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


2 thoughts on “The Blind Man and the Sun

  1. This parable addresses ignorance but not wisdom quite well. “Mind” is all, and each one of us have no such physical barrier like that blind man in the parable. Infact we all have the Buddha nature/enlightenment latent.

    The parable makes it sound like it’s impossible , no-end. If anything, budhha’s whole point is “the end”. Of ignorance. Thats a possibility for any of us right now , here in this life, just as Buddha realized.

    Speaking of Mahayana, I believe platform-sutra and Maha.pragnaparamita sutra, all pretty much say the same thing. We can go beyond ignorance, and end it. It’s like becoming a new self…that of Buddha.

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