Life is just like a dream. Once my father when he was about 70 years old said to me: “It was like yesterday that he was a boy.” Many years ago I dreamt that I was flying slowly and when I looked down, I saw many holy men praying facing Heaven. One of them could see me and he was dressed in White. What a beautiful dream!


Tao Living

The Dream of the Butterfly

by Derek Lin

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 your thoughts?"


"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 nothing else."


"I've had dreams of flying myself, but never as a butterfly,"
Chuang Tzu's friend said. "This dream sounds like a wonderful


"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 Chuang Tzu?"

"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 important?

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 dream.


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 stage.


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!