Chuang-tzu > Quotes

Dreams and Illusion

The next excerpt from Chuang-tzu book speaks about dreams and dreaming, seeming to sustain the idea that everything is just a dream or illusion.

    Those who dream of a banquet may wake to lamentation and sorrow. Those who dream of lamentation and sorrow may wake to join a hunt. While they dream, they do not know that they dream. Some will even experience a dream within a dream; and only when they awake do they realize they dreamed of a dream. By and by comes the great awakening, and then we may find out that this life is really an extended dream. (The Chuang Tzu, Chapter 2, On Leveling all Things, translation by Lin Yutang).

This idea that the world is just an illusion is very fashionable in the Western world at the persons who are interested in Hindus yoga and oriental philosophies. The question is: did Taoists also believe in this concept? Can we find traces of this belief in the illusion of the world at Taoist authors, such as for example Chuang-tzu (the author of the homonymous book)? There are some people who believe the answer to this question is firmly yes. We have a different opinion.

Chuang Tzu says: "By and by comes the great awakening, and then we may find out that this life is really an extended dream."

What should be the meaning of these words? The point is that we can also gradually come to the conception that the world is but a dream. We could go on with this topic and add more and more such notices as they were intended to twist your mind. This is the case of the speculative philosophers who were so many in the China from Chuang-tzu times and whom he was relentlessly criticizing. To talk about any idea without having a real basis but simply for the pleasure of speculation, can take you eventually to ideas like those above.

"Confucius and you are both dreams; and I who say you are dreams - I am but a dream myself" goes on Chuang-tzu in the quoted excerpt. He is well aware that he cannot state anything as an immutable truth as long as he himself is not real, as a person, but a phantasm. Therefore, why being so firm in your believes and so consequent with your opinions (like Confucius, for example)?

But to say that nobody is real, that we are all just dreams, that the dreams multiply in other dreams and so forth, this is not Chuang-tzu philosophical position but an elegant manner to criticize the speculative thinking.

Selection and commentary by Jhian


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