79 – The Blind Leading the Blind

In a reality that is continually changing, our views are limited in space and time. The result is that we are essentially the blind leading the blind. In this episode, I will discuss the teaching of the blind men and the elephant and share 5 tips for people who are in mixed-belief relationships (we all are).

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Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 79. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.

So the parable of the blind men and the elephant, this expression of the blind leading the blind, this is what I want to talk about today. So in the original parable, you have six blind men who approach an elephant, and they touch it in different places. They begin to describe it based on where they touch it. One describes the tail, another describes the trunk, another the leg, another the ears, and so on. The idea is that all six are certain that their experience of having felt the elephant is the accurate and correct interpretation, while failing to understand that the other descriptions were also correct, and that their own descriptions were also incorrect since they each only felt one part of the elephant.

Now, I heard this parable once in the context of, okay, there are all these blind men describing this thing, but how fortunate for us, or the person who’s not blind, to be able to see the whole picture. And I think this is something that makes this parable a little bit difficult to fully wrap our heads around because most of us who think of this parable are probably not blind, so the idea of being blind is already difficult to truly comprehend. So I think it’s very easy to make the mistake approaching this parable thinking, “Okay, I get it. All these blind people trying to describe the elephant. I get why they don’t get it. But I, I can picture an elephant. I’ve been to the zoo or I’ve seen them in videos, so I have the whole picture. I know that the elephant isn’t just the tail because I can see the ears and I can see the tusks and I can see everything else that makes the elephant the elephant.”

But the moment we do that, I think we’re misinterpreting the deep lesson of the elephant, so I think the mistake of the parable is thinking that you are not like the blind men. You have the bigger picture, you understand, but what the Buddha was trying to accomplish, in my opinion, with this parable was to truly convey the reality that we are all like the blind men. So let’s just tweak this and update this parable a little bit. A scenario that I think works really well for me, imagine yourself in any part of space, and you’re in space and you’re looking back at the moon. You’ve probably seen these pictures of … or not at the moon, at earth. You’ve seen pictures from the moon looking at earth, or just pictures from space looking at our earth, and there is earth. From wherever you are in space looking at earth, it’s going to look unique to depending on where you are, if you’re on one side of the planet versus in space on the other side of the planet, right? And of course, the planet is rotating.

But at any given moment, wherever you are in space, whatever you’re looking at is an incomplete picture because there’s the entire other side of the planet that you can’t see. And it doesn’t matter where you go, if you’re at the top or the bottom or where you are in space looking at the planet, you’re going to encounter this issue, which is that you cannot see the whole picture. It’s literally impossible to see the whole picture at the same time. That I think is starting to get closer to the deep lesson of this parable of the blind men. You cannot see the whole picture. It’s impossible.

Now you complicate this a little bit more by thinking of time. So we know that in terms of space, wherever you are, whatever you’re looking at, when you’re looking at the planet, is an incomplete picture. We get that. Now add time to it. Whatever you’re looking at when you look at it now is different than what it was before, right? Because if you recall looking at a picture of the planet from space, you see earth or you see land, but you also see water, and then of course you see clouds, all of these incredible patterns of clouds. Well, those are changing from moment to moment. So what I was looking at 10 minutes ago, now I look at it and it’s slightly different. The planet has rotated a little bit. The cloud shapes have all changed just a little bit. It may be very subtle, but give it an hour or give it a day, give it three days, and what you were looking at three days ago is not what you’re looking at now, and what you’re looking at now is not what you’ll be looking at three days from now.

So in terms of space and time, we cannot hold a picture in our head and say this is the accurate picture of the planet that is applicable throughout space and time. It’s impossible. So in the context of space and time, what we have is an ever-changing planet that we’re looking at, and because of that, we are essentially like the blind men. What I’m looking at right now is all I can see, and it’s going to be different in the future. It’s different from what it was in the past and it’s going to be different if I’m standing here or there. That to me really resonates or rings true to what I think the Buddha was trying to accomplish with his explanation of this parable.

Now the thing is, space and time are not the only two variables that influence the perspective we have of the planet … or I guess with the planet, yeah, space and time. But when we’re looking at other things, we’re looking at people, at ideas, at beliefs. Our views are bound not just by space and time, but they’re also influenced by our unique perspective, and our perspective is tied to our culture, our cultural backgrounds. If you were raised in one part of the world versus another, that influences the way that you see things. Your memories, your upbringing, experiences that you’ve had, that will influence how you view things. Of course, inherited beliefs that you get from family or religions, that will also effect the perspective that you have.

So that’s this third dimension, and my friend and teacher Koyo Kubose would say person, place, and time. The view that you have is bound by person, who you are … In other words, your upbringing, your beliefs, your views, your opinions, and everything that makes you, you … place, which is space, and time. So with this understanding of reality, now let’s consider this idea of the blind leading the blind or the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

What this implies is that when it comes to views, when it comes to ideas and beliefs, we are essentially the blind leading the blind because we become so intertwined with our views that we hold so deeply, and we think this is it. This is the absolute way that things are. This is the right belief, or this is the right opinion, or this is the right approach. And the moment that we do that, we fail to recognize person, place, and time. This is just how you see it, and how you see it make sense to you, but it may not make sense to me. It may benefit you, but it certainly doesn’t benefit me, and things of that nature.

So I want to touch on this just a little bit more with an experience that my wife had recently. So my wife is not very … She’s not a dog person, and I know that for some people that’s unfathomable because people who love dogs love dogs, and they cannot understand how on earth somebody could not love a dog. And it’s not just dogs, right? It could be cats, it could be whatever your thing is, whatever the thing is that you love. It’s very difficult to understand how others wouldn’t.

This is also common with kids, right? People who have young kids like I do, you love your kids and you love them climbing all around and saying funny things and doing, and then you go to a restaurant and you think everyone else loves them the way I do. You want to hear this funny joke, or you know? We all know that situation of people who allow their kids to run around or to be jumping on things and they don’t mind, but the other person sitting there might mind. Well, the same is true with dogs or cats or anything else.

So this experience was with dogs. My wife is not very much of a dog person, as I mentioned, and she was out walking, and somebody’s dog wasn’t on the leash and the dog came running over, and my wife is kind of uncomfortable around dogs. So this dog just starts like barking at her and jumping on her, and she’s … She doesn’t really know how to react. Are you supposed to … You know, I don’t want to get in trouble for touching the dog, and she’s like, that’s what’s going on in her mind, right?

So she’s very reluctant that this dog is wanting to jump on her and lick her and be her best friend, and she’s just like, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to be around you.” She was really uncomfortable, and the person came over and said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s a nice dog. He won’t do anything to you.” She was like, “It doesn’t matter. I’m just uncomfortable around him.” She’s like, “Oh, don’t worry. He’s fine. He won’t do anything to you,” and allowed the dog to continue bothering her. So my wife made her way out of there. She had been running I think, and then was really upset the rest of the day, telling me about this experience, and why don’t people leash their dogs and why do they let their dogs jump all over people, and expressions of that nature.

And I had this thought as I was listening to this and thinking about this thinking, it’s interesting how often our own views are like our dogs. It’s like, well, this is my view, and because I understand my view and I like my view, I allow my view to come over and affect you. My view or my belief, right? Or my opinion. And it comes over and it’s like the dog that’s there, and it’s annoying you. You may be uncomfortable with it, but I cannot perceive that because I’m so comfortable with my view, with my opinion, with my belief, with my idea that it doesn’t even enter my mind that you may be very uncomfortable with it.

So I had this thought that sometimes our beliefs are like our dogs, and I think there should be somewhat of a sense of personal responsibility for our own words and views and beliefs to not allow those to come over and jump all over someone else. Now, I get that this can be a touchy subject because when we’re talking about, again, like dogs, people who love dogs are not going to be very happy with anyone dissing on a dog. Well, the same is true with beliefs. Somebody who holds a deeply-held belief is going to be very uncomfortable with someone else coming along and saying, “I don’t agree with that belief or I don’t like it. I’m uncomfortable with it, get it away from me.”

So this is kind of where the scenario, another scenario that I want to link to all of this. I was, a couple weeks ago at work, one of my coworkers across the way was listening to music really loud and was just jamming, and it was like really loud rock or hard rock music, the kind that you would associate with somebody’s really angry, so that’s the style of music they’re going to listen to. Well, it was that kind of music, and it was pretty loud, and I had this thought. Is it appropriate to say, “Hey, your music, I don’t like it. I’m not comfortable with it. Can you turn it down?” And then I thought, I wonder what percentage of people would say, “Yeah, that’s totally appropriate,” and what other percentage of people would say, “No, if you don’t like it, put headphones on or something.”

And again, I’m not … This is not a debate about the music. This was to spark a more important question, which is, well, if that’s the case with somebody’s music, what about what if you’re walking through the park and there’s a preacher standing on the bench and he’s preaching out loud? Is it the same thing? I’m uncomfortable with that message. You shouldn’t be here saying it. Or is it appropriate to say, “Hey, that message that you have, we don’t all want to hear it. You keep that to yourself.” Again, these are just scenarios I present. I’m not trying to assume that there is an answer that’s the right answer. I think it’s something that should be introspective that got me thinking, what are my dogs, my views that I’m comfortable with having them out there and jumping all over people, and it’s maybe never occurred to me that they shouldn’t?

So again, it’s an introspective practice, but I think there’s something fascinating in exploring this mentally. What are the dogs, what are the beliefs, what are the views, and where are those lines? I think about this often with swearing. Somebody might say a swear word, and somebody who’s uncomfortable would say, “Hey, can you please not swear around me?” Well, is that appropriate to control someone else’s swearing, or do you just say, “Well, if you don’t like it, plug your ears and walk away”? Again, a whole range of thoughts to experiment here in your mind, scenarios to play out in your mind, and ask yourself.

Again, this isn’t to say, “Oh, well here’s the right answer,” because if we go back to the analogy of the blind men and the elephant, well, how are you viewing reality? Your reality is skewed by who you are and where you are in space and when you are in time, and so where you stand, this is this way, and where I stand, this is this other way, and you may be really uncomfortable with hearing this word and I may be really fine with hearing that, or … You know? And it gets really touchy when we’re talking about beliefs. You have, in some views, you cannot say certain words. It offends people. In some other ideologies, you cannot draw certain people. It offends them. And a whole range of things. It gets really muddied and really complex really fast because of the amount of views and beliefs that are out there.

So again, it’s just something to keep in mind, and what I want to correlate all of this to specifically is back to a question that has been asked of me before. People have asked, what is it like being in a mixed faith marriage, in a mixed faith relationship, and I always pause and say, “I get why there’s so much concern about that because the general thinking is it’s really hard to make a mixed faith marriage work.” But a part of me wants to say, “Well, is it really that much harder than just being in a mixed belief relationship?” Because everyone’s in one of those. Everyone has mixed beliefs about things when it comes to your relationship with your parents or with your siblings or with your spouse or with your children. You have mixed beliefs, whether you know it or not.

Now, the only difference is how deeply held those beliefs are. Right? I’ve mentioned this before in the podcast. If I have a belief that eggs taste better with hot sauce, and my spouse has the belief that eggs taste better with ketchup, which this is real, this is accurate, it’s not a big deal because it’s not a deeply held belief. It is a belief, but it’s not deeply held, and there’s no sense of a threat that your belief somehow overrides my belief, your belief of ketchup tasting better than hot sauce. But it does get more complex when you’re talking about deeply held beliefs, and I suppose that’s where this question originates from. Like, how do you make a mixed faith marriage work?

Well, I’ll tell you, for me, one thing that’s been really helpful is to view all of my beliefs at the same scale as my hot sauce on the eggs. It’s like, it’s not a big deal to me if I … That’s just how I like my eggs, but it’s not a big deal to acknowledge that there may be a better way. There may be, but I don’t know because I’m content with this one. Now with my bigger views, bigger beliefs like when it comes to existential views, this’ll sound kind of weird, but to me they’re no more important than my smaller views on like what I put on my food. It’s like I think that it might be like this. I think this other view may be very unlikely. I think this one is probably not possible. And I have all these views, but none of them really matter that much to me. I may be dead wrong on all of them.

So that sense of threat is gone on my end, and I think that with one person in the relationship being disarmed, well, how can there be conflict? How can there be a fight? The fight arises and becomes problematic when you have two parties wanting to feel a sense of certainty that their view is correct.

So I want to share a couple of tips for anyone listening to this who’s in a mixed belief relationship, which is all of you. Everyone is in one. I mentioned that before. Here are some tips. First, communicate. Communication is the key, but communication has to happen on equal grounds. When you communicate, you’re trying to express what makes sense to you, what’s meaningful to you. Now, often what you’ll get is the other party wants to present their case, their view in a way that supersedes yours. It’s like a debate, or here’s this convincing argument of why my view is right. Well, what if it’s not right or wrong?

So this leads to the next tip, is change your mindset from right or wrong to skillful and unskillful, because at that point, it becomes a lot more manageable for you to deal in your communication with, well, what’s skillful and what’s not skillful, not about being right or wrong. I don’t care if I’m right, I don’t care if I’m wrong. In fact, I expect to be both of those things quite often. But what is skillful and what is unskillful in my communication with my spouse, that to me is more effective. Now, for me … It’s going to be different for everyone. For me, I understand that that means how I communicate, when I communicate, what topics I communicate. There’s a whole scale of skillful and unskillful that is relevant to the formula of my relationship with my spouse. So it’s not going to be the same for everyone. Again, this becomes part of the introspective work that you do because you need to find what works for you.

Now, this concept of switching from right or wrong to skillful and unskillful, this is for you, not for your … whoever you’re thinking about in your relationship with, whether that be spouse or parent or sibling. The point isn’t to get them on board to think of it like you. No, it’s not going to happen that way. This isn’t about them, this is about you. How do you communicate? So keep that in mind, communication.

So the next thing I would recommend is to try to express your intent. What I mean by that, what’s been helpful for me and my relationship is understanding we have different views, different beliefs, but I try to not focus on what the beliefs are because they’re different. You won’t go anywhere. What I focus on is, what are our shared values? And values to me are much more important. You’ll find that, for the most part, we all have very similar shared values. We want to be happy. We want others to not experienced suffering. Those are shared values that are going to be relatively universal across varying beliefs and ideological systems.

So when you highlight those with your … In my case, like with my spouse, we highlight what our values are and we understand that we have shared values, then the belief becomes secondary. It’s like, well, here’s your belief, but I get that you believed that because ultimately this is the value you espouse. Well, from my perspective, this is the same value I espouse, but my approach to it and my understanding of it may be different because my belief is different, and this is how we arrive at conclusions, like in our case where we sit and talk about … I don’t know, drinking. In Mormonism, you don’t drink. The problem is drinking, right? And from my perspective, there’s no problem with drinking. Well, how do you reconcile that?

Well, what is the shared value? In my case, our shared value is that, well, being intoxicated and not being mindful, that’s not skillful, and we both agree with that. So we arrive at the same shared value even though the belief may be different. Her belief maybe that alcohol is bad and my belief is that alcohol is fine, but both of us agree that you shouldn’t drink when you’re under age and that drinking and being intoxicated is not skillful. I believe that understanding why you drink is very important because someone who drinks as a form of escapism, that’s a very unskillful practice. So things like that. So we find our sense of common ground anchored in the values, not in the beliefs.

Okay. The third tip here is seek to understand. So the first one was communicate, the second one is be willing to express the intent of what you’re communicating, and you do that by, again, going to the values, not the beliefs. This third one is seeking to understand, not to change. Now, in a relationship this is very important because, I’ve mentioned this before, it’s like from an evolutionary standpoint, we are all hardwired to detect threat, to detect acceptance. If we’re accepted by a group, we feel safe. If we’re not accepted or someone’s trying to change us, we have very good systems in place that detect that.

So when you’re communicating with a family member or a loved one with the intent to change that person, whether they consciously know this or not, all of their defenses are up to prevent that, and we do the same. If somebody’s ever communicated with you and you know that there’s another agenda, they’re trying to change you, guess what? You’re not capable of being completely open and accepting with them because your defenses are up. You’re trying to prevent that change from happening.

So instead of trying to change each other, what if we’re just trying to understand each other? Now, in my case, that has been a very profound form … a profound change in our communication style. So rather than listening to each other with the intent of, okay, all right, let me … I’m going to rephrase this back to you so that I can change your mind, it’s not about changing each other. It’s just about understanding. So it’s, okay, well explain this more, and she’ll explain something. Okay. I think I hear where that’s coming from. Where does that come from? Why do you feel that’s so important? And so we’re just continually trying to understand each other, and that has been a very powerful shift, and I think that’s a big part of why the relationship works. Seek to understand, not to change.

The fourth one is embracing discomfort and difficulty. None of this stuff is easy. It’s difficult when you’re communicating with somebody who has a different view than you, whether it be, again, deeply held views and beliefs or just different views. Like you’re driving too fast, and I’m like, “No, I’m driving just the right speed.” It doesn’t matter what it is. Embrace the discomfort of having differences, the difficulty of talking about those differences and saying, “Well, that’s your view. Here’s my view,” and with time you’ll find that you get better and better at articulating your view and why it’s your view, but never with the intent to convince them that yours is right or wrong because it’s not about right or wrong. It’s just this is how I view it, and maybe this is why I view it, and because I was raised this way, and when I grew up, this, this, or that. Then suddenly you understand yourself better and they understand you better. So embrace that discomfort and difficulty.

And the fifth tip I want to share is … Oh, no, I already mentioned the changing your mindset from right and wrong to skillfully and unskillful. So those were all of the tips. I think those can be very helpful practices that help you to communicate more effectively within your mixed belief relationship, which again, is everyone, and all of us recognize that we’re all just the blind leading the blind. I’m blind and I’m doing the best that I can, and my spouse’s blind and she’s doing the best that she can, and so are our kids, and so are my parents, and so is everyone that I work with and communicate with, because we’re all somewhere in space, looking at the planet, thinking, “That thing that I see, that is earth,” and not even seeing the other half.

Now earth, in that case, roughly half of it you can’t see because it’s the other side, but when it comes to everything else, I think that that percentage or the proportion of what we know and what we don’t know is exponentially bigger. Right? There’s this fraction of a sliver of reality that I understand. The rest of it I do not know, I cannot know. I’m completely incapable of knowing it because of where I am in space and time. So keep that in mind. Recognize we’re all just the blind leading the blind. We’re all trying to do our best and trying to figure it out, and the more we try to understand each other, the better off this is all going to go. So that’s what I wanted to share with this concept of the blind leading the blind.

Another reminder, if you want to learn more about Buddhism, you can check out my book, No‑Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners with concepts, teachings, and practices. You can learn more about the book just by visiting everdaybuddhism.com. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, share it with others, write a review, give it a rating in iTunes. You can always join the online community on Facebook, secularbuddhism.com/community. And if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click on the Donate button. That is all I have for now, but as always, I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you for listening. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.