Dreaming Butterflies

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.


World Happiness Report

The annual World Happiness Report is out.  This year Norway ranks as the happiest place on earth.  That’s strange because I always thought it was supposed to be Disneyland.

At any rate, each year the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a United Nations initiative, measures world happiness country by country based on such factors as “income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom and trust, with the latter measured by the absence of corruption in business and government.”  The United Sates is now number 14.

According to SDSN, social well-being is the best gauge of a country’s progress.  John Helliwell, an economist at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the report, told the Associated Press:  “It’s the human things that matter. If the riches make it harder to have frequent and trustworthy relationship between people, is it worth it?  The material can stand in the way of the human.”

To read the World Happiness Report, go to their website.

It seems to me, though, that happiness is a difficult thing to measure.  At least on a personal level.  While happiness means generally the same thing to most folks, each of us can have a slightly different definition.  And, of course, since time immemorial, philosophers and other folk have been weighing in with their take on the meaning of happiness…

Marcus Aurelius said, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

And Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Both of these “definitions” correspond with the Buddhist/Taoist notion of happiness, which is not the absence of suffering, but rather the ability to find joy and tranquility in the midst of suffering.

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher from around the 4th century BCE, believed that happiness or the ultimate satisfaction in life came from doing nothing, that is, the practice of wu-wei (not-doing, non-action):

“I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this.  It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise.  The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong.  And yet doing nothing can determine it.  Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way.  Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace.  Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life.  Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere!  Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction.  So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done.  But who among us can attain this inaction?”

In the United States, the pursuit of happiness is one of humankind’s basic rights.  It’s guaranteed by the Constitution.  But this is not the greatest goal in life.   When we calm our mind and when what we do is in harmony, we do not need to seek happiness, for we realize that it is already all around us.


Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith


The Ox-Blade Incident

Several years ago, Alice Walker, activist and author of the novel The Color Purple, made the following comment in an interview with Democracy Now:

Life is abundant, and life is beautiful. And it’s a good place that we’re all in, you know, on this earth, if we take care of it.”

I’m sure you agree that not only should we take care of our planet, but we should also take care of life itself.

All spiritual traditions teach that life is precious. In Buddhism, human life is called the “precious human rebirth” because the traditional teachings say it is a rare thing to be reborn a human being, and as the Dalai Lama tells us, “[One] has unique possibilities to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth.”

Not everyone is on board with rebirth. Whether you are on the bus or off is incidental to the matter of sustaining life. Chuang Tzu had some thoughts about it in a passage I’ve adapted from some translations:

Human life is limited, but wisdom is limitless. To use the limited to chase what has no limit is dangerous; and to suppose that one really knows can be fatal!

In doing good, avoid fame. In doing bad, avoid disgrace. Find the middle course and use it as your compass. This way you will guard yourself from harm, preserve your life, fulfill your duties to friends and family, and live a full life.

ox_2Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. With his every movement, he sliced in perfect rhythm, and this caused Wen-hui to say, “Your skill amazing.”

Cook Ting put the knife down and said, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw before me whole animal. Now, after three years’ practice, I no longer see the ox at all. Now I am able to work with my mind and not with my eye. Insight and training have been replaced by instinct, which alone guides my movements. I follow the natural structure of the ox and slice in the big grooves. Then I move my blade through the large openings, and follow things as they are.

“A good cook will only change his knife once a year because he cuts, and an ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and it is just as good as it was when it first came from the grindstone. Whenever I come to a place that is tough, I gauge the difficulties, steady my hand, and gently glide the blade. And when I am done, I wipe the knife off with a degree of satisfaction and put it carefully away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to nurture life!”

Unlike some cooks I’ve met, Ting was not a perfectionist, and yet, by following the path of natural action and abiding in a state of detached equanimity, he found a level of perfection. Life is precious and beautiful and it is a process of constant change. So we say that the best way to nurture life is to flow with its natural rhythm, letting things be themselves, letting go.

You can find the Alice Walker interview, along with her poem, “Democratic Womanism” at Democracy Now.


Two Roads and a Fork

We’re deep into the Major League Baseball post-season and I’ve seen some exciting games. It would be more exciting if my beloved Yankees were still playing. For a while I thought my guys might be able to go all the way, but it was not to be, not this year, again.

By the way, on this date in 1923 the NY Yankees beat the New York Giants 4 games to 2 and won their 1st World Series. They’ve won 27 since. In fact, again on this same day but in 1964, the Yanks beat the Cardinals to win 9 of the last 16 World Series. What a team . . .

A few weeks ago, we lost the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who passed away at the age of 90. Besides a legendary ball player, he was also famous for his “Yogisms,” his little sayings that have become part of the American  lexicon, like “Déjà vu all over again” and “You can observe a lot by watching.”

fork-road4bAt first, they seem a bit fractured but sometimes they sound very Zen and Taoist. I think my favorite is “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I don’t believe this is to be confused with the “fork in the road” near the Slauson Cutoff in L.A. (a minor spur of the 405 to Marina Del Rey) that Art Fern, host of the old Tea Time Movie, points out in the photo.

But it does remind me of this story found in the Chuang Tzu:

One day, Tzu-ch’i said to Tzu-yu, “You know, you can wear out your brain trying to make things into one without knowing that they are all the same. I call this ‘three in the morning.’”

“What do you mean by ‘three in the morning’?” Tzu-yu asked.

“When the monkey trainer was handing out nuts, he told the monkeys ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys angry. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ Hearing this, monkeys were happy. Now, they still got the same amount of nuts each day, he just changed the order around, and yet one way made the monkeys upset, the other joyful. “

“I don’t get it.”

“Instead of arguing with the monkeys, the trainer used skill and wisdom to placate them. You see, a wise man will keep everything equal, and harmonize with both right and wrong. I call it walking two roads.”