A butterfly dreams of Zhuangzi

“I think you know this story.

“Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”[1]

Things are transforming, changing. Not only in this kind of story, but when we see the emptiness of our lives, when I think of what I did when I was young— it was like a dream. I could do much hard work. I could sit much more than I can sit now. Now, I can’t sit on the floor. I have to sit on a chair. I started to sit when I was nineteen, and until I became sixty, I could sit without much pain. Sitting was most comfortable posture and I could sit sesshin (retreat) without much pain. But after I became sixty, the pain in my knees became a problem. When I became sixty-three, I decided to sit on a chair because sitting on the floor with knee pain was like torture. When I think of that forty years, when I could sit without pain— that was like a dream. Now I think I have to sit on the chair, and I think this is like a dream. Which is reality? It’s really difficult to tell.

It depends on my self-image, I think. If I think I am a zazen practitioner and sitting is the most important thing, then Shohaku is a person who sits in a proper posture, a certain posture described in our case by Dōgen in Fukanzazengi. That is the real thing. When I cannot sit in that way, that is not the real thing. That is one of the ways in which I think. Or I can think in the opposite way: this five skandhas which cannot sit in the cross-legged psoture is the real thing, and the person whose name was Shohaku who sits on the floor is already gone. That was like a dream. This is reality.

Which is the real, correct way of thinking?

When we think in this way, the boundary between dreaming and reality is not so clear.[2]

Listen to the full track:

— • —

Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

Notes:
[1] translation by Burton Watson from Zhuangzi: Basic Writings (3rd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. (2003).

[2] This is an edited extract from the new recording, “Expounding a Dream within a Dream,” available for sale on the Dōgen Institute’s bandcamp site. Please note that other free tracks from this album will automatically play after this lecture.

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