Apr 23, 2023
Martin Goodson

The Blind Men and the Elephant

How Forms Shape Perspectives

Why is it that we don’t see things clearly?



The title of this essay refers to a parable given by the Buddha in the Udāna, which is part of the early scriptures of Buddhism known as the Pali Canon. This parable pre-dates the Buddha, but he used it to show how dispute arises between scholars who cling to their own understanding of the scriptures.

The Udāna sets the scene, telling us that the king invites a group of men who are blind to feel an elephant, a creature, which for some reason, they have never come into contact with before. Once they have been placed around the elephant, they are told they can now examine what is in front of them.

When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: "Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?”

Each of the men replies that the elephant is  like ‘something’. This something is a thing with which each must have been previously familiar:

The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephant's head), a winnowing basket (ear), a plowshare (tusk), a plow (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).


After each has spoken, the men fall into dispute with each other.

There are two points for us here. One is that each one describes the unfamiliar thing in terms of something else that is familiar. The other is that each sees their ‘truth’ as the whole of the truth.

We may already see that the problem the men run into is similar to the one we encountered with emptying the cup. There is a ‘stickiness’ to each notion each man has and there is some kind of identification with it that makes anything that ‘threatens’ it something personal.

In a way, there is truth in what each man has to say. They know that what they are feeling is not actually a winnowing basket, plowshare etc. They know it is ‘like’ something and yet each thinks that the truth of the matter is restricted to that thing they recognise.

You are probably familiar with those TV programmes where a couple are seeking to move home to a new part of the country and, having given their specifications to the TV host, they are taken around three properties to see if they find their ideal home.

Let’s say they are shown a lovely house. After the viewing, one half of the couple,  says something like: “Yes, this ticks all the boxes on our list.” But the other says: “H’mm. But it doesn’t feel like ‘home’, you know what I mean?”

The first one again says: “But it is everything that we asked for.”  “On paper, yes, but I don’t really know until I’m here if it is exactly right” says the second person.

Oh dear! We can see where this is going.

Perhaps you have experienced something like this with a partner or friend? I know I have and it can be really irritating.

There seems to be two very different ways of seeing the same situation and they are not seen as compatible with each other. Because of this difference, we  tend to gravitate towards or attract towards us those who are like- minded and with whom we agree.

Sometimes, it is not two different people who have differing perspectives it can be one person at two different times.

In The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Green, 19 year old Kit (Katherine) works for a large corporation that has developed the technology to project consciousness into animal avatars. Because of human children's brain plasticity they are the best subjects to be able to project. The labs breed special animal avatars for the children to  ‘ride’ on so that their consciousness can occupy these animal bodies and direct their actions. Kit is part of a project that involves researching the lives of urban foxes. In the story she takes the form of a fox for several months. This fox lives in the back garden of a derelict house. During this time, she is in constant contact with a mentor called Buckley. Once she returns to her human body, they visit the house. When Kit arrives, she is convinced they have come to the wrong place as she does not recognise the garden. Buckley assures her that this is the right place, but as she is seeing it now with her human eyes it looks unrecognisable since she has only ever been there as a fox.

If you are interested in how different forms and the nature of those forms create different perspectives,k this is a book I would highly recommend reading.  The author has a wonderful and sensuous way of describing the many different ways animals perceive the world.

This linking together of form and a perspective is an aspect of ‘perspectivism’, a philosophical school that says that different beings inhabit different worlds of perspective. This is not to say that each being lives in a separate world, obviously not, but it does argue that no being can know the whole of reality because of the limitations of the perceptual apparatus of each being.

Buddhism comes close to some aspects of this, particularly the later development called Mahayana Buddhism and the Yogacāra schools which, at times, came close to making irrelevant an ‘objective’ world outside of mind or consciousness. However, the teachings of the Buddha posited a mysterious ground of being variously known as ‘unproduced’ or ‘uncreated’ or ‘unborn’ from which all beings arise. This fundamental principle ultimately ‘informs’ all forms and thus all beings. As we shall discover in a subsequent chapter this is called the ‘true body of the Buddha’.

However, the early Buddhists did postulate a multi-world view with that classic symbol known as The Wheel of Life. This ‘wheel’ consists of a round cake-like design split into six equal slices. Each slice consists of a world or realm, each populated by six types of being - deities, fighting demons, animals, hell beings, hungry ghosts and human beings. These six realms fuse together mental categories and the physical world. Each realm differs from the other due to the perspectives of the inhabitants. Like Kit (human form) and her fox avatar (animal form), the realms can be unrecognisable one from the other even though they are in the same ‘place’.

One area that perspectivism has taken hold is in the discipline of anthropology.

In particular, this is in the work of the South American anthropologists , Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Eduardo Kohn. The latter’s book How Forests Think proposes that all living things have self-hood, which we might think of as consciousness, since all beings (both plant and animal), use systems of symbols and signifiers and can thus learn. This is obviously, a controversial notion, but one that has gained some traction. In Kohn’s theory, beings live in an ecosystem of ‘selves’ that are constantly interacting one with the other in reflexive relationships. This ecosystem is not just amongst visible selves (organisms), but beings that are also invisible. Kohn worked amongst the Runa people of the Amazon basin; for them the forest is populated by flora and fauna but also by beast master spirits and the spirits of the ancestors.

The interactions of an ecosystem of ‘selves’ some seen and some unseen takes us into territory that begins to look ‘something like’ [1] the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination, another subject that will be looked at in a later chapter, particularly as it was developed in Chinese Buddhism  into the idea of Indra’s Net by the Hua Yen school.

The great god Indra is the Hindu deity who rules over a universe of interacting forms. Each may look separate from the outside but in truth each is woven like a jewel into a three-dimensional net that extends throughout the universe. Each jewel reflects, not only itself, but also every other jewel in that net. Any change in any one jewel reflects simultaneously in every other jewel. This is an image that has many resonances but certainly has something of the feel of an ecosystem too.

The fact that this net is not clearly visible to us points to the notion already indicated  that there are some things/beings that are not seen. This view of reality, that there is a world that can be seen and one that is unseen, seems to exist in every religion. Whether it is conceived (perceived) as a realm of spirits - gods, angels, demons, spirits of the dead etc. and the realm of ‘man’, or as a psychological realm of conscious awareness and an unconscious realm, both conceptions concur that the unseen affects the seen. Whether we are discussing streaks of good and bad luck, hauntings, intuitions, post-traumatic-stress disorder or unconscious bias, we are discussing the relationship between the seen and the unseen.

It is the making conscious of this agency of the unseen upon the seen and its ramifications for how the two are always in some form of communication, that we will turn to in a later essay.

[1] ‘something like’ is a term borrowed from Gordon White’s book ‘Ani.Mystic’. This term allows comparison of two things without making the mistake of ‘smooshing’ it all together and saying that all things are the same e.g. ‘All goddesses are the one goddess.’

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