Ohhh, it’s a metaphor.
(My deepest apologies to my readers! On Sunday, in place of the regularly-scheduled kotowaza, I instead posted a song as a joke. At the time I promised that the real thing – which had already been almost entirely written up – was coming the next day, but then I got caught up in other things and forgot to make it actually happen. Here, then, is your belated Japanese saying for the week of April 1st, 2018.)
(Atama soru yori kokoro wo sore;
“Rather than shaving your head, shave your heart”)
Outward appearance isn’t important compared to what’s on the inside. Worry about content, not just presentation. Those who want to be good (Buddhist) monks should focus less on shaving their heads to look the part, and more on purifying their hearts.
We begin with the noun 頭 (atama), “head,” connected without any particles to the verb 剃る (soru), “to shave,” in prenominal form and acting as a noun itself, in the sense of “the act of shaving.” The particle より (yori) suggests that “rather than” the above noun phrase, something else (is preferable), and the latter takes the form of a command: the noun 心 (kokoro), “heart,” “mind,” or “spirit,” marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 剃る, here in imperative form.
This somewhat obscure saying is derived from a poem by Kamo no Choumei, literary hermit and author of the Hōjōki, an autobiographical classic of Japanese literature meditating on the transient nature of things in the material world.
(“Donna ni rippa na kesa wo kite mo, ano hito wa iji ga warukute kitanai koto bakari suru. Atama soru yori kokoro wo sore, tte iitaku naru yo.”)
[“No matter how splendid the monk’s robe he wears may be, he’s a nasty person and he’s always doing underhanded things. It makes you want to tell him to quit shaving his head and instead shave his soul.”]