Monday, July 02, 2007

Chuang Tzu's Butterfly Dream

[Note: While I usually prefer the Pinyin transliteration of Chinese to the Wade-Giles, here I am following the lead of Martin Palmer and using a modified version of Wade-Giles to transliterate Chinese names.]

I just fell back in love with one of my all-time favorite philosophy stories. Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophic school, traces its roots back to three figures: Lao Tzu, Lieh Tzu, and Chuang Tzu (Tzu means "Master," so these names are formal titles, meaning essentially Master Lao, Master Lieh, and Master Chuang). Of these three, only one, Chuang Tzu, can be located in history.

Chuang Tzu was certainly born in the early fourth century BCE, sometime around 370, and probably died somewhere between 311 and 286 BCE. He was a hermit who quite often dressed the part. In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong writes that he "once visited the king of Wei dressed in a worn, patched gown, his shoes tied together with string." But despite is rough appearance and his refusal to conform to societal expectations, he cultivated a reputation as an exceedingly wise person.

Many of his teachings are preserved in The Book of Chuang Tzu, one of the classics of Taoist philosophy. In fact, he may have written much of the material himself. It was compiled and edited during his lifetime, which is exceptionally rare in the ancient world.

My favorite story in The Book of Chuang Tzu is the story of a dream. However, rather than offering my usually commentary on this story, I'm going to try something else. Here I am simply offering the story itself, as translated by Martin Palmer, along with a challenge. What, if anything, do you get out of this story? What do you think it is saying? Why do you think this story has survived for over 2300 years?

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu?

2 comments:

Brian said...

Rather than leave a long, rambling comment, I will prepare a post about this on my own blog this afternoon and link to it here.

Brian said...

Still workin' on my post. I've had a lot of papers to grade, so that explains the delay. It's about halfway written, so expect it sometime soon...