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The Dream of a Butterfly
Chuang-tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, carefree, unaware of a Chuang-tzu. Then he woke up, and there he was: Chuang-tzu, beyond a doubt. But was he Chuang-tzu who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming that he was Chuang-tzu? There must be some difference between Chuang-tzu and a butterfly! This is called "the transformation of things."
The most famous dream in human history. You may feel that, as with Zeno's paradoxes, there is something specious going on here, if only you could put your finger on it. But the more closely you examine the story, the more penetrating Chuang-tzu's question becomes. He's the anti-serpent in the garden, tempting you to take one little bite from the Tree of Life. He's Alice's Caterpillar, puffing on his hookah and asking, "Who are you?" In fact, with time running backward as in a Feynman diagram, Alice's Caterpillar could well have metamorphosed into Chuang-tzu's butterfly, just to prove a point.
You may be recalling that psychē the Greek word for "soul," can also mean "butterfly." But let's leave the Greeks out of this. Chuang-tzu is definitely Chinese, he thinks. His butterfly is not a metamorphosis, not a metaphor; it's just a butterfly. Just? How can we know what depths of joy lie hidden within that pinpoint of a brain? The whole world contained in a garden, in a single flower! All time contained in a summer's day, and life one all-embracing multiorgasmic fragrance!
And who knows what a butterfly might dream of? Of an ancient Chinese philosopher, perhaps, or of a nineteenth-century Oxford don who was enchanted by little girls. This particular butterfly woke up as Chuang- tzu—or was it Chuang-tzu who woke up as himself? "There he was again, beyond a doubt." Beyond a doubt? Ha!
Things change before our very eyes, whether our eyes are open or shut. A butterfly becomes a man, a man becomes a question mark, a question mark becomes a winged creature, carefree, doing whatever it likes. Thus identity melts away, and we are left with something more valuable: a self—a non-self—that includes it all.
Cutting Up an Ox
Prince Wen-hui's cook, Ting, was cutting up an ox. Every touch of his hand, every ripple of his shoulders, every step of his feet, every thrust of his knees, every cut of his knife, was in perfect harmony, like the dance of the Mulberry Grove, like the chords of the Lynx Head music.
"Well done!" said the prince. "How did you gain such skill?"
Putting down his knife, Ting said, "I follow the Tao, Your Highness, which goes beyond all skills. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox. After three years, I had learned to look beyond the ox. Nowadays I see with my whole being, not with my eyes. I sense the natural lines, and my knife slides through by itself, never touching a joint, much less a bone.
"A good cook changes knives once a year: he cuts. An ordinary cook changes knives once a month: he hacks. This knife of mine has lasted for nineteen years; it has cut up thousands of oxen, but its blade is as sharp as if it were new. Between the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Having no thickness, it slips right through; there's more than enough room for it. And when I come to a difficult part, I slow down, I focus my attention, I barely move, the knife finds its way, until suddenly the flesh falls apart on its own. I stand there and let the joy of the work fill me. Then I wipe the blade clean and put it away."
"Bravo!" cried the prince. "From the words of this cook, I have learned how to live my life."
In his rules for right livelihood, the Buddha proscribed trafficking in meat (and in weapons, slaves, intoxicants, and poison). Clearly, he never imagined someone like Prince Wen-hui's cook: an artist of ox flesh, a saint of the bloody carcass. So much for rules. This just shows that nothing in life can be categorized or excluded. The whole world is our palette.
Ting, it must be said, was a man of supreme integrity, who trusted what is and needed no one's appreciation. For decades he had been putting on his one-man show for an audience of zero: no one was watching—not even he. The glorious harmony of motion and intention simply happened without him. How can we know the dancer from the dance?
In the practice of butchery, he had learned how to step aside and let his body do the thinking. He followed the Tao into a world of unadulterated sensation, an Eden of the don't-know mind. The vast universe, with its myriad chiliocosms within chiliocosms, became a single knife-blade gliding through empty space. What did it matter that his material was slaughtered oxen rather than sounds or colors or words? Nothing remained but the pure joy of the work.
And let's not forget the admirable Wen-hui. Instead of being caught up in princely pursuits like governing, hunting, or dallying with his concubines, there he was in the kitchen, taking exquisite notice of the lowly, which turned out to contain the supreme. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Answer to Job
Master Ssu, Master Yu, Master Li, and Master Lai were talking. "Whoever can see non- being as his head, life as his back, and death as his butt, whoever knows that existence and non-existence are one body—that's someone we can be friends with." The four men looked at one another and smiled.
Then Master Yu got sick. Master Ssu went to visit him. "How are you?" he said.
Master Yu said, "Amazing! Look at how the Creator has bent me out of shape. My back is so curved that my intestines are on top of me. My chin digs into my belly button, my shoulders arch over my head, and my neck bones point to the sky." Yet he seemed peaceful and unconcerned. Hobbling over to the well, he looked in and said, "My, my! How totally He has bent me out of shape!"
"Are you discouraged?" asked Master Ssu.
"Not at all," Master Yu said. "Why should I be? If things go on like this, maybe He'll change my left arm into a rooster, and I'll announce the dawn. Maybe He'll change my right arm into a crossbow, and I'll shoot a duck for dinner. Or maybe He'll change my buttocks into wheels, and with my spirit for a horse I'll climb up into myself and go for a ride. I won't ever need a wagon again!
"I received life when the time came, and I'll give it back when the time comes. Anyone who understands the proper order of things—that everything happens at exactly the right time—will be untouched by sorrow or joy. In ancient times this was called 'original freedom.' When you argue with reality, you lose. It has always been this way. That's why I have no complaints whatsoever."
These four old Chinese sages, who have met in the intimacy of realization, are like the men whom Yeats saw carved in lapis lazuli, climbing toward a little half-way house sweetened by plum- or cherry-branch. Where are Chuang-tzu's men—in a garden? in a tea shop? The setting doesn't matter. Wherever it is, whether flowers surround them or falling leaves, I delight to imagine them seated there, knowing themselves to the core, saying only what is essential, and smiling in appreciation of the emptiness at the heart of things.
End of Act One. Act Two is the answer to Job. Perhaps twenty years have gone by, or twenty days. Master Yu is afflicted with a neuromuscular syndrome that has bent him over like a paper clip. "Afflicted"? No: presented; graced. He relates his symptoms with the aplomb of a pathologist teaching a case study, a connoisseur describing a masterpiece. No wonder he's so kind to himself. He had no preconceptions. He doesn't take the disease personally.
People think that detachment must be a cold, humorless business. But Master Yu couldn't be more witty or engaging. Will his left arm turn into a rooster, his right arm a crossbow, his buttocks the wheels of a chariot? Anything can happen, after all, in this world of perpetual transformation, and he trusts that it will all be turned to good use. His amused segue into the surreal is a portrait of the mind at ease with itself.
To conclude the dialogue, we're given a statement of what the Masters are masters of. It's as if the smiles of the four old men have been transubstantiated into words. Original freedom: the epitome of imperturbability, the gaiety of the mind that cannot be upset by anything that happens, because at last it has met itself with understanding.
The Art of Cloudlessness
Chuang-tzu and Hui-tzu were playing checkers. "You say that you're an ordinary person," Hui-tzu said. "If you're so ordinary, how can you be so happy?"
Chuang-tzu said, "I'm just like anyone else, except that I don't have feelings like anger, fear, or sadness. Since I don't suffer, 'good' and 'bad' can't affect me."
Hui-tzu said, "Can someone really not suffer?"
Chuang-tzu said, "Of course. When you understand the mind, you're no longer attached to likes and dislikes, so they can't do you any harm. You just follow reality and don't try to control. It's as simple as that."
Hui-tzu said, "But...
The author takes two books at opposite ends of the spectrum and combines them in a nice complementary way. Along the way he ties these two back into the Tao Chi Ching. Read morePublished 15 days ago by Jes
All things are connected... The Tao has awareness of nature and is nature, yet our words are not it...they are just pointers. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Wendell Fraser
This is easily-digestable Taoism. One complaint: Mitchell bows to political correctness and alternates genders, he and she, to refer to the master. Read morePublished 2 months ago by richard davis
This book happened to jibe with the thoughts and outlook of my 17 year old grandson.It was hard to believe just how much of this books' wisdom was in his world view already. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Rasta-man.
Full, humorous, deep, thought provoking and infinitely more readable than the Tao Te Ching.Published 5 months ago by Alex DuMars
A less serious look at what is. Lighthearted, fun and insightful.Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
Stephen Mitchell's illustrated translation of the Tao de Ch'ing has become an American classic, and it would be tough indeed to top, yet he does so with The Second Book of Tao. Read morePublished 7 months ago by K. Hurtado
Any book on Taoist thought is worth owning. Especially considering what Mao did to China and its ancient philosophical thought provoking literature.Published 7 months ago by sickcured
I found myself in the middle of the dream. Very insightful and full of mystery Thanks for the invitation Stephen.Published 8 months ago by Edward Bean