Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

“Now let me tell you about the three blind men and an elephant,” Abba Ah Beng began his daily teaching session with his disciples.

“I know the story! I know the story!” disciple Ah Lian rudely interjects, “My father told me this story before.”

“Okay then, tell us the story,” Abba Ah Beng said with a gleam in his eye.

“A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away …,” begins Ah Lian.

“Sounds like the beginning of a Star War movie,” stage-whispered disciple Ah Kow.

“…there lived three blind men who have never seen an elephant. Why? Because they are blind, so cannot see, see?” continued Ah Lian while glaring daggers at Ah Kow.

“But they want to know what an elephant is because they have heard so much about the mighty elephant from their friends. So one day, their friends brought them to an elephant. ‘Why, the elephant is like a tree trunk’, said one blind man hugging a leg of the elephant, ‘and all along I thought the elephant is a large great animal.’

“ ‘No,’ said the second blind man feeling the elephant’s trunk, ‘an elephant is like a slimy eel. See it is long with a lot of mucus.’ The elephant was having a runny nose that day,” explained Ah Lian.

“ ‘Alamak,’ said the third blind man tugging at the tail. ‘It is like a vending machine with a rope. You pull it and something smelly falls out.’

“ ‘Ha, ha, ha’ laughs the first blind man. ‘What is so great and fearsome about an elephant? It is just something like a tree trunk.’ ‘No!’ the second blind man countered, ‘it is like an eel.’ ‘You are both wrong,’ the third blind man shouted, ‘it is a rope!’ The three blind men started arguing, shouting and pushing at each other.

“The elephant became exasperated and sat on the three blind men. They were squashed instantly. End of story.” Ah Lian looked up only to be confronted with the shocked and mystified expressions on his fellow disciples’ faces. “What?”

“The story does not usually end like that but it is a good ending anyway,” said Abba Ah Beng gently, “and you can close your mouth, Ah Kow unless you want to catch flies. Now, my disciples, what lessons about God can we learn from this story?”

“Our perception of God is limited by our senses,” volunteered disciple Muthu before Ah Kow can open his mouth again to answer. Muthu is part of the disciple-exchange program where monasteries arrange for their disciples to have cross-cultural exposure and to get rid of some their really troublesome disciples at least for a short time. “God is big and we can only perceive a small part of Him with our finite minds,” added Muthu.

“We can only know God through what we are familiar with and what our senses tell us,” Ah Kow adds, recalling the hilarious way Muthu is learning to eat with chopsticks. “But I don’t understand why the blind men have to fight.”

“That’s the way of men who thinks that they know everything about God,” sighs Abba Ah Beng who is a veteran of many theological battles where the learned Abbas fight with words, books and kung-fu. “They forget that we ‘see through a glass darkly’ as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:12. They also forget that no one person can know God fully. All of us know God in different ways and even so, we know only a small facet of Him. So why do we act as if only we have the whole truth of God and no one else? And why do we fight insisting that our perspective is correct? Will God be pleased?”

“God will flatten them!” boomed a loud voice from the back of the hall as a large hand slapped the wooden floor. All the little monks literally jumped out of their skin. They all turned. Standing sheepishly at the back is the cook who had snuck into the hall.

“Maybe not,” said Abba Ah Beng. “Like the blind men arguing over their perceptions of the elephant, the elephant remains an elephant. If the blind men took more time to feel the elephant more rather than making snap decisions, maybe they would have widen their perceptions. Instead of opening themselves to discover what an elephant is, they have instead created an elephant in the image of what they know, like an eel, a tree trunk or a rope.

“So it is the same with us who try to know God. Let us make sure that we are open to learn of God’s greatness rather than remaking God in our own image. There is the danger of remaking God like us, for example like Santa Claus, that we commit idolatry.”

“What about those people who do not believe that God exists?” asks Iskandar, another exchange disciple from the Middle East.

“There are some people who claimed that God does not exist. Others said that he is dead. There are those who claim that it is impossible for God to exist and that he is a figment of our imagination. God waits and smiles,” concludes Abba Ah Beng, adding, “the elephant in the room.”

Reflection questions

(1) What are some of the ways we can use to get to know God?

(2) In what ways do we remake God in our own image?

(3) How do we keep ourselves from narrowing instead of expanding our perception of God?


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