Please take a look at people around you. Do you see any two persons that look the same? Now think about all the people you’ve ever seen or met: have you ever seen any two look exactly the same? What about twins? Do twins look exactly the same? I remember the identical twins in my class back in elementary school. In the beginning, it was indeed difficult to tell who was who. However, before long, everyone in the class was able to tell the subtle differences between the twins. So everyone looks different, identical twins included.
It is said: “Appearances are made from the mind.” Since people look different, how can we expect that they think the same? It is only natural that people have different opinions/views of things. Even the same person may change his/her opinion/view from time to time.
We face different views/opinions every day. For example, in the Buddha hall, when it is cold outside, some people would like to see the doors closed, and yet some others may prefer to leave them open to keep the air fresh. When it is hot, some may want to turn the fans on, and yet others may prefer not to.
Remember the story of a group of blind people trying to figure out what an elephant looks like? This is originally a Buddhist story from the
Great Parinirvana Sutra. Since blind people can’t see, they touched the elephant to feel what it was like. One happened to touch a leg and immediately concluded that the elephant was like a pillar. One touched the tail and said the elephant was like a piece of rope. One touched the elephant’s back and said that it was like a wall. One touched the trunk and said the elephant was like a big hose. One touched the ear and said the elephant was like a fan. So everyone saw differently. Each one insisted that he was absolutely right, so they argued and argued and couldn’t agree with each other! This story illustrates clearly that people have different views.
How do we face different opinions/views? Lets discuss two examples:
The first example is the very popular Taiwanese folk song “The Dark Cloudy Sky”. It says that a thunderstorm is approaching and the sky is covered with thick black clouds. An old man was plowing in the fields and dug up a taro1 to his surprise. He happily took it home and asked his wife to cook it salty. His wife liked it plain, however. They couldn’t agree with each other and ended up fighting. Guess what happened? During the fight the old couple accidentally broke the wok! Not only did neither get to eat the taro but both had to go hungry for a while until they got a new wok! Obviously, fighting is not the way to go because everyone loses at the end.
A famous successful example of resolving different opinions is the US Congress. After winning the Independence War, the founders of this country gathered to work on the Constitution. A difficult question was how many representatives each state would get to send to Congress? Larger, more populated states favored the idea that population determined the number of representatives from each state. Smaller states did not like it, however, because they’d be outvoted each time! They liked the idea that every state send the same number of representatives, an idea that larger states felt was unfair to them. How could they make all states, big or small, happy? The founders did not fight, fortunately. Instead, they put their heads together, discussed and discussed, and finally came up with a brilliant solution. They created two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state would send two senators to the Senate, and its population would determine the number of representatives it would send to the House. All the bills would have to pass through both Senate and House. All were pleased to get what they wanted. This is still the present system, over 200 years already. If every state had insisted on its own view, there would not be a strong, united USA today! This is a classical example where everyone wins!
Now back to the elephant story. The blind people were still arguing because each one insisted that he/she was absolutely right. How can we help them to find out what an elephant really looks like? Obviously, fighting is not the way to go. To us who can see clearly, these blind people were really stupid. We know that each of them saw only part of the picture. All they had to do was to put all pieces together, like a puzzle, and they’d then have the complete picture.
But, are we sure that we are not like the blind people? From sages’ point of view, ordinary people are blind! Having not opened the five kinds of spiritual eyes, we just don’t have the wisdom to see things clearly. Physics also tells us that visible light occupies only an extremely narrow band (wavelength of approximately 400 – 700 nm; 1nm = 1 billionth of a meter) in the electromagnetic wave spectrum. We can see neither waves with wavelengths longer than red light such as infrared and radio waves, nor those shorter than violet light such as ultraviolet, microwave, x ray, etc.
In the Sutra in Forty-two Sections, the Buddha also warns us: “Be careful! Don’t trust your own thought. Your thought can’t be trusted unless you have already attained Arhatship2 .”
So, when facing different opinions, we’d better not insist that only my own view is correct. Instead, let’s keep our minds open and listen to each other. Appreciate different views, put our heads together and use collective wisdom to come up with a more complete picture and a better solution. As the saying goes: Three stinky leather workers surpass a smart person. Otherwise, we may be like the old couple in the Taiwanese folksong and end up with a broken wok and have to go hungry all together!
1. The original song says that the old man caught an eel-like fish. Since we are all vegetarians, let’s change it to a taro, a potato-like root.
2. Even the great Arhats are, to some extent, blind compared to Buddhas. This is because they can only see up to 80,000 great eons in the past but not beyond.