And Butterflies are Free to Fly…

I Dreamed I Was A Butterfly by Alice McMahon White

Chuang Tzu’s Taoism is perhaps the most profound in the Taoist Treasury; although he would be the first to state that his positionless-teaching was no form of “ism”, but rather simply that which radiated a “boundless vitality” that is the very heart of the imageless-Tao. From the onset of this series one needs to be aware that the Unborn is synonymous with the Tao and henceforth will be used to convey That which is Imageless and Unbound. As a man of the Unborn he lived unabatedly in the Dharmadhatu—the Pure Light Realm of Deathless Suchness, As It Is, with no obstructions of the born and created, or as the Chuang Tzuian spirit would say, “Or is not Is, when Is is-not”, just to provide a pliable-variable bearing no-fixed position. In all that he was about it was not “he” that acted, but rather the spontaneous breath of the Unborn Spirit. As the late sinologist Angus Graham wrote, “Zhuang Zhou distrusted official rules, standardized categories, established opposites, and the dictates of language, instead inspiring people to see things from different perspectives, illuminating the flow of cosmic spontaneity, and allowing heaven to work through him in all his thoughts and actions (Graham 1989, 191).” How, then, is a man of the Unborn to act in the world? Not through any pre-ordained impetus, but through the actionless (Wu-Wei) spontaneity that is never independent of the Unborn Itself. Perhaps a good way of illustrating this is through one of the most familiar anecdotes in the Zhuangzi (this italicization will be used when the “text” is indicated, as opposed to the person), Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly:

The great Taoist Chuang Tzu one day awoke from sleep after dreaming that he was a butterfly. Later on, though, he was deeply absorbed and troubled with the thought, “Hmm, I wonder…was it really “I who was dreaming” that I was that butterfly; or am I really now that “sleeping butterfly” dreaming that I am now this man?”

As stated in a previous blog series (Lankavatarian Book of the Dead), this is an interesting koan-like predicament; there have been traditions that say one of his disciples came along and threw a bucket of cold water on his head and he suddenly came to the realization that “I have to be Chuang Tzu, because if I truly am a butterfly, that cold water would have killed me!” That cold-water in the face satori-like moment is a great image of sudden-awakening from the mad dream of samsara, yet (in true Chuang-Tzuian spirit-style) when ol’ Chuang-Tzu dreams again that the butterfly is now waterproof—out goes the satori with the bathwater! Of course, the true resolve of the matter is the self-realization that there is no Chuang Tzu and no butterfly—for both are samsaric illusions of the dreaming-skandhic-mind—where both waking in the morning in the realm of samsara is the same as waking in the realm of the samsaric dream. On another level, though, the metaphor of the butterfly can signify a transcendent-transformation, or a real metamorphosis from the chrysalis-stage of an ordinary mortal to the colorful and majestic stature of a Buddha. In any event, a change is occurring, whereby something old and inadequate gives way to something new and Transcendent. This is no cyclic-change—the butterfly does not turn back into a caterpillar—but a final and Dharmakayic-change, as the Buddha does not revert to any inadequate form. As a man of the Unborn, Chaung-Tzu truly shed the last skin of his former chrysalis-self. From Robert E. Allinson:

The change that is being betokened is a philosophical change, a total change, a metamorphosis. It is a complete change in being, a total change of identities. The change is from the ordinary and lowly and earth-bound to the extraordinary and transcendent, from the ugly to the very personification of beauty. The change is an internal one and takes place in the very act of shedding one’s skin, one’s old identity; and the change, when it happens, takes place all in the course of a single day. Finally, once the change is made there is a change in attitude as well, and it is this that is truly most important. The change in attitude is one which is connected to the ideas of freedom, carefreeness, and playfulness. The transformation is the necessary condition for the emergence of these values; these values are the trademarks of the fact that a transformation has taken place. We may say that these values are the criteria that enable us to recognize the transformed or the enlightened human individual. The enlightened human being will be free and will be free from cares. The freedom from cares is in fact the mark of the achievement of true freedom. And freedom from cares is manifested in a certain spirit of playfulness…(Robert E. Allinson, Chuang-Tzu for Spiritual Transformation: An Analysis of the Inner Chapters, pg.77)

For the most part this series will attempt to capture that “playful” character of Chuang-Tzu, for it is the very playfulness-side of the Unborn Itself, something that the unorthodox Zen Master, Tòsui, would extol as “oneness with the principle of cosmic play” (yugyòzanmai).

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