On the literalizing of metaphors

In a number of places, Analayo supports the contention that prose portions of certain texts, such as the Udāna, are later than their corresponding verses, on the grounds that the verse uses a metaphor which the prose takes literally. For example in an essay on a text of the Udāna (Anālayo (2012). “Dabba’s Self-cremation in the Saṃyukta-āgama.” Buddhist Studies Review 29.2, 153–174) he says:

… at times a stanza in the Pāli Udāna that evidently has a symbolic sense is accompanied by a prose narration that reflects a literal understanding of this stanza. An example that illustrates this is a stanza that inquires:

What is the use of a well,
if water is there all the time?
Having cut craving at its root,
what would one go about searching for?

While the stanza obviously uses the image of the well as an illustration, the prose that purports to record the original occasion when the stanza was delivered reports that Brahmins of a particular village had blocked a well with chaff in order to prevent the Buddha and his monks from drinking. When the Buddha requested Ānanda to fetch some water for him, the well by itself threw up all chaff and was filled with clean water to the brim. Pande (1957, 75) comments that ‘the author of the prose … seems to have grossly misunderstood the … verse, which intends “water” in no more than a merely figurative sense’. The Chinese parallel to this stanza in fact does not mention any such incident and instead provides an interpretation of the well imagery.

But this doesn’t seem persuasive to me at all. Of course a metaphor draws on a concrete image to make a more abstract point. That’s literally what a metaphor is. How else are they supposed to work? It’s one of the most characteristic differences between prose and poetry: prose is more literal, poetry is more metaphorical. Why are we surprised to see this?

I think it’s obvious in a text like the Udāna that the verses are, in fact, generally older than the prose. And I agree that there is a tendency to over-literalize things. And maybe that’s what has happened in these cases. But to me there is nothing unusual here, nothing that demands a historical explanation. It’s just … how language works. I don’t see how we can infer anything from this about the relative ages of texts.


In his criticism of Nakamura’s ‘original-teaching-in-verses’ hypothesis, de Jong rightfully posits that “Nobody assumes that the Buddha himself spoke in verses.” However, frankly, it seems that people do so sometimes.


The literal explanation of the well metaphor does seem incongruous, as if whoever wrote the prose missed the point of the verse.

Right. I find that much of Ven. Analayo’s work is unconvincing when you investigate it. He is clearly trying to prove some theory and then throws everything at it just to see what sticks. Like a mountain river that flows down and catches everything along the way. He publishes so much and then uses citations to his own work to “prove” his point.

The entire point of the Udana is that the Buddha sees something and then composes a verse inspired by that. The fact that he is observing something “super-natural” doesn’t change that at all.

Um, I’d say that most Buddhists in the world do. I’d hardly call them nobody. But if you are referring to scholars, then I’d say in the big scheme of things, they are the nobodies.

Why in the world is it so hard for people to believe that the Buddha could spontaneously compose verse? Wouldn’t this have been one of the skills of a highly educated person in an oral society? Not that the Buddha would have needed an education to do this.

I’m not against scholars or scholarship. But we need to always look at them and their theories as critically as they look at the Buddha.


I’ve been considering this as well. Do you know of any meaningful enthographic or other historical research on this point?


Haven’t even some rappers developed the ability to spontaneously compose verse? :rofl:


No. That seems like a perfect question for Bhante Anandajoti, though.

I mean, that’s a primary skill for a rapper, eh?

Well, de Jong’s point was that such a common assumption shared by most scholars is incompatible with the claim that verses have more original teaching than proses made by some among them. I do believe that the Buddha and his learned disciples did compose inspired verses with ease, but it was not the point in de Jong’s context (which I didn’t provide enough in the comment; my bad!)


There are some poets in this century who even spoke prose as mesmerizing as their poetry. Maya Angelou comes to mind…

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.- William Wordsworth

I don’t see any reason an Enlightened Buddha couldn’t capture the Dhamma in verse…

I sometimes feel such research goes too far in trying to rationalize certain topics in a scientific way (nothing wrong in that per se, but it seems to strip away the humanity present in how language is used).

( In a practical sense, wouldn’t the use of poetic devices help to remember the concepts? I for one always use analogies when I teach kids and they remember the concepts much better with the use of similes etc…even math!)


Indeed, I agree. Humanity doesn’t always make sense.

Yes, absolutely. We remember songs and and lines of poetry where prose just slips away.


Not about the Pali Canon, but I found this paper on improvisation and oral traditions very interesting. It certainly points to a case of performers in Bali spontaneously creating dramatic presentations - quite sophisticated performances can be improvised. The idea that Buddha could improvise poetry seems quite plausible.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but if we’re talking about distinguishing a metaphor from a literal description of facts, does anyone think for a moment that craving quite literally has a root that literally can be cut, as in a plant or tree? Obviously it is a metaphor.


There has been at least one of the monks, who composed verses spontanously, if I remember correctly. This one asked the Buddha something like “may I please speak in verses at this moment?” and the Buddha “allowed” this, gave his “placet”. But I don’t believe there had been a competition in this style of presentation… About the aspect of improving memorizability, I would like to understand why the Buddha forbade to translate the dharma-teaching into Sanskrit - only because of unavailability of that language for the common folks, or perhaps because of the strict (archaic?) form (verses, rhythmic prosa etc) in which the classic vedic/brahmanic teaching was transmitted?
Hmm, while writing this it seems to me to become deviant from main focus of the initial question, perhaps…

Arahant Vangīsa

Exactly. We see a similar thing happening when talking about Māra. He is sometimes used on the front side of a simile and then people try to claim that he is just metaphorical.


Just going to leave this here:



Speaking about poetry by buddhist, the chinese stood out. (And Korean and Japan by inheritance).

In China since ancient times, poetry is an art by the literary class. The Scholar/ Literati class is considered the highest class according to Confucian idea. Below is the farmer, merchant, and artisan/ craftsman.

The government officials came from scholar class. They must pass the national exam. And one of the subject in the exam is to compose poems. Composing poems spontaneously is one of the recreation during the gathering.

Translation of Buddhist texts is also influenced by literary styles in China. You can see in the Dhammapada Chinese, it was translated in the format of :

It is interesting how this format contain so much meaning inside. Here I copy paste from translation in SC T210 Dharmapada, Chapter 37: Life and Death in English

The existence of desire, form and formless,
Are all caused by past conducts;
Like the seed would grow as its parent plant,
Natually the retribution is like the shadow behind.

And because Buddhism as religion need to cater to scholarly class, it also influenced Chinese Buddhism. For example, if someone claimed to achieve enlightenment, he/ she will compose a poem.

Feelings on Remembering the Day I first Produced the Mind

by Hsu Yun

English version by Paul Hansen
Original Language Chinese

Drawn some sixty years ago by karma
I turned life upside down
And climbed straight on to lofty summits.
Between my eyes a hanging sword,
The Triple World is pure.
Empty-handed, I hold a hoe, clearing a galaxy.

As the ‘Ocean of the Knowing-mind’ dries up,
Pearls shine forth by themselves;
Space smashed to dust, a moon hangs independent.
I threw my net through Heaven,
Caught the dragon and the phoenix;
Alone I walk through the cosmos,
Connecting the past and its people.