Yogācāra Buddhist Theory of Metaphor

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Roy Tzohar
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Some Western contributions have dealt with concrete metaphors in Buddhist philosophical texts, but only few contributions so far have discussed indigenous Buddhist theories of metaphorical language use. Actually, scholars have held the opinion that the respective passages on “figurative” language (upacāra) were not primarily interested in metaphors, but an integral part of Buddhist epistemology. Roy Tzohar, in contrast, argues that there is a full-blown Yogācāra Buddhist theory of metaphor, however, intricately and intertextually interwoven with the discourse of non-Buddhist schools (cf. p. 8-13). In his book, he aims to show that philosophers reached out to establish a systematic indigenous theory of metaphors, culminating, as Tzohar argues, in Sthiramati’sbold claim (as, in Western philosophy, advanced by Nietzsche), that all language use is metaphorical. Even if the present reviewer is not fully convinced that Tzohar ultimately succeeds in presenting the sources as an indigenous theory of metaphor, the book is an extremely valuable and insightful contribution to the study of Indian theories of language and meaning. 

The introduction presents the general context of the study, namely, the Buddhist take on “figurative language.” Its aim is to “reconstruct a body of theory on metaphor as formulated by Buddhist thinkers (i.e., using their own terms)” (3). This approach, however, comes with a price. Tzohar does not build on a technical Western definition of the central term “metaphor” (cf. 6; 23-26), using it often more broadly as designating “figurative language,” or “secondary/figurative meaning” (28). In various places of the work, there is room for doubt as to whether the respective passages of Buddhist thinkers really deal with metaphors as metaphors.

In Part 1 of the book, Tzohar prepares the ground by exploring the views on upacārain Indian schools, namely, in early Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, and Bhartṛhari’s famous Vākyapadīya. His readings and translations reconstruct the original texts in dense prose, referring in footnotes to textual transmission and earlier interpretations, also providing the Sanskrit texts. As such, the book recommends itself more to specialists than to a general audience. His overall aim in this part is to argue that, already, these texts and thinkers dealt with upacāra in the context of the failure to reference a primary referent, if not, the absence of a referent. The typical examples of Bhartṛhari and others (a mirage, the snake/rope, a crystal reflecting background colors, the imaginary city of Gandharvas, etc.), however, deal only in part with metaphor, but more broadly with semantic imposition, a perspectival epistemology, and the question of reference to individuals versus reference to concepts and classes. A general difficulty concerning the sources that often argue at the same time on semantical, epistemological, ontological, psychological, and soteriological levels could have been made more explicit.

In Part 2, Tzohar moves on to the Buddhist discourse on upacāra in central texts of mostly Mahāyāna Buddhist provenance: the Yogācārabhūmi, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra [LAS], or the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. In these texts, he highlights various arguments in connection with upacāra, all of them destined to target the essentialist “correspondence theory” of things and designations—for example, polysemy, or the inexpressibility, and non-apprehension, of essential features. Yet again, doubts remain as to whether passages on upacārain the sources, such as those which declare that the dualistic discursive thought leads the ordinary mind to “hold on to the metaphors [upacāra] of self and things” (LAS 10.711, trl. Tzohar, 140) or of “self and sense faculties” (LAS 10.414, trl. Tzohar, 142), really deal with “metaphors” that refer “indirectly to the mental reality […] that brings them about” (143). “Semantic imposition,” or, more precisely, “conceptual super-imposition” would likely be a better way to render the meaning of upacārahere. 

Part 3 comes to the heart of the matter of Tzohar’s project: Sthiramati, he concludes, radicalizes the view of upacāra, broadening it to a “pan-metaphorical theory of meaning” (cf. 164-66) as part of the actualization process of Yogācāra’s storehouse-consciousness, or mental continuum. Sthiramati’s theory, Tzohar argues, was not only targeting non-Buddhist views, but also the radical, non-propositional conventionalism of Nāgārjuna and later Mādhyamika philosophers. Moreover, with his pan-metaphorical view, Sthiramati, he says, was able to counter opponents’ claims that if there are no ontological referents for designations, incommensurability will be unavoidable. The concluding chapter turns to the question of the “non-conceptual awareness” of the Bodhisattva, who is nevertheless able to adapt to the conventional meaning. Unfortunately, we will not be able to present a more in-depth review of the revealing reconstruction of Sthiramati’s thoughts here. 

In sum, Tzohar’s book presents an innovative approach that shows how Yogacāra Buddhist philosophers developed their views in close interaction with non-Buddhist and non-Mahāyāna thoughts on language and epistemology. Obviously sympathetic with Sthiramati, Tzohar develops a reconstruction of the “pan-metaphorical theory” that he personally finds convincing. As such, the work can also be located in the field of comparative philosophy. However, as stated above, what worries the reviewer is the ambiguous decision to translate and interpret upacāraalmost exclusively as “metaphor.” Sometimes the examples that Indian sources provide for upacāraare metaphors (e.g., the boy is fire, or, the birth of the Buddha is happiness, cf. 96-97; 130; 162). Yet, to define “metaphors”/upacāra merely as absence of the primary referent (cf. 160, 209) misses central insights of Western cognitive metaphor theory (Lakoff, Johnson, Turner, Blumenberg). According to their more technical definition, a metaphor dwells on a concrete source domain, in which the metaphor has a literal meaning and a target domain—often an abstract concept (time, the self, consciousness, etc.) The source domain of the metaphor helps to reveal certain traits or aspects of the target domain (e.g., the “flow [source] of consciousness [target]”). Seen like this, it is problematic to speak without constraint (or elucidation by a “source domain”) of, for example, the “self” as metaphor. The self is as such already an abstract concept. Surely, one can say that every language use, including the concept of “self,” is metaphorical, but this does not suspend Sthiramati-cum-Tzohar’s task to explain first and foremost how metaphors actually work in common language.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jens Schlieter is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and Co-Director of the Institute for the Science of Religion at Bern University.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roy Tzohar is Associate Professor at Tel Aviv University.


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