Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream

Zhuangzi once dreamt that he had turned into a butterfly, lightly floating in the air, relaxed and content, and completely oblivious to who he really was. Once he woke up, and was both amazed and doubtful to find himself to really be Zhuangzi. Contemplating the matter, he wondered whether he was, in fact, a man dreaming he had become a butterfly or a butterfly who had dreamt he had become a man.

Analysis: This story is typically called “Zhuangzi Dreams of a Butterfly”. To most, when a person is awake, everything they see or feel is reality, and dreams are hallucinations or not a part of reality. Yet Zhuangzi thought otherwise. Although wakefulness is one state of mind, dreaming is another state of mind. Neither are the same. Zhuangzi is Zhuangzi, the butterfly is the butterfly, and again, both of those are not the same either. But according to Zhuangzi, both were merely one type of phenomena, what in Taoism might be thought of as kind of form or pattern, a single stage and that’s all.

Original English translation by Patrick Nowlin, copyright 2012.