Life the Dream: What Chuang Tzu Taught Me

(Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies | Katsushika Hokusai)

(Philosopher Watching a Pair of Butterflies | Katsushika Hokusai)

Am I dreaming I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man?

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

From the works of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi) (c. 370 BCE - 287 BCE), the parable of the butterfly is one of his most notable. Simple in presentation, it holds meaning to any who reads it and contemplates. Yet this brief writing has sparked college courses; whole books unpack its knowledge. One of the principal themes in Christopher Nolan's Inception: Am I awake or am I dreaming I am awake?

Once upon a time, I 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 myself. Soon I awaked, 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 myself and the butterfly there must be a distinction. This is called the transformation of things.
— Chuang Tzu

The beauty of Eastern writing is it does not try to over-explain. It does not think about the audience because unlike the idea of a "writer" in the Western sense, they did not write for an audience. They wrote as a contemplative exercise to clarify their own observations, using parables and analogies. (Much in the same way shorthand notes compress massive essays.)

My Thoughts on The Butterfly Dream

Am I dreaming I am a butterfly or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a man? If dreams are subjective, then everything must be a dream. We interpret reality in the same way we interpret dreams. We can never know for sure because the comparative bar for knowing is in itself subjective — there is no objective.

(Physicists currently ponder the question of whether we are all in a simulated reality. Their conclusion? We can never know because every scientific way to measure reality would itself only be a simulation [e.g., distance would be measured by a simulated telescope] — leaving it unreliable.)

You are dreaming but so am I. So sure of our identity in our sleep, yet awakening awakens uncertainty. Wakefulness is a self-realization of our ignorance, it is the awakening of nothingness. Greek philosopher Socrates said the same:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.


Buddha itself means to "wake." Then enlightenment isn't advanced knowledge, it is the knowledge of how little we knew when we were dreaming. From there we can shed our old selves and our desires. In lay terms: we didn't know any better when we thought that's what we wanted — when we thought we were so important, so smart, and so sure of ourselves. Awareness is the knowledge of not-knowing, of not-all-knowing.

We expect the opposite, that enlightenment or Wakefulness means awakening the "super-genius" lurking within us, which is in effect the want of the ego (the thing which keeps us sleeping). The want to advance our self-interests come to life as a super-genius. This is the same fascination people have with the belief that unlocking the full capacity of the brain will make us gods. The rise of smart drugs and meditation practices for the sole purpose of "hacking" the mind for increased productivity and IQ are symptomatic of this subversion. Yet true Wakefulness is about the humility lurking within us all, the ability to put ourselves aside. Rather than "unleashing the mind," it would be truer to say "restraining the mind," for the mind is a good servant but a poor master. The Eastern framework of thinking known as Taoism is a system that values nothingness.


Another valuable Eastern concept is that of "oneness." You will find that old Asian writing, when translated into English, rather than refer to the audience as "you," there is no reference to an audience — they use the term "one." They write for themselves as much as they write for anyone who may come upon their writing. It is a universal one, speaking to the stars or to a caterpillar. One is collective, an allness, a oneness.

The dichotomy of the man and the butterfly is a false one. Oneness — one is both. Just as there is no yin or yang, it is yin and yang simultaneously. When we wake from sleep, we believe there is a difference since dreaming is subjective and waking life is objective, but that interpretation depends on which we perceive as dreaming and which we suppose is waking. Are you reading this now or are you dreaming you are reading this? According to Chuang Tzu, there is no difference. This realization is part of the transformation into Wakefulness.


The butterfly used to be caterpillar. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly. One could say time buries the caterpillar into its cocoon to die. When it does, the butterfly is born. One could call this death and new life, unrelated to one another. If one possesses perspective, one is simply observing transformation.

Things change, this is a central tenet of many Eastern religions as well as Western sciences. (The popular belief, however, is that things are fixed and disconnected.) Things are continuously transforming: particles of a star can turn into the particles of a rock can turn into the particles of a person can turn into the particles of a worm — until infinitude. Reincarnation is a figurative metaphor but also a literal truth. It is not one or the other, it is both. This is the Way.

In a state of constant flux, our perceptions of classifications are as silly as thinking we are the center of the universe — in an infinite universe, that is infinitely expanding. There is no center is as true as we are all the center. There is no bar to compare. We are either all different or all the same since we are someplace in our infinite transformation. Yet our perception is: "They are the same as me, and you over there, you are the Other, you are different." But if that Other is different, members of our in-group are also different. If my group is the same as me, then there is no Other as they are also the same. The implications for social justice and authentic, empathetic living is clear.

The confusion lies in the transition (transformation) as any change is jarring. Whatever is happening now is what we consider to be the reality. If I am a man now, then my previous existence as a butterfly must have been a dream. But when you are dreaming you are just as sure of your identity and of what is real. If I was a butterfly who went to sleep and is now dreaming I am a man, how would I know? That is just as likely. This isn't literal, this is an analogy of how we conclude reality, and reality is always based on what is now and immediate.

If I took a picture of someone in bed with their eyes open, did they just open their eyes or were they just about to close them? The transition is elusive, there is no knowing. Am I falling asleep and entering a dream or am I waking up and entering reality? Both are false and both are real. There is no dreaming and there is no waking. There is only dreaming and there is only waking.

A phase change in physics is when a solid changes into a liquid or when a liquid turns into a solid. Which is the correct form? (And who decides?) Is a liquid just liquefied solid, or is solid a solidified liquid? Both are true. Ice is frozen water, and water is melted ice. And when it evaporates, it turns into gas (neither solid or liquid). If we accept all-things as subjective-reality (yin-yang), it helps us to live with less worry. To stop judging and live in the present and embrace it for what it is. Knowing what we think we know — this is ego. To know that we don't know — this is Awareness.


Dreaming and waking life are often metaphors for dying and living. Chuang Tzu is positing that there is no difference. Are we the living thinking about death, or are we the dead remembering living? We call death the "big sleep," yet how do we know living is not the dream? How do we know we are not sleeping now? And what we suppose death to be, is just the act of waking up? There is no way to know. All we know for sure is that we exist — this is both a scientific and philosophical truth.

French mathematician René Descartes pondered the same notion, yet he concluded that it was easier to imagine oneself as a ghost without a body than a body without ghost. For a body without a ghost (inner-self) would not be able to imagine anything at all. We get fixated on the physical as reality, as it is outward, we can see it and touch it. But the mechanism that sees and feels is intangible, it is inward, it is what interprets reality. Then, is that not more real?

Am I a human being or a being human? (A butterfly who believes they are human or a human who believes they are a butterfly?) For human is the name of the physical species, but "being" means "inner essence." To make it clearer, are we a "being" wearing the skin of a human, or a human who has an inner being? In our everyday speak we claim both, a human and a being, yet never take the time to recognize what we have been saying. (And don't remember how claiming both came to be. Perhaps this used to be the Way, perhaps we forgot this was a dream...) Inception posed these questions: If I trust only the outer-world of the senses to be real, how do I know my mind isn't just tricking me? The world is however my mind narrates it to be, but what if my mind is an unreliable narrator? This was the "inception," the great dream deception. There is no way to know if we are in one and that is how the movie concluded. There is no other conclusion that would be justified.

The breath of someone we love may leave but the material of their being will exist, and continue to exist. It has transformed and one day it will be a part of something else. It will not stay in a state in which we last knew it to be, since it has transformed — but things change. We change. Why is one right and one wrong? Scientists may say there is no morality of right or wrong in death. Western religious scholars may say death is just a transformation to become closer to the One, or in the case of all religions, communion with universal Oneness. We add rightness or wrongness when fear tints our perceptions. How is this not subjective? How is reality not a dream? Then Wakefulness is the release of fear. To see with eyes unclouded.

(Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, Ming dynasty, mid-16th century, ink on silk | Lu Chih)

(Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, Ming dynasty, mid-16th century, ink on silk | Lu Chih)

This essay itself is a deception. I did not write this to teach you the ways of Chuang Tzu. This is a paraphrasing of the many conversations I had with my mother as she lay dying on a hospital bed. I transcribed it here so that, as my memory fades, I can remember what it was I said to her before she died.

I told her not to be afraid to close her eyes, because when she closes them here, she will be opening them up on the other side. She was always a free spirit, and this was her dreaming of the time she wore human clothes. Why I chose this as our final conversation, I don't know. It's all that occurred to me. But it gave her great comfort.

And that was her great deception. She said, "I'm happy to have a son who can see the world as you do." I thought I was comforting her but she was really comforting me. She wasn't worried about herself, she was worried about me. I gave her comfort by letting her know that I could carry on.

I thought for a moment I was her parent, but that was a dream. She will always be my mom.

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