Then the King asked the blind men, “What does a elephant look like?”
The first man, only touching the tusk of the elephant, said that the elephant was like a carrot.
The second man, only touching the ear, said that the elephant was like a hand-held fan.
The third man, only touching the head, said that the elephant was like a rock.
The fourth man, only touching the nose, said that the elephant was like a roll of pipe.
The fifth man, only touching the leg, said that the elephant was like a pillar.
The sixth man, only touching the back, said that the elephant was like a bed.
The seventh man, only touching the belly, said that the elephant was like a big pot.
The eighth man, just catching the tail, said that the elephant was like a rope.
In this story, the King represents the Buddha, the Ministers mean the Buddhism canon, the elephant means the Buddha-nature, the blind men mean that all people are not bright.
This Buddhism story is trying to tell us that our people in the world are all somewhat blind to know the complete truth of Buddha-nature. Only through the guidance of Buddha and his canon can we know the big picture of Buddha-nature.
Well, more generally, in this fable story, the blind men insisted their own idea and could not reach common understanding on how the elephant was like. This story is trying to warn people that one cannot judge things superficially just from partial impression and knowledge.
The ninth blind man: my little contribution
There was a ninth blind men who was kept away from the elephant but also eager to know what it looks like. He heard the heated discussion among other blind men who cannot agree with each other. Since he did not touch it by himself, he was not biased on any of those opinions. He realized that his friends were just touching parts of that big animal. So he knows a elephant looks like a combination of carrot, fan, rock, pipe, pillar, bed, pot, and rope.
Well, I know this is an ugly add-on. What I am trying to say is that being a blind man is not always an embarrassing losing position. Sometimes it is the no choice reality, such as in many science research situations. The subject is totally a black box. We are technically blind. We cannot see a big picture.
What we can do is only to tackle it part by part with small size experiments. We record the feedback readout from the black box one experiment after another. And eventually one day, we (or the ninth blind man) will realize, wow, the elephant actually looks like THAT!