SuttaCentral

Practical Meditation Similes


#1

Concepts that describe meditation aspects are naturally abstract and scholars often struggle with understanding the exact meaning of related Pali, Sanskrit or Chinese terms. Similes on the other hand can be very illustrative, not only for a conceptual understanding but also for a vivid memory that might come up during the process of meditation. Below is a collection of useful meditation similes.

Table of Contents 1. Suttas/ Sutras 1. Commentaries / Visuddhimagga 1. Mahayana 1. Zen and Vajjrayana 1. Contemporary buddhist teachers 1. Contemporary other teachers

1. Suttas / Sutras

###The Goldsmith, AN 3.102

Just as if a goldsmith … would take hold of some gold with his tongs and place it in the receptacle. Periodically he would blow on it, periodically sprinkle it with water, periodically examine it closely… In the same way, a monk intent on heightened mind should attend periodically to three themes: concentration… uplifted energy… equanimity.

###Metta just for a finger-snap, AN 1.56

If a bhikkhu cultivates loving-kindness for as long as a fingersnap, he is called a bhikkhu. He is not destitute of jhana meditation, he carries out the Master’s teaching, he responds to advice, and he does not eat the country’s alms food in vain. So what should be said of those who make much of it?

###Metta just for the time to pull a cow’s udder, SN 20.4

If someone were to give a gift of one hundred dishes of food … and another person were to develop a mind of good-will… — even for the time it takes to pull on a cow’s udder — this second action would be more fruitful than the first.

###Sati and the most beautiful girl in the world, SN 47.20

Suppose that on hearing, ‘The most beautiful girl of the land!’ a great crowd of people would assemble. Now that most beautiful girl of the land would dance exquisitely and sing exquisitely. Then a man would come along, wishing to live, not wishing to die, wishing for happiness, averse to suffering. Someone would say to him: ‘Good man, you must carry around this bowl of oil filled to the brim between the crowd and the most beautiful girl of the land. A man with a drawn sword will be following right behind you, and wherever you spill even a little of it, right there he will fell your head.’ What do you think, bhikkhus, would that man stop attending to that bowl of oil and out of negligence turn his attention outwards?

###The well-tuned lute, AN 6.55

“When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“But, Soṇa, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?” “Yes, Bhante.”

“So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Soṇa, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there."

###The skilled bathman, DN 2, MN 39, MN 77, MN 119, AN 5.28

Just as a skilled bath man or a bath man’s apprentice heaps bath powder in a metal basin and, sprinkling it gradually with water, kneads it until the moisture wets his ball of bath powder, soaks it, and pervades it inside and out, yet the ball itself does not ooze; so too, a bhikkhu makes the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion drench, steep, fill, and pervade this body, so that there is no part of his whole body unpervaded by the rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.

Two sheaves of reeds leaning against each other, SN 12.67

Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with name-and-form as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form comes to be… If one were to remove one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall, and if one were to remove the other sheaf, the first would fall.

The taste of liberation, AN 8.19

Just as the great ocean has but one taste, the taste of salt, so too, this Dhamma and discipline has but one taste, the taste of liberation.

A swift pair of messengers, SN 35.245

Suppose, bhikkhu, a king had a frontier city [the body] with strong ramparts, walls, and arches, and with six gates [the sense bases]. The gatekeeper [sati]posted there would be wise, competent, and intelligent; one who keeps out strangers and admits acquaintances. A swift pair of messengers [samatha & vipassana] would come and ask the gatekeeper: ‘Where, good man, is the lord of this city [viññāṇa]?’ He would reply: ‘He is sitting in the central square’ [the four great elements]. Then the swift pair of messengers would deliver a message of reality [nibbana] to the lord of the city and leave by the route by which they had arrived [the Noble Eightfold Path].

2. Commentaries / Visuddhimagga

###Samadhi, Effort and Sati pick flowers, Visuddhimagga, Ch. XVI, 97

Three friends, thinking, “We will celebrate the festival,” entered a park. Then one [samadhi] saw a champak tree in full blossom, but he could not reach the flowers by raising his hand. The second [effort] bent down for the first to climb on his back. But although standing on the other’s back, he still could not pick them because of his unsteadiness. Then the third [sati] offered his shoulder as support. So standing on the back of the one and supporting himself on the other’s shoulder, he picked as many flowers as he wanted and after adorning himself, he went and enjoyed the festival.”

###Anapanassati likened to sawing a tree trunk, Visuddhimagga, Ch. VIII, 202

Suppose there were a tree trunk placed on a level piece of ground, and a man cut it with a saw. The man’s mindfulness is established by the saw’s teeth where they touch the tree trunk, without his giving attention to the saw’s teeth as they approach and recede…

###Formations are short-lived like a seed on a needle, Visuddhimagga, Ch. XX, 104

Formations appear … perpetually renewed… And they are not only perpetually renewed, but they are also short-lived like … a line drawn on water, like a mustard seed on an awl’s point…

3. Mahayana

4. Zen and Vajjrayana

5. Contemporary Buddhist Teachers

###Experience is interrupted like a line of ants, Sayadaw U Pandita, In This Very Life

As we get closer and closer to this lifting process, we will see that it is like a line of ants crawling across the road. From afar the line may appear to be static, but from closer up it begins to shimmer and vibrate. And from even closer the line breaks up into individual ants, and we see that our notion of a line was just an illusion. We now accurately perceive the line of ants as one ant after another ant, after another ant.

6. Contemporary other teachers

###Parable of the Salt Doll, Ramakrishna, The Gospel of Ramakrishna

Once a salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean. It wanted to tell others how deep the water was. But this it could never do, for no sooner did it get into the water than it melted. Now who was there to report the ocean’s depth?


The Path(s) to Awakening
#2

Please feel free to add to the list or to suggest an addition.
If you comment with or send me a precise quote & reference I’d be glad to include it…


#3

@Gabriel
SN 12.67 ‘two sheaves of reeds’ for the mutual condionality between name –and–form & consciousness, teaching by Sāriputta

“Well then, friend, I will make up a simile for you, for some intelligent people here understand the meaning of a statement by means of a simile. Just as two sheaves of reeds might stand leaning against each other, so too, with name-and-form as condition, consciousness comes to be; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form comes to be. With name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases come to be; with the six sense bases as condition, contact…. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

“If, friend, one were to remove one of those sheaves of reeds, the other would fall, and if one were to remove the other sheaf, the first would fall. So too, with the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness comes cessation of name-and-form. With the cessation of name-and-form comes cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact…. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”

AN 8.19

“Just as the great ocean has but one taste, the taste of salt, so too, this Dhamma and discipline has but one taste, the taste of liberation.


#5

Can’t remember where I heard or read it, but there was a mindfulness simile that made the metaphor of holding a bird in the hand — too tightly and you crush the bird, too loosely and it flies away. I suppose it might more apply to the energy or ardency that’s applied together with retention/mindfulness, nevertheless, I’ve found it to be a useful simile.


#6

the swift pair of messengers simile in the SN 35.245 https://suttacentral.net/en/sn35.245

“Suppose, bhikkhu, a king had a frontier city with strong ramparts, walls, and arches, and with six gates. The gatekeeper posted there would be wise, competent, and intelligent; one who keeps out strangers and admits acquaintances. A swift pair of messengers would come from the east and ask the gatekeeper: ‘Where, good man, is the lord of this city?’ He would reply: ‘He is sitting in the central square.’ Then the swift pair of messengers would deliver a message of reality to the lord of the city and leave by the route by which they had arrived. Similarly, messengers would come from the west, from the north, from the south, deliver their message, and leave by the route by which they had arrived.

“I have made up this simile, bhikkhu, in order to convey a meaning. This is the meaning here: ‘The city’: this is a designation for this body consisting of the four great elements, originating from mother and father, built up out of boiled rice and gruel, subject to impermanence, to being worn and rubbed away, to breaking apart and dispersal. ‘The six gates’: this is a designation for the six internal sense bases. ‘The gatekeeper’: this is a designation for mindfulness. ‘The swift pair of messengers’: this is a designation for serenity and insight. ‘The lord of the city’: this is designation for consciousness. ‘The central square’: this is a designation for the four great elements—the earth element, the water element, the heat element, the air element. ‘A message of reality’: this is a designation for Nibbāna. ‘The route by which they had arrived’: this is a designation for the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view … right concentration.”

:arrow_backward: :arrow_forward:


#7

nynaponika thero’s “Heart of Buddhist meditation” contains some of these similes.


#8

it’s kind of similar to the instructions given to sona thera by the buddha.


#9

thanks!, any ideas where to find that?


#10

Well, I have heard the simile that you mentioned but unfortunately I can’t recall it.


#11

As far as I can tell it’s a “zen-like proverb”; citations are usually to a ‘zen master’ and nothing else.

Some others involve a boy holding a bird behind his back and approaching his teacher (“the answer is in your hands”), a tree that neither seeks to hold onto birds nor to have them fly away, and so on.

It’s that old Zen pattern of combining bhavana & wu-wei, it seems to me.