Tom Lane

Coming To: The Power of Metaphor on the Spiritual Path

Last June, I was fortunate enough to participate in a small study retreat with Stephen Batchelor. We got to talking about the importance of metaphor in both understanding and pursuing the Buddhist path. One thing Stephen pointed out was both obvious and instructive: “path” is itself a metaphor. As such, it is subject to elaboration and transformation through the multiple perspectives that any long-term practitioner adopts over the years. The path is something that leads onward through an ever-changing landscape.

Stephen brought up Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of if not the very greatest literary elaboration of the spiritual path. The image he focused on was the lowest rung of the Inferno, in which Satan is depicted as immobilized from the waist down in ice. The flapping of his huge, once angelic, now diabolical wings generates the immense cold that keeps him trapped there.

Quite some time ago, in graduate school, I also had the good fortune of taking a year-long Dante course with John Freccero, a master teacher whose mentor, Charles Singleton, is often considered, despite being American, the greatest Dante scholar of the 20th century. Although I had gone through the poem in great depth and detail, Stephen’s observation about the image of Satan trapped in ice caught me by surprise. From a Buddhist perspective, Satan is trapped, unable to move along the path, caught in the ice much as we are caught in the tenacious habit patterns that spiritual practice can nevertheless shake loose.

This brought to mind Mr. Freccero’s gloss on the famous opening lines of the Inferno. The lines read:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
      mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
      che la diritta via era smarrita.

Charles Singleton’s prose translation of this verse runs: “Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.”

Two words in these three lines could be roughly translated as “path.” Literally, “cammin” means road: “the road [or path] of our life,” which Singleton translates as “the journey of our life.” “Via” also means “path” or “road”: what Dante, who is recounting his own experience in the first person, has lost.

An Italian proverb goes: “traduttore, traditore,” which means, “every translator is a traitor” This includes even as devoted a Dante scholar as Singleton, who translates “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” as “I found myself in a dark wood.” Dante is undoubtedly lost in a dark wood. However, he didn’t merely find himself there. The Italian for that would be “mi trovai,” not “mi ritrovai.”

The difference is both subtle and significant. The Garzanti Italian-English dictionary defines the verb ritrovari as: “to find again” or “to recover.” The translation “found myself” doesn’t convey the sense of repetition implied here. From a Buddhist perspective, the essence of the habit patterns in which we are stuck, and from which we are, with greater or lesser success, trying to free ourselves, is their repetitive nature.

Mr. Freccero’s interpretation of this phrase was a bit free but very much to the point. He said that we could think of “mi ritrovai” as “I came to.” That is, it’s as if Dante had fainted or lost consciousness just before the beginning of the poem and suddenly comes to—regains consciousness—in a dark wood. He’s both lost and stuck in those dark and shadowy woods.  Dante is vaguely aware of where he is, but doesn’t know how to get out.

At this point, Dante encounters Virgil, the Latin author of The Aeneid: the great poet and great epic on which Dante is modeling himself and his own poem. Taking a greater interpretive leap than we have made so far, this encounter can be compared to the seeker’s discovery of the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings.  A long and difficult journey still needs to be made, but the beginnings of the path founded in a great tradition are revealing themselves.

There are many instances in the early Buddhist teachings, beginning with the first of the Buddha’s discourses, “Turning the Wheel of the Dhamma,” which sets forth the Four Noble Truths, in which one or more people listening to the Buddha’s discourses achieve some degree of realization. The Mahayana tradition also describes several instances of awakening occasioned by a seemingly chance reading of a passage in the sutras.

Dante’s poem begins in the dark wood in which we’ve all found ourselves at many points in our lives and on our paths. It concludes in the last canto of the Paradiso with an equally revelatory, though less well-known, metaphor.

When Dante enters the Empyrean—a place or state very roughly comparable to nibbana or nirvana—he encounters a vision of an immense mystical Rose comprised of all the blessed—those who, in Buddhist terms, are awakened. Gazing into its center brings Dante to a final vision of the divine, of which he says:

Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
     legato con amore in un volume,
     ciò che per l’universo si squaderna

Singleton’s prose translation runs: “In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe.”

The “endless phenomena rolling on,” of which Buddhist thought says our perceptions of self and world consist, are seen here by Dante as being gathered together and bound in a single book by the power of what the final line of the Divine Comedy calls “love that moves the sun and other stars.” This unified volume of all life and lives is a metaphor that also demonstrates metaphor’s ability to provide a vision capable of leading us further on the spiritual path.

Of course, all this glosses over the differences between Buddhist thought and the Christian theology of Dante’s time, poised at the end of the medieval age and beginning of the Renaissance. However, as someone profoundly affected by both Dante and the Buddha’s teachings, I find the similarities in the metaphors more helpful and instructive than differences in philosophy and theology.

The Zen sutras contain the famous analogy or metaphor of the finger pointing at the moon: we are not to fixate on the finger but to move beyond it to the moon itself. The teachings can point towards but do not comprise the experience of realization.

In looking at this well-known metaphor, what less often remarked on is that, if it weren’t for the teachings, the pointing finger, we wouldn’t be able to see the moon: to experience the spiritual realization that Dante is as eloquent as anyone in describing. A metaphor is a finger pointing at that for which it is a metaphor.

As my friend Noelle Oxenhandler has put it, metaphor is a bridge between what we know and what we don’t (yet) know. On the Buddhist path through life, metaphor can serve as a vehicle leading us to the realization of “things as they are,” that is, an experience of the true nature of self and world.


Tom Lane

Tom Lane has worked in film, web, and publishing. He holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Yale University. His Buddhist meditation teachers include Shinzen Young, Ken McLeod, Joseph Goldstein, Yvonne Rand, and Ajahn Pasanno. He edited Ajahn Pasanno's book on metta, Abundant, Exalted, Immeasurable, which appeared last year. He has been authorized to teach vipassana mediation as a member of the first cohort in Spirit Rock's Community Dharma Leaders program. He and his wife, Tina Chappel, owned and operated a hatha yoga studio, Yoga Jones, in Ventura, California, for many years. He lives in Ojai, California.