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.


10 thoughts on “Dreaming Butterflies

  1. interesting…seamlessly combining both taoism and buddhism. Cant quite tell where one stops and the other begins. There are clearly differences, considering the chan patriarchs heavily depended/referred to buddhist literature and teachings.

    “Through inner transformation we bring ourselves closer in harmony with the way of transformation of nature.”

    Is there room for karma in here…if not, how is this different from self-hypnosis (everyone comes with their version of “nature”) …people define “reality”/nature with their own bias.

    “the middle way in which a man dreaming he is a butterfly and a butterfly dreaming he is a man are both possibilities”

    can we go beyond subjective experiences.

    1. Yes, it is difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends. I think Zen in particular was heavily influenced by Taoism, so much so that you could almost call Zen “Taoist Buddhism.” Sure, you can have karma here but in the end whether or not there is karma doesn’t matter because either way we tend to be out of rhythm with nature, both external nature and our inner nature. Seeing nature without bias is the challenge.

      1. “Seeing nature without bias”

        Do you believe this is achievable. Can one’s self-insure become that. How else can one get there without a sustained karmic excercise, which transforms one’s inner nature.

          1. Right, tiger woods will always have something to improve-on, he is not a robot after all. But wouldnt we say TW knows how to play golf…He knows the ins and outs for all practical purposes..As if it’s his 2nd nature…He doesnt feel it as work/effort. No external tutoring , or help, needed. He is self-sufficient? and can handle/explore on his own?

            If we know how to play samsara , that in a way is viewed as an achievement?…Just as TW with golf. There is always more to learn, for sure. But he/she is self-sufficient.

            We can’t get there if we don’t “achieve” that level of ability. Philosophy can only get us so far.

          2. I don’t know… I think these days Tiger definitely golf as work and effort. Maybe that is the crux of his problem. If he could get back to where it was 2nd nature, he might be able to stage a terrific comeback.

            But, you’re right, we have to get philosophy our of our head and feel it from the heart, or feel in a more natural way.

          3. unfortunately for physical games like golf , age/death are it’s properties.

            Skill, or know-how, of samasara is more like a “daily activity skill”…Maybe like speaking a language. Non-returner. End of struggle to speak the language, it has become 2nd nature. It is almost impossible to turn back if one has been doing it every minute for few years. Soon it becomes you, you it. 1st nature.

  2. Great post, David; was listening to a podcast this AM on the book Illuminating Silence: The Practice of Chinese Zen (by Sheng-Yen), who was making the point (in the section I was listening to today) that it is the “discriminating mind” that traps us in the illusion/delusion (dream?)… seems to be the same point of this story… must be my day to hear this lesson!

    Thanks, as always,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.