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Chapter 6: Do Things Exist Only When Perceived?!

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

A number of disciples went to 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 other 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?

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 six 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.'

The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. ‘How smooth! An elephant is like a wall.' The second blind man put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. ‘How round! An elephant is like a snake.'

The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. ‘How sharp! An elephant is like a spear.' The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. ‘How tall! An elephant is like a tree!' The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. ‘How wide! An elephant is like a fan!' The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. ‘How thin! An elephant is like a rope!'

An argument ensued, each blind man thinking his own perception of the elephant was correct. The raja, awakened by the commotion, called out from the balcony. ‘The elephant is big,' he said. ‘Each man touched only one part. You must put all parts together to find out what an elephant is like.'”

Historical Background

This ancient fable is the reflection of an ancient cognitive relativism by the ancient sophists, particularly Protagoras, who began his work ‘Truth' with the famous statement: “Man is a measure of all things – of things that are, that they are, of things that they are not.”

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