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Dreams and Formal Thinking

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 life is just a dream, meaning an illusion, is very fashionable in the Western world interested in Hindus yoga and oriental philosophies. The question is: did Taoists also believe in this idea? Can we find traces of the belief in the illusion of life at Taoist authors? Some commentators would agree. 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 this quote? The point is that we can also gradually come to the idea that the life is but a dream if we continue with this topic and add more such opinions meant seemingly to twist your mind. This is exactly what formal thinking did in Chuang-tzu's time and whom he was relentlessly criticizing. To state anything without having a real basis but simply for the pleasure of speculation can take you eventually to ideas like the 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 dream. Therefore, why being so firm in your believes and so consequent with your opinions (like Confucius, for example)?

Finally 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 formal thinking.

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Selection and commentary by Jhian

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