What is Real: Upon Having a Dream

COOL POEMS: Introduction > THE POEMS

Topics: What is Real, Neo; how do you Define “Real”? I

Author: Mei Yaochen (1002-1060)

Upon Having a Dream

All at once I dreamt of me;
I was left of the stream;
I spoke not, and sat.

All at once I dreamt of me;
I was in a mountain hollow;
I spoke not, and dwelled there.

Was it really water? I never saw it flow.
Was it really mountain? I never saw its road.
Was it really so? I never saw it go.

To feel but not to find,
tears follow one upon the other.
But are they real, or are they not?

Comments: In the film Matrix, when Morpheus asks Neo how you know if you’re having a dream or not, the reference is to Zhuangzi’s (4th century B.C. philosopher) story of the butterfly. Mei Yaochen also refers to that story in this poem. In Zhuangzi’s story a man dreams he’s a butterfly, but upon awakening he can’t be certain if he’s a man who just dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he’s a man. Zhuangzi’s point is profound: unless one presumes the existence of an objective, external observer, like God, there is no way to determine absolutely how to treat any given object. Zhuangzi isn’t questioning a thing’s existence, but rather how we define it in social terms: is this thing a teacup or an ashtray? Is a woman a person with agency like an artist, or primarily pretty ornament for a man? Since Zhuangzi observes that God doesn’t show himself to us in a form we could recognize as God, we have no choice but to proceed as if God were not there (even though Zhuangzi leaves open the question of whether God might exist in some sense). Under those circumstances how do we determine what a thing “really” is? Mei’s poem reconsiders this quandary, at the same time referring to Confucius’ observation that a wise man loves the water while a good man loves mountains. In the end Mei’s poem seems to hint that, though it may be difficult to decide on how one should “really” treat certain things, one’s own feelings, one’s own tears, are irrevocably real.

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