Zhangzi's (Chuang-Tzu's) Butterfly Dream Parable

A Taoist Allegory of Spiritual Transformation

Butterfly Wing

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Of all the famous Taoist parables attributed to Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) (369 BCE to 286 BCE), few are more famous than the story of the butterfly dream, which serves as an articulation of Taoism's challenge toward definitions of reality vs. illusion. The story has had a substantial impact on later philosophies, both Eastern and Western. 

The story, as translated by Lin Yutang, goes like this:

"Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things."

This short story points to some exciting and much-explored philosophical issues, stemming from the relationship between the waking state and the dream-state, or between illusion and reality:

  • How do we know when we’re dreaming, and when we’re awake?
  • How do we know if what we’re perceiving 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 a waking up to “reality” as opposed to merely waking up into another level of dream?

Robert Allison’s “Chuang-tzu for Spiritual Transformation"

Employing the language of western philosophy, Robert Allison, in "Chuang-tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters" (New York: SUNY Press, 1989), presents a number of possible interpretations of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream parable, and then offers his own, in which he interprets the story as a metaphor for spiritual awakening. In support of this argument, Mr. Allison also presents a less well-known passage from the "Chuang-tzu," known as the Great Sage Dream anecdote.

In this analysis he echoes Advaita Vedanta’s Yoga Vasistha, and it also brings to mind the tradition of Zen koans, as well as Buddhist “valid cognition” reasonings (see below). It also reminds one of the works of Wei Wu Wei who, like Mr. Allison, uses the conceptual tools of western philosophy to present the ideas and insights of the nondual eastern traditions. 

Interpretations of Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream

Mr. Allison begins his exploration of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream anecdote by presenting two frequently used interpretive frameworks:

  1. The ”confusion hypothesis”
  2. The “endless (external) transformation hypothesis”

According to the “confusion hypothesis,” the message of Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly dream anecdote is that we do not really awaken and so we are not sure of anything—in other words, we think we have awakened, but we have not.

According to the “endless (external) transformation hypothesis,” the meaning of the story is that the things of our external world are in a state of continuous transformation, from one form into another, into another, etc.

To Mr. Allison, neither of the above (for various reasons) is satisfactory. Instead, he proposes his “self-transformation hypothesis”:

“The butterfly dream, in my interpretation, is an analogy drawn from our own familiar inner life of what cognitive process is involved in the process of self-transformation. It serves as a key to understanding what the whole of the Chuang-tzu is about by providing an example of a mental transformation or awakening experience with which we are all highly familiar: the case of waking up from a dream… “just like we awaken from a dream, we can mentally awaken to a more real level of awareness.”

Zhuangzi’s Great Sage Dream Anecdote

In other words, Mr. Allison sees Chuang-tzu’s story of the Butterfly Dream as an analogy of the enlightenment experience—as pointing to a change in our level of consciousness, which has important implications for anyone engaged in philosophical exploration:

“The physical act of awakening from a dream is a metaphor for awakening to a higher level of consciousness, which is the level of correct philosophical understanding.”

Allison supports this “self-transformation hypothesis” in large part by citing another passage from the Chuang-tzu, viz. the Great Sage Dream anecdote:

“He who dreams of drinking wine may weep when morning comes; he who dreams of weeping may in the morning go off to hunt. While he is dreaming he does not know it is a dream, and in his dream he may even try to interpret a dream. Only after he wakes does he know it was a dream. And someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream. Yet the stupid believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman—how dense! Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you are dreaming, I am dreaming, too. Words like these will be labeled the Supreme Swindle. Yet, after ten thousand generations, a great sage may appear who will know their meaning, and it will still be as though he appeared with astonishing speed.”

This Great Sage story, argues Mr. Allison, has the power to explain the Butterfly Dream and lends credence to his self-transformation hypothesis: “Once fully awakened, one may distinguish between what is a dream and what is a reality. Before one has fully awakened, such a distinction is not even possible to draw empirically.”

And in a bit more detail:

“Before one raises the question of what is reality and what is illusion, one is in a state of ignorance. In such a state (as in a dream) one would not know what is reality and what is illusion. After a sudden awakening, one is able to see a distinction between the real and the irreal. This constitutes a transformation in outlook. The transformation is a transformation in consciousness from the unaware lack of distinction between reality and fantasy to the aware and definite distinction of being awake. This is what I take to be the message … of the butterfly dream anecdote.”

Buddhist Valid Cognition

What is at stake in this philosophical exploration of a Taoist parable is, in part, what in Buddhism is known as the tenets of Valid Cognition, which addresses the question: What counts as a logically-valid source of knowledge?

Here’s a brief introduction to this vast and intricate field of inquiry:

The Buddhist tradition of Valid Cognition is a form of Jnana Yoga, in which intellectual analysis, in concert with meditation, is used by practitioners to gain certainty about the nature of reality, and to the rest (non-conceptually) within that certainty. The two principal teachers within this tradition are Dharmakirti and Dignaga.

This tradition includes numerous texts and various commentaries. Let's introduce the idea of "seeing nakedly"—which is at least a rough equivalent to Chuang-tzu’s “waking up from the dream"—by way of quoting the following passage taken from a dharma talk given by Kenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, on the topic of valid cognition:

“Naked perception [occurs when we] just perceive the object directly, without any name associated with it, without any description of it ... So when there is perception that is free of names and free of descriptions, what's that like? You have a naked perception, a non-conceptual perception, of a totally unique object. A unique indescribable object is perceived non-conceptually, and this is called direct valid cognition.”

In this context, we can see perhaps how some tenants of early Chinese Taoism evolved into one of the standard principles of Buddhism. 

How to Learn to “See Nakedly”

So what does it mean, then, to do this? First, we need to become aware of our habitual tendency to clump together into one tangled mass what in reality are three distinct processes:

  1. Perceiving an object (via the sense organs, faculties, and consciousnesses);
  2. Assigning a name to that object;
  3. Spinning off into conceptual elaboration about the object, based upon our associational networks.

To see something "nakedly" means to be able to stop, at least momentarily, after step #1, without moving automatically and almost instantaneously into steps #2 and #3. It means to perceive something as if we were seeing it for the first time (which, as it turns out, is indeed the case!) as if we had no name for it, and no past associations involving it.

The Taoist practice of “Aimless Wandering” is a great support for this kind of “seeing nakedly.”

Similarities Between Taoism and Buddhism

If we interpret the Butterfly Dream parable as an allegory that encourages thoughtful individuals to challenge their definitions of illusion and reality, it is a very short step to see the connection to Buddhist philosophy, in which we are encouraged to treat all supposed realities as having the same ephemeral, ever-changing and insubstantial nature as a dream. This belief forms the very basis for the Buddhist ideal of enlightenment. 

It is often said, for example, that Zen is the marriage of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Taoism. Whether or not Buddhism borrowed from Taoism or whether the philosophies shared some common source is unclear, but the similarities are unmistakable. 

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Reninger, Elizabeth. "Zhangzi's (Chuang-Tzu's) Butterfly Dream Parable." Learn Religions, Sep. 5, 2021, learnreligions.com/butterflies-great-sages-and-valid-cognition-3182587. Reninger, Elizabeth. (2021, September 5). Zhangzi's (Chuang-Tzu's) Butterfly Dream Parable. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/butterflies-great-sages-and-valid-cognition-3182587 Reninger, Elizabeth. "Zhangzi's (Chuang-Tzu's) Butterfly Dream Parable." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/butterflies-great-sages-and-valid-cognition-3182587 (accessed March 21, 2023).