The Origins of Metaphor and Metonymy

One of the earliest sermons given by the Buddha after enlightenment was the Adittapariyaya Sntta, commonly referred to as “The Fire Sermon” in English. In the sermon, the Buddha states:

The eye is burning, sights are burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye- contact is burning, and the pleasant, painful, or neutral feelings that arise dependent on eye-contact, those too are burning. With what are they burning? They are burning with the fire of passion, the fire of ill-will, and the fire of delusion; I declare that they are burning with the fire of birth, aging, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair.

(Bodhi, 2000, p. 1143)

In this extract, the source domain of fire is mapped onto a range of target domains encompassed by emotion or desire, delusion, and suffering. The sutra continues to draw on these mappings by describing how the other senses (including the mental faculty) are “burning” and how the Buddhist disciple, becoming disenchanted with sense objects and thoughts, achieves liberation. The fire source domain involves a whole host of potential entailments that can be developed and made explicit by the reader. The British Bhikkhu Pesala (2016) writes ofThe Fire Sermon:

For the ordinary' person who is immersed for the entire day, the entire week, or the entire life in the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, the mind is always hot. It may cool down somewhat at times, and heat up ferociously at other times, but it never becomes cold.

[...] However, if an ordinary person renounces sensual pleasures for a week or a month, and engages in full-time meditation practice while observing the eight precepts, the temperature of the hot mind will gradually reduce.

[...] However, mental purity won’t last long unless they gained deep insight or continue to meditate daily at home. After a few weeks back at work and at home with their family, the mind soon heats up again. The problem is that fuel and oxygen are always being added to the fire, so it flares up just like before.

(pp. 3-4)

One entailment here is that fire generates heat, just as emotions result in a frenetic mind; another is that it takes sustained effort to extinguish a raging fire, just as it takes persistent practice to achieve mental calm. In addition, fire requires fuel, just as mental defilements require psychological precursors in the form of attachment to sensory input and desires. The plasticity and potential richness of the fire source domain make it ideal for use in a wide range of religious texts (Charteris-Black, 2017). However, there is another key reason why this source domain is so pervasive in religious language. Most readers, regardless of their cultural background, will probably find the metaphoric associations between temperature and emotions such as passion and anger to be natural.

Cognitive linguists would argue that this reflects the fact that “human physical, cognitive, and social embodiment ground our conceptual and linguistic systems” (Rohrer, 2007, p. 27) and the fact that connections between embodiment, metaphor, and metonymy are key to human experience. Researchers have used the term embodiment in different ways. Rohrer (2007) provides a number of uses that include:

• a theoretical commitment to non-Cartesian accounts of the mind and language that take into account the role of bodily experience;

  • • reference to the directionality of metaphorical mapping, which tends to go from source domains that are concrete and embodied to target domains that are abstract;
  • • a phenomenological focus on our consciousness of bodily states;
  • • acknowledgment of how bodily perceptions that lie beneath the threshold of consciousness influence conceptualization; and
  • • recognition that human experience occurs from a specific embodied vantage point.

The physical relationship that exists between heat and emotions like anger and passion provides a good starting point for discussing embodiment. Empirical research suggests that there is actually a causal connection between these emotions and heat; for example, people who are angry actually become hotter. One animal study (Oka et al., 2001) suggests that psychological stress results in resetting of the thermoregulatory set point, resulting in a “psychogenic fever”. The “heat” of sexual desire also appears to be more than a metaphor. When heterosexual subjects are touched in intimate areas (face and chest versus arm and palm) by opposite-sex experimenters versus same-sex experimenters, thermal imaging shows that facial skin temperatures increase (Hahn et al., 2012). Research has similarly shown facial temperature increases resulting from viewing emotionally arousing pictures (both pleasant and unpleasant) versus neutral pictures (Kosonogov et al., 2017). At a more basic level, passion is often associated with physical proximity and sexual contact, resulting in feelings of warmth due to bodily contact.

Research suggests that even the converse is true: heat also appears to cause anger (Anderson et al., 1995). For example, studies suggest that hot temperatures lead to more aggression and violent crime (Anderson, 2001). Moreover, it has been shown that on hot days, baseball teams whose pitcher had been hit by a ball were more likely to retaliate by hitting the other team’s pitcher (Larrick et al., 2011). Perhaps unsurprisingly, honking of car horns also rises with temperature (Kenrick & MacFarlane, 1986). One study even suggests that high temperatures are associated with less tolerant responses on political opinion surveys (Cohen & Krueger, 2016). Other research has indicated that the connection between heat and anger leads to incidental processing of two categories together even when their association has no relevance to the task (Wilkowski et al.,2009). For example, subjects primed with words related to anger gave higher estimates of temperature in a city or of the temperature in the room they were in. Moreover, identifying angry faces was done more rapidly when the faces appeared in front of hot versus cold background images.

In Bhikkhu Pesala’s discussion of The Fire Sermon, he describes how the mind may sometimes “cool down ... but it never becomes cold”.This association of enlightenment with coolness may be chiefly the result of an entailment;

if heat is associated with anger and passion, it stands to reason that the lack of heat is a state devoid of these emotions. However, some preliminary evidence suggests that the association is also related to embodied experience. One study showed that the skin of subjects who were meditating actually became cooler, even when compared to others who were also immobile and relaxing (Manocha et al., 2010).The researchers also note that the meditators in the study described a subjective sense of cooling of the hands, which was consistent with scientific measurements.

Considering this evidence, while emotion is fire is clearly a metaphorical mapping (feelings can never literally be on fire), the conceptualization of emotions in terms of heat and coolness has a strong metonymic basis. Feeling warmer is actually part of embodied experience of feeling intense emotions, and therefore part for whole metonymy is involved. Kovecses (2000) describes this type of metonymic association broadly as the physiological and expressive responses of an emotion for the emotion and, more specifically in this case, as body heat for emotion. Charteris-Black (2017) also identifies a similar association in his argument that emotion is fire has developed out of a warmth for affection metonymy.

In addition, effect for cause metonymy may also form the basis for some of the metaphorical conceptualizations that draw on the fire source domain. In his analysis of fire metaphors, Charteris-Black (2017) makes the point that examples like “scorching heat” and “scorching pain” can only be understood based on an association between intense sensations (as causes) having the etfect of physical burning. Returning to The Fire Sermon, there is a similar association in “They are burning with the fire of passion, the fire of ill-will, and the fire of delusion” (Bodhi, 2000, p. 1143). In order to grasp the meaning of “the fire of passion” one needs to associate the heat generated by the experience of passion with the fire’s cause; hence the need for an underlying effect for cause metonymy.

The idea that many metaphorical mappings are made possible as a result of metonymic thinking can also be applied to other well-known conceptual metaphors in religious language. One key example relates to the knowing or understanding is seeing conceptual metaphor. Physically observing an object is an integral first step in understanding it, so the source domain of seeing is, in our everyday experience, closely associated with knowing. Kovecses (2002) views this relationship as an attenuated form of causation, which he identifies as an embodied precondition for resulting event/action metonymy. Kovecses (2011) also makes a similar argument in relation to the life is light conceptual metaphor in the language of the New Testament. In John 8:12, Jesus refers to himself as “the light of the world” before stating, “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”. Light (in conjunction with fire) can be viewed as a precondition of life, and therefore it is reasonable to posit that light became associated with life initially by means of a light for life metonymy. This association then develops into the light is life cross-domain mapping and provides the god is light and faith is light conceptual metaphors employed in the New Testament.

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