That was a really bad pun to start with, I apologize for that.
One of the most celebrated verses in Pali is found at SN 1.23. Ven Bodhi’s translation:
A tangle inside, a tangle outside,
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama,
Who can disentangle this tangle?
The fame of the verse is because it was chosen by Buddhaghosa as the key to his Visuddhimagga. The Buddha’s answer starts with:
A man established on virtue, wise,
Developing the mind and wisdom,
A bhikkhu ardent and discreet:
He can disentangle this tangle.
Thus introducing the trio of ethics, samadhi, and wisdom. Buddhaghosa asks, what are these things? And spends the rest of the Visuddhimagga answering that question. The whole Visuddhimagga is in fact a commentary on these lines; an elaborate, playful literary conceit.
Now, the Visuddhimagga here explains jaṭā as tangled up trees, bamboo, and so on. However, I find this very dubious. Nowhere in the EBTs, so far as I know, is jaṭā used in this way. In its concrete sense, it is always applied to matted hair, especially that of the brahmanical ascetics known as Jaṭila.
Apart from the commentary on this passage, I can only find one reference to jaṭā used in any other way, and this is a passing reference in the commentarial background story to the Jātakas (Ja.i.64; PTS Dict says this is to “trees”, but this is a mistake; it is in fact to the “scents and garlands” dropped in such masses on the Bodhisatta by the gods on the night he went forth that it obstructed his progress.)
When considering commentarial interpretations, we should be neither overly credulous nor overly skeptical. One kind of case where we should question their interpretations, however, is in contexts that deal with the rival sectarian groups at the time of the Buddha. Whether out of bias or ignorance, the commentaries frequently misconstrue such passages, displaying a lack of familiarity with the religious context in the Buddha’s time (a millenium before and a continent away.)
It is no surprise, then, to find a term that exclusively refers to a rival ascetic movement divorced from that context; certainly a more general reading would have been more relevant to the Visuddhimagga’s Sri Lankan audience.
This reading has the advantage of making the underlying metaphor more concrete. Rather than relying on an assumed metaphor of “tangle”, the question is, with due allowance for poetic expression, saying: “These Jatilas are just as tangled up inside as their dreadlocks are outside!” It also makes the metaphor stronger: untangling a tangle is no great task, we’ve all done it. But untangling dreadlocks matted for years?
This interpretation is further supported by the later verses, which refer to the cessation of nāmarūpa. This is another classic case of a teaching that has lost its Brahmanical context in the commentarial explanations. Nāmarūpa is in fact lifted from the Upanishads, and is frequently used in discussions with Brahmins (Kevatta Sutta, Parayanavagga, and so on.) So it’s right at home here in a critique of the Brahmanical Jatila ascetics.
Here’s my translation of the full text. As the text moves from a concrete to a metaphorical meaning, I reflect this in the translation.
“Matted hair within, matted hair without:
Jaṭāya jaṭitā pajā;
these people are tangled up in matted hair.
Taṃ taṃ gotama pucchāmi,
I ask you this, Gotama:
Ko imaṃ vijaṭaye jaṭan”ti.
Who can untangle this tangled mass?”
“Sīle patiṭṭhāya naro sapañño,
“A wise man grounded in ethics,
Cittaṃ paññañca bhāvayaṃ;
developing the mind and wisdom,
Ātāpī nipako bhikkhu,
a keen and self-disciplined mendicant,
So imaṃ vijaṭaye jaṭaṃ.
can untangle this tangled mass.
Yesaṃ rāgo ca doso ca,
For those who have discarded
avijjā ca virājitā;
greed, hate, and ignorance—
the perfected ones with defilements ended—
tesaṃ vijaṭitā jaṭā.
the tangle has been untangled.
Yattha nāmañca rūpañca,
Where name and form
cease with nothing left over;
Paṭighaṃ rūpasaññā ca,
and impingement and perception of form:
etthesā chijjate jaṭā”ti.
it’s there that the tangle is cut.”