Skip to main content

Catepillars and Butterflies


A student sat down in front of their teacher and asked, "How do caterpillars become butterflies?"  The teacher replied, "They don't, only butterflies can become butterflies."

This koan comes from my new book, "A Year of Zen Mindfulness".  I like it because it describes my approach to teaching the Dharma along with the primary focus of my book, which is to help people transform their daily life experiences into spiritual practice.

The koan is based on Hongaku or original enlightenment, which is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.  Simply put, the teaching states that we all have Buddha nature, which is the source of enlightenment.

Thus, enlightenment is not the goal of spiritual practice.  It's the starting point.  We don't study sutras, sit on the cushion, and chant in front of our altars because we need to attain something.  No, we do these things because they remind us of what we already have.  They point our attention inwards; to the enlightenment we already possess, and they help us live that enlightenment in daily life.

This is a subtle point, but it's an important one.  Without Hongaku, without an understanding of original enlightenment, Buddhism becomes one in a long list of self-improvement items.  It becomes no different than buying a new car or doing a juice cleanse in the hopes that our dirty, misbegotten selves will become worthy.

In the koan, the teacher is reminding the student that there is no real difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly.  Sure, the wings and pretty colors of the butterfly may not be apparent until after the caterpillar emerges from its cocoon.

But the transformation is only possible because that butterfly nature was already there.  This is evidenced by the fact that dogs can't "become" butterflies.  Dogs are dogs.  Cats are cats.  And caterpillars... are butterflies.

Similarly, the fact that humans can realize enlightenment is proof that we are already enlightened.  We are Buddhas.  And spiritual practice is the cocoon, which brings our Buddha nature into the world.

Namu Amida Butsu


 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my books!



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Magic Mushrooms and the Buddha Dharma

You meet all kinds of people on the road.  Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret. Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home. This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months.   You part ways knowing that you'll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch.  But you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them. Case in point, I met a guy named "Fred" when I was farming in Indiana who'd lived an insanely cool life.  He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn't for him.  So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.  After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered fo

3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists. In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, " God is dead ," while contemplating the question. Of course, he wasn't claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist. In Nietzsche's view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world. The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity's conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referre

The Buddhist Teaching of Oneness

The teaching of Oneness in Mahayana Buddhism is one of the most important, and oft-misunderstood portions of the Dharma.   If we understand it, then practices like compassion and loving-kindness naturally become part of our lives.  However, if we misunderstand it, feelings of fatalism are the result. One of my favorite explanations of this teaching can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  In it, a wealthy Layman name Vimalakirti falls ill, and it soon becomes apparent that he's going to die.  In his wisdom, Buddha sent Manjushri to Vimalkirti's home to see if anything could be done.   When he arrived Manjushri asked Vimalakirti, "Why are you sick?"  And the dying man responded by saying: This illness of mine is born of ignorance and feelings of attachment. Because all living beings are sick, therefore I am sick. If all living beings are relieved of sickness, then my sickness will be mended. Why? Because the bodhisattva for the sake of living beings e