Monday, October 19, 2009

The Butterfly and the Buddha

Once upon a time, someone found the chrysalis of a butterfly. Soon a small opening appeared. The person sat and watched the butterfly for hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped unable to go any further.

Deciding to help the butterfly, a pair of scissors were used to snip off the end of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily, but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings.

The person continued to watch it, expecting that at any moment the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body in flight. It did not happen. In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around like a caterpillar. It was never able to fly.

What the person in kindness and haste did not understand: The butterfly's struggle to get through the restricting cocoon was a way of forcing the fluid from the body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight once it emerged.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives. Going through life without obstacles to overcome would cripple us. We would not become as strong as we could nor fly as happily as we might. So if we struggle, rather than asking someone or something to remove everything we dislike, it will be to our benefit for a long time to come.

Teenage girl to sail around the world
Australian 16-year-old sailor Jessica Watson walks to her boat after a final shower on land as she prepares to depart… SYDNEY – She steered her bright pink yacht out of Sydney Harbor on Sunday to start her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world. SLIDESHOW

While the author of this famous story is unknown, like any good tale, it has different levels of meaning. For meditation instructor Piya Tan, it has a profound connection to the Buddha’s teaching on self-reliance in personal development.

Buddhist Meditation Parallel

Piya Tan (The Minding Centre, Singapore)

For me the story of the butterfly is a powerful reminder of how Buddhist meditation gently allows us to evolve and grow in a cocoon of calm and stillness so that we can accept ourselves just as we are. This may sound simplistic, even trite. The point is, how many of us really accept ourselves as we really are? We do not even know ourselves.

How do we end up like the maimed butterfly? We maim ourselves emotionally. We stunt our spiritual growth when we measure ourselves against others, or when we blindly allow our lives to be dictated by others. When what controls us is outside ourselves, we do not have self-control. Our happiness and unhappiness are defined and decided by others. In other words, we can never be really happy as a choice.

We must constantly ask ourselves what we are thinking, or saying, or doing: “Am I happy doing this?” If we are, we must then ask, “Am I hurting myself doing this; am I hurting others; am I hurting the environment?” If “no” in all three counts, then that’s fine. If there is even one “yes,” we need to ask why, and adjust our actions accordingly.

On the other hand, when we ask, “Am I happy doing this?” And the answer is “no,” we need to ask ourselves again, “Why so? Why am I not happy?”

Occasionally, try to visualize ourselves having achieved our life’s goal (following the guidelines just listed). Then we work our way backwards: What must be done to attain this goal? What must we do before that, and so on, until we arrive where we are now. We are then better aware of what we need to do with our lives.

If we have done all we can, and things still do not seem to work our way, then we need to reflect on the butterfly story. We are still evolving in our karmic cocoon; let things be for a while. Do what needs to be done for the present. And keep asking ourselves: What do I do next? Don’t think, just feel, be at peace with ourselves because we will hear the answer soon enough.


  • Sutra study: "Miraculous stories: Buddhist-Christian Parallels" (crossroads and bypaths in personal spirituality). Download the study notes (PDF).
  • Dharmafarer website: