It was a cool evening in ancient China. Chuang Zi's friend went looking for him at the local inn. He found Chuang Zi sitting at a table, sipping his drink in a contemplative mood.
"There you are!" Chuang Zi'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 Zi, "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 Zi. "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 Zi. I was simply the butterfly and nothing else."
"I've had dreams of flying myself, but never as a butterly," Chuang Zi's friend said. "This dream sounds like a wonderful experience."
"It was, but like all things, it had to end sooner or later. Gradually, I woke up and realized that I was Chuang Zi 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 Zi who had a dream of being a butterfly. What if I am a butterfly who, at this very moment, is dreaming of being Chuang Zi?"
"Well, I can tell you that you are actually Chuang Zi, not a butterfly."
Chuang Zi 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 Zi 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 Zi, this is the one that best captures his essence. There is so much agreement on this that the butterfly has come to represent Chuang Zi 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 imporant?
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 Zi 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 Zi 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 Zi 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 Zi 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 Zi'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 nothingness.
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 Zi'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 Zi 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 Zi 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 Zi chose the butterfly with careful deliberation. It is also quite obvious now why the butterfly has come to represent Chuang Zi in Chinese culture. Every piece of the puzzle fits together so well that it simply cannot be any other way.
Is Chuang Zi 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 Zi 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!