Parable of the Butterfly
The life cycle of the butterfly tells a story of transformation – the butterfly develops and changes form in each of its four life stages. It begins as an embryo, turns into a crawling caterpillar. Later it is encased in a cocoon, and eventually it emerges from the cocoon as the beautiful flying and fluttering insect that has fascinated human beings for aeons, its wings a gemlike palette of brightly coloured abstract patterns.
Because of its life cycle of transformation, the butterfly has been used as a symbol for spiritual transformation and resurrection in many world religions and cultures. Interestingly, in ancient Greek the word for ‘butterfly’ is psyche, which is also used for mind or soul. It is also said that in early Christianity, the butterfly symbolized the resurrection of the soul. Images of butterflies were often used on gravestones. But perhaps the most famous use of the symbol of the butterfly in spiritual literature is the enigmatic anecdote or koan of Chuang Tzu (also spelled Zuangzi), the Chinese mystic of the late third century/ early fourth century BCE. The anecdote poses the question of what is reality and what is illusion – and what is our true identity?
Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chuang Tzu. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
What is our reality, we might ask ourselves. Are we truly soul, flitting about, without consciousness of time and space, free of body and mind, happy only in our experience as soul? Or are we physical, material human beings, very much attached to mind and body, who can only dream of existence as soul? The Master often refers to this paradox when he cites the statement of the French philosopher and priest, Pierre Tailhard de Chardin, that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not human beings having a spiritual experience.
When we sit in meditation, isn’t that the arena of transformation that Chuang Tzu is presenting to us? Meditation is the means to free ourselves from attachment to mind and body, and realize that we are essentially our soul, symbolized as the butterfly, that is undergoing a human experience in this body. It seems that this Chinese mystic is urging us to break out of our cocoon of body and mind – where we are trapped in the restlessness of our senses and thoughts – and experience the freedom and joy of the divine.
In considering Chuang Tzu’s story, we are reminded of Hazur Maharaj Ji’s response to a questioner about dreams and reality.
Q: Is this world really here or is it a dream world – does it really exist?
It exists in a manner of speaking. When you are in a dream, everything looks real to you. When you wake up from a dream, then only you realize that there was actually no reality at all. It was just a dream…. When we wake up from this dream, then we will know that this world is perishable.
Q: Well, if it is a dream, why is it so necessary to make such a great effort?
Because it’s a dream that has no reality. You want to be one with the reality. We are miserable here, being separated from the Father. So we want to escape. If we had been happy here, we wouldn’t have thought about the Father at all. We would not want to go to him if we were happy here….
Those who are happy in this dream will remain part and parcel of this dream. And those who are the blessed ones will realize the travesty of this world and will want to go to their everlasting home, their permanent abode. They will feel his separation. They will miss him. They will try to get to him.
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I
Chuang Tzu’s story had raised the question: which is the dream, and which is the reality? Or are both levels of consciousness actually dreams? Are they both levels of unconsciousness? Hazur Maharaj Ji says here that it is imperative for us to wake up from not only the dream we dream while we are sleeping, but also the dream that we are living in every day. This is because we are not happy here in this world, which is why we dream of being a butterfly, why the soul dreams of being free. Why would we want to live in the dream of this life when we can awaken to bliss of reality and return to the Father?
Chuang Tzu also presents the example of people who dream of living in great luxury, yet they awaken to the sorrow of its impermanence. Likewise, those who are dreaming of sorrow awaken to the fact that even their sorrow was an illusion; when they awaken, they “join the hunt” – they get engaged in the activities of life. This shows that no human experience is permanent – it is all illusion, a dream. It is as if God is playing a joke on us, because we have no idea of what the reality is. Chuang Tzu wrote:
Those who dream of the banquet wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow wake to join the hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they are dreaming. Some will even interpret the very dream they are dreaming; and only when they awake do they know it was a dream.
By and by comes the Great Awakening, and then we find out that this life is really a great dream. Fools think they are awake now, and flatter themselves they know – this one is a prince, and that one is a shepherd. What narrowness of mind!
Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams – I am but a dream myself. This is a paradox. Tomorrow a sage may arise to explain it; but that tomorrow will not be until ten thousand generations have gone by. Yet you may meet him around the corner (tomorrow).
So Chuang Tzu is emphasizing that you and I, and even Confucius, the great philosopher – we who speak to you about the reality and the illusion – even we are illusions. We are all living in the dream. What is the reality? It is a great paradox. And then he says: Perhaps someday a sage, meaning a realized saint or master, will come to explain it; then you will know there is no time or space, that all is an illusion. To express this, he says the sage may not appear for another ten thousand generations, but then you will see he has been with you all the time – “you may meet him around the corner.” This whole discussion is an illusion.
As Hazur Maharaj Ji once said, there is no meaning to any of this – all our experiences are an illusion, a dream from which we will awaken when we go back to God. He explains:
The soul is immortal. The soul doesn’t die – but it can be caged, it can be imprisoned, it can be kept in captivity. But it doesn’t die. You see, a diamond is precious, and it has so much lustre. But when you throw it into the mud, you neither know its price, nor can you see its lustre. Its lustre hasn’t gone anywhere, nor has the dirt reduced its price. When you wash the diamond, its lustre will be the same; its price will be the same. It is the same with everybody’s soul.
Every soul is potentially God. But having come to this creation, having taken the association of the mind, it has become absolutely dirty. It has forgotten the Creator. It thinks this creation is the be-all and end-all. The moment the soul gets a little light on its own origin and gets help to leave the dirt, it at once goes back to the Creator. That is why everybody tries to seek the Father – whether in the right way or the wrong way – because the inclination of the soul is always towards its origin. So the search is there with everyone….
Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I
So, as Chuang Tzu taught, somewhere within us we have the memory of having been the soul, free and happy, fluttering about, simply happy to be itself, a butterfly. This memory lies deep within us and may manifest in our dream state. So from within the illusion of life, we can dream of being free. We can respond to the pull that the Lord has placed within us and transform into the butterfly. The Master comes to awaken us to the fact that life as we know it is an illusion, but that through meditation we can experience the reality – the butterfly of our soul can become free.