TRANSLATION: interconnected lives bird
ALTERNATE NAMES: kyōmeichō
HABITAT: Gokuraku jōdo, a realm of paradise
APPEARANCE: The gumyōchō is a beautiful two-headed bird that resembles a pheasant. Occasionally it is depicted as having two human heads instead of two bird heads. Their home is Gokuraku jōdo, the realm of utter paradise created by Amida Buddha.
BEHAVIOR: The gumyōchō is one of six bird species which are said to inhabit nirvana—the others being white swans, peafowl, parrots, mynah birds, and karyōbinga. Like the karyōbinga, the gumyōchō is said to have an exceedingly beautiful voice. It and the other heavenly birds sing the holy scriptures in nirvana, and those who listen to their songs can achieve enlightenment.
ORIGIN: Gumyōchō originate in the cosmology of Pure Land Buddhism. They were brought to Japan in the sixth century along with Buddhism. They are often used as ornamentation on Buddhist temples. Their story is a parable for the interdependence of all humans on one another.
LEGENDS: Long ago, a gumyōchō lived in the snowy mountains of India. It had two heads and one body. One head was named Karuda, and the other head was named Upakaruda. The bird’s two heads had different personalities and desires. When one head was sleepy, the other one wanted to play. When one head was hungry, the other one wanted to rest. Eventually, the two heads began to resent each other.
One day while Upakaruda was sleeping, Karuda feasted on delicious fruits and flowers until he was stuffed and could eat no more. When Upakaruda woke up, he wanted to eat too, but he was already full because they shared one stomach. He could not enjoy any of the food.
Upakaruda decided to punish Karuda. While Karuda slept, Upakaruda found a tree with poisonous fruit. Because they shared one stomach, Upakaruda ate the fruit in order to make Karuda sick. Sure enough, when Karuda woke up, the poison had already taken effect. Karuda writhed and suffered, and then died. Of course, because they shared one body, Upakaruda also became sick, collapsed in agony, and then died.
Just before dying, Upakaruda realized how foolish he had been. While he resented his other head, he failed to recognize that his own life depended on it. Just the same, by harming his other head, he was also harming himself. When he realized this, he realized one of the core tenets of Buddhism: interconnectedness. The birds became enlightened and were reborn in nirvana.