Understanding Metaphor in Spiritual Teachings and Practice

Everyone who engages spiritual teachings faces the challenge of understanding metaphor. Far from just being a need for academics studying poetics, there is a great difference between those who understand symbolism and those who do not…


Metaphor is either effective, or it is not; it can be inclusive, thrilling, affirming universal truths, or the opposite – exclusive, leading to dogma; either an inviting, open door, or a barrier to truth. This study is nothing to be feared, and there is so much to gain.

It’s interesting to me that among the three characteristics of a stream-enterer in Buddhism, ‘one irreversibly destined to enlightenment in no more than seven lives’, the ones that are spoken about the most are just the first two: faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and insight that goes beyond grasping the self we conceive of as who we are.

The third minimum requirement for this point of entry that inexorably leads onwards is usually called ‘letting go of mistaken attachment to forms and rituals’, and this of course means understanding them rightly, which includes the right understanding of art, poetry, and metaphor.

Without understanding metaphor, religious teachings are potentially misleading. That much good comes from even the mistaken grasping at these teachings and these images is undeniable, but this has its limitations.

What does it mean to say we held back from continuous progress towards freedom and ease, towards nibbana, or the Pure Land if we mistakenly take hold of what we see and hear and read about?

I think it has to do with realizing our own nature in relation to these.

Most of the teachings on visualization, prayer, and mantra that I know of make reference to our actualizing the greater meaning of the teachings. Without this, the teachings can become a form of idolatry, which is taking something to be separate, and external to ourselves, eternally.

This may work fora person, maybe even for a long time, a lifetime or more, but it is also a view that we can fall away from, for a variety of reasons.

Teachings in Eastern and Western Traditions encourage us to realize more than the meaning of art, and the words and images andsymbolic actions used to communicate. They encourage us to each become Buddhas and Arhats, Saints, and holy men and women. Anything less than that and the teachings have not yet completed their work in us.

Understanding metaphor is more than a personal matter

Whole lineages within religious traditions can mistakenly grasp metaphor, and when this happens, and the lack of understanding becomes institutionalized, then everyone who follows that tradition, with all that is good in it, also inherits and must struggle to accommodate themselves to the entrenched wrong interpretations of myth and symbolism.

This sounds arrogant, doesn’t it?But consider, if I am right here, then there is so much that is lost, that could otherwise be a part of our individual and collective lives.

Idolatry has its Eastern forms too – as we can see in the offerings in temples and at shrines, participating in ritual without understanding the meaning, and the exaltation of teachers and external forms. As with Western religious traditions, these may lead onward, but there may also be a point where we become stuck, and go no further, and even regress. In each ofthese cases, understanding metaphor correctly is vitally important.

The problems that come from misinterpretation, dogmatism and conflict are very great indeed.

How do we know when the meaning has been communicated?

Poetry and metaphor should move a person. Understanding the mysteries that are shown in teachings, they are evocative. We can say, a door opens. We enter into the timeless truth of teachings, and experience what they are talking about.

A right understanding of poetry then is essential for peace in our lives and in our world.

I don’t know how else to approach this problem, other than to begin writing about it. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and watched the effects in myself of either understanding, or missing the point.

There is certainly something mysterious going on, both in the profligate universal communication of truth through the medium of spiritual imagery and teachings, and the understanding that can arise for a person. If it were as simple and straightforward as a math equation, then the challenge of gaining wisdom would have been solved for us all a long time ago.

It seems the best I can do at this point is to try and show the great differences in result between a mistaken way of receiving images, metaphor and poetry, and a way that is personally effective, a balm and sustenance for our entire world.