History of Buddhism and Elephants

Buddhism and Elephants
The Buddha once told the story of the blind men and the elephant
(Uda¯na 69f.). A former king of the town of Sa¯vatthi, he related, ordered
all his blind subjects to be assembled and divided into groups. Each
group was then taken to an elephant and introduced to a different part
of the animal – the head, trunk, legs, tail, and so forth. Afterwards, the
king asked each group to describe the nature of the beast. Those who
had made contact with the head described an elephant as a water-pot;
those familiar with the ears likened the animal to a winnowing-basket;
those who had touched a leg said an elephant was like a post, and those
who had felt a tusk insisted an elephant was shaped like a peg. The
groups then fell to arguing amongst themselves each insisting its
definition was correct and all the others were wrong.
The study of Buddhism over the past century or so has resembled the
encounter of the blind men and the elephant in many ways. Students of
Buddhism have tended to fasten onto a small part of the tradition and
assume their conclusions held true about the whole. Often the parts
they have seized on have been a little like the elephant’s tusks – a
striking, but unrepresentative, part of the whole animal. As a result,
many erroneous and sweeping generalizations about Buddhism have
been made, such as that it is ‘negative’, ‘world-denying’, ‘pessimistic’,
and so forth. Although this tendency to over-generalize is now less
common, it is still found in some of the older literature where authors

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