Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly Dream: A Chinese Parable That Questions Whether We Can Know Anything to Be Real

Chuang Tzu, or more commonly Zhuangzi, is the name of a great Chinese philosopher who lived around the fourth century BCE in the Meng province, present-day Henan.

Chuang Tzu is also a name of a work considered to be one of the foundational texts of Taoism. Central to it is the belief that only by understanding the Tao (the Way of Nature) and dwelling in its unity can man achieve true happiness and freedom, in both life and death.

Out of the first seven inner chapters of the Chuang Tzu, the most famous one is the “Discussion on Making All Things Equal” because it includes the butterfly dream — a parable which questions whether we can know anything to be real.

Chrysanthemums and a Butterfly by Hiroshige.

Chuang Tzu writes:

Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Here’s an audiobook which includes the butterfly dream as well a small selection of other stories from the Chuang Tzu.

translated by Burton Watson

5:55 “The perfect man has no self, the holy man has no merit, the sage has no fame.”
9:44 Huizi and Zhuangzi, 1st dialogue
13:57 The piping of heaven
18:36 Questioning Distinctions
21:06 This and That
32:32 Wang Ni: “Owls and crows crave mice”
34:53 Reckless words to listen to recklessly
40:20 The Butterfly Dream
41:37 Butcher Ting
46:06 Confucius and Yan Hui, dialogue
55:16 Zigao, Duke of She and Confucius, dialogue
1:03:47 Carpenter Shi and the useless tree
1:09:23 The madman of Chu
1:10:42 Sign of virtue complete
1:18:49 Ai Taituo, The ugly man of Hue
1:23:48 If virtue is preeminent…
1:25:30 Huizi and Zhuangzi, 2nd dialogue
1:27:45 The true man of ancient times
1:33:50 Hiding the world within the world
1:37:00 The woman crookback
1:39:42 “What should I have to resent?”
1:51:56 “I am improving!”
1:53:15 Father? Mother? Heaven? Man?
1:56:35 How to rule the world
1:58:55 The shaman
2:03:58 The Death of Hundun

Complement the butterfly dream from Chuang Tzu with Jack Kerouac who famously said, “The world is nothing but a dream.”

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