Again with the Elephants…

by Adam T. Miller

A few years ago, I started teaching an introductory religious studies course online. While I have since had the opportunity to redevelop the course, initially it was just something I inherited—syllabus, textbook, assignments, all of it. In thinking through how to make the best use of what I had, I wrote a blog called “My Inherited Elephant” (initially posted on my now deactivated personal blog, later picked up by Practicum and the Bulletin).

In that post, I discuss how Gary Kessler—whose textbook I still use—tells the old Buddhist story of the blind men and the elephant[1] in order to promote pluralism and tolerance. Just as the blind men, invited by the king, feel an elephant and come to different conclusions about said elephant on the basis of perfectly legitimate (albeit limited) sensory experiences, so do the religious come to different conclusions about the Sacred on the basis of perfectly legitimate (albeit limited) experiences—so says Kessler, more or less. This story shows, he thinks, that because the source/object (presumed singular) of religious experiences (plural) is beyond our limited human grasp, we should not only acknowledge but also celebrate multiplicity with regard to religious truth.[2]

Now…let’s move back in time several hundred years.

In the fourth century, a monk by the name of Asaṅga wrote a treatise called the Summary of the Great Vehicle (Mahāyānasaṃgraha). Therein, he advances a number of views that have since been associated with the Yogācāra school of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In so doing, he discusses dependent co-arising (pratītyasamutpāda)—a doctrine likely familiar to anyone who has had to teach anything about Buddhism at any point—in relation to the comparatively newer idea of the container/storehouse consciousness (ālayavijñāna). More specifically, Asaṅga says that Mahāyāna thinking on the issue of dependent co-arising is more sophisticated than previous iterations because it distinguishes two levels of the process, or two ways of looking at it—the objective and the subjective.

Objectively speaking, dependent co-arising eliminates any beginning to the processes that constitute the world of experience. Subjectively speaking, it eliminates a static, discrete, experiencing self. But not everyone knows this. And indeed, people are predisposed not to. On this, Asaṅga writes:

“They are like the blind men who had never before encountered an elephant. When someone showed them one and had them feel it, some touched its trunk, some its tusk, some its ear, some its foot, some its tail, and some its flank. When asked what an elephant was, some of the blind men responded that it was like a plow handle, others that it was like a wooden pestle, a fan, a mortar, a broom, or a mountain rock.”

Here we can imagine a pluralist interjecting—“yes, and this is why we all agree that no one has it all right, but everyone has something right.” But this is not where Asaṅga goes. “People do not understand these two kinds of dependent co-arising,” he continues,

“because they are blinded by primal ignorance. Whether they claim that the cause of transmigration is an original essence, past actions, the creative action of a god, the self with its eight inherent qualities, or that there is no cause, or whether they imagine a self as the subject of action and experience, because they do not understand the basic pattern of the container consciousness and its cause-result relationship, they are like those blind men who, not recognizing the shape of the elephant, offered such strange explanations” (BDK trans., 21).

People don’t understand how the container consciousness works—and that’s why they offer all these silly explanations of how the world works. If only they could see the big picture…

That’s Asaṅga’s straightforwardly non-pluralist story, and he’s sticking to it.

As Russell McCutcheon rightly notes in a blog post penned as somewhat of a response to my initial post on Kessler’s use of the story, the story “naturalizes a detached, disconnected, and…rather elitist view of the world—a view in which only some of us float free of the constraints suffered by others and thereby know what’s really going on.”

But the tellings of the story given above allow another basic point to be made, and it’s one Bruce Lincoln has made on a handful of occasions—namely: the same basic story can be deployed and redeployed in various contexts by various tellers in order to advance sometimes radically different claims. In Kessler’s case, the end game is a pluralist society in which all religions are respected and celebrated on account of their partial grasp on truth. For Asaṅga, the end game is quite different–and it involves most people being not partially right, but totally wrong.

[1] More accurately, the story is a South Asian one that had legs in lots of communities.

[2] As it happens, this is more or less the moral of the story according to its Wikipedia entry: “The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to project their partial experiences as the whole truth, ignore other people’s partial experiences, and one should consider that one may be partially right and may have partial information.”

Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Book Review Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He is interested in method and theory in the study of religion, Indian Buddhist history and literature, and the histories of the History of Religions and Buddhist Studies. His most recent research investigates how narrative depictions of affective responses to the ritualized dissemination of Dharma discourses in Mahāyāna literature might shed light on the sociology of the Mahāyāna in India during (roughly) the first five centuries of the Common Era. His work can be followed on Academia.

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