Over the years I have been privileged to share some meals with a visiting Lama from the Tibetan Buddhist Faith. Rinpoche is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA but regularly visits New Zealand. Dinners with Rinpoche are always very interesting and he has many stories to tell. Given my own professional interests, the topic of death and dying often comes up. During one of those conversations Rinpoche shared a related story about one of his late American friends.
Elisabeth had been widely regarded as an expert on matters concerning death and dying. In the last years of her life, Elizabeth struggled with what she was personally going through, so sought spiritual guidance from a Tibetan Lama that she had asked to visit her. Thus two people from completely different worlds conversed and gradually became friends. Rinpoche would regularly visit Elisabeth and they would talk about many different topics.
The subject of butterflies came up a number of times during their many conversations. Elisabeth talked about her visits to former Nazi concentration camps when she was a young lady. During those visits she had noticed a common motif decorating many of the cell walls – the butterfly – representing freedom and love.
Butterflies came up in another conversation some time later, on a day in which Elisabeth was not feeling at all well. During this conversation Elisabeth mentioned that she did not want to live anymore in her current state of illness. She was frustrated with being partially paralysed on one side of her body which resulted in her being stuck in a wheelchair.
Rinpoche asked Elisabeth, “If things are so bad why don’t you kill yourself?”
Elisabeth immediately responded, “No, I couldn’t do that.”
“Why not?” asked Rinpoche.
This was Elisabeth’s reply as recounted many years later by Rinpoche, to us at the dinner table:
The lifecycle of a butterfly begins with a tiny caterpillar hatching out of a tiny egg. The caterpillar feeds and once it has eaten enough, it prepares for the greatest change of it’s life – Metamorphosis. It spins itself a pupa/cocoon within which it undergoes the amazing transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Time passes and eventually the butterfly struggles to get itself out of the pupa. This is no easy task as it has to use its newly developed limbs and body parts to push and pull it’s way out of its cocoon.
A kindly passer-by seeing this struggle might be tempted to help the newly emerging butterfly out of the pupa, so that it doesn’t have to suffer so much. If the person was of strong enough intention they might pull the butterfly out of its pupa, so that it can spread its wings and fly off to join its companions who are already flying around. A good intention but the actual result would not be so beneficial.
What is the point of all of the struggle at the end of the caterpillar’s life and the start of the butterfly’s new life? When the new butterfly exerts itself as it escapes its transformation chamber it is flexing and extending new muscles that have never had the chance to be put into action before. As it is breaking out of its small confine, it is becoming stronger as its new circulatory system is put into use with its efforts. Once it has finally exited its cocoon a strong butterfly is ready to face the world.
What happens to the butterfly which was helped out of its cocoon? It never fully develops the strength that it needs as it hasn’t had the full experience of the caterpillar’s final struggle. What comes out is a crippled butterfly, who might never know the joy of flying with others of its kind.
“That’s why I would never kill myself,” Elisabeth said, “I don’t want to end up as a crippled butterfly.”
They talked about this further and Rinpoche said that in Buddhist terms this would be considered a form of “karmic interference.”
Some time later Elisabeth died of natural causes.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s funeral was held on a particularly gloomy day. It was as if the heavens themselves were in mourning, making the church hall that everyone had gathered in seem very dark. Rinpoche spoke and related stories about their friendship. Suddenly the cloud cover broke, and a ray of sunshine entered the darkened church hall. Flying through the bright column of light were two butterflies.