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light Metaphors

Underpinning the journey metaphor is everyday embodied experiences of moving to various destinations to achieve goals. Another critical embodied element is the use of sight to perceive events within the immediate environment and navigate paths when moving. As sight is the most salient human sense, it comes as no surprise that the conceptual metaphor knowing is seeing and the closely related source domain of light frequently occur in a wide array of religious texts. Charteris-Black (2004, 2017) concludes from his study of figurative language in the Bible that nearly 10% of the metaphors he identified are related to the source domain of light. Many of these occurrences are categorized as spiritual knowledge is light and jesus is light (in the New Testament), with further examples identified in the Qu’ran, the Rig Veda (a key Hindu text), and the Protestant Christian classic, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

In Goering’s (2014) analysis of knowing is seeing in the writings of the Jewish author Ben Sira, he points out that sight is often metaphorically associated with direct knowledge, whereas hearing is associated with indirect knowledge. Based on this, he argues that Ben Sira’s use of metaphor involving multisensory blends—for example, the teacher making instruction visible—expresses the underlying tension and relationship between truth as verbal revelation (expressed in the hearing is knowing metaphor) and truth as first-hand experience (expressed by


Vision and light metaphors within Buddhist writings tend to be used to describe cognitive states realized by the enlightened, which constitute the ultimate goal of all Buddhists. McMahan (2002), in his book-length treatment of visual metaphors, discusses how seeing (often from a lofty peak that commands a view of the remote distance) and light pervading every direction is used in some Mahayana texts to represent the perfected knowledge of a bodhisattva or a buddha. Stretching across both space and time, this light and vision even illuminate the awakened being’s past lives. Since the sun and moon are common sources of light (particularly important before the modern age), metaphor often describes spiritual knowledge in terms of these specific light sources.

In religious traditions emphasizing mystical knowledge, metaphors for light and seeing are often transformed in some way to indicate that the insight of the sage goes beyond conventional forms of knowledge that are tinged by dual- istic conceptualizations of the absolute. For example, in the Maharatnakiita Sutra, non-dualistic knowledge that has gone beyond false views of the existence of the self entails that one sees “the past, present, and future” as “the moon mirrored in the water” (Chang, 1983, p. 19). The Diamond Sutra, with its own non-dualistic, “non-egological” stance (Nagamoto, 2000), argues that seeing the Tathagata (the Buddha) involves seeing all appearances as nonappearances (Gao & Lan, 2018). A parallel passage is found in the anonymous Christian work The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the 14th century.There, the Christian mystic is told:

When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. ... Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God, and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness and affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as necessary. ... For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.

(Anonymous, 2002, pp. 61, 62)

Technically, the Diamond Sutra and Cloud of Unknowing passages involve both metaphor and simile, since some of the language in the texts (e.g.,“as it were”) explicitly cues cross-domain mapping. The choice of simile may reflect the fact that the figurative language, which maps authentic spiritual practice and insight onto darkness, is highly unconventional.

This unconventional approach can also be found in contemporary descriptions of the notion of enlightenment. Sadhguru, a well-known Hindu teacher, uses the novel term en-darkment to talk about enlightenment in a way that highlights the inadequacy of words to describe something that is beyond description. He explains that the definition of darkness is when a beam of light passes through space without striking a surface.The idea of light being interrupted by something is used to represent secular attachments which, to the unenlightened mind, appear to have special relevance. When people no longer attach themselves to secular obsessions such as jobs and family, they can achieve enlightenment, figuratively represented as a beam of light that is never seen (Richardson & Mueller, 2019).

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