Chuang Tzu was a great Taoist sage during the Chinese era of the Warring States (475-221 BC). Over the years, I’ve posted a number of stories from the book that bears his name. And the “butterfly dream” is probably the most famous of those stories. Hopefully, you won’t mind reading it again, or perhaps it is new to you…
James Legge, one of the first to render the Chuang Tzu into English, wrote in a footnote to an anecdote, “To sleep in untroubled ease beneath a large, sheltering tree can be a memory of a lifetime also.”
According to tradition, Chuang Tzu was a government official in a small town. While his duties kept him busy, he enjoyed sneaking off every so often to loll away an afternoon lying beneath a nice shady tree.
One afternoon, as he was dozing:
“I dreamed I was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly just flying about. I had a great deal of fun, doing whatever I pleased. I did not remember I was Chuang Tzu. I was aware only of my happiness as a butterfly. Suddenly I woke from the dream and found myself to be Chuang Tzu. I could not figure out if Chuang Tzu had dreamed he was a butterfly or if a butterfly was dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. Between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This we call ‘the transformation of things.’”
What Chuang Tzu means by “the transformation of things” is that with our ordinary mind we look at the world and perceive differences and distinctions between things. This way of seeing is a delusion that is not unlike a dream state, and we want to transform our way of seeing. With awakening mind, we realize that differences and distinctions have no real foundation; they are impermanent, transitory. Through inner transformation we bring ourselves closer in harmony with the way of transformation of nature. We find the balance between dreaming and waking states, the middle way in which a man dreaming he is a butterfly and a butterfly dreaming he is a man are both possibilities.
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
– Seng-ts’an, Verses on the Heart-Mind
Find more of my Chuang Tzu posts here.