The blind men and the elephant

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”

The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja 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?’

“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.
“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.”
Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,

“O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim,
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

– from the Tittha Sutta.

The tail of the snake

We human beings don’t want suffering. We want nothing but pleasure. But actually, pleasure is nothing but subtle suffering. Pain is blatant suffering. To put it in simple terms, suffering and pleasure are like a snake. Its head is suffering; its tail is pleasure. Its head contains poison. Its mouth contains poison. If you get near its head, it’ll bite you. If you catch hold of its tail it seems safe, but if you hold onto its tail without letting go, it can turn around and bite you just the same. That’s because both the head of the snake and the tail of the snake are on the same snake.

Both happiness and sadness come from the same parents: craving and delusion. That’s why there are times when you’re happy but still restless and ill at ease — even when you’ve gotten things you like, such as material gain, status, and praise. When you get these things you’re happy, but your mind isn’t really at peace because there’s still the sneaking suspicion that you’ll lose them. You’re afraid they’ll disappear. This fear is the cause that keeps you from being at peace. Sometimes you actually do lose these things and then you really suffer. This means that even though these things are pleasant, suffering lies fermenting in the pleasure. We’re simply not aware of it. Just as when we catch hold of a snake: Even though we catch hold of its tail, if we keep holding on without letting go, it can turn around and bite us.

So the head of the snake and the tail of the snake, evil and goodness: These form a circle that keeps turning around. That’s why pleasure and pain, good and bad are not the path.

– Ajahn Chah, Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition.

The Worm and the Heavenly Being

There were once two monks who lived together in a monastery for many years; they were great friends. Then they died within a few months of one another.

One of them got reborn in the heaven realms, the other monk got reborn as a worm in a dung pile.

The one up in the heaven realms was having a wonderful time, enjoying all the heavenly pleasures. But he started thinking about his friend, “I wonder where my old mate has gone?” So he scanned all of the heaven realms, but could not find a trace of his friend. Then he scanned the realm of human beings, but he could not see any trace of his friend there, so he looked in the realm of animals and then of insects. Finally he found him, reborn as a worm in a dung pile…

“Wow!”, he thought, “I am going to help my friend. I am going to go down there to that dung pile and take him up to the heavenly realm so he too can enjoy the heavenly pleasures and bliss of living in these wonderful realms.”

So he went down to the dung pile and called his mate. And the little worm wriggled out and said, “Who are you?”.

“I am your friend. We used to be monks together in a past life, and I have come up to take you to the heaven realms where life is wonderful and blissful.” But the worm said, “Go away, get lost!”

“But I am your friend, and I live in the heaven realms,” and he described the heaven realms to him. But the worm said, “No thank you, I am quite happy here in my dung pile. Please go away.”

Then the heavenly being thought, “Well if I could only just grab hold of him and take him up to the heaven realms, he could see for himself.” So he grabbed hold of the worm and started tugging at him; and the harder he tugged, the harder that worm clung to his pile of dung.

– Unknown origin, told by Ajahn Brahm, Theravada.

Two monks and a woman

Two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walked side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger of the two monks for help. He exclaimed, ‘Don’t you see that I am a monk, that I took a vow of chastity?’

‘I require nothing from you that could impede your vow, but simply to help me to cross the river,’ replied the young woman with a little smile.

‘I…not…I can…do nothing for you,’ said the embarrassed young monk.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ said the elderly monk. ‘Climb on my back and we will cross together.’

Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left her side and both monks continued their route in silence. Close to the monastery, the young monk could not stand it anymore and said, ‘You shouldn’t have carried that person on your back. It’s against our rules.’

‘This young woman needed help and I put her down on the other bank. You didn’t carry her at all, but she is still on your back,’ replied the older monk.

– Unknown