The Central Metaphor of Buddhism


The Dharma Chakra Mudra,
‘The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma‘,
Circa 400 CE, Sarnath Museum, India

If someone would for a hundred thousand eons
Constantly look at the Tathagatha
Without relying on Ultimate Reality

But only seeing the World’s Saviour
That person is attached to Form
and enlarging the Net of Ignorance and Illusion
Tied up to the prison of Birth and Death
Deluded, he does not see the Buddha.

The Avataṃsaka Sūtra

[The earliest depictions of the Buddha were in fact uniformly aniconic: prints of the feet, an empty chair, an umbrella, and so on.]

Hui-Neng,The Sixth Patriarch: 'Burning The Sūtras

To have gained the Teaching is to abandon the Teaching.

If you haven’t gutted the Self-Eating Expression to empty, taken it all the way back to ‘True Nothing’, you aren’t done yet.

The Buddha didn’t think much of ascetics, god-men, philosophers or sages.

And he liked concrete metaphors. And this is the earliest concrete analogy of the hitherto abstract Self-Eating Expression. It is the central metaphor of the Buddha Dharma.

From the Diamond Sūtra:

‘My teaching of the Good Law is to be likened unto a raft. [Does a man who has safely crossed a flood upon a raft continue his journey carrying that raft upon his head?]

The Buddha-teaching must be relinquished; how much more so mis-teaching!’

You ‘Burn the Sūtras’ once their work is done.

[You know any other Tradition that suggests its core Teachings be gotten rid of once grasped?]

The Self-Eating Expression is a linguistic device and the basic linguistic expression is the Assertion or Statement. And there are various ways to classify Statements. One of them is called the Chatushkoti [tetralemma, if you are partial to Greek].

It was widely used in the analytic Buddhist literature beginning the second century BCE but became prominent only after the rise of the Madhyamaka School.

The Self-Eating Expression: ‘I am not the Buddha’, was in fact taken to its sacrilegious point of doubt by some who questioned whether there ever was a Buddha in flesh and blood. A fair question given the substance of the Teachings.

If the questioner was annoyingly insistent, the response of the Scholar-Monks was set to the standard four-part template of the times:

‘The Buddha existed; did not exist; both existed and did not exist; neither existed, nor did not exist’. Siddhartha Gautama would have chuckled.

‘‘This’ or ‘Not-This’’ is a low level of Understanding. Human or Divine; Good or Bad; True or False; Free-Will or Fate; Wave or Particle.

Low grade theater and simple, unambiguous characters.

‘‘This’ and ‘Not-This’’ is the next stage. God and Man; Male and Female; Courageous and Cowardly; Position and Motion.

Good Theater with richer, complex characters.

Finally, ‘‘Neither ‘This’ nor ‘Not-This’’. Neither Heaven nor Hell; Neither True nor False; Neither Now nor Then; Neither Here nor There; Neither Orderly nor Random.

Great Theater.

And finally, ‘That’? More generally, the Self-Negating Expression.

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