Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Elephant


     In the Pali Udāna, the Book of Inspired Utterances, there is a discourse with the obscure name Pahamanānātitthiya Sutta, the First Discourse on Various Sectarians (Udāna 6:4). Although the name of this ancient sutta is relatively unknown even in Buddhist countries, it contains one of the most famous parables of all time, the Simile of the Blind Men and the Elephant.

     Thus have I heard: At one time the Blessed One was residing in Sāvatthī, in the Jeta Grove, at Anāthapiṇḍika's Park. Also at that time many philosophers, priests, and wanderers of various sects were staying in Sāvatthī, favoring various views, entertaining various beliefs, endorsing various opinions, dependent, living in dependence, upon various views.
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is not eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is finite. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The world is infinite. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The vital essence is the same as the body. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "The vital essence is one thing, the body is another. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being exists after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     There were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being does and does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     And there were some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: "A fully enlightened being neither does nor does not exist after death. Only this is true; anything else is wrong."
     They, fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, kept stabbing each other with verbal daggers---"The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!" "The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!"
     Then a number of monks, having dressed in the morning time and having taken their alms bowls and outer robes, entered Sāvatthī for alms. Having gone for alms in Sāvatthī, after their meal, returning from almsround they approached the Blessed One. Having approached the Blessed One, and having paid respect, they sat down at one side. Sitting at one side those monks said this to the Blessed One: "At present, venerable sir, many philosophers, priests, and wanderers of various sects are staying in Sāvatthī, favoring various views, entertaining various beliefs, endorsing various opinions, dependent, living in dependence, upon various views. 
     "There are some philosophers and priests with a doctrine and a view like this: 'The world is eternal. Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong'…[repeat the entire list of various views]…They, fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, keep stabbing each other with verbal daggers---'The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!' 'The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!'"
     [The Buddha:] "It once happened, monks, that in this very city of Sāvatthī there was a certain king. Now, monks, that king called a certain manservant---'Come now good fellow manservant, however many there are in Sāvatthī who have been blind from birth, collect them all in one place.' 'As you say, Lord,' replied, monks, that manservant to the king, and however many there were in Sāvatthī who were born blind, he got all of them and then approached the king. Having approached him, he said this to the king: 'Lord, all those in Sāvatthī who were born blind have been collected together.' 'Well then my good man, show to those blind from birth an elephant.' 'As you say, Lord.' replied, monks, that manservant to the king, and he showed to those blind from birth an elephant.
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's head---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's ear---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's tusk---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's trunk---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's body---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's foot---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's thigh---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the elephant's tail---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "To some blind from birth he showed the brushy tip of the elephant's tail---'You born blind, an elephant is like this.'
     "Then, monks, the king approached those who had been blind from birth. Having approached them, he said this to those blind from birth: 'You born blind, an elephant has been viewed by you?' 'As you say, Lord. An elephant has been viewed by us.' 'Then tell me, you born blind, what is an elephant like?'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's head had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a water pot.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's ear had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a winnowing tray.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's tusk had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a big peg.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's trunk had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a plowbeam.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's body had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a large storage bin.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's foot had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a column.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's thigh had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a big mortar.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the elephant's tail had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a pestle.'
     "Monks, those blind from birth by whom the brushy tip of the elephant's tail had been viewed spoke thus: 'An elephant is like this, Lord, just like a broom.'
     "Saying, 'An elephant is like this, an elephant is not like that!' 'An elephant is not like that, an elephant is like this!' they punched each other with their fists. And with that, monks, the king was made glad.
     "Even so, monks, these wanderers of other sects are blind, eyeless; they do not know the Goal (attha), and do not know what is not the Goal. They do not know the Way (dhamma), and do not know what is not the Way. They, not knowing the Goal, not knowing what is not the Goal, not knowing the Way, not knowing what is not the Way, are fallen to disputing and quarreling, deeply engaged in argument, and keep stabbing each other with verbal daggers---'The Way is like this, the Way is not like that!' 'The Way is not like that, the Way is like this!'"
     Then the Blessed One, having comprehended this matter, on that occasion uttered this inspired utterance:

               It is known some philosophers and priests are attached with regard to these things,
               Fellows who see just a single side, take up a position, and contend.

     Although this parable is one of the most well known stories in all of Buddhist literature, familiar to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, the deep moral of the story is almost universally missed, again by both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The moral of the story, clearly, is that one-sided points of view do not comprehend the whole truth, and thus are not entirely correct and should not be clung to or depended upon. This sort of misguided adherence to a limited point of view is not only the basis of fanaticism but is also the very essence of all error and delusion.
     The trouble is that every point of view is necessarily limited, for the simple reason that it is a point of view.
     So as early schools of Buddhism, including Theravada, developed their own interpretations of Dharma and systematized them, they necessarily developed their own points of view by attempting to walk the razor's edge between the particular extreme views pointed out as invalid by the Buddha, such as eternalism ("we have an eternal soul") and annihilationism ("when you're dead you're dead"). But, as the invalid view about the neither existence nor nonexistence of an enlightened being after death implies, or other ancient texts indicate by declaring even existence and nonexistence, or unity and plurality, to be unacceptable extremes, such attempts still result in limited points of view, and consequently in a blindly, partially groped elephant.
     And so it is evident that Theravada became yet another sect pretty quickly in its history, with its own versions of "Only this is true; anything otherwise is wrong." Thus we see in Burma, for example, the followers of the Mahasi system holding the elephant's trunk and declaring that an elephant is like a plowbeam, and the followers of the Pah Auk system holding the elephant's ear and declaring that an elephant is like a winnowing fan (and intelligently explaining why the Mahasi people couldn't possibly understand what an elephant is really like), with some of the Mahayana Buddhists holding the elephant's head and looking down on the Buddhists of the "Lesser Vehicle" for failing to realize that an elephant is just like a water pot. Meanwhile, the Christians are at the other end holding on to the elephant's tail and insisting that the only way to be saved is to believe in the gospel truth that an elephant is like a pestle, or a broom (the Catholics and the Protestants are not in agreement on this issue), with every other philosopher and priest, including the priests of Scientism, holding some part or other of the elephant and making authoritative assertions about it. Those who show some flexibility and are willing to vary with regard to which of the elephant's members to grope are often ostracized for being erratic and unreliable, and soft-headed besides.
     Yet examining various systems, each with its own necessarily limited perspective, may lead to valuable insight. For example, if one reads the spiritual literature of the world, one may see that the great saint and sage Ramana Maharshi worshiped a hill; the extremely advanced Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba worshiped a deified monkey; Saint John of the Cross and his mentor Saint Teresa of Avila, both of whom apparently were adept meditation masters who had attained mystical union with "God," worshiped the Virgin Mary and believed that a cracker they ate at certain ceremonies was literally the flesh of a Hebrew carpenter who created the universe; and even the greatest sages of South Asian Theravada Buddhism have accepted the idea of a flat earth floating on water, with a 10,000,000 mile high mountain in the center, with the sun and moon, each only a few hundred miles in diameter, orbiting the central mountain…and so on. It seems that extremely wise people can endorse some very strange points of view.
     But endorsing a point of view is not necessarily the same as clinging to it. I love repeating the following words of Arthur Schopenhauer:
     And what I have described here with feeble tongue, and only in general terms, is not some philosophical fable, invented by myself and only of today. No, it was the enviable life of so many saints and great souls among the Christians, and even more among the Hindus and Buddhists, and also among the believers of other religions….[I]t has been known directly and expressed in deed by all those saints and ascetics who, in spite of the same inner knowledge, used very different language according to the dogmas which their faculty of reason had accepted, and in consequence of which an Indian, a Christian, or a Lamaist saint must each give a very different account of his own conduct; but this is of no importance at all as regards the fact. A saint may be full of the most absurd superstition, or, on the other hand, may be a philosopher; it is all the same. His conduct alone is evidence that he is a saint; for, in a moral regard, it springs not from abstract knowledge, but from intuitively apprehended, immediate knowledge of the world and of its inner nature, and is expressed by him through some dogma only for the satisfaction of his faculty of reason.*
     I used to have great difficulty in accepting the possibility of this; if an enlightened being can still go along with absurd mythologies and narrow-minded dogmas, then what good is enlightenment? Isn't enlightenment the cessation of delusion? I've gradually come to consider that a truly objective, objectively true view of the world is just another absurd myth. Maybe it doesn't exist any more than does the 10,000,000 mile high Mt. Meru.
     It seems to me that what the Buddha tried to do was to present a way of being which led to this immediate, comprehensive, intuitive knowledge of reality with an absolute minimum of theoretical points of view which could be clung to and argued over; thereby making Buddhism, to use another elephant simile, like the footprint of the elephant, which can contain all other footprints within its great span. All limited views would thus fit within it. However, for the mind of later Buddhist philosophers this created an unacceptable vacuum, a lack of anything to chew on, creating feelings of disorientation and distress like those of a fish deprived of water. The dogmas the Buddha tried to set aside were reestablished shortly after his disappearance from this world, in a form subtle enough that Buddhist philosophers could declare them to be not limited points of view, but Truth. The ancient admonitions to harbor no view (diṭṭhi, literally, "what is seen") came to be interpreted as admonitions to harbor no wrong view---thereby leaving the door wide open to the harboring of Right View or orthodox Buddhist View, which were determined to be synonymous. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna tried to rectify this situation by returning to the philosophical Emptiness of the Master, but was rejected by the older schools, and unnecessarily elaborated upon by the newer ones.
     Bearing all this in mind, it is presumably a good idea carefully to investigate and consider many points of view, but not to take any of them very seriously. This includes our own religion, Scientism, political correctness, common sense, and everything else.


* From Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, translated by E.F.J.Payne (Dover 1969).

     


     










2 comments:

  1. I don't know anything about the 10,000,000 mile mountain. Interesting. Would you explain a little about this from your tradition?

    Within your quote of Schopenhauer it says, "His conduct alone is evidence that he is a saint." In all that the above saints "believed", their conduct is what made them so. My guess is love, humility, kindness, and wisdom drove these beings, just being near them made people know their "perfection."

    Perhaps saints in their own way knew their way was only an aspect of an elephant, but their absolute faith and acceptance of it yeided to their enlightenment, and also their perceived eccentricities. Thus, it was only their unenlightened follower who make each saints truth "absolute," and their adversaries who notice these saints peculiarities.

    Being a self-proclaimed philosopher and a senior Theravadin monk, how has your point of view changed over the years, most specifically in relation to the wisdom of this simile?

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    1. Ancient Indian cosmology asserted that the world is disc-shaped with a huge mountain named Meru or Sumeru in the center. The deities of the Vedic pantheon were supposed to live on top of it, much like the Greeks put their gods and goddesses on top of Mt. Olympus.

      My point of view hasn't changed all that much, I suppose, although over the years I've been struck again and again by how very advanced sages endorse all sorts of strange ideas depending on their cultural conditioning. One major change has been how the idea that the intellect can't really know the Truth has been slowly sinking in past the intellectual level. (You seem very heart-oriented, so I may as well say that the heart probably can't know the Truth either.) Another thing I've learned is the value of interaction with and feedback from others (like you, for example).

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