The Parable of the Elephant

The parable of the elephant (I call it that – it seems to have other names too) is supposed to have originated in the Indian subcontinent a long time ago, but it has been passed down in other forms.  You may have heard it in a classroom used as a teachable moment or parable. I heard it in a workshop presentation.

examining the elephant
Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One version of the story:

Four blind people come upon an elephant in the forest. But they have never had any experience with an elephant. Each person attempts to determine what is before them.
The first person touches and explores the elephant’s trunk. “It is like a snake.” 

“There is a column,” says the next explorer leaning on the huge leg.
Feeling a bit threatened, the elephant trumpets an alarm. “It’s like a horn.” 
The elephant starts moving away and the fourth person freezes in place. “It’s an earthquake!”

The story is ancient and the first recorded version of the story may be in a Buddhist text (Udana 6.4) dated to about the mid-first millennium BCE.

In the many variations you can find, the people are monks, all men, genderless people (the one I use here), children and even modern-day scientists. Some versions have the elephant’s tusk being like a spear or the leg like a tree trunk. I found an alternate version of the parable with sighted men encountering a large statue in total darkness or being blindfolded as an experiment.

And what is the moral or lesson?

Generally, the moral of the parable is that humans tend to claim absolute truth based on their own limited and subjective experiences.   Further, we also sometimes ignore other people’s equally subjective experiences – all of which might have some validity.

The story is used to illustrate how the “truth” is what we have determined by our own incomplete experience without taking into account other people’s experiences and additional observation and information.

In a more moralistic sense, the story points to approaching new things with greater empathy and putting ourselves “into other people’s shoes.”

In the 19th century, the American poet John Godfrey Saxe created his own version as a poem. That version concludes with an actual moral stated that explains that the elephant is a metaphor for God. The blind men represent religions that disagree on something no one has fully experienced.

I heard this story in a workshop presentation as a way of illustrating systems thinking. That interdisciplinary study looks at interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made. Systems are “bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.”

In the presentation I heard, the story was about networks, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In that “web of life” way, we know now that changing one part of a system will affect other parts or the whole system, and that a system may be more than the sum of its parts. It can express synergy or emergent behavior. The system could also be a natural environment and the people who live in and near it, such as a wetland.

The more modern uses of the story use it in ways unknown and unintended by the original storytellers, but the moral is broadly the same: we need to seek the truth through the observations of ourselves combined with those of others before we conclude what that truth might be.


Nails of Anger



I have read this story in several versions on different websites over the years. It’s a teaching story, a parable, a long Zen koan. This is my own recollection of the story filtered through different versions and through a somewhat faulty memory.

There was a young boy who unfortunately had a very bad temper. One day at the start of summer, his father gave him a hammer and a box of nails. He told his son that every time he lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail into the back of their fence.

Just on the first day, an angry day, the boy slammed two dozen nails into that fence.

But the number of nails decreased every day.

Maybe each nail was a solid reminder of his anger. Looking at the nail heads was a reminder of how many angry moments the boy had over the weeks. Maybe pounding nails was a way to release that anger. I think it was both of those things working together.

It worked. By the dog days of August, the boy didn’t lose his temper very much. He didn’t hammer any nails for three days in a row.

His father was proud of his son, but the lesson was not over.

The father told his son that it was now time to pull out one nail each day that he was able to hold his temper. Removing nails took the boy through the end of summer and into autumn.

It was just before Thanksgiving when the boy came to his father and said that all the nails were gone.

The two of them stood by the fence and his father said, “Look at all the holes in the fence. Even with the nails removed, the fence is forever changed. It will remain scarred. When you say or do things in anger, it leaves a scar. Even if you remove those nails, the wound remains in some form. Making up for things we have done that are wrong is good. Forgiveness is good. But some wounds don’t heal, and some people cannot forgive. Think before you drive a nail of anger.”