There is a Chinese saying that life is like a dream and a dream is like life. This is illustrated vividly by Zhuangzi with the following story:
‘Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.’
The story probably also sums up much of Zhuangzi’s thought. How do we know when we’re dreaming, and when we’re awake? How do we know if what we perceive is “real” or a mere “illusion” or “fantasy”? Is the “me” of various dream-characters the same as or different from the “me” of my waking world? How do I know, when I experience something I call “waking up” that it is actually a waking up to “reality” as opposed to simply waking up into another level of dream?
It is interesting to note that he used butterfly as the thing in his dream. The butterfly is a symbol of transformation; it follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower; its actions are spontaneous and free. Thus it doesn’t wear itself out fighting the forces of nature.
Once fully awakened, if one can tell, one may distinguish between what is a dream and what is reality. Before one has fully awakened, such a distinction is not even possible to draw empirically.
Zhuangzi, often known as Chuang Chou, Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou, was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States period, a period corresponding to the summit of Chinese philosophy, the Hundred Schools of Thought.
In general, Zhuangzi’s philosophy is skeptical, arguing that life is limited and knowledge to be gained is unlimited. To use the limited to pursue the unlimited, he said, was foolish. Our language and cognition in general presuppose a dao to which each of us is committed by our separate past—our paths. Consequently, we should be aware that our most carefully considered conclusions might seem misguided had we experienced a different past. Zhuangzi argues that in addition to experience, our natural dispositions are combined with acquired ones—including dispositions to use names of things, to approve/disapprove based on those names and to act in accordance to the embodied standards. Thinking about and choosing our next step down our dao or path is conditioned by this unique set of natural acquisitions.
Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.
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