Conceptual Metaphor

There is a well-known Zen story about an old monk and a young monk on a journey. On their way, the pair come across a beautiful young woman who asks for help crossing a stream. The older monk, without a word, picks her up and carries her across the river, setting her down gently on the other side. The two monks then continue their journey, but the younger monk grows increasingly agitated. Finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he blurts out, “As monks, we’re not allowed to even touch a woman, so how could you then carry that woman across the river?”The older monk replies: “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why are you still carrying her?” (Discussed in Kawai, 2010, this popular tale has appeared in countless versions in Zen literature.)

The story is a clear example of how figurative language can play a prominent role in religious texts. The old monk’s use of “carry” in his witty rejoinder invites the reader to juxtapose two related senses of the word: (1) holding an object while traversing two points and (2) obsessively ruminating about an issue for an extended period of time. The story contrasts the young monk’s view of proper monastic deportment as being linked to external behavior with the older monk’s deeper understanding of authentic spiritual practice as a reflection of one’s ongoing mental states. The ironic message elicited by this comparison is perhaps more readily accessible to those familiar with several basic Buddhist ideas, such as the assumption that attachment represents a key psychological malady and the notion that rules have no intrinsic value and represent mere means to an end.

While the story contrasts two possible meanings of cany, there are other key elements that do not rely on comparison. For example, the story portrays the woman as in need of help and the two men as capable of providing it, thus relying on and subtly reinforcing gender stereotypes. It also portrays old people as wise and young people as lacking in wisdom. Readers readily grasp the significance of these representations of gender and age based on their knowledge of common social stereotypes present in many cultures and time periods. In a highly efficient manner, the representations therefore provide readers with rapid access to bodies of cultural knowledge. Such representations in religious language can also serve other functions, such as providing access to stores of shared knowledge about a divine figure.

 
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