It was a cool evening in ancient China. Chuang
Tzu's friend went looking for him at the local inn. He found Chuang Tzu
sitting at a table, sipping his drink in a contemplative mood.
"There you are!" Chuang Tzu's friend greeted
him. "I thought by now you would be telling everybody another one of
your stories. Why so quiet?"
"There is a question on my mind," said Chuang
Tzu, "a question about existence."
"I see. Would you like me to leave you alone to
"No, let me share it with you. Perhaps you can
provide me with your perspective."
"My perspective is of little value, but I would
be glad to listen." He pulled up a chair.
"I was out for a stroll late in the afternoon,"
said Chuang Tzu. "I went to one of my favorite spots under a tree. I sat
there, thinking about the meaning of life. It was so warm and pleasant
that I soon relaxed, dozed off, and drifted into a dream. In my dream, I
found myself flying up above the field. I looked behind me and saw that
I had wings. They were large and beautiful, and they fluttered rapidly.
I had turned into a butterfly! It was such a feeling of freedom and joy,
to be so carefree and fly around so lightly in any way I wished.
Everything in this dream felt absolutely real in every way. Before long,
I forgot that I was ever Chuang Tzu. I was simply the butterfly and
"I've had dreams of flying myself, but never as
a butterly," Chuang Tzu's friend said. "This dream sounds like a
"It was, but like all things, it had to end
sooner or later. Gradually, I woke up and realized that I was Chuang Tzu
after all. This is what puzzles me."
"What is so puzzling about it? You had a nice
dream, that's all there is to it."
"What if I am dreaming right now? This
conversation I am having with you seems real in every way, but so did my
dream. I thought I was Chuang Tzu who had a dream of being a butterfly.
What if I am a butterfly who, at this very moment, is dreaming of being
"Well, I can tell you that you are actually
Chuang Tzu, not a butterfly."
Chuang Tzu smiled: "You may simply be part of my
dream, no more or less real than anything else. Thus, there is nothing
you can do to help me identify the distinction between Chuang Tzu and
the butterfly. This, my friend, is the essential question about the
transformation of existence."
Many philosophers and students of the Tao feel
that of all the stories ever told by Chuang Tzu, this is the one that
best captures his essence. There is so much agreement on this that the
butterfly has come to represent Chuang Tzu in Chinese culture. But what
is so special about this story? It seems rather short and simple, so why
do people consider it to be so imporant?
One thing that sages have observed about the world
is that many people talk too much but convey little that is meaningful.
The Tao seems to be the opposite in that it says nothing and yet
expresses everything. The sages occupy a position between the two in
that they speak concisely but convey a world of wisdom. This
characteristic applies to Chuang Tzu and this story as well - it may not
seem to say much, and yet embedded within it are four important lessons
for us to ponder.
First Lesson: Oneness
By connecting himself with the butterfly, Chuang
Tzu is pointing out that all living things are united by the life force
within them. The drive to survive and thrive in us is the very same
drive that also exists in everything from the largest creatures to the
smallest insects. When we recognize this, we can begin to see ourselves
as part of nature rather than apart from nature.
Chuang Tzu has chosen the butterfly deliberately to
emphasize this point. In terms of appearance, the butterfly seems as
different from a human being as anything can be. Nevertheless, at a
fundamental level it is exactly like us - a manifestation of life, and
therefore of the Tao, in the material world.
If we can say that about a butterfly, then we can
say that about anything. Therefore, one of the most basic truths in the
world is that all are one.
Second Lesson: Life is Like a Dream
Chuang Tzu also points out in this story that a
dream can seem every bit as real as our waking existence. All the sights
and sounds, feelings and emotions in the dream can be just as vivid and
intense as our experience in reality.
This lesson is an exercise in detachment in two
areas of life: emotional obsessions and material obsessions. The key to
this lesson is the realization that if we can see how dreams can seem
completely real, then we can also see how reality can be just like a
We can become emotionally obsessive when we
interact with others. Sometimes people say positive things about us and
we grasp onto their compliments and approval; sometimes they say
negative things instead and we cling to the destructive feelings of
taking offense or being attacked.
Let us use the negative side as an example. Suppose
someone has said something that you find extremely hurtful and
insulting, and you become angry. You wish to regain your tranquility,
but your anger makes it impossible. What to do?
Step one: recall to mind Chuang Tzu's
equivalence between dream-state and reality. If you experience the
insult in a dream, you would feel just as hurt, offended and angry.
Step two: realize that you already have a
natural ability to deal with it. If the event occurred in a dream, you
would simply shrug it off upon awakening. It's only a dream;
everything's okay. We have all done this before. We are all experts in
dealing with bad dreams.
Step three: apply this natural ability to
deal with your negative emotions. Although the event has actually
occurred and isn't a dream, your emotional reactions to it are, again,
exactly identical. This basic equivalence gives you the leverage to
manage your rage. Handle the negativity as if it is the result from a
nightmare, and reflect on how in some ways this is literally true. Soon
you'll discover letting the anger go is not so impossible after all.
Third Lesson: Awakening Awareness
Becoming fully awake is a powerful metaphor in
spiritual cultivation. The word "buddha" literally means someone who has
become fully awakened. Compared to this true state of wakefulness, our
everyday consciousness resembles sleep, and everything we consider real
in life turns out to have no more reality than a dream that fades into
This may be difficult to understand. After all, at
this very moment you probably feel very much awake. Why would anyone say
you are asleep when you know you aren't?
The truth is that almost everyone operates at a low
level of awareness most of the time. Consider the last time you locked a
door, walked away, and then had to go back to double-check because you
couldn't be sure you actually locked it. Or, think of the last time you
walked into a room and couldn't remember why you went in there. Were you
looking for something? If so, what was it? Chances are you had to
retrace your steps just to reconnect with your original intent.
If you've ever had experiences similar to the
above, then you already understand Chuang Tzu's point. As we go through
the motions in day-to-day existence, we seem to be sleepwalking most of
the time. Once in a while we have a moment of clarity, like a sleeper
awakening just enough to check the alarm clock, and then we go right
back into slumber.
How can we become more fully awake? This is
something that requires persistent effort. Tao cultivators who focus on
this aspect of life would consistently practice being present. Through
diligent repetition, they develop the habit to always ask themselves
"What exactly am I doing right now?" and "What exactly is going on
around me right now?" People who do this invariably make surprising
discoveries. They catch themselves doing things that make little sense,
or they suddenly become aware of something significant and obvious that
somehow eluded their notice before. The more they practice this, the
better they get at it, and being in the moment becomes a more natural
and much more frequent occurrence.
Fourth Lesson: Transformation
The last lesson from Chuang Tzu is also the most
important. The butterfly in the story is crucial, because it represents
joyous freedom - a liberating state of spirituality where one transcends
fears, just like the butterfly flying free of the limitations imposed by
gravity. A Tao cultivator who achieves this freedom becomes an unbounded
individual, not held back by emotional or material attachments that tie
most people down.
The transformation that Chuang Tzu speaks of in
this story, in conjunction with the butterfly, form a powerful imagery
that represents the complete process of Tao cultivation. We start out
making slow progress, learning one lesson after another, just like the
caterpillar crawling slowly, eating its way through leaves.
After sufficient accumulation of knowledge over a
period of time, the mind begins processing the information to extract
wisdom for the soul. This is a time of meditation, reflection and
quietude, much like the fully grown caterpillar going into the chrysalis
Then, the magical metamorphosis begins. Miniature
wings, almost imperceptible, expand rapidly to become much larger. A
spectacular transformation takes place, and the stunning creature that
emerges from the chrysalis bears no resemblance to its former self. The
child has become the adult.
In the same way, someone who goes through the
metamorphosis of the Tao has become a new person. The Tao cultivator has
transformed into a sage. The wings of spirituality have expanded to
become much larger, much more colorful and beautiful.
Now we can see even more clearly that Chuang Tzu
chose the butterfly with careful deliberation. It is also quite obvious
now why the butterfly has come to represent Chuang Tzu in Chinese
culture. Every piece of the puzzle fits together so well that it simply
cannot be any other way.
Is Chuang Tzu telling us with this story that we
all have the potential to turn into the butterfly?
Yes, but not without going through the larval and
pupal stages. To jump directly into the butterfly stage can only be a
dream that soon comes to an end. If you encounter people who claim to be
enlightened, be especially cautious, because in all likelihood they are
merely caterpillars no different from you and me. They may be convinced
they are the butterfly, but that’s because they are dreaming.
What Chuang Tzu has given us
is a glimpse of what we can achieve through Tao cultivation. If we have
patience, diligence and faith as we seek and consume nutritious leaves,
then the day will come when we go into the chrysalis and eventually
emerge from it. That is when we will know... that the joyous freedom of
the butterfly is no longer a dream!
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