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An Analysis of Comparisons, Similes and Metaphors
in the Dhammapada
Bhikkhu Thich Nhat-Tu

I. A distinction between comparison, simile and metaphor

Comparison, simile and metaphor, as the artistic literary forms, concise, impressive, vivid, and forceful and against routine expression, are often used in Buddhist literature, especially in the Dhammapada. The striking feature of these figures of speech is their simplicity, spontaneity and vividness. There are some distinctions between comparison, simile and metaphor as follows.

1. Comparison

Comparison is the most general term out of various figures of speech. In its broadest use, comparison may imply no more than impartial search for resemblance as well as differences. In this regard, its scope is wider than those of simile and metaphor. In a narrower use, comparison means likening, and in this context, it is similar to those of simile and metaphor. Regarding comparative forms there are mainly three kinds of comparison, namely, parallel, contrast and antithesis.

--By parallel comparison is meant a comparison of similarity in growth, development or action between people or events separated in time, or place, background or origin.

--As opposed to parallel comparison, contrast comparison emphasizes the difference intensified by physical nearness or by association of the contrasting objects in an organic whole, a logical category or an actual relationship.

--By antithesis comparison is meant a comparison for the sake of revealing startling differences. The object of an antithesis comparison suggests that the members of each pair are at opposite extremes or directly negates each other. In fact it is a higher degrees of contrast comparison.

So far as the comparative degrees are concerned there are mainly four kinks, namely, parallel, superior, inferior and superlative.

--By superior comparison is meant a degree of comparison which is usually expressed in English by placing "more" before an adjective or adverb, or by suffixing "er" to it, and that typically denotes increase in the quality, quantity or relation expressed by the adjective or adverb.

-- By superlative comparison is meant a degree of comparison which is usually expressed in English by placing "most" before an adjective or adverb, or by suffixing "est" to it, and that typically denotes an unsurpassed or extreme level of the quality, quantity or relation expressed by the adjective or adverb.

In its most complete form, a comparison consists of four constituents namely the compatible subject, the object to be compared, the particle expressing similitude or dissimilitude and the common properties either of the compatible subject or of the object compared or of both, if any.

The various types of comparison can be illustrated as follows:

-- Paralleled comparison:

as; like in the same manner; similarly etc

A ----------------------------------------------- > B

as; like A -------------------------------------- , B

Figure 1

-- Contrast comparison:

A ------------------- and -------------------- A1

Figure 2

-- Antithesis comparison:

A ------------------- or ------------------- A1

Figure 3

-- Superior comparison:

more + adj / adv - adj + er

A ------------------------------------ > B

figure 4

-- Superlative comparison:

most + adj / adv - adj + est

A ----------------------------------- > B, C, ect…

figure 5b


2. Simile

The word simile is derived from the Latin similes meaning like or similar. By definition, simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, in such a way as to clarify and enhance an image. It is in fact an explicit comparison recognisable by the use of the words "like" or "in the same manner" etc… In other words its explicitly and similarly compares two essentially unlike things. It denotes an analogy, similarity or relation between two things with the help of comparative particle as mentioned above. In this connection, a simile is as the same as a parallel comparison.

There are two main kinds of similes, namely, complete simile and elliptical simile. By complete simile is meant a simile fully consisting of four members as its constituents such as the subject of comparison, the object to be compared, the properties of both and the particle expressing only the similitude. Thus a complete simile is a parallel comparison. By elliptical simile is meant a simile lacking of any one of four members. If an elliptical simile consists of only the subject of comparison and lacks the last three members, then it is called a metaphor.

3. Metaphor

The word metaphor, derived from the Latin metaphora or from the Greek metapherein meaning to transfer or to change, is a figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another. It is a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action, used in place of another to suggest an analogical relation between them, in which one being the subject of a metaphor called "tenor" while the other the image, which embodies the tenor called "vehicle." It is worthy of notice that in the analogical relation of a metaphor, scope of content and meaning of the tenor is always wider than that of the vehicle. Where arguments and normal descriptions fail to describe the profound matter, metaphors are used to enable the audience understanding the matter and then convince them. In other words, the analogical relation between the vehicle and the tenor is of formal relation and hardly of content. The content, meaning and its dimension implied in the tenor necessarily go beyond the scope of the vehicle.

Metaphor is, indeed, an implied or implicit comparison whereas in simile, comparison is explicit. Such an implicit comparison is of the most elliptical simile consisting only of the subject of comparison or the vehicle which is one we have to examine and determine in order to find out the exact meaning denoted by it, in given context. It has really appeared that there are cases in which one vehicle can be interpreted with various tenors in different contexts. In the same way, there are cases various vehicles are utilised to implicate only one tenor. This is one of the most effective teaching methods of the Buddha to make the profound and unfamiliar dhamma understandable and recognisable.

The formal structure of a metaphor can be illustrated as follows:

A ------------------------------> ?

? ------------------------------> A

figure 6

There are two main types of metaphors namely "organic" and "telescoped." Organic metaphor is also known as a functional or structural metaphor. In this figure of speech the vehicle is symbolic and carries an implicit tenor. Telescoped metaphor is also called complex metaphor. In such a figure of speech the vehicle of one metaphor become the tenor of another. It is doubtless that in the Dhammapada only organic metaphors are widely used. Therefore in this analysis, I would like to confine to such organic metaphors.

Regarding the distinction between simile and metaphor and their main function, Pandita observes that, "The difference between a simile and metaphor is slight, the simile being only a metaphor with an explanation. In general the metaphor is more compact, forceful and suggestive. The simile requires a phrase beginning with "like’, "as’, "as if" etc… which makes it not only more prolix than a metaphor but also habels the thought as mka-believe. Similes and metaphors thus serve to give greater force and vividness to what is said or described." [Pandita (1987): 279] He further explains that, simile and metaphor can serve to "create a wealth of ideas which imprints the picture evoked by the poet’s words indelibly on the imagination of the reader." [ibid]

It should be noted here that similes and metaphors used in the dhammapada are very simple, authentic and convincing. "However, unlike in Greek, Roman and Indian literature (or Greek, Latin and Sanskrit literature), the Pali Nikayas or Buddhist literature avoid the use of complex and far-fetched similes. The utilization of complex similes and metaphors in classical Sanskrit literature and their non-utilization in Pali literature can easily be explained on the basis of the different philosophical standpoints of the two traditions they represent, namely, Hinduism and Buddhism respectively." [Ibid, p.280] The difference between Buddhist similes and metaphors in the Dhammapada and those of other traditions can be considered on the basis of acsthetic and ethically oriented standpoints. Accordingly, "The Buddhist approach to acsthetics and, therefore, to poetics is different. The non-subtantialist standpoint of early Buddhism prevented the Buddhists from treating acsthetic experience as providing a basis for potentially universal (and possibly prescriptive) conception. The ethically oriented pragmatic teachings of the buddha subordinated acsthetics to ethics. Hence the buddha’s reluctance to extol the value of literary masterpieces with mere poetic elegance."[Ibid, p.281] With reference to the distinction between comparison, simile and metaphor, we are now going to examine their use and role in the Dhammapada.

II. Comparisons in the Dhammapada

The point of importance is that in the Dhammapada, the majority of verses are found being expressed in terms of comparisons, parallel, contrast, antithesis, superior and superlative the parallel comparison will be discussed under the title similes.

1. Contrast comparison

It is interesting to know that almost twin verses of Yamaka Vagga, the first chapter of the Dhammapada are expressed in form of contrast comparison.

"The very first pair of verses contain vivid simile (here is contrast comparison) to indicate inevitability of the law of Kamma." [EB. IV. 491]

The description runs as follows. "If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, dukkha follows him just as the wheel follows the hoof-print of the ox that draws the cart." [Dhp. 1] Contrasting to "If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness (sukha) follows him like a shadow that never leave him." [Dhp. 1]

So far as being abused, ill-treated and stolen is concerned, there will be two opposite responses, one is the enmity of those harbouring such thoughts (he abused me, he ill-treated me, he stole my belongings) can not be appeased whereas the contrary response can be appeased [Dhp. 3-4]. The contrast comparison of the same content is again well expressed: "Hatred is, indeed, never appeared by hatred in this world. It is appeased only by loving-kindness. This is ancient law." [Dhp. 5] The following twin verse is completely a contrast comparison in which every line of both is corresponding to each other.

"He who keeps his mind on pleasant objects" contrasts to "he who keeps his mind on impurity"; "who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in his food and is lazy in energy will certainly be overwhelmed by Mara just as stormy winds uproot a weak tree" contrasts to "who is well controlled in his senses, moderate in his food, and is full of faith and energy, will certainly be not overwhelmed by Mara, just as stormy winds can not shake a mountain of rock" [Dhp. 7-8]

In a contrast manner, the Dhammapada verses 9-10 denote the necessary and sufficient conditions of a monk or nun that are wearing yellow robe (formal requirement) and discarding all moral defilements, being establishing in moral precepts, endowed with the restraint and speaking the truth (content-requirement). The remaining twin verses of this chapter of the Dhammapada are explicitly expressed in the same manner, such as verses 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18 and 19-20. Every line of these twin verses is entirely opposed to each other. In some other cases, the contrast comparison is expressed in only one verse, such as verses 21, 30, 50, 75 and 126. Here we quote.

-- "Mindfulness is the way to the deathless" contrasts to "Unmindfulness is the way to the death" (verse 21)

-- "Mindfulness is always praised" but "Unmindfulness is always blamed" (verse 30).

In these circumstances, the contrast comparison always provides and analyses two different ethico-philosophical directions; one leads to moral and intellectual life while the other immoral and ignorant way of life. Here the agent has a freedom of will, and only a good choice can lead to a better life. That is to say, right views imply life of morality and wisdom whereas wrong views imply life of immorality and ignorance. It is evident that the contrast comparison plays an important role, the Buddha’s methodology of teachings. It can serve as guiding choice, especially referring good to evil.

2. Superior comparison

In a superior comparison there are always two members, in which one being predominated in quality or quantity while the other inferior. In the Dhammapada there are at least thirty-six verses in that manner dealing with different issues.

As have discussed elsewhere the importance of volition (cetanaa) as the leading force of all human actions. Accordingly an action, physical or vocal, will lead to happy consequences if it is accompanied with a good will or mind, and vice versa. Here in a method of superior comparison, a rightly-directed mind can do oneself far greater benefit than those of any relative while a wrongly directed mind can do oneself far greater harm than those of a thief done to a thief and of an enemy done to an enemy [Dhp. 42-3]

In a moral life, morality can be considered as criteria for judging good and bad people. Without morality human life could not have been itself rather something else inferior to it. The figure of morality or virtue is to be comparatively considered as more powerful than that of scent of flowers. We quote, "There are the scent of sandalwood, rhododen drone, lotus and jasmine but the scent of virtue surpassed all scents." [Dhp. 54] Because as the Dhammapada explains, "The scent of flowers can not go against the word… while the fragrance (i.e. reputation) of the virtuous is wafted abroad in all directions." [Dhp. 55]

Theoretical knowledge and practice is a vital issue comprehensively discussed in the Dhammapada. Of these, the later is significantly considered as better for its practice leads the practitioner to the enlightened life. Theoretical knowledge and practice again are put in the form of quantity, and of which only the latter is necessarily needed for the noble life as the Dhammapada describes as follows.

Better than a thousand words that are senses and unconnected with the realisation of Nibbana, is a single word of sense or one beneficial single live by hearing which one is calmed and pacified." [Dhp. 100-1]

In the same manner, the desirable recitation should be of something beneficial and connected with the realisation of Nibbana, even a single word or line or sentence [Dhp. 102] Because this recitation is of useful for cultivating mental and spiritual life

The Dhammapada also lays stress on the value of morality, tranquillity and insight development practice. Such values are comparatively believed to be "better than a hundred years in the life of an immortal person or an ignorant person who has no control over his senses." [Dhp. 110-11] The same must be said of the single day’s life one who makes an intense effort in tranquillity and insight development practice [Dhp. 112].

It is interesting to mention here from the same chapter of the Dhammapada, the value of the single day’s life of one who sees the Noble Dhamma or one who perceives the Deathless (Nibbana) or even perceiving the arising and the dissolving of all conditioned phenomena. Such a value is better than a hundred years in the life of a person who does not know Dhamma, does not perceive the deathless and fails to realise the rise and fall of conditioned categories [Dhp. 113-5].

Realising the truth as the main objective of human being is considered much more beneficial than that of living in austerity [Dhp. 70]. It is logically followed that the life of one who has realised the truth is worthy to be offered, honoured than a century making of sacrifices in fire worship or making offerings to ordinary people [Dhp. 106]. The Dhammapada further states that "the merit gained by such a person who pays homage to those who have been freed from moral defilements and have nothing to fear can not be measured by anyone, as this much or that much" [Dhp. 196].

The Dhammapada also advises us that, "if you do not get a prudent companion who is fit to dive with you who behaves well and is wise, then like a king who leaves a conquered kingdom, you should live alone as an elephant in the elephant forest." [Dhp. 329] It then concludes that "better it is to live alone" because "there is fellowship with a foot." [Dhp. 330] It is important to note here that in the Dhammapada the superior comparison is also expressed in terms of sentences beginning with "it is hard or difficult to … or hard/ difficult to … is." Hence the latter can be logically expressed in a comparative manner as follows:

"Hard to gain is birth as man" = "birth as man is better than another birth."

"Hard is the life of mortals" = "the life of mortals is better than another life."

"Hard is the hearing of the sublime truth" = "the hearing of the sublime truth is better than another hearing."

"Hard is the appearance of the Buddhas" = "the appearance of the Buddhas is better than those of sentient beings." [Dhp. 182]

The same must be said of the three other verses viz. verse 193, 245 and 252. Addition to it, the model of superior comparison is also described in another form of sentences beginning with "it is happy to or happy is…" [Dhp. 194, 196-9, 206, 331-3 and 360-1] The following are some examples to make it clear: "Happy is the arising of a Buddha, happy is the exposition of the Ariya dhamma; happy is the harmony amongst the Sangha and happy is the practice of those in harmony" can be logically rendered as "the arising of a Buddha is happier than those of another being; the exposition of the Ariya dhamma is happier than those of ordinary teaching; the harmony amongst the Sangha is happier than those of another community and the practice of those in harmony is happier than that of another person" [Dhp. 194]

3. Superlative comparison

Unlike superior comparison, superlative comparison consists of remarkable difference between the two members of comparison: only one being the most/best in quality, quantity or relation among the remaining. Various issues are concerned with in this connection.

On the scent of virtue, the Dhammapada says: "the scent of virtuous is the strongest amongst the scents of sandalwood, rhododendron, lotus and jasmine etc. It spreads even to the abodes of the devas." [Dhp. 55-6] So far as the difference between doing good and bad is concerned, it records," It is easy to do things that are bad and unbeneficial to oneself, but it is indeed, most difficult to do things that are beneficial and good." [Dhp. 163] On taming oneself, it compares, "Excellent are trained mules, so are thorough-breeds of Sindh and of noble, elephants the tuckers; but far better is he who has trained himself." [Dhp. 322] As to gain, wealth and kinsmen, it describes, "Health is the highest gain, contentment is the greatest wealth and confidential are the best relative." [Dhp. 204] Regarding the greatest conquer, it points out, "though he should conquer a thousand men in the battle field, yet he, indeed, is the noblest victor who would conquer himself." [Dhp. 103]

The Dhammapada also informs us that, "of truths the four noble truths are noblest; of paths, the path of eight constituents is the noblest." [Dhp. 273] The noble truths therefore are incompatible: "The gift of the dhamma excels all gifts; the taste of the Dhamma excels all tastes; delight in the Dhamma excels all delights." [Dhp. 354]

It is believes that, "the absence of craving is the noblest" [Dhp. 273] or "the eradication of craving overcomes all ills" [Dhp. 354] therefore fire like passion, grip like ill will and net like ignorance are considered as the most harmful." [Dhp. 202, 251, 243]

Regarding the Noblest of all men, the Dhammapada defines, "He who is not credulous, who has realised the unconditioned, who has cut off the links of the round of rebirths, who has destroyed all craving" [Dhp. 97] or "the tamed, who endure abuse" [Dhp. 321] and Nibbaana, the fruition of the noblest, is therefore the supreme happiness [Dhp. 184, 203-4]

To conclude: in the Dhammapada the concept of the best or supreme represents the complete performance of morality, tranquillity and insight development practice of the virtuous, who has destroyed all moral defilements. It therefore follows that the path on which the virtuous follows is also considered as the best among the other.

III. Similes in the Dhammapada

The descriptions of the Buddha’s ethico-philosophical doctrine in terms of similes are very popular, simple yet impressive. There are two chapters of the Dhammapada; namely, the Puppha Vagga (chapter on flowers) and the Naga Vagga (chapter on the elephant) which have derived their titles from the similes employed in them. Besides there are at least seventy other similes appearing here and there in the work in order to enable the hearer or reader properly understand the Buddha’s teachings. The riches and variety of the similes employed in the Dhammapada by the Buddha and his disciples are "to facilitate the understanding of new and unfamiliar concepts particularly among the uninitiated"[Pandita, p. 284]. Two kinds of similes, complete and elliptical, are skilfully utilised in order to make the Buddha’s teachings become figuratively understandable and impressive as well as easily remembered. Verses employed elliptical similes are less than those of complete ones but their functions are proved to be the same: making the teachings vivid and authentic, and impressing the reader. Before taking into consideration all complete similes, it is necessary to glean the elliptical similes.

1. Elliptical similes

It is worthy of notice that in the Dhammapada, the elliptical similes are mainly of the form in which the particles such as "like, just as, as or similarly, the same must be said of, in the same way etc" are omitted. Such similes mainly stress on the danger of moral defilements. Main moral defilements in these cases are of lust, ill-will, ignorance, and covetousness.

On comparing the danger of ignorance with the damage of weeds, the Dhammapada elliptically describes as "weeds damage fields; ignorance spoils all beings." [Dhp. 356] The same idea on the danger of ignorance of a person who is ignorant of Dhamma is differently expressed with the similes of the night is long to one who is wakeful, and of the journey of one yojana to the traveller who is tired." [Dhp. 60] In the same way, "lust, ill-will and covetousness spoil all being" are elliptically compared to "weeds damage fields." [Dhp. 356-7, 359]

An impressive simile on the main function of volition (cetanaa) as kamma [A. III. 415] is the comparison of a person having no wound in his hands handling poison with a person committing no evil for he has no evil intention [Dhp. 124]. Another issue of elliptical simile is to be noted here that the taming themselves of the wise is said to be like the farmer channel the water or Fletcher straightens the arrows or the carpenters work the timber [Dhp. 80, 145]. Again, "the wise, having conquered Mara together with his army, go out of this world" is elliptically compared to the images of "swans travel in the sky and those with supernormal powers travel through space." [Dhp. 175]

Besides, elliptical simile in the Dhammapada also compares the incompatible value of the Buddha’s teachings as a unique source leading to enlightened life, to the sky containing no track [Dhp. 254-5]. Such a simile can serve as evidence in proving that the Buddha does bring about a radical change in the philosophical thinking in India.

2. Complete similes

It has been already said that complete similes are found to appear in almost chapters of the Dhammapada. These similes appear to be compared with various teachings of the Buddha such as three characteristics of all phenomena, the theory of kamma, the attribute of impure mind, the distinction between the wise and the fool, the value of knowing and practising, the benefit of the virtuous life and the way to Nibbaana etc. The following are accounts and illustrations to make these issues more clear.

As to the three characteristics of the world of events and phenomena, namely, impermanence, suffering and non-substantiality, the Dhammapada utilises the simile of a bubble and a mirage to express their nature [Dhp. 170]. In elsewhere, the Dhammapada uses the simile of the cowherd with a stick drives his cattle to the pasture to compare to" the ageing and death, as principle of these three characteristics applied to human being; drive the life of beings." [Dhp. 135] Again, before long, alas this body, deprived of consciousness will be on the earth, discarded like a useless log [Dhp. 41]. However it teaches us the way to meditate with wisdom and right views in order to be freed from all suffering. Here we quote: "Knowing that this body is fragile like an earthen far, making one’s mind secure like a fortified won, one fights Mara with the weapon of knowledge" [Dhp. 40], or "One who knows that this body is impermanent like froth, and comprehends that it is insubstantial as a mirage, will cut the flowers of Mara." [Dhp. 46]

In dealing with the theory of kamma, in the Dhammapada, in terms of various similes the following points have been taken into consideration. Firstly, the time bearing fruit of an evil deed is not immediately, because bad kamma is usually subsequently effective Kamma (Upapajjavedaniya). In this connection, it is recorded that, "An evil deed does not immediately bear fruit just as the newly drawn milk does not curdle at once. But it follows the fool, burring him like live coal covered with ashes." [Dhp. 71] Secondly, the Dhammapada advises us that one should not disregard evil, imagining "a little will not affect me," because "the fool is, indeed, filled up with evil by accumulating it little by little just as a water-far is filled up by falling drops of rain." [Dhp. 121] Thirdly, it teaches us to avoid evil as the proper way to happiness in the same manner in which a wealthy merchant with few attendants avoids a dangerous road or just as one who desires to go on living avoids poison [Dhp. 123]. Fourthly, from the Buddhist view of kamma, "by oneself is evil done, by oneself is one defiled; by oneself is evil not done, by oneself is one purified" [Dhp. 165] therefore good or bad consequences of good or bad deeds are not rewards and punishments, assigned by a supernatural, omniscient ruling power to a doer. With the help of a simile, this idea is well expressed a follows, "Just as rust is formed from iron and corrodes the iron from which it is formed, so also, his own deeds lead the transgressor to a lower plane of existence." [Dhp. 240] Last but not least, the Dhammapada also advises us to avoid all kinds of evil, especially not to do something wrong to a noble one, and not to scorn the teaching of such a man. If anyone do so the evil falls back upon him, like fine dust thrown against the wind [Dhp. 125] or like the bamboo bearing fruit for its own destruction [Dhp. 164]. The most important point can be gleaned from here that although it is stated in the Dhammapada verse 127 that "not in the sky, nor in mid-ocean nor entering a mountain cave is found that place on earth, where abiding one may escape from the consequence of an evil deed," yet one is not necessarily bound to pay all the arrears of past kamma. We may at any moment change for the better by developing destructive kamma (Upaghataka Kamma) and counteractive kamma (Upapidaka kamma) of the past bad deeds. In this case, the Dhammapada utilises a forceful simile in order to show that "whoever was heedless before and afterwards is mindful or whoever by good deed covers the evil done such a one illumines this world as does the moon freed from clouds." [Dhp. 15-7]

As opposed to evil-doer being suffering in both worlds, here and hereafter [Dhp. 15-7] the Dhammapada states that "good deeds will receive the well-doer who has gone from this world to the next, as relatives, friends and well-wishers receive a dear on his return." [Dhp. 220] As a result of doing things good and beneficial, the good are visible even from afar like the Himalayas, while the wicked are not seen even though they may be near like arrow shot in the night [Dhp. 304]

So far as the impure mind is concerned the Dhammapada says that it is the flickering fickle mind difficult to guard, difficult to control, and the wise is one who trains it to be upright as a Fletcher straightens an arrow [Dhp. 33]. In another simile it is comparatively said that, "like a fish that is drawn from its watery abode and upon land, even so does this mind flutter. Hence should the realm of passions be shunned." [Dhp. 34]

It is now significant to discuss, with the help of similes, the distinction between the wise and the fool, on the basis of the Dhammapada. By definition the wise are those who abandon dark states (ten kinds of evil deeds and cultivate the bright (ten kinds of good deeds) [Dhp. 87] or those who guard their mind [Dhp. 36]. In a figurative speech, the wise man train his mind is expressed in terms of a Fletcher straightens an arrow [Dhp. 33]. In another simile, the wise on hearing the teachings become exceedingly peaceful is compared with a lake deep, clear and still [Dhp. 82]. By their very nature, the wise are unperturbed by blame or by praise just as a mountain of rock is unshaken by wind [Dhp. 81]. Unlike the fool, the wise strives for removing their own impurities by degrees, little by little, from moment to moment. This process of practice is compared to a smith who removes the dross of silver or gold [Dhp. 239]. It is relevant here to take note on distinction between the wise and the fool by checking the process, purpose and consequence of association with a wise. A fool is said to be like a ladle, which does not know the taste of soup whereas a wise understanding the dhamma by association with another wise just as the tongue knows the flavour of soup [Dhp. 64-5]. Association with such a wise is recommendable because he can point out faults and reproves. It is considerable as if indicating a treasure [Dhp. 76]. Association with the wise as a pleasure is recommendable while association with fools as suffering should be avoidable because in the latter, companion has to grin for a long time as living with an enemy whereas in the former he will be happy as living with relatives [Dhp. 207]. It is therefore recommendable that one should follow such a virtuous and wise man as the moon follows the path of the star [Dhp. 208]. In a double simile of a king who leaves a conquered kingdom and of an elephant in the elephant forest, it is suggested that one should live alone if one does not get a prudent companion who behaves well and is wise [Dhp. 329-30]. This is a better way for one to avoid evil from influence caused by association with fools.

Now attention should be paid to the similes regarding the moral value of the virtuous opposed to immoral value of the unvirtuous. With reference to the latter, the following similes are mentioned: the simile of stormy winds uproot a weak tree is comparatively denoted to the man who is uncontrolled in his senses, immoderate in his food and is lazy and lacking in energy [Dhp. 7]; the simile of rain penetrating an ill-thatched house is to imply passion (raga) penetrating a mind not cultivated in tranquillity and insight development [Dhp. 13]. The similes of old herons on a drying pond without fish [Dhp. 155] and of arrows that have lost momentum [Dhp. 156] are altogether compared to those who in youth have not led the holy life. The simile of kusa grass wrongly grasped does cut that very hand is compared with the ill-led life of a Bhikkhu drags that Bhikkhu down to niraya [Dhp. 311].

It is here of significance to observe the moral value of the virtuous in the contexts of similes in the Dhammapada. The impressive simile of stormy winds can not shake a mountain of rock shows that one who is well controlled in his senses and is full of energy and practice the Dhamma will certainly be not overwhelmed by Mara [Dhp. 8]. The simile of an expert florist picks and chooses flowers points out the value of the ariya sekha examining the well taught path of virtue (Dhammapada) [Dhp. 44-5]. The ariya sekha here can be said as one who has a well-developed mind, which can not be penetrated by lust just as rain does not penetrate a well-roofed house [Dhp. 14].

In another simile, the way to guarded both inside and outside [Dhp. 315]. This is the way to be free from all moral corruptions, leading to the holy life of an enlightened one, which is compared to steeds well, trained by a charioteer [Dhp. 94]. This is again expressed with the help of the simile of a thoroughbred horse [Dhp. 143]. In the chapter on the elephant, the Buddha utilises the simile of a mahout with his goad controls an elephant in must telling us about his successful experience in controlling his three ways of action [Dhp. 326] in order to encourage us taking delight in mindfulness and pulling ourselves out of the mire of moral defilements just as an elephant sunk in the mire [Dhp. 327].

Some point which is paramount importance referring to the values of knowing and practising in Buddhism is to be mentioned here. Firstly, a man of letter is considered as important as Buddhism always extols wisdom, which is attainable, by learning, thinking and cultivating insight. A man of little learning is, therefore, considered as growing old like an ox, only his flesh grows but not his wisdom [Dhp. 152]. He is said to be like a well-fed pig because of his laziness and gluttonousness and is, therefore, subject to repeated rebirths [Dhp. 325]. However, learning is necessary but insufficient because the higher value resolving the enlightened goal of the practitioner is practice of dhamma. Practice entails enlightenment and only enlightenment can stop the wheel of samsara and cut off all suffering. In the Dhammapada is compared one who knows Tipitaka lent is negligent acts not accordingly, to a cowherd who counts the cattle of others has no share in the benefits of the life of a bhikkhu [Dhp. 19]. He is again compared with a beautiful flower, lacking in scent, can not give the wearer the benefit of its scent [Dhp. 51]. Buddhism heightens values both of learning and practising and only when these two go together, a man can enjoy supreme happiness just as a flower that is lovely, beautiful and scent-laden [Dhp. 52].

In dealing with main root of suffering, the Dhammapada has utilized various similes such as a creeper [Dhp. 334] or a well-watered birana grass growing luxuriantly [Dhp. 335] or a bound hare [Dhp. 342-3] or a spider on the self-spun web [Dhp. 347] to show that held fast by fetters and toils for long a man of craving come to sorrow again and runs from birth to birth like a monkey seeking fruits in the forest [Dhp. 334]. The only way to emancipation expounded by the Buddha is to cut off craving as one plucks an autumn lily with the hand [Dhp. 285] or as one who wishes to have the fragrant root digs up the birana grass [Dhp. 337].

The Dhammapada further says that in this world, sorrow falls away from one that overcomes this vile craving just as water-drops fall away from a lotus leaf [Dhp. 336]. That is because if craving is not rooted out, the dukkha arises again and again just as at tree with roots undamaged and firm grows again even though cut down [Dhp. 338]. A man whose craving is extinct like the moon is pure, clear and serene is called a Brahmana [Dhp. 413]. His freedom from moral defilement is compared both with water which does not cling to a lotus leaf, and a mustard on the point of a needle [Dhp. 401]. He is a man with his wisdom shining the blind wordings just as a sweet smelling and beautiful lotus flower may grow upon a heap of rubbish thrown on the highway [Dhp. 58-9]. He goes out of this world like swans travel in the sky [Dhp. 175] or like the course of birds in the air [Dhp. 92-3]. He is not provoked to respond in anger like the earth, he is unperturbed by ups and downs of life like the door-post, he is serene and pure like a lake free from mud [Dhp. 95, 134]. He is subject to no more rebirths and lights up the world as does the moon free from a cloud [Dhp. 382].

In addition to cutting off craving as main cause of suffering, the Dhammapada also advises us to dig up hatred and ignorance, the other two with craving crustituting the threefold root of suffering, as a skilful charioteer checks a speeding chariot [Dhp. 222]. A wise man sheds these fetters as the jasmine (vassika) plant sheds these fetters as the jasmine (vassika) plant sheds its withered flowers [Dhp. 377]. He is called a Brahmana, from whom these fetters have fallen off, like a mustard seed from the tip of an awl [Dhp. 407]. Besides, a wise man should be heedful, wide-awake and advances like a swift horse leaving a weak jade behind [Dhp. 29]. He delights in earnestness, advances like fire burning all fetters, great and small [Dhp. 31]. He leaves immeasurable dukkha by morality, effort, concentration, wisdom and discernment of the Dhamma, like a good horse stirred at a touch of the whip [Dhp. 144]. He abandons all homelike and freed from dukkha like swans that forsake the muddily pool [Dhp. 91]. His enlightenment can not be guided or rewarded by any supernatural agent but be solely relied on his own efforts and wisdom eradicating all defilements and realising things as they truly are. He is therefore his own refuge. He, indeed, is his own heaven. Look after oneself as a horse dealer looks after a thoroughbred [Dhp. 380] and furthermore, all Tathagatas are only teachers [Dhp. 276].

IV. Metaphors in the Dhammapada

Before entering the subject of metaphors in the Dhammapada, I would like to employ the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" coined by I.A. Richards. By "tenor" is meant the purport or general drift of thought regarding the subject of a metaphor and by "vehicle," the image that embodies the tenor. There are about forty metaphors appearing in various chapters of the Dhammapada, denoting implicitly divergent issues regarding the Buddha’s ethico-philosophical teachings.

In the following metaphors, "of bones is this city made, plastered with flesh and blood, where in are deposited decay and death," [Dhp. 150] "the builder of this house" [Dhp. 153], "who shall conquer this earth" [Dhp. 44-5] and "empty this boat" [Dhp. 369], the vehicles "city," "house," "earth" and "boat" are interpreted as embodying the same tenor "body" which is subject to rebirths. And in the simile of "gourds cast away in autumn are these dove-hued bones" [Dhp. 149], the vehicle "dove-hued bones" definitely implies the tenor "dead body."

The same manner is expressed in the following metaphors, "having slain mother" [Dhp. 294], "cut down the forest" [Dhp. 283], "O, house-builder! You are seen" [Dhp. 154], "cut off the thong" [Dhp. 398], and abandon all homelife," [Dhp. 91] in which the vehicles, "mother," "forest," "house-builder," "the thong" and "homelife" are to denote the tenor "tanha or craving" as the main cause of samsara and all dukkha.

Again, the same must be said of the following metaphors, "shrouded by darkness, would you not seek a light?" [Dhp. 146], "Your ridge-pole or root-tree is shattered" [Dhp. 154], "blind is this world" [Dhp. 174], and "throw up the cross-bar" [Dhp. 398] in which the vehicles "darkness," "root-tree," "blind" and "cross-bar" are to be considered to implicit the same tenor "ignorance" as one of the three main causes of dukkha. Attention should be said to the vehicle "strap" in the sentence "he who cuts off the strap" [Dhp. 398] that it implies the tenor "ill-will or hatred" as one of the three unwholesome roots.

In the Dhammapada, verse 151 the vehicle "the thorns of life or existence" is interpreted as the tenor "three unwholesome roots of dukkha," i.e.… craving, hatred or ill-will and ignorance. In the metaphors of "bale out the water from this boat" [Dhp. 369] and of "to cut off the cord," [Dhp. 398], both the vehicles "the water" and "the cord" implicate the same tenor "wrong view or thought," accordingly the giving up this wrong view will enable you to realise nibbana [Dhp. 369]. An abundance of such metaphors are found in the following sentences as well with the help of the chart as follows:


Verses Metaphors Vehicles Tenors
294-5 Having slain the father the father conceit
154 All your rafters are broken rafters passions
294 Having killed revenue officer officer attachment
83,90, 353 Giving up all all attachment
294 Having killed two kings two kings Eternity- belief and annihilation belief.
294 Having destroyed the kingdom kingdom Sense-bases and sense-objects.
370 Cut off five five Illusion, doubt, indulgences in wrongful rites, sense desires and hatred.
370 Give up five five Craving for form-realm and formless-realm, conceit restlessness and ignorance.
370 Cultivate five five Confidence, mindfulness, energy, concentration and wisdom.
91 Take no delight in the home home The life of sensual pleasure.
171 Come, behold this world this world khandhas
235 Like a withered leaf you are now withered leaf aging and decay
37 Faring far, wandering alone, laying in a cave, is the mind. A cave seat of consciousness.
46-350 Cut the flowers of Mara flowers of Mara king of death
37 Those who control their mind will be free from the bonds of Mara bonds of Mara kamma-realm, rupa-realm and arupa-realm.
40 One should sight Mara with the weapon of wisdom Mara unwholesome deeds or things.
57 Mara can not find the path taken by an arahant Mara Samsara
276 Those who practise tranquillity and meditation are freed from the bonds of Mara bonds of Mara Samsara
86 Having passed the realm of death realm of death Samsara
235 You are about to set out on a long journey a long journey Samsara
90 Whose journey is ended journey the way to Nibbana
235 You have no provisions for the journey provisions wholesome deeds or virtue, concentration and wisdom.
222 He who restrains his anger is called a true charioteer a true charioteer self-controller
85-355 Few among men reach the other shore the other shore Nibbana
85 All run up and down on this shore this shore Samsara
385 Him I call a Brahmana who has for him neither this shore nor the other shore this shore and the other shore the sense-bases and the sense-objects.
344 Having left this forest, he takes to that forest this forest and that forest the life of householder and the life of a Bhikkhu.
384 When a Brahmana is well-established in the two dhammas, all fetters are destroyed two dhammas the practice of tranquillity and insight meditation.
72 The skill of a fool destroys his merit and head head wisdom
54 The scent of the virtuous can go against the wind scent of the virtuous morality
97,154 Those who have realised the unconditioned, have cut off the links of the round of rebirths the unconditioned Nibbana
323 Only by thoroughly taming oneself the tamed one can go to the place one has never been before the place one has never been before Nibbana
368 Those who lives exercising metta and is devoted to the teaching of the Buddha will realise a quite place a quite place Nibbana

V. Conclusion

In concluding this analysis of comparisons, similes and metaphors in the Dhammapada, it may be emphasised that with the help of similes, metaphors, and comparisons as an effective part of his teaching method, the Buddha has explained convincingly his ethico-philosophical teachings to his audience. These figures of speech are significant and important both from the preaching point of view and literary point of view.

So far as the preaching point of view is concerned, the Buddha has utilised comparisons, similes and metaphors to enable the hearer understanding the "Dhamma which is profound, difficult to realise, hard to understand, tranquillising, sweet, not to grasped by mere logic, subtle and comprehensible only by the wise." Without these figurative images the hearer may have difficulties in understanding the meaning of his teachings.

With reference to literary point of view, these figurative images used by the Buddha as pointed by Chaudary, are to make a little-known and unfamiliar object is made the upamana of an unfamiliar abstract object. Upamanas thus presented sometimes illuminate and beautify the object to be compared, and sometimes vividly present before us the unfamiliar. In short, we can say that similes (and metaphors) concretise the most abstract things." [Essays on Buddhism and Pali Literature, p.155]

In the context of the Dhammapada, comparisons, similes and metaphors are interpreted not only in the form of mere descriptions, but also in terms of prescription well as evaluation. In some cases, descriptive meaning becomes secondary while evaluative meaning primary and serves as guiding choice between two opposite values; wholesome events leading to happy consequences, and unwholesome events leading to suffering. In some particular context, comparisons, similes and metaphors can serve as arousing emotion from the hearer. Their emotive meaning can be best understood by comparing or contrasting it with descriptions of the other forms of composition of the Sutta Pitaka. They can evoke feelings in the hearer and make them confident in their way to Nibbana.

All this points out that these figures of speech, these concrete, simile yet lovely and beautiful, play an important role in the teaching method of the Buddha in order to make the abstract ideas and profound contents understandable, visible and realizable.


EB. = Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, I-V, ed. G. P. Malalasekera. (Ceylon: 1945-1994)

Tin, Daw Mya. (tr.) (1990). The Dhammpada: Verses and Stories. Sarnath: Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, 1st Ed. 1985.

Pandita, Sudharma (1987), ‘The Role of Similes in the Pali Nikayas,’ in D. J. Kalupahana & W.G. Weeraratne (eds.) Buddhist Philosophy and Culture. Colombo: 279-85.


Sincere thanks to Bhikkhuni Tuong Lien for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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