What is your favorite simile/metaphor from the Buddha?

Hello everyone!
I’m sure we can all agree that the Buddha gave some amazing similes and metaphors to help us understand his teachings. I’d love to hear what your favorite simile/metaphor is from the Buddha. I hope we can share and gather some inspiration from reading each others’ responses!

When you share your favorite (I know it might be hard to choose!) Please reference where it appears, and why it is inspiring for you.

I’ll go first. The simile of the mountain is a favorite of mine for describing an undeniably true fact that we will all die in a way that spurs us on to practice.

“What do you think, great king? Suppose a trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the east. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the east. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’

Then a second trustworthy and reliable man were to come from the west … a third from the north … and a fourth from the south. He’d approach you and say: ‘Please sir, you should know this. I come from the south. There I saw a huge mountain that reached the clouds. And it was coming this way, crushing all creatures. So then, great king, do what you must!’

Should such a dire threat arise—a terrible loss of human life, when human birth is so rare—what would you do?”

The imagery of unstoppable walls coming to crush us might make us initially reject the idea as over the top and extreme, but I think it is exactly this that the Buddha wants us to face and question— that the reality is that we don’t know how long we have left – and our practice of the spiritual life should be the priority.

“Sir, what could I do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”

I think the Buddha wants us to feel this sense of motivation for doing the right thing, a positive outcome from this reflection.

“That’s so true, great king! That’s so true! When old age and death are advancing, what can you do but practice the teachings, practice morality, doing skillful and good actions?”


My favourite has to be MN72. I think it is the best, most elegant description of conditionality and how it relates to the abayakata in the canon.

The basic idea is to compare the person with a fire and the undeclared with the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west):

“No wonder you don’t understand, Vaccha, no wonder you’re confused.
“Alañhi te, vaccha, aññāṇāya, alaṁ sammohāya.

For this principle is deep, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, sublime, beyond the scope of logic, subtle, comprehensible to the astute.
Gambhīro hāyaṁ, vaccha, dhammo duddaso duranubodho santo paṇīto atakkāvacaro nipuṇo paṇḍitavedanīyo.

It’s hard for you to understand, since you have a different view, creed, and belief, unless you dedicate yourself to practice with the guidance of tradition.
So tayā dujjāno aññadiṭṭhikena aññakhantikena aññarucikena aññatrayogena aññatrācariyakena.

so here we see the “beyond the scope of language/thought” argument.

Well then, Vaccha, I’ll ask you about this in return, and you can answer as you like.
Tena hi, vaccha, taññevettha paṭipucchissāmi; yathā te khameyya tathā naṁ byākareyyāsi.

What do you think, Vaccha?
Taṁ kiṁ maññasi, vaccha,

Suppose a fire was burning in front of you. Would you know:
sace te purato aggi jaleyya, jāneyyāsi tvaṁ:

‘This fire is burning in front of me’?”
‘ayaṁ me purato aggi jalatī’”ti?

so if you see you are a person…

“Yes, I would, Master Gotama.”
“Sace me, bho gotama, purato aggi jaleyya, jāneyyāhaṁ:
‘ayaṁ me purato aggi jalatī’”ti.

“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you:
“Sace pana taṁ, vaccha, evaṁ puccheyya:

‘This fire burning in front of you: what does it depend on to burn?’ How would you answer?”
‘yo te ayaṁ purato aggi jalati ayaṁ aggi kiṁ paṭicca jalatī’ti, evaṁ puṭṭho tvaṁ, vaccha, kinti byākareyyāsī”ti?

“Sace maṁ, bho gotama, evaṁ puccheyya:

“I would answer like this:
‘yo te ayaṁ purato aggi jalati ayaṁ aggi kiṁ paṭicca jalatī’ti, evaṁ puṭṭho ahaṁ, bho gotama, evaṁ byākareyyaṁ:

‘This fire burning in front of me burns in dependence on grass and logs as fuel.’”
‘yo me ayaṁ purato aggi jalati ayaṁ aggi tiṇakaṭṭhupādānaṁ paṭicca jalatī’”ti.

you would say this person depends on meat and air for fuel

“Suppose that fire burning in front of you was extinguished. Would you know:
“Sace te, vaccha, purato so aggi nibbāyeyya, jāneyyāsi tvaṁ:

‘This fire in front of me is extinguished’?”
‘ayaṁ me purato aggi nibbuto’”ti?

“Yes, I would, Master Gotama.”
“Sace me, bho gotama, purato so aggi nibbāyeyya, jāneyyāhaṁ:
‘ayaṁ me purato aggi nibbuto’”ti.

“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you:
“Sace pana taṁ, vaccha, evaṁ puccheyya:

suppose you see a person die of asphyxiation… (you can wait a while and let them disappear into dust)

‘This fire in front of you that is extinguished: in what direction did it go—
‘yo te ayaṁ purato aggi nibbuto so aggi ito katamaṁ disaṁ gato—

east, south, west, or north?’ How would you answer?”
puratthimaṁ vā dakkhiṇaṁ vā pacchimaṁ vā uttaraṁ vā’ti, evaṁ puṭṭho tvaṁ, vaccha, kinti byākareyyāsī”ti?

“It doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. The fire depended on grass and logs as fuel. When that runs out, and no more fuel is added, the fire is reckoned to have become extinguished due to lack of fuel.”
“Na upeti, bho gotama, yañhi so, bho gotama, aggi tiṇakaṭṭhupādānaṁ paṭicca ajali tassa ca pariyādānā aññassa ca anupahārā anāhāro nibbutotveva saṅkhyaṁ gacchatī”ti. Variant: ajali → jalati (sya-all, km, mr)

so to ask if a person is reborn, not reborn, both or neither, is like asking if when the fire went out it went out in the north the south the west or the east.

what one can say is that when the air ran out, no longer having fuel, the person ran out.

this is something true we can know and say about persons, that they die.

“In the same way, Vaccha, any form by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated, and unable to arise in the future.
“Evameva kho, vaccha, yena rūpena tathāgataṁ paññāpayamāno paññāpeyya taṁ rūpaṁ tathāgatassa pahīnaṁ ucchinnamūlaṁ tālāvatthukataṁ anabhāvaṅkataṁ āyatiṁ anuppādadhammaṁ.

A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form*. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom,
Rūpasaṅkhayavimutto kho, vaccha, tathāgato gambhīro appameyyo duppariyogāḷho—

like the ocean.
seyyathāpi mahāsamuddo.

this argument about persons is anterior to the anatta and aggregates material in the corpus.

It is an argument about the scope of language/logic/thought.

It starts as a response to the skeptics who claimed that one could not know if it was the “annihilationists” or the “eternalists” who where right.

this is all in DN1 and DN2 which are for various reasons* the most important texts for understanding early buddhism.

the buddha says that to a person who truly understands the above argument, everything salient to the questions of what one should do about the situations we find ourselves in become clear.

And that such a one truly knows that:

‘They’re reborn’, ‘they’re not reborn’, ‘they’re both reborn and not reborn’, ‘they’re neither reborn nor not reborn’—none of these apply.
Upapajjatīti na upeti, na upapajjatīti na upeti, upapajjati ca na ca upapajjatīti na upeti, neva upapajjati na na upapajjatīti na upeti.

So such a one truly knows that “you will not be reborn.” (i.e you will die an annihilationist death) doesn’t apply to them.

They truly know that “you will be reborn.” (i.e experience the eternal consequences in heaven(s) or hell(s)) doesn’t apply to them.

(this in itself would be something I would love to be able to claim for myself, but such a one knows even more than that!)

They truly know that “you will both be reborn and not reborn.” doesn’t apply to them.


They truly know that “you will neither be reborn, nor not reborn.” doesn’t apply to them.

The early buddhists understood something that the eternalists and nihilists and the skeptics all failed to understand, that there is “scope” to language/logic/thought, and that if we reflect on that fact the paradoxes of fate, time, space, existence and identity resolve completely.

The early buddhist argument did not rely on any particular meditative attainment to underwrite it, it stands on its own, and indeed is applied to the pre-existing jhana tradition of the nihilists in the exact same way it is applied to the determinists and the skeptics, and to the pre existing vedic practice of the brhama viharas.

MN72 is probably later than DN1 and DN2, but represents the best early metaphor for the deep understanding of the central philosophical argument of the early buddhist community.

It thankfully protects us from the delusion that the problem of human existence is the farcical notion that we simply don’t, which is what I think many of the people who make much of “anatta” think it all amounts to :slight_smile:

Anyway, some of this is probably for another thread.

*The longest suttas where clearly held in the highest esteem by the pre sectarian buddhists.

Firstly and most importantly, in the only intact canon in a middle indian language near contemporaneous with the buddhas, the long discourses are the first volume followed by the middle, then the connected, then the numerical, in that order.

Secondly the Vinaya of that corpus unequivocally states that it was the first 2 suttas of the long collection, by name.

Thirdly the Samyutta quotes from the long collection but the long does not quote from the connected, except and exactly where they can be demonstrated to not be pre-sectarian (usually by appeal to the chinese).

Fourth, it makes sense that the most prestigious collection would show the most evidence of pious “embroidery” and the long collection shows the most evidence of that.

Fifth, even if they are not the earliest they are certainly the most informative precisely because of their length, individually, compared to the lengths of narrative preserved in shorter narratives.

Sixth, doctrinally all the subsequent collections can be shown to depend on tropes that are preserved in their longest and least re-combined form.


Thank you for sharing! I love this sutta and the simile here too. The Buddha definitely chose fire as the simile for a number of reasons. I like to also think it was chosen because it has this aspect of burning and suffering, and that when extinguished, it is only suffering that ends.
But of course the main message is of conditionality, of dependent origination and cessation and making it clear to understand.

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For example AN 10.61:8.1-9.2:
It’s like when it rains heavily on a mountain top, and the water flows downhill to fill the hollows, crevices, and creeks. As they become full, they fill up the pools. The pools fill up the lakes, the lakes fill up the streams, and the streams fill up the rivers. And as the rivers become full, they fill up the ocean.

That’s the fuel for the ocean, and that’s how it’s filled up.

In the same way, when the factor of associating with true persons is fulfilled, it fulfills the factor of listening to the true teaching. When the factor of listening to the true teaching is fulfilled, it fulfills the factor of faith … rational application of mind … mindfulness and situational awareness … sense restraint …the three kinds of good conduct … the four kinds of mindfulness meditation … the seven awakening factors. When the seven awakening factors are fulfilled, they fulfill knowledge and freedom.

That’s the fuel for knowledge and freedom, and that’s how it’s fulfilled.”

The simile occurs still in a number of other places.

I love it because for me the image of the water pouring down has something of richness and abundance, and it is also related to a dream I once had which showed exactly this—water poured on me and everywhere around as an expression of great blessing, associated with a sense of great joy!

So let’s find the place where the rain of Dhamma pours down! Expose yourself to this rain, and the subsequent stages of the path will unfold!

I have named my website Dhammaregen (rain of Dhamma) after this simile.


I like the simile of the purification of gold. First one has to remove what is coarse, than middle, and than what is subtle. One cannot start with the subtle. All that is adventitious to the pure gold is by effort skillfully removed. What remains is pure gold. As an analogy for the purification of mind.

The defiled gold is brittle, it is not easy to apply. The pure gold is wieldy, it is easy to procces and apply.
The same with mind. The cleansed mind is very wieldy and easy to apply. It has great freedom.
The defiled mind is not easy to apply because it has her own drift, will, longings, desires, inclination which still rule the mind.

The defilements that are considered to be coarse, middle and subte are also described.


The simile of the turtle on the ocean has probably had the most enduring impact in my practice.

When I was first studying Buddhism, the correspondence between that image and the vast, lifeless cosmos of modern astronomy struck me very deeply. And that image was again strongly in my mind when I eventually decided to go forth and use the yoke I found as a raft.


The nutriment similes from a Son’s Flesh sutta made a deep impression on me. They are visceral, shocking and starkly effective. They make it clear that these seem like sources of joy and pleasure only because they’re not seen clearly.

  1. Edible Food: A couple, foodless in the midst of a desert, eat their little child, to enable them to reach their destination.

  2. Contact: A skinned cow, wherever she stands, will be ceaselessly attacked by the insects and other creatures living in the vicinity.

  3. Volitional Thought: A man dragged by two others towards and into a pit of glowing embers.

  4. Consciousness: the punishment of a criminal who thrice daily is pierced with three hundred spears.


MN 23 Vammika Sutta, the entire sutta.

But the paragraph that started me on this Path - the very beginning - continues to resonate:
“And what, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision … which leads to Nibbāna? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, bhikkhus, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna. Dhammacakkappavatta Sutta SN56.11 (Apologies, don’t know how to link to SC pages)


But you did! :smiley:

When you type a Sutta ID like SN 56.11, Discourse automatically makes it into a link. :sunglasses:

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This is one I keep coming back to. Like, experiencing anything, will always be unpleasant compared to the pleasure of not having to feel anything at all (AN 9.34)

It’s such a mind bending concept :mindblown:


Oh wow! Thank you for letting me know :heart:

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One of my favourites is the Buddha’s comparison of feelings to guests coming to stay in a guesthouse:

"Monks, it is as if there were a guest house. People come from the east and make their home there; people come from the west and make their home there; people come from the north and make their home there; people come from the south and make their home there. Members of the ruling class come and make their home there; priests come and make their home there; merchants come and make their home there; workers come and make their home there.

“In the same way, monks, in this body various feelings arise. Pleasant feeling arises, painful feeling arises, neither pleasant nor painful feeling arises. Worldly pleasant feeling arises, worldly painful feeling arises, worldly neither pleasant nor painful feeling arises. Spiritual pleasant feeling arises, spiritual painful feeling arises, spiritual neither pleasant nor painful feeling arises.” (S 36: 14)

It’s the idea that all these feelings, that usually we take so seriously, are ‘adventitious’ like guests. It naturally raises the question of how ‘we’ should treat these guests, whether with respect or with contempt, and what happens when we treat each one with a respectful attitude. (There is a Rumi poem called ‘The Guest House’ which addresses all this very beautifully).


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Translated by Coleman Barks (Source)


The following book by Bhikku Bodhi talks about how a calm mind is able to develop wisdom - says (on printed page number 87): “Like a lake unruffled by any breeze, the concentrated mind is a faithful reflector that mirrors whatever is placed before it exactly as it is.” This is one of my favourite similes. If anyone knows what sutta it is from, please let me know.
Book link: https://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/noble8path6.pdf


Is it this one?

Suppose there is a bowl of water that is not stirred by the wind, churning, swirling, and rippling. A person with clear eyes checking their own reflection would truly know it and see it.
In the same way, when your heart is not overcome and mired in restlessness and remorse [you truly understand the escape from restlessness and remorse that has arisen. At that time you truly know and see what is good for yourself, good for another, and good for both.] Even hymns that are long-unpracticed spring to mind, let alone those that are practiced.

[…] = filled in from previous segments.

The same simile also occurs at AN 5.193. Or actually, it’s a whole series of similes.


Yes - it comes very close. Thanks for sharing!

By the way, there is a list of similes in the following website (but I think it is missing some similes): Index of Similes

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