Enyadatta: a Buddhist allegory

Buddhists believe that every human being possesses the Buddha-nature within them. The following allegory (from the Shurangama sutra; recounted in The Three Pillars of Zen, pp. 58-59) illustrates the point:

Enyadatta was a beautiful maiden who enjoyed nothing more than gazing at herself in the mirror each morning. One day when she looked into her mirror she found no head reflected there. The shock was so great that she became frantic, rushing around demanding to know who had taken her head. Though everyone told her, “Don’t be silly, your head is on your shoulders where it has always been,” she refused to believe it and continued her frenzied search.

EnyadattaHere I will interject a commentary from Roshi Yasutani before proceeding with the allegory:

This “head,” of course, corresponds to the Buddha-nature, to our innate perfection. That they even have a Buddha-nature never occurs to most people until they hear Shujo honrai hotoke nari — “All beings are endowed with Buddha-nature from the very first.” Suddenly they exclaim, “Then I too must have the Buddha-nature! But where is it?” Thus like Enyadatta when she first missed her head and started rushing about looking for it, they commence their search for their True-nature.

Back to Enyadatta’s tale:

At length her friends, believing her mad, dragged her home and tied her to a pillar to prevent her harming herself.

Slowly her friends persuaded her that she had always had her head, and gradually she came to half-believe it. Her subconscious mind began to accept the fact that perhaps she was deluded in thinking she had lost her head.

Suddenly one of her friends gave her a terrific clout on the head, upon which, in pain and shock, she yelled “Ouch!”

“That’s your head! There it is!” her friend exclaimed, and immediately Enyadatta saw that she had deluded herself into thinking she had lost her head when in fact she had always had it.

When this happened to Enyadatta she was so elated that she rushed around exclaiming, “Oh, I’ve got it! I have my head after all! I’m so happy!”

Each of the elements in the allegory has a meaning:

  • Her friends tied her to a pillar — this corresponds to meditation. Roshi Yasutani comments, “With the immobilization of the body the mind achieves a measure of tranquility.” Enyadatta’s mind was still distracted, but her body was prevented from scattering its energies fruitlessly.
  • Her friends offered reassurance — this corresponds to instruction from a Roshi (venerable teacher). Yasutani comments, “Initially the instruction is difficult to understand, but listening to the teachings attentively, every word sinking into your subconscious, you reach the point where you begin to think, “Is that really true? … I wonder … Yes, it must be.”
  • A friend hits her on the head — this corresponds (literally) to a blow from a kyosaku stick; or (figuratively) to a verbal clout. Such a jolt, delivered by a perceptive teacher at just the right moment, can bring about self-realization, according to Yasutani.
  • Enyadatta’s rapture at discovering her head — this corresponds to the half-mad state that follows that moment of self-realization.

On the last point, Yasutani comments:

To be overjoyed at finding a head you had from the very first is, to say the least, queer. Nor is it less odd to rejoice at the discovery of your Essential-nature, which you have never been without. The ecstasy is genuine enough, but your state of mind cannot be called natural until you have fully disabused yourself of the notion, “I have become enlightened.”

You do not become enlightened. You arrive at the insight that you have always been enlightened:  that you have always possessed the perfect Buddha-nature.


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bill
    May 04, 2007 @ 08:43:53

    As my Buddhist buddy was telling me the search for enlightenment always ends in you.

    Stephen I have a number of texts on Buddhism if you are interested they are from a course I took on Fundamental religions at UoO.

    It is a beautiful philosophy but when it is turned into a religion of the fundamental sort it becomes ugly as most fundamentalism is (likely because rationality seems to have no place in Fundamental theologies).


  2. Jamie
    May 05, 2007 @ 10:33:44

    Stephen, it is uncharacteristic of you to let the allegory stand on its own and not offer analysis/critique. 😉

    I have nothing profound to say, but it seems to me that this sort of “enlightenment” process happens frequently, even to those of us who are not Buddhists. I mean, how often do we frantically grasp for things in life in a search for fulfillment, then suddenly realize later (in a kyosaku stick moment) that we had all we needed all along.

    What is different about the Buddhist philosophy of Enlightenment in particular, though, is its rather self-focused nature: retreat to the monasteries is a retreat from society, and enlightenment involves the realization that the Buddha nature is already within yourself. It’s a self orientation, and not a very relational philosophy.


  3. dougrogers
    May 11, 2007 @ 22:38:32

    Jamie, ‘Self’ is the last thing Buddhism is about. Well actually it’s the first, but you have to break through it to get anywhere. And once it’s broken, you see that ‘Self” isn’t at all necessary. And so it isn’t about ‘Self’ at all. But you need to use ‘Self’ to get there. And it is immensely relational, because once there is no self, everything is only, and nothing else, but relational.


  4. Stephen
    May 12, 2007 @ 08:03:38

    I’m not a Buddhist, though I find a great deal to admire in Buddhism. I appreciate your comment, because it speaks to one of the paradoxes that greatly puzzles me.

    Buddhism is noted for its compassion. That seems such an unlikely result from a religion that (1) directs people inward and (2) seems to diminish the significance of suffering. (I know suffering is real, at least in a subjective sense, but don’t Buddhists teach that this world is ultimately without substance? Suffering would thus seem to have little objective reality.)

    Your comment begins to speak to that paradox by saying that we have to break through self to get anywhere. I would appreciate any further help you can provide in clearing up this difficulty for me, particularly with respect to point (2).


  5. dougrogers
    May 12, 2007 @ 16:05:24

    Compassion. hmmmm… I can only suggest you look to the behaviours of, say, Thich Nhat Hahn, or The Dalai Lama, as the most obvious examples, if Compassion as a result of looking inward and discounting suffering seems such an unlikely result.

    This suggests some error somewhere, some inability to overcome the seeming paradox of the process.

    Buddhists ‘look inward’ insofar as understanding how the five skandhas and four elements manifest who and what we are. It is a psychological and physical process and metaphor.

    We begin to understand dukkha. Dukkha is always transliterated as Suffering. It is the closest word English has to the full meaning of the Sanskrit. Suffering, as a word, carries too much negative baggage; friction, unease, a flat side on a wagon wheel, a general unsatisfactory wanting-ness… these things aren’t in and of themselves bad, or negative. Friction holds the peanut butter sandwich together. That ain’t so bad. Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs are Dukkha.

    So, we assign values to things. We have to ‘look inward’ to see this process as it manifests as who we (think) we are and how we consequently behave. After a lot of brave work, after working with teachers who have been through the process, after knowing a few instances of being in an empty state – if we are lucky – we can see that we don’t need to be there – to be here. Like Nike says, “Just Do It”, I say, “Just Get Out Of The Way.”

    That always makes me laugh.

    How is it that The Dalai Lama can forgive the Chinese? It is only because he can see with great compassion how deeply they are trapped in creating suffering. This then, is where the Compassion is, to see that others are bound in karmic chains and to want to help them free themselves.

    We don’t diminish the fact of suffering. We say that there is another way. We begin to see the conditions that have made us who we are, we begin to see the causes, the never-ending chain of cause, that has brought us here. We begin to see where to intervene in our chain of cause – we see that it is only “I” who can end the suffering by ending our behaviours that cause negative effects in others, and by enacting behaviours that create good effects in others. This cannot be done from self. It cannot be done for Yourself. It can only be done when there is no self to do this for, no motive for self.

    Regarding 2; the pavement is still the pavement, the car in front of me is still the car in front of me. It would be foolish to deny that these things are without substance. In an esoteric way, Buddhism teaches two truths. It makes it much easier to get about in this world.

    One; things are as they are. The car is the car, the pavement is the pavement. A rose is a rose is a rose. If it prick me do I not bleed? If I hit you with a stick, it hurts.

    Two; things don’t exist 🙂 Simply, they are all a result of causes and conditions. The grass comes together from – oh, I can’t begin to list the number of things!… the root, the seed, the light, the air, the nitrogen, the soil, the growing, the carbon spewed from distant exploding stars, timeless ages ago, the touch of it beneath my feet, the smell inside my brain… the grass doesn’t exist in and of itself. It is a part of everything that came together to cause it, even my seeing and smelling at this instant, and now your understanding of it is all my grass. This is how the world is ultimately without substance.


  6. Stephen
    May 12, 2007 @ 18:08:53

    Thanks for explaining. That’s very beautiful — a worthy idea — even logical, despite the apparent paradox.


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