Metaphor, metonymy, and figuring out what we’re doing … or not.

In one of my posts last year on the science of effortless action, I reported on a New York Times article about Edward Slingerland’s new book Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity.  Before tackling that book I have been working my way through his more scholarly analysis of the idea of doing by not-doing in four classical Chinese philosophers, Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China.

In this earlier work, obviously based on his Ph.D. dissertation, Slingerland applies the theories developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By.  I first heard of Lakoff and Johnson’s book from my grief counselor after Laura’s death.  Those of you who have been reading this blog will not be surprised that I was talking philosophy during my grief counseling sessions.  I think the counselor’s usual approach with grieving clients included introducing them to Buddhist writers like Pema Chödron.  Unfortunately I reacted like a smarty-pants and started spouting “That’s a good article. And have you read … ?”  We got into Lakoff and Johnson when he finally found territory that was unfamiliar to me.

In any case, Lakoff and Johnson’s book has moved towards the top of my reading pile, not just because Slingerland summarizes it and uses it to analyze the Chinese philosophers, but because my current writing research includes my hypothesis that “I” works as metonymy.  (See the post When? for an example of metonymy.)  At times I found that Slingerland’s  metaphor terminology obscured rather than clarified the Chinese writers, but I’m not settled on a judgment yet.

Metaphors, therefore, were on my mind when I looked through my old posts to prove a trivial point in yet another interchange with an internet troll on my Tricycle blog.  The following lines from Santideva first appeared here in a post about forgiveness.  On re-reading that post, I saw that my comments were muddled so I’m taking this opportunity to try again.


“The Cup” is a delightful movie about the adventures of young Tibetan monks in India and their schemes to get to watch the World Cup on TV. At the end of the movie, the abbot lectures the young monks on a line from Santideva. Santideva was an appropriate choice for these young monks with their minds on football. He was mocked as the “eat-sleep-walk around” monk until he recited his classic work The Way of the Bodhisattva. The subject of the abbott’s lecture was:

Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But just leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.

The old monk applies Santideva’s advice to the Buddhist virtue of compassion. I cannot possibly overcome all enemies, he says. But during each moment that I act with compassion, I will remove hatred from the world in which I live. You can’t get more practical than that.

Santideva tells us to wear shoes since we can’t cover all the rough surfaces of the world to protect our feet. The young monks are just learning so the abbott does not get into the deeper metaphor of no shoes, no feet, no self.  In my story about “no skin” I quoted the Buddha’s version of this metaphor—no roof.

The rain pours down upon the well-roofed house.
It falls not upon the house that is roofless,
Therefore open wide that which is closed,
And the rain will not descend upon it.
— Uposatha Sutta,  Ud. 5.5

If we take our shoes off, along with all our body armor, we practice compassion by opening up. We walk lightly over, through, or around the broken glass, sharp stones, and thorns still in our path. We couldn’t possibly sweep them all up. We don’t worry about that. We just walk lightly because we’re not wearing the heavy shoes of defensiveness, nor carrying heavy loads of anger.

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