The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg described his method of Biblical interpretation as the historical-metaphorical approach:
By “historical approach,” I mean all the methods that are relevant to discerning the ancient historical meanings of biblical texts. The chief concern of the historical approach is the past‑tense question, “What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?”
By “metaphorical approach,” I mean most broadly a nonliteral way of reading biblical texts. A metaphorical reading does not confine itself to the literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?” p. 37f.
In modern Western culture, as mentioned in chapter 1, critical thinking is very much concerned with factuality and is thus deeply corrosive of religion in general and Christianity and the Bible in particular.
As critical thinkers in that culture, most of us no longer hear the biblical stories as true stories ‑ or at the least their truth has become suspect. Now it takes faith to believe them, and faith becomes believing things that one would normally reject.
Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
The purpose of the historical-metaphorical approach is to find the spiritual meaning of a religious text, beyond its literal factuality.
In Theravada Buddhism, is it common to take a similar approach to the Pali suttas?
For example, what if one were to interpret Mara’s temptation of the Buddha as symbolic of the inner conflicts of the Buddha’s own psyche, rather than the temptations from an external being?
The Early Buddhist texts such as the Sutta Pitaka and the Agamas distinguish between Buddhist suttas that contain clear meaning (Pāli:Nītattha; Sanskrit: nītārtha) and those that require further interpretation (Pāli: neyyattha; Sanskrit: neyartha). This later developed into the two truths doctrine, which states there is a conventional truth and an ultimate truth. The Buddhist concept of Upaya (skillful means) is another common theme in Buddhist Hermeneutics, and holds that the Buddha sometimes taught things that were not literally true as a skillful teaching strategy, and also taught many different things to different people, depending on their ability to understand.
In studying and speaking the Dharma, we especially need to be aware of the conventional (or worldly or cultural) level and the ultimate (param’attha) or spiritual or Dharma) level of teaching. The conventional language is only useful and wholesome when they point, even remotely, to the true Dharma. And at the proper time, this reference should be clarified to the follower or practitioner. The point is that the spiritual should in due course transcend the worldly and cultural.
1.2 The Neyy’attha Nīt’attha Sutta (A 2.3.5-6) records an important reminder by the Buddha on how we should approach every sutta and text, that is, we must carefully consider whether the language is conventional (based on everyday language describing causes and conditions) or ultimate (that is, Dharma language, pointing to the fact that things have no intrinsic nature or abiding essence).
Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyy’attha), as they do not directly refer to true reality. They use language and words in the form of a story or images to talk about true reality. Their meaning is indirect.
They are provisional (pariyāya) teachings, unlike say some Abhidhamma doctrines, which are said to be explicit (nippariyāyena).1
This pragmatism of Buddhism is also strongly suggested by the parable
of the arrow (M.I. 429) and the parable of the raft (M. I. 134). The
parable of the arrow occurs in reference to the avyakata-theses and the
gist of it is that a man stuck with a poisoned arrow should be concerned
with removing the arrow and getting well rather than be interested in
purely theoretical questions, which have no practical utility. The moral is
that man should only be interested in truths which have a practical
bearing on his life. In the same context it was said that the avyakataquestions
were not answered because ‘it was not useful, not related to the
fundamentals of religion, and not conducive to revulsion, dispassion,
cessation, peace, higher knowledge, realization and Nirvana’ (M.I. 431).
The parable of the raft has the same motive and is intended to indicate the
utilitarian character of the teachings or the ‘truth’ of Buddhism. The
truths are useful for salvation but even they should not be clung to
however useful they may have been. It is said: ‘I preached you a
Dhamma comparable to a raft for the sake of crossing over and not
for the sake of clinging to it….’ (M.I. 134). A person intending to cross
a river and get to the other bank, where it is safe and secure makes a raft
and with its help safely reached the other bank but however useful the raft
may have been, he would throw it aside and go his way without carrying
it on his shoulders; so it is said that ‘those who realize the dhamma to
be like a raft should discard the dhamma as well, not to speak of
what is not dhamma’ (M.I. 135).