The Dao of Dying: Zhuangzi Dreams of Being a Butterfly

After Lao-tsi’s Dao Teh Ching, perhaps the most important Daoist text is the Zhuangzi.

It is mythic, poetic and satiric.

And as for its author?

Well, his name just happened to be:

Zhuangzi.

*

Not much can be said about the fourth century BCE philosopher, except an entry in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (94 BCE):

Chuang-Tze had made himself well acquainted with all the literature of his time, but preferred the views of Lao-Tze; and ranked himself among his followers, so that of the more than ten myriads of characters contained in his published writings the greater part are occupied with metaphorical illustrations of Lao’s doctrines…

But Chuang was an admirable writer and skillful composer…The ablest scholars of his day could not escape his satire nor reply to it, while he allowed and enjoyed himself with his sparkling, dashing style; and thus it was that the greatest men, even kings and princes, could not use him for their purposes.

King Wei of Chu, having heard of the ability of Chuang Chau, sent messengers with large gifts to bring him to his court, and promising also that he would make him his chief minister.

Chuang-Tze, however, only laughed and said to them,

“A thousand ounces of silver are a great gain to me; and to be a high noble and minister is a most honorable position.

But have you not seen the victim-ox for the border sacrifice?

It is carefully fed for several years, and robed with rich embroidery that it may be fit to enter the Grand Temple. When the time comes for it to do so, it would prefer to be a little pig, but it can not get to be so.

Go away quickly, and do not soil me with your presence.

I had rather amuse and enjoy myself in the midst of a filthy ditch than be subject to the rules and restrictions in the court of a sovereign. I have determined never to take office, but prefer the enjoyment of my own free will.

That is about as Daoist as it gets.

Here, then, are some selected poems from the Zhuangzi:

Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly

Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know that he was Zhuang Zhou.

Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.

Zhuangzi, chapter 2 (Watson translation)

The Death of Wonton

The emperor of the Southern Seas was Lickety, the emperor of the Northern Sea was Split, and the emperor of the Center was Wonton. Lickety and Split often met each other in the land of Wonton, and Wonton treated them very well. Wanting to repay Wonton’s kindness, Lickety and Split said, “All people have seven holes for seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing. Wonton alone lacks them. Let’s try boring some holes for him.” So every day they bored one hole [in him], and on the seventh day Wonton died.

Zhuangzi, chapter 7 (Mair translation)

Drumming on a Tub and Singing

Zhuangzi’s wife died. When Huizi went to convey his condolences, he found Zhuangzi sitting with his legs sprawled out, pounding on a tub and singing. “You lived with her, she brought up your children and grew old,” said Huizi. “It should be enough simply not to weep at her death. But pounding on a tub and singing—this is going too far, isn’t it?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re wrong. When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead. It’s just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.”

“Now she’s going to lie down peacefully in a vast room. If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don’t understand anything about fate. So I stopped.”

— Zhuangzi, chapter 18 (Watson translation)

A few lines deserve repetition:

In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery
a change took place
and she had a spirit.

Another change
and she had a body.

Another change and she was born.
Now there’s been another change and she’s dead.

…just like the progression of the four seasons,
spring, summer, fall, winter.

Zhuangzi’s Death

When Master Zhuang was about to die, his disciples wanted to give him a lavish funeral. Master Zhuang said:

“I take heaven and earth as my inner and outer coffins,

the sun and moon as my pair of jade disks,

the stars and constellations as my pearls and beads,

the ten thousand things as my funerary gifts.

With my burial complete, how is there anything left unprepared?

What shall be added to it?”

The disciples said: “We are afraid that the crows and kites will eat you, Master!”

Master Zhuang said:

“Above ground I’d be eaten by crows and kites,

below ground I’d be eaten by mole crickets and ants.

You rob the one and give to the other—how skewed would that be?”

— Zhuangzi, chapter 32 (Kern translation)

*

Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream
Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, by 18th century Japanese painter Ike no Taiga

What’s the take-away?

Another change happens, and then we are born.

Yet another change happens, and then we are dead.

…just like the progression of the four seasons,

spring,

summer,

fall,

winter.

In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery

a change takes place

and we are

spirit

Butterflies, dreaming…

Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream 2
The Butterfly Dream, by Chinese painter Lu Zhi (c. 1550)

 

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