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This page includes a brief sampling of parables from Eastern traditions, with themes that are also important in religious naturalism (What is real, how can we know what is real, appreciate the moment, etc.):

Dream of Butterfly
Blind Men and the Elephant
Tigers and the Strawberry
Baby Snake in a Cup


Butterfly dream

Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, fluttering around, happy with himself, and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou.

Suddenly, he woke up, and there he was!

But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou.


Blind men and the elephant

An elephant was brought to a small town. People had heard of elephants, but no one had ever seen one and a large crowd gathered around.

Five blind men lived in that town, and they were eager to find out about the elephant. Since they were not able to see, someone suggested they could feel it with their hands.

One blind man touched the trunk, and said that the elephant must be like a tree branch.
Another touched the tail said the elephant was like a snake or a rope.
The third man touched the leg, and said the elephant must be like a pillar.
The fourth touched the ear, and said that the elephant was like a huge fan.
The fifth touched the side, said the elephant must be like a wall.

The blind men argued for hours. Each was sure that his view was correct.

Finally, a wise man spoke up and said, “Each of you is correct. But each of you touched only part of the elephant. If you listen to each other, and if you put your views together, you will understand more.”


Tigers and the Strawberry

A man was walking across a field when he saw a tiger. He fled, but the tiger ran after him. Coming to the edge of a cliff, he spied the root of a wild vine. Grabbing on to it, he swung himself down over the edge, out of reach of the tiger. He was safe!

The tiger came to the edge and sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down and saw another ferocious tiger prowling below. Only the thin vine held him.

Two mice, one white and one black, scurried out of a nearby nest in the cliff and began gnawing at the vine. As they chewed, the man saw a luscious strawberry on a nearby ledge. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.

Ah, how sweet it tasted!

From: One Hand Clapping, Zen Stories for All ages, by Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares.


Baby Snake in a Cup

One evening, a man was invited to the home of a friend. As he was about to drink a cup of tea that was offered to him, he thought he saw a baby snake in the cup! He did not want to embarrass his hostess, so he gathered all of his courage and swallowed the tea in one gulp.

When the man returned home later that night, he began to feel severe pains in his stomach. By the next day the pains had grown worse. He consulted several doctors and tried many cures, but none worked. The man, now seriously ill, thought he was about to die.

Hearing of his condition, his friend invited him to visit her again. Sitting in the same place, he accepted another cup of tea. As the sick man lifted his cup to drink, he suddenly saw the snake again! This time he had to speak up, so he drew his hostess’s attention to it. Without a word she pointed to the ceiling above her guest. He looked up. There, just above him, hanging from a beam, was a length of rope. The sick man realized all at once that what he had thought was a baby snake was simply the reflection of the rope! The two friends looked at each other and laughed. The pain of the sick man instantly vanished and he recovered perfect health.

From: One Hand Clapping, Zen Stories for All ages, by Rafe Martin and Manuela Soares.



A farmer had only one horse, and one day it ran away. When his neighbors came to console him, the farmer said, “I’m not so sure it’s a misfortune”. The neighbors left, shaking their heads.

The week later, the horse returned, bringing three beautiful wild horses with him. The neighbors returned to congratulate the farmer, but he said, “I’m not certain that it is good fortune”. The neighbors left, more puzzled than before.

Later that week, while trying to train the new horses, the farmer’s son broke his leg. The neighbors came by to offer sympathy but, again, the farmer said, “I’m not sure this is a misfortune”.

Soon after, a troop of soldiers came through, and conscripted the young men in the village into the army. Due to his broken leg, only the farmer’s son remained.

The farmer looked at the mountains and smiled. But he also said, “I’m not certain that this is good fortune”.



A powerful man sought wisdom and travelled far to seek the counsel of a monk.

The monk said, “Always do good things. Don’t do bad things.”

The man said, “I knew that when I was 3 years old.”

“Yes”, the monk replied, “The three year old knows it, but the grown man still finds it very difficult to do.”