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Sex & sheep: metaphors as poetic pointing out instructions

By W.carter - Own work, CC0,

The difficulty of experiencing meditative concepts as reality

Some things are very difficult to learn or understand at a fundamental experiential level through the rational discursive mind. Amongst those are specific changes of mental perspectives that are at odds with our everyday understanding of the world. Such changes are required to do certain types of meditation, or to progress between different "stages of meditation" (Daniel P Brown).

For example, one may well cognitively understand the insight of Buddhism and modern cognitive science, that what we experience as "Self" is nothing but an ongoing construction of the mind, as part of the "user interface" we have to the world. This is a term used by Donald Hoffman in "The Case against Reality".

However, cognitive understanding is different from experiencing something as reality. Just try to let go of the feeling that you "are" an isolated Self that is in your head and looks out of your eyes. Unless you are very giften, an experienced meditator, or remember (perhaps) a mystic psychedelic experience, this is practically impossible.

About metaphors, analogies and symbols

Some things are easier brought into experiential reality with metaphors or analogies than with explicit, intellectual, conceptual descriptions.

This may relate to the fact that metaphors are pervasive and allow us to connect disparate things easier (Vervaeke 2019)

This is as true for practicing hypnotists as for Mahamudra/Dzog Chen meditation teaching: hypnosis and meditation are related.

From sheep, camels, lions, garudas, snakes, clouds, mist, fire, sticks, rainbows to sex between man and woman: Tibetan teachers have made use of their surrounding nature to support making meditative progress.

The meaning of the Great Completion is hard to realise...It is not common to everyone. Therefore, ..metaphors illustrate the ..meaning (TPT,p 485)

For example: in meditation, how can one lead a student into a no-self experience, when our normal mode of experiencing is so tightly bound up with the feeling of being a separate, more or less solid and permanent Self? If it is deeply embedded in language itself? "I see a tree" embodies the dualistic problem. Every experience requires an experienc-ER.

As teaching device, a metaphor may therefore be an effective way to let the student do a kind of mental role-play to realise the teaching intention at an intuitive level.

"Be the ocean watching its own waves", for example, engages the student to take on a perspective, a vantage point, a view, a base of operation, that is vastly different from everyday experience.

Just try, for a moment, to adopt the perspective of being an ocean observing its own waves. Take your time.....

You will notice that it´s not natural to "be" the ocean, instead of seeing or experiencing it "out there" as a visual / acoustic object.

For example, as you are the ocean, do you still experience it as a point perspective, as if you were a fish in the ocean, or, can you extend your perspective by being all fish, all waves, spanning the globe, simultaneously? And then extending this to be the universe itself?

Check out my post on why this analogy is so useful and even neurologically effective in Becoming Ocean.

Metaphors as a type of pointing out instruction

In Mahamudra and Dzog Chen, poetic pointing out instructions are a preferred means to bend the mind of the meditation student in such a way as to allow it to transit into new and unusual perceptual perspectives.

Keith Dowman presents an intriguing list of what can be "pointing out" instructions.

The `pointing out´ is what the tradition offers as a skillful means by way of instruction. The pointing out may induce initiatory experience, which is recognition of the unitary experience... The pointing out may be the vocal expression of someone who knows; it may be a poetic or literary formulation; or it may be derived from a samaya substance that opens the doors of perception (Dzog Chen Non-Meditation, p7)

Substances is a reference to psychedelics, a possible source of Buddhism, with the mention of "Doors of Perception". That's the title of Aldous Huxley's book on his mescaline experience. In my experience, psychedelics often have a metaphorical pointing out way of teaching!

Limits of metaphors

Metaphors are useful, but they are not identical to what they point at. This is illustrated by a passage in "The Flight of the Garuda" where the key difference between space and mind is described :

"Although we may use the sky as a metaphor indicating the nature of mind, it is only pointing at mind's emptiness. Mind is also cognitive, its emptiness manifesting everything; the sky is non-cognitive, an empty, blank nothingness. The sky, therefore, does not illustrate the nature of mind"

Metaphors as a means to explain meditation itself

In this post, I will also use metaphors to explain or illustrate core concepts of Mahamudra meditation itself, through the metaphors or Elefant Path (traditional) and the River (by Daniel P Brown).

Metaphors - old and new

Obviously, metaphors are culture bound. Typical Tibetan metaphors are nature-bound, today's metaphors are often technical in nature. Here some examples.


Lion, lamb, dove, snake, sun, clouds, mist, rainbow, mirage, river, ocean, mountain...

(I have not understood how "ocean" could become such a beloved metaphor in the mountains of Tibet - I guess it must have been brought in from India!)


Car (steering), mobile phone (zooming in and out, pinching operation), racing boat, landing an airplane, Jedi light-sword, video...

Here is a modern and pretty well known metaphor!

The following text groups traditional metaphors by purpose or function.

Metaphors for (the stages of) meditation

First, it may be useful to know metaphors for the process of learning meditation itself. These are naturally not simply metaphors, but metaphorical stories for development. The most famous one is of course the "Elefant Path", showing the 9 stages of development of the meditative path for concentration meditation (shanmata). Secondly, I also want to quote a more recent metaphor by Daniel P Brown, which I find very convincing.

The Elefant Path

The Elephant Path is an elaborate use of the elephant, who is also used frequently without this context to illustrate taming the mind.

A metaphorical drawing of the meditative path, called "Elefant Path"
The Elefant Path: Traditional drawing, taken from "The Mind Illuminated" (Culadasa)

This metaphorical story depicts meditative progress by illustrating various dimensions for the quality of meditation. It uses the symbols of monk, elefant, monkey, prod, and path.

Here is the explanation by Culadasa:

The monk is the meditator. The rope he holds represents vigilant, alert mindfulness. The goad in his other hand represents strong intention and firm resolve. The elephant represents the mind. The black color of the elephant represents the Five Hindrances and the Seven Problems they give rise to. The monkey represents scattering of attention, and the black color represents subtle and gross distraction, forgetting, and mind-wandering. The rabbit represents subtle dullness. The flames represent vigilance and effort, and when effort is no longer required, the flames disappear. The length of the road between successive Stages indicates the relative time required to progress from one Stage to the next. The Stages come closer together until Stage Seven, then they begin to stretch out again. Because the road folds back, it is possible to jump up to higher Stages or fall back to lower ones.

In an interesting view, Joscha Bach, the AI researcher, has mapped the elephant metaphor against his theory of consciousness as a control model of attention.

  • The Elephant body is the execution system

  • The Elephant is the control system

  • The monkey is the attention agent

Check also out his interview with Lex Fridman, where he extensively maps the elephant / monkey metaphor against his model of consciousness.

The river

This metaphor by Daniel P Brown illustrates the increasing ability of the mind to watch its own currents, rather than being grabbed by the currents.

"Before any concentration practice, the beginner is like someone drowning in the river of a distracted mind. The somewhat skilled practitioner begins to float by means of a supporting log held with concentration. Once accustomed to floating, the practitioner lets go of the supporting log and swims about in the very currents that previously threatened to drown him or her. At that point the practitioner swims with considerable skill, finally swimming to a calm, quiet shore. The practitioner can now see the entire stream, both its currents and its directions, from the perspective of letting it go its own way while remaining unaffected by it."(POW, page 267)

Metaphors for mind itself

This group of metaphors supports mostly an insight into the nature of awareness and the mind.

However, the mind as meaning of the metaphor also shows the limits of metaphor:

That wich is without conceptual thought cannot have a designation or name. Through trying to illustrate it with a metaphor, you are unable to illustrate it (TPT, p. 676)


This metaphor is a key concept to grasp mind, as well as to understand the nature of metaphor itself.

"Space is a metaphor for awakened mind" (Longchenpa #2)0
"When viewing the mind by the mind-itself, the practitioner attains perfect enlightenment and the cessation of various aspects and conceptualization. Just as fog and clouds evaporate into the realms of space yet don’t go anywhere nor stay anywhere, likewise various thoughts arise from the mind, but those thoughts, like waves, evaporate by seeing the mind-itself…. For example, what is designated as “empty space” is not really like space. Likewise what is designated as “clear light,” which is the mind-itself, although found here, doesn’t have any basis. So the real-nature of the mind is like space. (TN, pp. 357–58), quoted in POW, p 358)

Space occurs as teaching device in space yoga and space meditation.

  • When doing space yoga, as a practice skill of shamata/concentration meditation, you stare into the real space in front of you and imagine to merge / mix it with your awareness, so that the space in front and surrounding you transforms in your mind into a field of knowing awareness. When I do this, space and objects in it acquires a kind of vibrancy and aliveness.

  • In space meditation, as part of insight meditation, the metaphor supports insight into emptiness, non-existence. Even the mind is eventually realised "as like space". However, with a difference: the mind, unlike space, has the potential to know itself (POW, p 356)

The latter point shows the limits of metaphor. Being like like is not being identical. Metaphors are approximations.

This is illustrated by a passage in "The Flight of the Garuda"

"Although we may use the sky as a metaphor indicating the nature of mind, it is only pointing at mind's emptiness. Mind is also cognitive, its emptiness manifesting everything; the sky is non-cognitive, an empty, blank nothingness. The sky, therefore, does not illustrate the nature of mind"

Metaphors for non-duality

Non-duality is one of the most foundational, pervasive, and equally hard to grasp concepts and experiences. In addition, it may mean different things in different Buddhist traditions. For the sake of simplification, here I take it to mean an experience "by the mind of the mind that the seeming world out there may exist but that the experience of it is a fabrication by mind itself".

Ocean and its waves

This most important metaphor supports a view without an observing Self. "Become the ocean observing its waves". This metaphor supports a key step in what Daniel P Brown describes as path to awakening.

In the pure essence of mind, ultimate sovereign samadhi arises spontaneously, and vision is like a vast ocean, unstructured, as extensive as space. (Original Perfection, P34)
The creative dynamic of the pure essence of mind is ubiquitous, although its point of apparent manifestation is uncertain. In every adventitious thought or construct, the ultimate samadhi always arises without concentration or relaxation. With that, then, vision is like a vast ocean or like the sky. Vision has no structure, or it is simultaneously structured and destructured. Thought-free with the sense of sameness, it is coextensive with space. That is the vision. (Translator comment)

This metaphor, like the following "Lion´s view" metaphor, results in measurable changes of brainwave patterns. See my blogpost on Ocean and Wave meditation in Contemplative Neuroscience

"The metaphor of the waveless ocean is the most common description used for the final stage of concentration" , POW, pos 5954.

Sun and sun-rays

The sun stands for awareness-space/ground, and the rays for the moving elements (mental events). Thoughts are said to have a directionality, like light rays.

Sun and sunrays express the staying and the moving aspects. This is a fundamental distinction in mahamudra meditation.

Sleep and dreams (one taste) tbd

The root instructions are: First, pointing out appearance to be mind by the metaphor of sleep and dreams: Just as whatever appears during sleep is none other than the mind, likewise, all waking appearances are the dreams of waking state’s ignorance and are none other than the mind. Set up [awareness-itself] in an eased-up manner on whatever appears, so that the seeming external sense objects that appear and the mind-itself become inseparable and transmuted into one taste. (Pema Karpo, quoted in PoW, p454)

Metaphors for non-meditation ("just be")

The metaphors here refer to a specific view, where the meditator has let of all artificial activity of steering the mind. In popularised terms, this is called "just be", and "just be" suggests that it is easy. However, in the Mahamudra tradition, "just being" is an acquired skill, and the culmination of a lot of strenuous mental training. Or, if you are lucky, by having a teacher who gets you there fast (a day to a week) through pointing-out instructions!

Herding sheep (Tashi Namgyal)

The "herding sheep" metaphor - like the camel metaphor - supports the development of the skill of letting go of strenuous, artificial mental activities to accept or reject thoughts.

We may wonder, how should that mindfulness sustain spiritual practice? The analogy is the way skilled shepherds care for the animals. Although the animals move around easily as they graze and they may even wander, the shepherds do not need to do anything arduous such as herding them or chasing them. Simply not losing sight of them is enough to protect them. (MOM, P 340)


See also here

Child viewing a shrine or temple

This metaphor transmits an idea of being non-conceptual and taking all in without particularizing. Particularizing means the tendency of the mind to split out the field of awareness into individual objects.

"A small child brought into the temple does not pick out perceptual events. Even when shown many different and specific works of art and icons, the child neither thinks about them nor desires them. This is an example of bliss." Jampel Pawo, quoted in POW p319
"Looking involves having clarity but being with grasping, like a small child grasping at a shrine hall" (Wangchuk Dorje, "Mahamudra: Dispelling the darkness of ignorance, in Moonbeams p 513)

Lion´s view

I recommend to listen to it here first, to get an appreciation of its beauty. This metaphor, like the related ocean metaphor, stands for a view where mind (the lion) turns towards mind (the thrower), disregarding the object (the stick).

"When you throw a stick towards a dog, it will chase after it. When you throw a stick to a lion, it will face the thrower. One throws a stick at a lion only once" .

The specific neurological effects of the ocean and the lion's view metaphor on the brain have been researched by Daniel P Brown and others as outlined in my blogpost.