Friday, February 8, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream

                                                                     falling off a dream I become a butterfly

                                                                     -- concluding haiku of my haibun, To Liv(e)

The title of the section name, Butterfly Dream, refers to one of the famous stories recorded in the Zhuangzi (pinyin) or Chuang Tzu (Wade-Giles):

“Once [Zhuangzi] dreamt he was a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was [Zhuangzi.] Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable [Zhuangzi]. But he didn't know if he was [Zhuangzi] who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was [Zhuangzi.] Between [Zhuangzi] and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.” 13

In the first haiku lexicon, Yama no I (Mountain Spring published in 1647), there is an explanatory passage under the entry titled Butterfly: “Butterfly. The scene of a butterfly alighting on rape blossoms, napping among flowers with no worries. Its appearance as it flutters its feathery wings, dancing like whirling snowflakes. Also the image is associated with [Zhuangzi’s] dream, suggesting that one hundred years pass as a gleam in a butterfly’s dream.” 14 To demonstrate how to use this butterfly imagery, the compiler Kigin gives the following example:

Scattering blossoms:
the dream of a butterfly –
one hundred years in a gleam 15

Since then, the penetration of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream into themes and images has clearly been seen in Japanese haiku. Among these butterfly haiku, 16 the following was written by Basho and is often regarded as one of the most overtly allusive ones:

You are the butterfly
And I the dreaming heart
Of [Zhuangzi]. 17

Basho wrote a note about this occasional poem sent o his friend named Doi:

“You’re the butterfly, and I the dreaming heart of [Zhuangzi]. I don’t know if I’m Basho who dreamed with the heart-mind of [Zhuangzi] that I was a butterfly named Doi, or that winged Mr. Doi dreaming me is Basho.“ 18

While Zhuangzi played with the “transformation of things,” specifically with himself and a butterfly, Basho played with Doi, personalizing the Buddhist community (the sangha). 19

The following are two more butterfly haiku by Basho, which subtly allude to Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream:

not grown to a butterfly
this late in autumn
a caterpillar 20

At the denotative level, Basho saw a caterpillar on a late autumn day, lamenting that it has not matured into a butterfly. At the connotative level, Basho reflected on his own life, one which had not been through a transformative change. The poem echoes one of the key themes in Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream – the “transformation of things.”

butterflies flit...
that is all, amid the field
of sunlight 21

Because of Basho’s use of the flitting butterfly imagery, some Japanese Basho interpreters, such as Nobuo Hori, think that “the poem has something of a daydream in it, …harking back to [Zhuangzi’s] dream.” 22

And the most covertly allusive and regarded butterfly haiku is also written by Basho:

is that warbler
her soul? there sleeps
a graceful willow 23

Unlike any poet who saw “a willow hanging its branches as if in sleep and might compose a poem alluding to the butterfly in [Zhuangzi’s] dream,” 24 Basho replaced the butterfly with a warbler, subtly comparing the willow tree to Zhuangzi, and the warbler to his butterfly. Thus, he skillfully used this age-old allusion in haiku and was not used by it. This is a perfect example of showing his “haikai imagination” 25 creatively reworked an old image. Oshima Ryota claims that Basho “deserves to be called the [Zhuangzi] of haikai. 26

As Koji Kawamoto emphasizes in his essay dealing with the use and disuse of tradition in Basho’s haiku, “the key to [haiku’s] unabated vigor lies in Basho’s keen awareness of the utility of the past in undertaking an avant-garde enterprise, which he summed up in his famous adage “fueki ryuko,” 27 which literally means “the unchanging and the ever-changing.” This haikai poetic ideal was advocated during his trip through the northern region of Japan. He stressed that “haikai must constantly change (ryuko), find the new (atarashimi), shed its own past, even as it seeks qualities that transcend time.” 28 However, his notion of the new “lay not so much in the departure from or rejection of the perceived tradition as in the reworking of established practices and conventions, in creating new counterpoints to the past.” 29

-- Waking from "Zhuangzi's Butterfly Dream -- Plagiarism or Honkadori" by Chen-ou Liu
first published in Simply Haiku, 8:2, Autumn 2010


  1. NeverEnding Story, the first English-Chinese bilingual haiku and tanka blog, is established to fulfill my butterfly dream portrayed in the haibun, entitled “To Liv(e),” which was published in Frogpond, 34:3, Fall 2011. I hope it can bring the beauty of English language Japanese short form poetry to Chinese readers around the world.

    In terms of language, structure, style, and theme, the following two butterfly haiku are the most problematic for they are almost identical.

    Yosa Buson’s haiku:

    Japanese original:

    tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochoo kana

    English translation:

    On the temple bell
    has settled, and is fast asleep,
    a butterfly.

    Masaoka Shiki’s haiku:

    Japanese original:

    tsurigane ni tomarite hikaru hotaru kana
    English translation:

    On the temple bell
    has settled, and is glittering,
    a firefly. 3

    In the next "To the Lighthouse" post, I'll give an in-depth analysis of these "almost identical" haiku.

  2. What an interesting article! I look forward to delving into it further. Thank you for sharing it.