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Butterflies, Great Sages & Valid Cognition

Zhuangzi For Spiritual Transformation


Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream

The most well-known of Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) parables is the Butterfly Dream anecdote, which (in translation by Lin Yutang) goes like this:

"Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."

This short story points to a number of interesting and much-explored philosophical issues, stemming from the relationship between the waking-state and the dream-state, and/or between illusion and reality: How do we know when we’re dreaming, and when we’re awake? How do we know if what we’re perceiving is “real” or a mere “illusion” or “fantasy”? Is the “me” of various dream-characters the same as or different from the “me” of my waking world? How do I know, when I experience something I call “waking up” that it is actually a waking up to “reality” as opposed to simply waking up into another level of dream?

Robert Allison’s “Chuang-tzu for Spiritual Transformation"

Employing the language of western philosophy, Robert Allison – in Chuang-tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters (New York: SUNY Press, 1989) – presents a number of possible interpretations of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream anecdote, and then offers his own – which takes the story to be a metaphor for spiritual awakening. In support of this argument, Mr. Allison also presents a less well-known passage from the Chuang-tzu, known as the Great Sage Dream anecdote.

To my ear, this analysis resonates deeply with Advaita Vedanta’s Yoga Vasistha, and brings to mind also the tradition of Zen koans as well as Buddhist “valid cognition” reasonings (see below). It also reminded me very much of the work of Wei Wu Wei who, like Mr. Allison, uses the conceptual tools of western philosophy to present the ideas and insights of the nondual eastern traditions. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but – in my estimation – well worth the effort.

Different Interpretations Of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream

Mr. Allison begins his exploration of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream anecdote by presenting two frequently used interpretive frameworks – ways of making sense of the story: (1) the ”confusion hypothesis” and (2) the “endless (external) transformation hypothesis.”

According to the “confusion hypothesis,” the message of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly dream anecdote is that we do not really awaken and so we are not actually sure of anything, i.e. we think we have awakened but really we have not.

According to the “endless (external) transformation hypothesis,” the meaning of the story is that the things of our external world are in a state of continuous transformation, from one form into another, into another, etc.

To Mr. Allison, neither of the above (for various reasons, which you can read about) is satisfactory. Instead, he proposes his “self-transformation hypothesis”:

“The butterfly dream, in my interpretation, is an analogy drawn from our own familiar inner life of what cognitive process is involved in the process of self-transformation. It serves as a key to understanding what the whole of the Chuang-tzu is about by providing an example of a mental transformation or awakening experience with which we are all highly familiar: the case of waking up from a dream.” … “Just like we awaken from a dream, we can mentally awaken to a more real level of awareness.”

Zhuangzi’s Great Sage Dream Anecdote

In other words, Mr. Allison sees Chuang-tzu’s story of the Butterfly Dream as an analogy of the Enlightenment experience – as pointing to a change in our level of consciousness, which – incidentally – has important implications for anyone engaged in philosophical exploration: “The physical act of awakening from a dream is a metaphor for awakening to a higher level of consciousness, which is the level of correct philosophical understanding.” Allison supports this “self-transformation hypothesis” in large part by citing another passage from the Chuang-tzu, viz. the Great Sage Dream anecdote:

“He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman – how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too. Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle. Yet, after ten thousand generations, a great sage may appear who will know their meaning, and it will still be as though he appeared with astonishing speed.”

This Great Sage story, argues Mr. Allison, has the power of explaining the Butterfly Dream (though not vice versa) and lends credence to his self-transformation hypothesis: “Once fully awakened, one may distinguish between what is a dream and what is reality. Before one has fully awakened, such a distinction is not even possible to draw empirically.”

And in a bit more detail: “Before one raises the question of what is reality and what is illusion, one is in a state of ignorance. In such a state (as in a dream) one would not know what is reality and what is illusion. After a sudden awakening, one is able to see a distinction between the real and the irreal. This constitutes a transformation in outlook. The transformation is a transformation in consciousness from the unaware lack of distinction between reality and fantasy to the aware and definite distinction of being awake. This is what I take to be the message … of the butterfly dream anecdote.”

Page two: "Seeing Nakedly" to wake from the dream ...

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