Much of what we communicate relies on comparing one thing to another; something known to help us understand something less known. This is the most basic sense of metaphor: understanding one thing in terms of another. When the Buddha gave his first teachings some 2500 years ago, he made ample use of metaphor. He continued to rely on metaphor throughout his long teaching career. Buddhist scholar Damien Keown emphasized this when he said, “The Buddha’s skill in teaching the Dharma, demonstrated in his ability to adapt his message to the context in which it was delivered. Parables, metaphors, and similes formed an important part of his teaching repertoire, skillfully tailored to suit the level of his audience.” Upaya or skillful means is embodied by the Buddha’s use of metaphor in his teaching. When it comes to understanding mindfulness – a core component of the Buddha’s teachings – it is hard to do so without turning to metaphor. I would dare say it is impossible to do so, and I have explored a variety of ways in which this can be done in my book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (Wisdom Publications).
Some metaphors are dead. The imaginative power they once invoked has long been worn down by the passage of time. For instance, we are unlikely to think of our heads when we refer to the head of a table. Other metaphors are not dead but remain hidden from view. These are everyday metaphors such as the notion that the mind is a container that things can come into and out of; a space where things can happen and do happen like thoughts and images. Some metaphors are deliberate and obvious, as the ones we use in poetry. Indeed Robert Frost warned, “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” Metaphors powerfully influence everything we think and say, and the metaphors we use can determine our happiness—or lack thereof. Recognizing and changing our metaphors can move us toward greater joy.
In a modern day context, Shinzen Young, engages upaya by using mindfulness of music meditation to reach young people. This adaptation helps troubled youths get the benefits of mindfulness without having to cut through any of the cultural obstacles that may stand in the way of embracing meditation. They are understanding one thing (mindfulness) in terms of another (music). This transfer of meaning from one domain to another facilitates learning. These kids get wise without having to try to do so. We all use metaphors and follow in the steps of the Buddha when we do so. I humbly follow in this tradition and invite you to do the same.
To learn more about metaphors read Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and attend the workshop based on the book Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: Metaphors for Mindful Living at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains, 12-14 March 2010.