Monday, February 25, 2013

Chuang Tzu on the Transition of Things

Chuang Tzu dreamt that he was a butterfly flittering and fluttering around as he pleased. Suddenly he woke up and realized that he was Chuang Tzu. But he did not know whether he was Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.
Comment: There are many iterations of this passage from the book named after Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi).  The passage above is taken from the The Inner Chapters: Chapter 2.

It is a simple passage - in structure - that presses a complex relativity that belies its simplicity.  Chuang Tzu was a skeptical thinker skilled in the art of exposing an alternate to any fixed assumption.

It is entirely possible that a butterfly was dreaming that it was Chuang Tzu.  The reverse is true too.  But it does not end there.

Chuang Tzu could be both a man and a butterfly.

The passage is a philosophical inquiry into the substance of reality.  Given that Chuang Tzu lived around the fourth century (BCE) it is a precursor to more recent theories of relativity and deconstruction.

I have spent many years thinking through the implications of this passage.  And I am no closer to capturing its meaning in full.  Nonetheless, I don't think anyone can.  It is continuous - a 'wheel inside of a wheel', perhaps.

For me its purpose is to expose the multiplicity of realities at any one given juncture.  Nothing is real.  Not even reality is real if it is assumed to be a dominant or final position.

Reality is in effect a construction of terms.  And terms are never synonymous with any given reality.

Everything is an interpretation.  Any arrival is tied to a departure but a journey need not be characterized or determined by either arriving or departing.

And so you can be both dead and alive in the journey of life.

Nothing in life is singular - everything is related.

There is also a more human/humane injunction in questioning reality.  It is the acceptance that the other side(s) of anything exists inside of each of us.

And so our enemies and our friends are pretty much the same people.  Both should be treated with the same dignity because to destroy our enemies is to destroy our friends and, ultimately, ourselves.

I like the manner in which Lao Tzu makes this point in the Tao Te Ching (see verse 27):
What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.
There is more than just a dialectic between good and bad implied in all of this.  The emphasis is not materialist in its intention.  So the matter is not about engaging the purpose of progress to move to being good - a place of rest or resolution where being more good is better than being too bad.

There is no difference between good and bad beyond the relationship each has to the other.

Just like there is no difference between Chuang Tzu and the butterfly.  They are related to each other.  Both contain parts of the other.

The wisdom of humility in the passage is that the skeptical thinker is freed from being contained by anxiety and guilt.  Why worry about mastering one reality when every reality is compounded by a myriad of realities.

The way of the Tao it would seem is to find the balance.  The middle at the very least.

This is "the great secret" to living in balance with all things.

I wonder if you perhaps see another side(s) - I obviously have merely scratched the surface.

Please share your thinking if you want.

Image Credit


Pstonie said...

This is a great post, and all I can add to it is to say that--based on my unfortunately limited experiences with LSD--the "wheel within a wheel" is correct. There is no such thing as a complete understanding of the universe, and there will never be. It's demonstrated by this simple thought: Who made the maker?

It's so uncommunicably weird, the simple fact that any of us are here, experiencing reality. If the scientist types, the ones who stare themselves blind at measurable things, were correct that total entropy is the final "correct" state of everything, there would be nothing here to begin with.

It's good to share these thoughts with others, especially those who are alive. We get so little these days.

Pstonie said...

Once again, probably my favourite quote:

"When you study natural science and the miracles of creation, if you don't turn into a mystic you are not a natural scientist."
-Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD

Ridwan said...

Pstonie thank you for your comment. You raise excellent points and the quote by Albert Hofmann now gives me reason to read up more on his discovery and thinking.

Last night I started re-reading sections on Pascal and Descartes and their differences on how to explain the universe and God.

Pascal offered the wager that the chances that God exists is greater than not - so it is better to accept existence since the greater probability is in your/our favor.

Descartes of course needed more by way of cognitive input. But he arrived at the conclusion that there is no order to the universe so we cannot assume a creator.

Nonetheless, Descartes uses the notion that since God exists as a thinking rationale it can be assumed that existence is created and providentially so.

In effect, this is an extension of his claim: "I think therefore I am".

So he goes further to, 'I think therefore God exists'.

I am more convinced by the Taoist thinking, particularly in its Zen interpretation, that the truth cannot be known since there is no one truth - if even a truth at all.

And from your comment it seems you would agree.

Again, thanks for engaging this mostly left aside conversation.

Peace to you,

Pstonie said...

I met "God" the first time I took LSD. It's not a him or a her, he doesn't need our money or burnt offerings, and provides no silly human-centric rules. It's us, the table, the trees. It's the universe, and we are all shards of it, disconnected from each other so that we/it may get to know ourselves/itself in ignorance, without bias. It is boring being a god. There are no challenges and you are alone. Therefore: Trees, mammals and toyotas. As far as I know, magic mushrooms function about the same way as LSD. Along with some good weed (the Rastafarians don't say it brings them closer to God for nothing) it will produce profound insights into our true nature. We can understand these truths logically, but we always think we're still missing a piece, so we never build the puzzle with what we already have. On a good trip you can see how the edges fit together, and the understanding is complete.

It's telling that governments and the UN deems LSD and Psilocybin as schedule 1 drugs, while the facts are clear, and access to these substances would contribute to the positive evolution of mankind. They are ultimately in the war business. Can't sell war if everyone knows they are connected through our most basic natures.