The Buddha used metaphors as upaya, which translate to skillful means. One Buddhist scholar 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.” Of course Buddha itself is a metaphor, a buddha is one who has become buddho – awake. In this case awakened to the nature of reality. This reality includes what he called dukkha. This is a tough concept to translate from the original Pali, and is often translated as “suffering” Suffering but literally translates as “bad-wheel”. Suffering captures some of the concept, but not all of it. Dissatisfaction captures another portion or a sense of something being off with all our experiences. The Buddha explained dukkha through the metaphor of the bad wheel an oxcart whose axle was out of one of the wheels creating a wobbly, uneven ride down the road. That image captures the sense of dukkha that can’t be captured in words themselves. It pervades everything and biases how we think and feel.
The Buddha used metaphors relevant to the material of his time: fire, water, earth, wind, war, and so forth. The suttas are rife with metaphor. For instance, the self was likened to a fire; it has some kind of existence but changes moment by moment. It’s a process not a solid thing. When I wrote my first book, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, I used a lot of the the Buddha’s metaphors, but at the time I didn’t realize how pervasively he relied upon them. I also knew that to understand the mind we must turn to metaphors and the self too. What I didn’t realize until later when I was teaching workshops based on the book that not can we only understand the self through metaphors, the self, itself, IS a metaphor. Our understanding of ourselves in this moment is understood and experienced through reference to previous moments of self (remembering) or anticipated moments of self (imagination). This is what the Buddha meant when he said the self was empty — anatta (no self).