Artwork by Kathryn Fanelli, 2011
Artwork by Kathryn Fanelli, 2011

The Buddha tells the following story in the Khuddaka Nikaya (Udana 6.4): Once upon a time in the city of Shravasti there lived a king. One day, the king instructed a servant to round up in one place a gathering of men who had been blind since birth. “The blind men have been assembled, your majesty,” said the man. The king further instructed him to introduce an elephant to this group of men, such that each could examine it for himself. “This, sir, is an elephant,” the servant said to each of the blind men in turn. But to the first he presented the head of the elephant, to the second, the ear, and so in turn to the rest of the blind men he presented the tusk, trunk, body, foot, backside, tail, and tuft of the tail. At this point the king approached the blind men and asked of each, “Tell me, sir, what is an elephant like?” Each answered according to his own experience, saying in turn that the elephant was like a water pot, a winnowing basket, a plowshare, a plow pole, a granary, a pillar, a mortar, a pestle, and a broom.

This much of the tale is generally well known. But how it ends, and the point the Buddha was making by telling this story, is less commonly recognized. We understand the point that any single thing might have multiple different components and perspectives, and that our understanding of any particular issue is going to be limited by the extent of our own direct experience. But in its original telling the story goes on to say that these nine blind men began quarrelling about the nature of the elephant, each one saying, “The elephant is like this, not like that,” and “The elephant is not like that, it is like this.” Eventually they came to blows and began striking one another with their fists. The king who had called them all together sat back and watched, we are told, with great amusement. The entire enterprise had been, from the start, a form of entertainment for the king.

The Buddha told this story in response to a conflict between many teachers of different traditions living in the same vicinity. Not only did they all have differing views, opinions, and beliefs, but they also depended upon these differing views for their livelihood. And it may not entirely surprise us to hear that “they lived arguing, quarreling, and disputing, stabbing each other with verbal daggers, saying, ‘The dhamma is like this, it’s not like that,’ and ‘The dhamma is not like that, it’s like this.’” Does any of this sound familiar?

What the king seemed to know is the extent to which views, beliefs, and opinions in human beings link directly to very primitive instincts for defending what belongs to oneself and attacking what is regarded as belonging to others. The whole enterprise of creating “belonging” as part of our construction of reality, along with the sense of “self” to which it all belongs, is perceived by the Buddha to be the root cause of the suffering we inflict upon ourselves and others. It is one thing to have a difference of opinion with someone else; it is something else entirely to have this difference become the basis for stoking the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion.

It is natural that most issues are complex, and that people will have different perspectives on them. It is also inevitable that most perspectives will derive from a limited range of experience and are unlikely to embrace the whole. It may be further understandable that people express their differences of opinion, engaging in mutual dialogue and debate. What is utterly unnecessary, the Buddha seems to be is saying here, is that such differences need to escalate to stabbing each other with verbal daggers, striking one another with fists, and worse. At that tipping point, something profoundly unhealthy happens, as primordial mechanisms of aggression and defense kick in. Once this happens, the original content of the dispute is lost and the impulses of the self take over: the need to establish oneself, defend oneself, aggrandize oneself, and generally attack and injure anything viewed as not in agreement with oneself.

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