The Deer in the Dream


from Taoist Teachings from the Book of Lieh Tzu

by Lieh Tzu1

A man was gathering fuel in the Cheng State when he fell in with a deer that had been startled from its usual haunts. He gave chase, and succeeded in killing it. He was overjoyed at his good luck; but, for fear of discovery, he hastily concealed the carcass2 in a dry ditch, and covered it up with brushwood.

Afterwards, he forgot the spot where he had hidden the deer, and finally became convinced that the whole affair was only a dream. He told the story to people he met as he went along; and one of those who heard it, following the indications given, went and found the deer.

On reaching home with his booty3, this man made the following statement to his wife: «Once upon a time», he said, «a wood-cutter dreamt that he had got a deer, but couldn’t remember the place where he had put it. Now I have found the deer, so it appears that his dream was a true dream.»

«On the contrary», said his wife, «it is you who must have dreamt that you met a wood-cutter who had caught a deer. Here you have a deer, true enough. But where is the wood-cutter? It is evidently your dream that has come true.»

«I have certainly got a deer», replied her husband; «so what does it matter to us whether it was his dream or mine?»

Meanwhile, the wood-cutter had gone home, not at all disgusted at having lost the deer. For he thought the whole thing must have been a dream. But the same night, he saw in a dream the place where he had really hidden it, and he also dreamt of the man who had taken it. So, the next morning, in accordance with his dream, he went to seek him out in order to recover the deer.

A quarrel ensued4, and the matter was finally brought before the magistrate, who gave judgement in these terms: «You», he said to the wood-cutter, «began by really killing a deer, but wrongly thought it was a dream. Then you really dreamt that you had got the deer, but wrongly took the dream to be a reality. The other man really took your deer, which he is now disputing with you. His wife, on the other hand, declares that he saw both man and deer in a dream, so that nobody can be said to have killed the deer at all. Meanwhile, here is the deer itself in court, and you had better divide it between you.»

The case was reported to the Prince of the Cheng State, who said: «Why, the magistrate must have dreamt the whole thing himself!»

The question was referred to the Prime Minister, but the latter confessed himself unable to disentangle the part that was a dream from the part that was not a dream. «If you want to distinguish between waking and dreaming», he said, «you would have to go back to the Yellow Emperor or Confucius. But both these sages5 are dead, and there is nobody now alive who can draw any such distinction. Of course, it is implied that there is no real distinction between the two. So the best thing you can do is to uphold the magistrate’s decision.»

Lieh Tzu 

One of the three primary philosophers who developed the basic tenets of Daoist philosophy and the presumed author of the Daoist work Liezi (True Classic of the Perfect Virtue of Simplicity and Emptiness). As in earlier Daoist classics (from which it borrowed heavily), emphasis in the Liezi centres on the mysterious Dao (“Way”) of Daoism, a great unknowable cosmic reality of incessant change to which human life should conform. In its present form the Liezi possibly dates from the 3rd or 4th century CE. The “Yangzhu” chapter of the classic gives the Liezi a particular aspect of interest, for this chapter—named after Yang Zhu, a legendary figure of the 5th–4th century BCE, incorrectly identified as its author—acknowledges the futility of challenging the immutable and irresistible Dao; it concludes that all man can look forward to in this life is sex, music, physical beauty, and material abundance, and even these goals are not always satisfied. Such “fatalism” implies a life of radical “self-interest” (a new development in Daoism), according to which a person should not sacrifice so much as a single hair of his head for the benefit of others. Little is known of Liezi’s life save the fact that, like many of his contemporaries, he had a large number of disciples and roamed through the different warring states into which China was then divided, advising kings and rulers. His work is distinguished stylistically by its wit and philosophically by its emphasis on using the pattern and cadence of nature as the guide for human conduct.


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