This version of this famous story comes from In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. (Boston: Wisdom, 2005).
Though the Buddha’s story was about other sects, his point is a general one. All judgments require concepts, principles of classification. For example, this is an elephant or that is a tree. To classify is to separate (divide, sort, categorize, classify). It immediately follows that all judgments are partial.
Therefore, no judgment can be the whole truth. Judgments are inherently partial. At best they are partially true.
Therefore, fanatically attaching to any judgment, or set of judgments such as a religious creed or political doctrine, is foolish.
The Buddha was a philosopher who encouraged us to find out for ourselves rather than, say, blindly accepting any religious, political, or any other kind of conceptual frames. This is one significant way that his followers were different from those of other sects.
Buddhism is a practice, a way of living. Those who think of it in any other way are clueless about its nature.
There’s only one required belief, namely, that practicing the Buddha’s way might be helpful. That’s it! If you didn’t think it might work, there’d be no justification for testing it for yourself.
There’s no good reason not to find out for yourself whether or not it works to diminish dissatisfactions (suffering, sorrow, misery) such as sickness, old age, and death.
The Buddha did not want people blindly attaching to any views, including his own. In addition to the fact that his was an oral (rather than a literate) culture, this may well have been why he didn’t write any books.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes in the anthology’s introduction, The Buddha’s teaching “invites investigation and appeals to personal experience as the ultimate criterion” for determining its truth. It also explains his last words, which were an admonishment to strive on tirelessly to find out for ourselves.
His core focus was on the arising and ceasing of suffering — and that can be observed in one’s own experience. The greatest blessing is complete freedom from suffering. What obstructs us from that is acquisitiveness, hatred, and delusion. His Way is the way to eliminating those obstructions by dissolving our attachments to gain, fame, praise, and pleasure.
The Buddha repeatedly said that his teaching was about suffering and the cessation of suffering. If you will observe your own present experience and reflect on it, you have the only criterion required for determining how to live well.
What is an elephant like? What is living without suffering like?
The Buddha invites you to detach from your favorite judgments and find out for yourself, which is the only way to wisdom.