The Blind Man and the Sun

After I prepared today’s post, I realized it is more or less a continuation of the theme of my last post.  I apologize if I am being redundant . . .

Su Shi (1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo was a writer, poet, artist, and calligrapher, of the Song Dynasty.  He often criticized the government in political essays, in particular he wrote against the government monopoly on the salt industry.  For this, he was sent into exile, banished to Huangzhou where he was assigned a modest government post with no pay.

Many of his essays were essentially parables, such as the one below.  “The Blind Man and the Sun”  was used by Albert Einstein to illustrate the average person’s understanding of his theory of relativity.

The blind man had never seen the sun.  He would ask people what the sun was like.  One person told him, “It’s shape is like a copper platter.”  The blind man struck a copper platter and listened to the sound.  Some days afterward, he heard the sound of a bell and he thought it was the sun.  Someone else said, “Sunlight is like a candle.  The blind man felt a candle, and concluded the sun was the same shape as the sun.  Later  he held a flute in his hand and thought it was a sun.

The sun is quite different from a bell or a flute, but the blind man could not tell their difference because he had never seen the sun.  Truth is harder to see than the sun, and when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and examples, it is still like the analogy of the copper platter and the candle. From what is said of the copper platter, one imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one imagines something else.  In this way, one gets ever further and further away from the truth.  Those who speak about the Way (Tao) will give it a name according to what they happen to see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it.  These are mistakes in the effort to understand the Way.

The Tao Te Ching begins with these words, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

This applies to not only the Tao but also Buddha-dharma, God, the absolute truth –  because we feel compelled to try and capture with concepts and words things that are ultimately ineffable, we lead ourselves into error.  Concepts, names and so on are mere labels, conventional designations, and they are empty.

Blindness can also be used as a metaphor for the inability to see the truth or things as they truly are.  This kind of blindness is not caused by diseases of the eye.  Often, the primary cause is ignorance.  To be “visually impaired” in this way can also be a choice.  I’m sure most of you remember the line in John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see . . .”

Sometimes it takes great effort to open our eyes and see.

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Parable of “The Blind Man and the Sun” adapted from the version by Lin Yutang in The Wisdom of China and India, The Modern Library, 1942


New Year’s Observance by Su Shi

Su Shi (1037-1101) of the Song Dynasty was well-known for his political essays, travel writings, calligraphy, and poetry. During his life, he became somewhat of a celebrity, famous for his mastery of Chinese literary forms, and then infamous for his criticism of the government. Today, it is as a poet that he is most renown. About 2700 of his poems have been preserved.

He was also called Dongpo (“Eastern Slope”), the name he took from the farm where he resided after being banished for “great irreverence” (da bujing), meaning he was seditious. There, he practiced Buddhist meditation, studied dharma and adopted many Buddhist views, most notably, an abhorrence for taking life. However, it is difficult to pin him down as any particular type of Buddhist. As Ronald C. Egan, in Word, image, and deed in the life of Su Shi, notes

In Northern Song times, ‘Buddhism’ was terribly diffuse, and faith and practice among laymen were not necessarily bound to a particular school or lineage. Su Shi called himself a “lay Buddhist” (jushi), but he left no single identification of his location on the bewildering plain of Song-dynasty Buddhism.”

He did inspire a Buddhist parable, which goes like this:

Once Su Shi was visiting a Buddhist monk, who was also a friend. He asked the monk how he regarded him (Su Shi). The monk responded by saying, “You are a Buddha to me.”

Naturally, Su Shi was pleased to hear this. The monk then asked Su Shi how he regarded him (the monk). And Su Shi said, “To me, you are dung.”

The monk smiled and this made Su Shi even happier as he felt that he was superior to the monk. In fact, Su Shi was so delighted with this conversation that several days later he told the story to another friend, only this friend didn’t find the story so pleasing.

“The monk regards you as a Buddha because he regards all living things as a Buddha,” he said. “He has the eyes of a Buddha and the heart of a Buddha, but because you see all things as dung, you regard the monk as dung. So, you have eyes of dung and a heart of dung!”

Okay, maybe not the greatest parable in the world, so let’s move on to some poetry. Here is something that fits the season. This is my own translation/interpretation of Su Shi’s poem:

New Year’s Observance

The end of the year is fast approaching,
Like a snake going into a hole
Already half of its long scales have disappeared,
And who can stop it from going and leaving not a trace behind?
If we should wish to hold its tail,
Even with diligent effort, it would be to no avail.
Children try to stay awake,
And together, we observe the night with noisy cheer.
Afterward, the chickens do not cry at the dawn,
The drums are restrained and beat no further.  
We sit for a long while by the lamp as the ashes die down,
Then rise to see the plough slanting to the north.
Can it be that next year will be my dark year?
I worry and fear that I waste time.
Therefore, I strive to experience each day and evening to the utmost
While I can boast of a little time still left.