There Is Much We Do Not Know
the Feelings of Butterflies
SHAMBHALA SUN july 2008
The ancient Greek word psyche referred to both the butterfly
and the soul. What, then, of the butterfly that Liza Dalby
encountered at the gravestone of her geisha mother?
Last fall I returned to Kyoto, a city where I had once lived and researched the subject of Japan’s geisha tradition. I still have many friends there, including geiko (as the Kyoto geisha call them-selves) current and retired. Whenever I visit Kyoto, there are two old friends in particular to whom I always pay my respects. One is my geisha sister, Ichiume, who was put in charge of my training; the other, my geisha mother, Kiyo Hasui, who invited
me to join the community of Pontochô as a parti-cipant observer. Both of them are dead. Twenty-four-year-old Ichiume died in 1979 in a fire accidentally started in the traditional wood-and-paper teahouse where she lived. Kiyo Hasui passed away twelve years ago at age 73.
In Japan, almost everyone is Buddhist when they pass away. In fact, to say someone “has become a buddha” (hotoke ni natta) simply means he or she has died. It has always seemed to me that in Japan, the dead are never very far away. Often, memorial tablets are set up in a votive altar called a butsudan kept in the home. Every day, fruit or flowers are offered and incense burned. Many of my Japanese friends sit in front of the butsudan when they are worried and tell their troubles to deceased family members. On special death anniversaries, people go to the cemeteries as well. If, like me, you are in town once every couple of years, you visit friends’ graves when you can.
There is an etiquette for these visits to the cem-etery. First, you announce yourself at the priest’s house. Someone answers—usually his wife—and you tell her who you’ve come to visit. You may
request her to write out your friend’s Buddhist after-death name on a thin strip of wood, along with a Siddham-script mantra, and your name. You will place this in a rack behind the stone—it’s like leaving your calling card. You will fill a short bucket with water, pick up one of the ladles hanging next to the faucet, and, carrying the flowers and incense you’ve brought, step your way through the narrow paths between the family plots. When you’ve reached your friend’s stone, you can remove faded flowers from the granite vases, tidy up, change the water, add your new bouquets. You insert your wooden slat into the rack, looking at the names written on the old ones. Who else has visited? When did they come? You light several sticks of incense, then ladle the rest of the water over the headstone.
“It soothes the hotoke” is how this custom was once explained to me. Unless, of course, it is the middle of winter. When Hasui-san and I visited Ichiume’s grave in December one year, she held
my arm back.
“Not too much,” she said. “The hotoke will catch a chill…”
The way Buddhism is popularly practiced in Japan, the hotoke is clearly spoken of, thought of, and treated as a person’s soul. The mental connections of the living to the dead are so strong they create the hotoke’s reality. Incorporeal though it may be, it can be affected by the physical world—for example, a splash of cold water. One could say this belief contradicts the philosophy of classic Buddhism in which the existence of a permanent self, living or dead, is considered to be an illusion. Nevertheless, despite sectarian differences among the different branches of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan, most Japanese think of the hotoke as but a transformed version of a person’s essential self.
So, in Kyoto for a few days in early October, I bought some incense and picked up a bouquet of chrysanthemums, carnations, roses, and evergreen sakaki leaves at a florist near Shin’enji, a small, not-at-all famous Pure Land temple in north-central Kyoto. The priest’s wife recognizes me by now.
“It’s so sad,” she says as we fill the bucket at the hose bib and walk back toward my geisha mother’s stone.
“No one comes to visit her, except her old friend Yoshiko. But she only comes once a year at Obon.”
“What about her son?” I ask.
“Nobody’s seen him in ages,” she replies.
“He’s just disappeared.”
Sure enough, at the stone there is only one other wooden strip, left there last August by Hasui-san’s old colleague and fellow geisha, Yoshiko.
“Look, a butterfly has joined us,” I murmur
to the priest’s wife as she excuses herself to go back to the house. From my childhood as a butterfly collector, I recognize a fritillary, somewhat tattered now in autumn.
I stand in front of the stone, thinking about how vivacious Hasui-san was when I knew her—how well-connected, how many friends she had, how she loved a party. Compared to the other monuments bristling with visitors’ wooden strips, her stone seems sad and neglected. Then I notice the butterfly again. It had landed directly on top of the smooth granite stone in front of me, almost at eye level. I look around. I am the only person in the graveyard. There are no other butterflies. Perched on the stone,
slowly pumping its wings, it shows no inclination
to fly away. I take out my video camera, and now the butterfly turns to face me. A breeze arises, and I see it brace its tiny hooked feet in an effort not to be
blown off the slippery granite.
And I swear it looked straight at me with its speckled jewel eyes. We regarded one another, this butterfly and I, and I had the uncanny feeling that it was trying to communicate. Finally, a puff of wind blew it off the stone.
“That was exceedingly odd,” I thought to myself. I put down my camera and proceeded to change the flowers, light incense, and ladle water. And then, the
butterfly was back. Now it landed on the flowers, again opening and closing its wings. This time I extended my hand, and the butterfly climbed on my finger. Once again we looked at one another for about ten seconds before it flew off.
A breeze arises, and I see the
butterfly brace its tiny hooked feet
in an effort not to be blown off the
When I told Japanese friends about this strange encounter, they were all quite certain that the butterfly was the soul of my geisha mother, grateful to have been visited. I discovered through these conversations that their interpretation
was grounded in a longstanding belief about a connection between souls and butterflies. It turns out the idea of the soul as butterfly is widespread throughout the world. The ancient Greek word
psyche referred to both the butterfly and the soul. In China, the sage Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, but upon waking puzzled whether he might now be a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. In our own time and scientific tradition, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross noted that children who have had near-death
experiences often reported dreaming of
becoming a butterfly.
Butterflies do not seem to be part of classic
Buddhism, but in Japanese Buddhist tradition the priest Rennyo, the fifteenth-century revitalizer of the Pure Land sect,recorded a dream after the death of his daughter in which he saw three blue lotus flowers rise from the white bones of the
cremation pyre. Suddenly, an inch-high
golden image of the Buddha appeared
and changed into a butterfly that flew up
toward the western sky.
Since I happened to have pictures of my geisha mother on my laptop, I added them to the video I’d taken in the cemetery and uploaded it to YouTube as “Butterfly from Beyond.” I also wrote to two Japanese entomologists, asking their
opinion of the behavior of this butterfly,
in fact a type of fritillary called tsumagurohyômon
(black-hemmed leopard spot) in Japanese. “This species does well in degraded urban habitat,” one wrote back. “They are often seen in small green
spaces in the middle of a city.”
“It was sunning itself,” wrote the other. “Its landing on that particular stone is coincidence.” I thought someone might write that experiences like mine were common—perhaps because Japanese fritillaries are attracted to people (unlike
those I pursued with my net as a child). But no. Neither one mentioned that.
The fact that the butterfly was in this urban graveyard may not have been remarkable,
yet it seems to me that—of all the headstones, of all the flowers there—it choosing me specifically is.
“There is still much we don’t understand about the habits of butterflies” is how entomologist S.
Ueyama ended his e-mail. “But if some people wish to see the butterfly fluttering down to the stone as a person’s soul, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I believe one must welcome such experiences.
Not look for them, necessarily, but when they happen, to pay attention, appreciate, and cherish them, even without fully understanding. There is much we do not know about the feelings of butterflies. ♦