Literal or metaphorical?

How can you tell which teachings of the Buddha, in the EBTs, are literal and which are similes/metaphors/analogies?

One of the little considered qualities of the Buddha is that he could not tell an untruth. He didn’t lie. You could say that his speech was purified.

When you read the suttas what you notice is that when a metaphor/similie/analogy is being employed, it’s really clear that this is what it is. Sometimes, the Buddha actually says that he is about to use/talk about a similie. For instance in MN 36, MN 85. In MN 85 he also uses the analogy of the elephant trainer without actually saying it’s a similie but it’s clear to any rational person that he’s using an analogy for the purpose of comparison, to make a point. There are so many similies etc. used, and just in the Majjhima Nikaya alone there are at least 168 used! I found this out by using Ven Bodhi’s translation and counting the list in the index of similes; I say “at least” because some listings refer to more than one sutta.

At other times, when is is not crystal clear that a simile/metaphor/analogy is being used, I suggest that the Buddha is being literal and that this is a sound assumption to make. Sometimes, the literalness of his text, is made even more obvious when he uses phrases like, “I directly knew”; MN 4 is just one example where this occurs and indeed, the language of the last sections of MN 4 is indicative of just how the Buddha’s statements are founded on experienced/observed knowledge which has it’s basis in a process that clears away all obstructions, making it possible to see clearly and understand fully. This kind of thing occurs with extreme frequency.

It’s just so easy to distinguish between those times when the Buddha uses figures of speech to illustrate meaning, and when he is being literal. Figurative language is employed so liberally and so obviously, that all the rest is clearly meant to be taken literally, because the Buddha did not lie and his Right Speech was pure.

EDIT: By “all the rest”, I am referring to those sections of text that can be classified as an EBT.


Good point. Also it is said that his teachings were clear in the beginning, middle and end. His primary role IMO was as a teacher of the Dhamma and he would have considered his words carefully.

He was given the epithet ‘the teacher of devas and humans’ because of his abilities as a teacher and getting the message across.

With metta


Yes, it’s an advantage we have that the texts clearly indicate when a simile etc. is used. But we have the more difficult cases when it’s not always indicated. Remember for example the valid questions that people have “How can the Buddha say I was reborn then and there as so-and-so? I thought there is no ‘I’ in Buddhism”. In these cases we have to draw from suttas where the Buddha speaks about conventional uses of ‘I’ etc.

Also there are ongoing discussions about other terms, whether they are used in an ultimate or conventional way. And these are often not sufficiently clarified by the suttas themselves and we have to infer from context or other suttas.

Hi Gabriel

I would love to know specifically some examples of these.

I can understand why you’ve said this, but this is not what I meant in my original post.

The use of simile/metaphor/analogy is only employed for the purposes of comparison, to make a particular point or points. Any literary person will tell you this.

The use of the pronoun “I” does not have this function. When people say it’s just used for the sake of convention, they’re merely referring to a convention of language use. It is merely a convienient use of grammar. It’s easier to use the pronoun “I” as a handle for two reasons:

  1. It is easier/quicker than saying, “the Tatagata” or “this being that’s talking to you right now”.
  2. In communicating to another being or beings, it provides a quick, easy and readily understandable point of reference, so that no time is wasted in getting to other more salient and relevant points that one may be trying to get across at the time.

Again, I would be very interested to have some specific examples of EBTs. @sujato perhaps you could be of assistance? I don’t recall seeing this distinction made anywhere in the EBTs I’ve read. Of course I’ve not read them all! Just the Majjhima, the Digha and parts of the others. However, my view is that this distinction between the ultimate and conventional is neither real nor useful.

It is in my opinion a false duality. I am honest enough to say that I do not understand the Anattalakkhana Sutta SN 22.59. It is beyond me right now. I do find it useful to use it as a way of reflecting on my life on a daily basis though. This doesn’t mean I am using some kind of conventional understanding. I’m merely using the Buddha’s understanding to influence my life. When it comes from deep within me and goes outward to influence what I do, then I am gradually starting to turn this into my own understanding. One day, in either this life or another, I hope a deep understanding permeates every aspect of my being, my mind and how I live. But for me there’s no split, no duality of conventional and ultimate. It’s just one understanding that I’ve not got a proper handle on - yet.

I recently created a similar topic. In the Pali canon, the Buddha differentiated between relative truth and ultimate truth:

Hi Kay! I know that in your OP you meant obvious similes. I rather focused on the aspect if everything is meant literally, so I hope it doesn’t lead your original intent astray :slight_smile:

Doctrinally it indeed finds expression in AN 2.24, AN 2.25

Bhikkhus, these two misrepresent the Tathāgata. Which two? One who explains a discourse whose meaning requires interpretation as a discourse whose meaning is explicit, and one who explains a discourse whose meaning is explicit as a discourse whose meaning requires interpretation.

This path doesn’t lead very far though. “neyyatthaṃ suttantaṃ” would be the ones “requiring interpretation”, “nītatthaṃ suttantaṃ” the ones being explicit. Both terms appear only in these two suttas and thus stay mysterious.

Sorry that I don’t have the popular examples at hand where people are not clear about a literal or metaphorical meaning, blurred memory syndrome. But take for example

“Bhikkhus, dwell with yourselves as an island, with yourselves as a refuge, with no other refuge” (SN 22.43, SN 47.9, SN 47.13, SN 47.14, DN 16, DN 26)

‘yourselves-as-an-island’ is attadīpa and accordingly attasaraṇā. Also Snp 3.5 has

With themselves as an island (attadīpā) they fare in the world, own nothing and everywhere utterly freed…

With an otherwise quite sensitive use of atta in the suttas this is a surprising expression. It’s not enough to destabilize the anatta-doctrine, but surely can be misleading if taken literally.

But yes, maybe others can join in and provide more prominent examples like this?

Hi Gabriel

I see this differently. This is not in anyway meant to reflect on the Anatta teaching. Rather it is an instruction to find our salvation within ourselves. That taking personal responsibility is the only way out. That we must Practice.

But this has nothing to do with the Buddha’s employment of figures of speech in his discourses.

Sometimes I hear a teaching and I feel I understand it. At other times, I hear a teaching and I need someone to explain it to me because I don’t understand it. So sometimes I get a brief teaching. At other times a longer teaching. They’re both the same teaching. They’re both literal. The latter is simply longer…the paragraphs are fleshed out, examples given, etc.

This not about the use of figurative language. This is about offering a more detailed, specific, explicit and obvious version of something that could be taught briefly.

Like the time when on this very forum, there were discussions about nama-rupu… I was really not getting something that others were finding easy to understand. So I questioned and cross questioned until I got a better reflective understanding. It was due to me asking the questions that further explanations were offered.

From what I could see, from what I remember, this is how the EBTs work also.

The Buddha or one of his disciples explains something in brief. Those who don’t get it ask for further clarification. Then further clarification is given.

AN 2.24 and AN 2.25 are asking us not to misrepresent what the Buddha said. Which is really why I made my original post…aside from working out what the Buddha really might have said (ie. what is an EBT) we also need to recognise the clear difference between the use of figurative language and literal language. And it is a very clear difference.


Well sure, we don’t disagree here at all. But this understanding doesn’t come from the suttas where the quotes are from. It’s an interpretation. If I take it literally it means taking refuge in the atta / atman. Brahmins would love that. That’s what I meant when I wrote that some expressions can only be understood taking other suttas into account. The sutta doesn’t tell us “Don’t take it literally, by atta I mean…”

Hi Gabriel

I think perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong example to illustrate your point.

It is very clear that you are not meant to take it literally. This little bit of text is an obvious simile.

In primary school, when we teach students what a simile is, we initially teach them to look out for clues in the language used. So if the words “like” or “as” are used, then, it’s likely to be a similie (instead of a metaphor). Here the word “as” is clearly used. One is not meant to literally see oneself as an piece of land floating in water. It is a similie, used to make a particular teaching much clearer. This particular similie facilitates the use of imagery and evokes the notion of not being connected to other lands, of being alone and self-sufficient.

The point of the statement is not the word “yourselves”, the point of the statement is the similie itself. It is clearly not meant to be taken literally, because it is a simile! In such cases, it’s important to learn what is the important part of the text and what is not; the use of the word “yourselves” is beside the point; the entire statement is a simile!

1 Like

But you see, for me Nibbana means “to put out a flame”, to “extinguish” something. This is, I believe, the literal English translation of Nibbana.

This way of looking at Nibbana, I got from listening to Ajahn Brahm speak. He made the point that the Buddha wouldn’t have used difficult, complex language when speaking to his audiences. He would’ve used local language that they could easily understand. (Indeed in the EBTs there are references to this, and the Sangha is told to use the local language when teaching the Dhamma. In practice, this means using the local idioms, the local slang even. Whatever makes it easier for people to “get it”.)

The Buddha moved within an agrarian society, going from village to village, with no electricity, but with the use of oil lamps, perhaps candles, and fires. As Ajahn Brahm says, the people would understand easily when they were told about “putting it out” or “extinguishment” or “cooling completely”.

(So just linking to the discussion here, so I don’t take that thread too off topic, I thought it best to make further comments here.)

I think this is a prime example of how the Buddha liked to use language. He literally meant extinguish, when using the word “Nibbana”.

Today, we live in a complex world, not a simple agragrian village! We look back at these words through the lenses conditioned by our intellectual, abstract, modern conditioning; we look back, looking for complexity, where there is none, just a deeper layer that needs to be accessed. A deeper connection that can only be found through Practice.


My impression of the suttas is that they were written in a straightforward way, and that similes and metaphors are clearly labelled as such.


We need to be clear about the difference between literal and metaphorical that is made easy by the Buddha’s wonderful skill as a teacher. More importantly, we need to be able to see the difference between the literal meaning and the actual realisation of the teachings. This may seem obvious but the problem is commonplace.

Fundamentalism exists in all religions - including Buddhism. This is the scourge of literalism! Fundamentalists may mistake some metaphors for truth and also ‘literal’ meanings for truth. The problem stems from the confusion of the description with the described.

When the Buddha uses the term: extinguished, that is a literal meaning. When one of the 4 Aryan paths is realised, that is the ‘actual’ meaning of ‘extinguished’. We need to get beyond literal meanings completely and permanently.

The Buddha’s teachings are not the truth which liberates - they are a finger pointing at the moon! He is encouraging us to launch our own moon-shot, make the voyage and touch-down! That’s one big step for humankind. :slightly_smiling_face:

What is that sutta quote about the teachings being ‘deep in meaning, deep beyond conjecture’ etc?

with metta

Not sure Mat, but it sounds like a good one!