Reflections on Butterfly Dreaming: an exercise in Zhuangzian scepticism


Waking from a fading dream Zhuang Zhou asks, but who am I? The question arose out of panic when he, momentarily, held two
identities within; a fluttering butterfly and a waking man. Of course once the
question was asked Zhou was put at ease. Obviously, he thinks, I am this man who
was dreaming about being a butterfly, but then he becomes unsure. Wasn’t I as
certain then, just a moment ago, that I was free and fluttering as I am now
certain that I am thinking and earthbound? Perhaps I am that butterfly
who is now dreaming that it is this man? What is the distinction between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly (for there must be some distinction)? If I am this man,
reasons Zhou, then that butterfly was not me.
I cannot from here, which is the perspective of the thinking man, accept
the alternative. Yet surely I was that butterfly! Or rather, the experience of
being a butterfly was real and real in the same sense as the experience of
being a man is real; who thinks and knows he thinks. Nonetheless I still insist on
pointing to those experiences where I think and act from the perspective of
this man and saying “this is me” while pointing to those experiences which lack
this perspective and saying “that is not me”. However isn’t the fact that I can do
this demonstration enough that I am this man? As a thinking being I can think that
I was dreaming about being a butterfly but while being a butterfly I couldn’t
think about dreaming of being a man. So I must be this which can make sense of,
absorb and hence deny the other. I am this man and not that butterfly. But do I
really know I am this man? Perhaps death is a Great Awakening and this experience
of life will be as a dream from the perspective of death.
Or perhaps death is a transformation into rat livers and cicada wings but
then where is Zhuang Zhou? If I am that which ultimately subsumes everything
else then I am led to the possibility that I am nothing. Though I must assume I am this man or else how can one be in the world? All the tasks I perform are
performed by this identity I called Zhou. Perhaps I’m not thinking clearly when I
say this. How can I consider myself separate from the tasks I perform? If
there is something of myself which is separable from the tasks I perform it is
certainly not some part that I can think of,
since thinking is a task I perform. When I say I think, how do I know there is
something separate from the thinking? That is, that there is something that
does the thinking. Then again why can I speak of it so easily? Don’t I say that
this mind directs the hundred joints, nine openings and six organs that
function as my body? Then again does the body follow the mind or does the mind
for the body? Is there really any relation? Does the shadow rely on the
object? How would I know? In that things are done and ways followed there seems
to be a True Lord (some guiding principle), then why is it I cannot find him? Is
there only a myriad of self-subsisting entities which spontaneously unfold,
following their own necessity? Or is there a single unity? If I take the
perspective of the latter then I am beckoned outward to recognise all things
as one. If I take the former perspective then I’m encouraged inward to discover
my own spontaneous nature. Or is this too harsh or metaphysic, do things not meld
and interrelate? What can one do but travel through many perspectives, not
remain attached to a particular sliver on reality through stubbornness, and settle
attention like mist over water upon vast and subtle transformations.
Still, just as mist and water are the same substance we never really rise
above worldly care, each perspective presents us with its own demands and
perplexities. Now, however Zhuang Zhou is returned by
some necessity to be this man and from this perspective rises to return home.
Yet who now is this man? He is that which now returns home. To return to a place
while one wanders is to gain a sense of the place of place. Clarity is perhaps
what is gained by sceptical exercises, as in, I’m going for a wander to clear my
head, that is, to more clearly see my point of view. Yet we can also say this
wandering doesn’t aim at the completion of anything and is in itself useless. To
wander is to an extent to loosen control, how useful means-ends calculations that
aim at the completion of things are thrown into confusion or absurdity. Yet
we must not fail to see the uselessness of the purely useful. To see only from a
single perspective is to not clearly grasp what it is to have a perspective.
If someone lacks a sense of the place of place or have some perspective on
perspective then they will be impotently swept along by the inherent logic of
their own narrow vision.

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