Sunday Morning Meditation

Meditate, talk about, walk about in the Maryland countryside

The Four Wise Men and the Elephant- An epistemological parable

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Once upon a time in a distant rather backward kingdom, the King was entertaining the Prince of a neighboring realm.  After a good dinner and a few ales, they got to bragging about their recent acquisitions.
“Just picked up ten peacocks” smirked the King, “Each with a silver chain, of course, to lead them about.  The young maidens like to play with them down by the emerald pools.”
“Very nice, very nice indeed”, said the Prince, pretending to stifle a yawn.  Then, “oh yes, almost forgot- We acquired an elephant the other day”.
“An elephant!” said the King.  “Oh- well!…”
“Yes indeed”, said the Prince.  “Got a very good deal.. excellent condition.. broken to the howdah..”

As soon as the Prince had retired to the royal powder room, the King beckoned to his four wise men, who had been prostrating themselves nearby.
“Quick- what’s an elephant?”  The King whispered.
“Oh, an elephant!” stuttered the first wise man.  “Very- cutting edge.. daring..”
“He probably didn’t get an extended warranty”, said the second wise man.
“Or a service contract.”  Joined in the third wise man.
“I’ve heard the tech support is a real hassle”, quoth the fourth wise man, looking very wise.
“You didn”t answer our question!”, purred the King, looking like a cat regarding mice.  “Let us repeat it. What…exactly.. is.. AN ELEPHANT!”
All four wise men jumped nervously.  “Er..” said One.  “Um” said Two.  Three said nothing but chewed his nails.  Four was frantically thumbing through a small pocket dictionary of foreign phrases.
“Enough!” stormed the King.  “Dolts!  Why we bother.. .  Listen up!  Get us an elephant by the time the sun rises again, or we’ll have your heads… oh damn, we can’t do that anymore,” he muttered.  Then  “We’ll see you in Maintenance! And that’s not a threat, that’s a promise!  Leave us!”

The four wise men beat a hasty retreat to the nobility coffee room.
“Whew! “ said One.  “Bit of a sticky wicket.”  One liked to consider he had a British polish after his vacation there.   “The old chap is quite riled”
“Get on the web!” said Two.  “Google an elephant!”
“No can do”  said Three.  “Been down forever.”
“Back to the yellow pages,” sighed Four.

They soon located Sam the Elephant Man in a nearby city, and rang him up on his emergency number- he was home eating dinner.
“Sam!  This is the First Wise Man!  You know- I work for the King!” shouted One.  “We need an elephant, right quick, old boy!”
“You don’t have to shout,” said Two.  “Ask about a service contract.”
“Be sure to get a warranty”, said Three.
“Insurance”, said Four.  “Remember what happened when we got the dozen peacocks, and two of them eloped.”
“I wish you would just drop that,”  snapped Two.  “Didn’t we all agree when I bought them that they all looked like males?”
But when asked, Sam just laughed.  “Elephants I got.  Hard to stock- big demand, lot of overhead.  Expensive.  Got a nice one just in, special training not to poop during parades.  But service contract you want?  Warranty, insurance you want?  Always the jokes.   After hours you want, all right, all right, seeing it’s the King I’ll do it but you’re going to pay an arm and a leg!”
“That’s better than a head’, said One.  “How fast can it be delivered, old boy?”
“Ground transportation, one month,” said Sam.  “It insists on stopping at every little brook, you know.”
“What..what…Impossible!”  said One.  “This is rather urgent.”
“How about next day caravan?” asked Sam
“Listen, old boy, we need this by sunup tomorrow, and its eight pm now!”
“Ok ok my last offer.  Tandem hot air balloon, shipped out within the hour, if night winds are good you’ll get it by 2 am.  The bill you don’t want to know.”  Thus spake Sam the Elephant Man.

By 2:30 am the Four were bleary-eyed in the coffee room when Receiving rang them up.  “The damn thing is here” a grumpy voice stated.  “I’m going home.”
“No, no!” said Two.  “we need to check it out!”
“Suit yourself, but I wont be here.  Enough already.  The package you ordered is outside in the courtyard, we couldn’t fit it in the loading dock.”

The courtyard outside the Receiving loading dock was lit by the stars alone.  There sat an enormous box swaddled in bubble wrap, dimly visible in the gloom.  At one end of the box someone had chopped a small hole, probably to check the invoice.  Something smelled strongly.  The four wise men shivered- they were also cold.
“After you, old chap.  Climb in and have a look” chattered One between clenched teeth.
“You first” said Two
“For the love of…I thought wisdom conquered fear,”  said Three , and wiggled in through the hole, followed reluctantly by the others.

The courtyard had been as dark as night.  Inside the box it was as dark as pitch.  Something large moved a bit.  There was a sound like the wind sighing through the pine trees.  “Ulp!”  said One.  The others were panting noisily.  One knew he had to seem brave.  He reached out his hand and touched the elephant’s leg.  It was round and felt a lot like bark.
“Oh!”  he thought to himself,  “It’s a potted plant, like a bloody tree!”
Two found himself near the elephant’s rear.  It was smelly and dark.  He reached out a hand and grabbed… it’s tail.
“Oh!’ he whispered,  “It’s like a tasseled rope, and…. Is it alive?”
Three reached out blindly in the dark and touched the elephant’s side with a fearful pat.
“Oh!” he gasped,  “It’s as large as a rhinocerous, and, and, it’s breathing!”
Four, by the elephant’s head, felt something muscular wrap around his arm.  His heart lurched.  Something like a snake but as thick as his arm was caressing him.  He screamed.  The Fearless  Four panicked.  They hurled themselves together through the hole in the box, and didn”t stop until they were safely back in the kitchen, where a few ales calmed their spirits and soon put them into the exhausted, hyper state of those who have survived the fray.  “Did you see how I..?”  asked Three.  “Yes, yes!” snapped One.  “I’m off to chambers, old chap.  I’m beat.  See you tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, not being perhaps as wise as they might have been, they never thought to compare their impressions of the elephant.

The next morning as the sky grew pink, the Four were waiting coffee in hand when the King’s usual bellow summoned them to begin the business of the realm.  But the King had other things in mind.
“We hope for your sake you got that elephant,” he said.  “Speak!”
“ Of course, your Majesty,” said One, with a wave of the hand to indicate that obtaining elephants overnight was child’s play.
“Excellent!  Perhaps I misjudged you four.  And have you seen purchase?”
“Yes, your Majesty.  Quite nice, quite.”
“Nicer than the peacocks?’
“Well, your Majesty, I think the elephant will improve our diet,” said One.  “It appears to be a large potted tree, probably a date palm or orange, which….”
“Large potted tree!  Are you crazy?” hissed Two.  “Your Majesty, the elephant is a contraption for summoning your servants, consisting of a tasseled rope which suspends from the ceiling and probably communicates with a gong of some sort by means of pulleys and….”
“Now who is crazy!” interrupted Three.  “Your Majesty, the elephant is a fearsome beast, roughly twice the size of a rhinocerous, with a skin like leather, and..”
“Your Majesty, I hate to be blunt, but these three apparently are hallucinating due to a lack of sleep.  The elephant is a python snake, as thick as my waist, incredibly strong, and….”
‘SILENCE!”  The King spoke one word, then he found that, for the first time in his reign, he was speechless.  He decided to act.
“Summon my guard!”  the King roared.  “We wish to survey the elephant!”

Moments later, as a the King and the Four, with a flustered crowd of security and servants, burst in to the courtyard of Receiving, the first golden rays of the rising sun struck across the loading dock, into the cage of the elephant, now divested of bubble wrap by the warehouse people.  The King, and everyone else who could manage, peered into the cage.  There stood an elephant, calmly shoveling hay and peanuts into its mouth.  Its expression might have been amused.
The king noticed the silence- he disliked silence.  “Well!”  he said, standing a bit taller.  “Yes!  Excellent!  A fine beast!  We are very pleased!  Put it in the pasture with the war horses, where we can see it from the dining room.  And keep it away from the peacocks.  And clean up this bubble wrap.  That will be all!”  He turned and headed back to his throne.  As he paced along,  he muttered, “Potted plant, indeed!”  Then, to himself  “A bell pull!”  Then he smiled, “Rhinocerous- well, closer.”  Then, “A python? Oh my, oh my” and gave a large royal laugh.  Maybe he would keep those four dolts around.  They could be amusing at times, and Maintenance was too important to entrust to just anyone..

Photo by Andrea Hill at, all rights reserved
The story of the elephant and the wise men, retold here, is one of the most ancient “teaching”  tales around, having probably originated in India but re-appearing in a number of cultures including right here!  There are many lessons which might be made from this tale.  What impressed me, and why the story is included in this website, is the relevance to meditation.  It is just our partial views of reality that cause us suffering, I believe, and in the examination of reality, as in many other endeavors, it is important to see the forest as well as the trees.  Also, never climb into large smelly cages in the dark.


Author: Roving buddhist

We are an older married couple. Tim is a carpenter, Joan is a secretary. We have been meditating for many years.

One thought on “The Four Wise Men and the Elephant- An epistemological parable

  1. I heard this story but instead of four wise men, four blind men were asked to describe what they perceived with their hands. I really like the photograph.

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