Buddhist Metaphors and the Inexpressible

Buddhism certainly presents itself as a metaphor: the Awakend One, the assemblage (samgha), the path, the vehicle, and so forth. Quite a number of very old metaphors are agricultural: root of merit, karmic seed, fruit to be obtained, field of merit (and later: Buddha fields), and refuge tree. Some metaphors appear to be intercultural and interreligious, for instance colours: white merit is virtuous, black is non-virtuous. Or spatial metaphors: upwards is positive, downwards is negative. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are interculturally represented by light, ignorance as darkness. Probably through the notion of an increased visibility in luminosity, understanding is metaphorically expressed as “seeing,” not understanding as “blindness.” Some metaphors are very productive. They produce many more metaphors that produce whole clusters of metaphors, like the above cluster of agricultural metaphors, or like the metaphor of space, which is the basis for the metaphorical field containing metaphors like upwards and downwards, lack of hindrance (= succes), or pervasion (= understanding, compassion, wealth, etc.).

With this knowledge in mind, how much deeper is our understanding of Jigten Sumgön’s opening words of his Simultaneously Arising Mahamudra (Phyag rgya chen po lhan cig skyes sbyor gyi ngo sprod):

I bow down to the Gurus, who remove the darkness of ignorance of beings by pervading the sphere of the unborn pure space of true reality with a thousand lights of unhindered compassion.

From early on, the Buddha himself has created numerous similes on the basis of metaphors. The website Access to Insight lists ca. 250 such similies that occur in their translations of Pali sutras. A recent Thai Buddhist master has similarly collected 108 similes.♦ 1 There is for instance a story in an old Pali sutra (SN 35.206) where several different kinds of animals are bound togther by a rope. Each animal pulls into a different direction. This is a simile that shows how the thoughts of the mind contest for dominance. The simile builds on the metaphor of thoughts being wild animals. In this way, the figurative language of metaphors and similes was used throughout the history of Buddhism as a hermeneutical tool to explicate the doctrine.

From very early on, Buddhist philosophers and commentators have understood the power of figurative language and described its elements and functions. In a metaphor, they explained, the metaphorical term (e.g., “lotus born”) indirectly refers to a concept (e.g., “purity”). Thus, when someone says “I take refuge in the Buddha,” both “refuge” and “Buddha” are metaphors — we are not literally trying to hide behind the broad shoulders of Shakyamuni. Such figurative speech opens up a world of interpretation and understanding. The Drikungpa master Garchen Rinpoche, for instance, would explain that what we seek is not the person Siddharta Gautama, but his awakening to the true nature of the mind, which we ourselves cannot get from him, but only find in ourselves. “Going for refuge in the Buddha” is according to him a metaphor for searching for the nature of one’s own mind within oneself.

Such a deep penetration of the language of the sutras and other scriptues is on the one hand possible through the experience of a teacher like Garchen Rinpoche. But it has also been made possible through the forerunners of mahamudra yogis, the philosophers of Yogacara Buddhism. Beginning from the 3rd century they have developed a theory of language according to which not only metaphors, but actually all language is figurative: If all phenomena to which language refers are only appearances of the mind, the words that refer to such phenomena do not have a direct referent, since that referent does not exist as it appears.♦ 2 This understanding, namely that words can never refer directly to any real object, has also led them to proclaim that the ultimate truth is, therefore, actually inexpressible and completey beyond language. Paradoxically, however, it is just this figurative language that best illustrates this inexpressibility. Consider these words of the Great Brahmin Saraha (quoted in the above mentioned mahamudra instruction of Jigten Sumgön):♦ 3

If you dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to the authoritative [instructions] of the guru and strive respectfully,
there is no doubt that the simultaneously arisen will come forth.
Since it is without color, attributes, words or illustrations,
unable to express it, I will try a rough illustration:
Like a young girls joy in her heart,
Holy Lord, whom could it be told?

Apart from that, it is certainly important to keep in mind that the language of Buddhist texts, be it technical or metaphorical, refers to phenomena that do not exist as they appear. As Garchen Rinpoche pointed out in his teachings this week in Munich, all the words of the texts, however skillfully expressed, are of no particular value if the reality that is expressed at best indirectly by them is not directly experienced in meditation.


Notes

1. http://www.accesstoinsight.org and http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/insimpleterms.html.

2. See the new study A Yogācāra Buddhist Theory of Metaphor by Roy Tzohar, Oxford University Press, 2018.

3. Another version is recorded by Kurtis Schaeffer, Dreaming the Great Brahmin, Oxford University Press, p. 154: Free of color, quality, words, and examples,// It cannot be spoken, and in vain I point it out.// Like the bliss of a young woman, desirous for love,// Who can teach its noble power to whom?//

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