Puzzles and Blind Men

by | Sep 5, 2008 | Uncategorized

I like puzzles. They bring back memories of winder and my mom.  Each winter, Mom would pull out some puzzle – often a landscape with lots of flowers – and spread it out in the basement, close to the roaring fire in the wood stove and plod along piece by piece putting the picture together.  A place of prominence was reserved for the lid of the box with the utterly important picture of what all the mess of pieces are supposed to add up to.

Without the picture on the box, Mom would have been lost and super frustrated, to put it mildly – frankly, she and I would have given up.  Just think about it, tiny pieces of blue probably would convince us that it must be sky or water, black – well perhaps a night scene, but in reality, the blue might be a car, a flower, a house, and so might the black.  Holding one of the pieces in my hand, it would be tough to guess or be certain about what the whole puzzle would be.  However, holding a piece of blue, I could be convinced that it is sky and thus use that idea in my mind to move forward, seeking other blue pieces, to create the sky, but perhaps as I move forward I find more pieces and realise that it is not sky, but a car, or perhaps I am right that it is sky, but the sky is connected to trees – in both situations, new information comes together to challenge my thinking and I need to adjust.  However, what would happen, if I wasn’t open to new information and kept on saying that the puzzle was only a sky picture and thus any piece that didn’t fit with the sky picture in my mind, I simply threw out?

Another illustration of a similar idea is found in the story of “Three Blind Men and an Elephant,” which is a Chinese Folk Tale, but is found in many storytelling traditions throughout the world. 

One day, three blind men happened to meet each other and gossiped a long time about many things. Suddenly one of them recalled, ” I heard that an elephant is a queer animal. Too bad we’re blind and can’t see it.”

“Ah, yes, truly too bad we don’t have the good fortune to see the strange animal,” another one sighed.

The third one, quite annoyed, joined in and said, “See? Forget it! Just to feel it would be great.”

“Well, that’s true. If only there were some way of touching the elephant, we’d be able to know,” they all agreed.

It so happened that a merchant with a herd of elephants was passing, and overheard their conversation. “You fellows, do you really want to feel an elephant? Then follow me; I will show you,” he said.

The three men were surprised and happy. Taking one another’s hand, they quickly formed a line and followed while the merchant led the way. Each one began to contemplate how he would feel the animal, and tried to figure how he would form an image.

After reaching their destination, the merchant asked them to sit on the ground to wait. In a few minutes he led the first blind man to feel the elephant. With outstretched hand, he touched first the left foreleg and then the right. After that he felt the two legs from the top to the bottom, and with a beaming face, turned to say, “So, the queer animal is just like that.” Then he slowly returned to the group.

Thereupon the second blind man was led to the rear of the elephant. He touched the tail which wagged a few times, and he exclaimed with satisfaction, “Ha! Truly a queer animal! Truly odd! I know now. I know.” He hurriedly stepped aside.

The third blind man’s turn came, and he touched the elephant’s trunk which moved back and forth turning and twisting and he thought, “That’s it! I’ve learned.”

The three blind men thanked the merchant and went their way. Each one was secretly excited over the experience and had a lot to say, yet all walked rapidly without saying a word.

“Let’s sit down and have a discussion about this queer animal,” the second blind man said, breaking the silence.

“A very good idea. Very good.” the other two agreed for they also had this in mind.
Without waiting for anyone to be properly seated, the second one blurted out, “This queer animal is like our straw fans swinging back and forth to give us a breeze. However, it’s not so big or well made. The main portion is rather wispy.”

“No, no!” the first blind man shouted in disagreement. “This queer animal resembles two big trees without any branches.”

“You’re both wrong.” the third man replied. “This queer animal is similar to a snake; it’s long and round, and very strong.”

How they argued! Each one insisted that he alone was correct. Of course, there was no conclusion for not one had thoroughly examined the whole elephant. How can anyone describe the whole until he has learned the total of the parts. 

How often do we make the same mistake as the blind men or me and my mom when we talk about God or faith?  The elephant story has often been used by people to argue that all religions are groping in the dark at this unknown God, each with its piece of knowledge, none with the full picture.  I don’t want to get into the relativism argument, but I do think there is an element of truth in it, as perhaps there are things that we can learn about God from different religions and/or traditions.  However, I would like to think about what can happen within religions, especially Christianity. 

How often do you go to church, read something from a particular tradition, or have a conversation with someone and get the feeling that if you don’t believe exactly what s/he do, then you are excluded?  If we bring together a person from each tradition – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, house church, – and people from different cultural backgrounds – western, Asian, African, Latino, etc. – won’t there be vigorous disagreement about faith and God?  I think, I know, there will be. 

We have experiences that bring us to a place of belief or disbelief – as humans we all have faith in something.  Within a particular religious tradition, we come to believe certain things, but there are always others who may also be Christians, but believe something totally different or think certain things are ok while we do not.  Do we do as I did with the puzzle – throw out the pieces that don’t fit my thinking or my belief system?  Or do we consider how the other may be part of the same puzzle, just a different section, and thus can enrich my understanding of God and grace?

The mystery of God is beyond us and yet we are invited to dive in and explore.


Kuo, Louise and Kuo, Yuan-Hsi (1976), “Chinese Folk Tales,” Celestial Arts: 231 Adrian Road, Millbrae, CA 94030, pp. 83-85.

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