“I thank you. You are my masters. From you I have learned more than from all the writings of the Brahmans.”

buddha butterflyA reader called Jim Conant wrote yesterday with an odd one:

I came across this supposed quote of the Buddha in a book called “Butterflies and Moths” by Dr. Walter Robert Corti. It says that

“In his last sermon before his death, Buddha spoke thus to the butterflies: ‘I thank you. You are my masters. From you I have learned more than from all the writings of the Brahmans.’”

I wonder if this is legit.

It certainly strikes me as being not only fake, but weird. And it appears in several books and magazines published since Dr. Corti’s book appeared in 1964.

It appears, according to Google Books, in a 1967 edition of “The Structurist,” which is “an international, interdisciplinary journal dealing with art, architecture, ecology, culture and communication.” That date may be questionable, though, since Google’s dating for journals often refers to the date that the first issue was published, rather than the issue in which the quotation appears.

It shows up in Briony Penn’s A Year on the Wild Side (1999), in Robert Michael Pyle’s Watching Washington Butterflies: An Interpretive Guide to the State’s 134 Species (1974), and also in his Handbook for Butterfly Watchers (1992).

I’ve only found one instance of this on the web, where freelance writer Kristin MacLeod quotes Pyle.

This quote is the lepidopterists’ equivalent of “The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it provides protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman who destroys it,” which is so beloved of authors of books on forestry.

Goodness only knows where this comes from. The Buddha’s last sermon is in the Maha-Parinibbana Sutta, and there’s nothing there about butterflies. In fact I don’t recall the Buddha even mentioning butterflies, although there are some nice references to bees, such as this one from the Dhammapada:

As a bee gathers honey from the flower
without injuring its color or fragrance,
even so the sage
goes on his alms-round in the village.

Some early translators of this verse used the more poetic “butterfly” in place of the more workmanlike “bee” (bhamara) but a reverse search of my Pali-English dictionary failed to show up any reference to butterflies at all.

There are mentions of moths in the Pali canon, however, and the Buddha does make a teaching out of their headlong rush to destruction:

One time the Buddha was staying near Savatthi, in Jeta’s grove, at the garden of Anathapindika. At that time he was seated under the open sky, on a night of blinding darkness, while oil lamps were burning. And also at that time a great number of winged insects were flying around and falling into those oil lamps, thus meeting with misfortune, meeting with ruin, meeting with both misfortune and ruin. The Buddha saw those great number of winged insects flying around and falling into those oil lamps… And then the Buddha, understanding the meaning of this, gave utterance — at that moment — to this profound utterance:

Rushing up but then too far, they miss the point;
Only causing ever newer bonds to grow.
So obsessed are some by what is seen and heard,
They fly just like these moths — straight into the flames.

But he didn’t say that the moths were his teachers, or offer them thanks. The Buddha in fact made a point of saying that he had no teacher:

All-conquering, all-knowing am I,
with regard to all things, unadhering.
All-abandoning, released in the ending of craving:
having fully known on my own,
to whom should I point as my teacher?

But that’s a little pedantic. The Buddha did point out,

…in this world with its devas, Maras, & Brahmas, in this generation with its brahmans and contemplatives, its royalty and common-folk, I do not see another brahman or contemplative more consummate in knowledge and vision of release than I, on whom I could dwell in dependence, honoring and respecting him.

And he went on to say that it was the Dhamma on which he would rely, “fully awakened, honoring and respecting it.”

But this isn’t to say that the Buddha did not learn from others. He was a flexible man, and in practical and sometimes in spiritual matters he would accept “input” from others or draw life lessons from his observations. In passages quoted above he draws lessons from the symbiosis of bee and blossom, and the destructive encounter of moth and flame. But I don’t think he ever thanked bees, moths, or butterflies, or acknowledged them as his “master.”

It’s rather odd, really, that the Buddha doesn’t seem to have mentioned the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies as an example of change. It would seem to be an excellent analogy to draw upon.

One small thing: the reference to “the writings of the Brahmans” is anachronistic. The Brahmans were the priestly caste of the Buddha’s time, but their tradition at that time seems to have been oral rather than literary.

And did the Buddha ever say thank you? I’m not sure he did…

If anyone has a clue how this odd quote came about, please leave a comment or send me a message through the contact form.

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