Monday, May 3, 2010

The Liberation of the Well-Frog

The Liberation of the Well-Frog: Awakening Within the Dream
by Scott Bradley*

(The text referenced in this post is based on Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Brook Ziporyn.)

There is a most illuminating story in the seventeenth chapter of the Zhuangzi about a well-frog. Sitting on a piece of broken tile, this frog ruled over his little world at the bottom of a well believing it to be the most wonderful of worlds and himself the master of all. The many tiny creatures, tadpoles and water bugs, that shared the well likewise shared his opinions and acknowledged his wisdom. But it came about one day that a sea turtle, happening by, looked into the well. Seeing this new potential admirer, the frog immediately held forth in praise of his domain and invited the turtle to join him. The turtle agreed to give it a try but found that his size would not permit him to enter. Instead the turtle thought to tell the well-frog of his own domain, the vast and unfathomable sea. The frog was flabbergasted; his delusions of being Someone Important in a world understood and possessed were utterly shattered. And though this is where the story ends, I would like to take it further and consider how the well-frog was thereby transformed and what form that transformation took. But before I do, let us step back and consider the story in its context, who it was that shared it, to whom it was shared, and what was the intended lesson.

With the great autumn floods, the Great River flooded to such an extent that the River God himself overflowed with pride at the vastness of his domain. Thinking to survey and exult in this vastness he followed his River down to the Vast Ocean where his waters were lost without a trace. Suddenly he realized the depths of his folly, the ignorance of his pride. Addressing his distress to the Ocean, the Ocean God replied that it is always folly to believe that one actually comprehends anything at all. It matters not how vast or minute one’s domain, they are all equally nothing in the illumination of the Vast Unknowable. Yes, the Ocean God’s domain dwarfs that of the River God, but even his is but a pimple on the backside of Universe, and that but an expression of a Mystery beyond all knowing. Whatever ‘vastness’ we might imagine, whether of space or consciousness, it is always a relative thing, finitely comparing itself with another finite thing. True Vastness cannot be conceived.

This is the lesson of the well-frog. The frog is to the turtle as the River is to the Ocean, and all finite consciousnesses as the Ocean to the Vast Unknowable. Is there truly any difference between these finite beings? The turtle can gloat over the frog and the Ocean over the River, but in the end every boast would be hubris and folly, for all such distinctions evaporate into nothing in the illuminating radiance of True Vastness.

Let us step back still further and consider the intention of the author who brought us these stories. What was his purpose? It is to present another possibility, a liberation from the tyranny of the finite within the finite. And this liberation is, in the author’s opinion exemplified in the life and teaching of Zhuangzi: As for him, he is no sooner traipsing across the Yellow Springs then he is climbing through the blue heavens, free of both north and south, unobstructed and released in all the four directions, submerged in the unfathomable depths. Devoid of both east and west, he begins anew in dark obscurity and returns to the Great Openness. Liberation is found in transcendence of every relative distinction, and this by the universally equalizing of surrender into the Unknowable, the dark obscurity. Empty of all knowing, the heart abides in the True Vastness, the Great Openness, where no distinctions are possible. Here, nothing is fixed, all is affirmed, nothing is grasped. This is what Zhuangzi himself meant by roaming in the vast wilds of open nowhere, in the far-flung and unconstraining paths of wild, unbound twirling and tumbling and in the homeland of nothing at all, thereby taking my place in the borderless wilds.

So let us now return to our well-frog—is there liberation for him, and if so, what form would it take? Must we send down a bucket and lift him up to a wider world? But what difference would that make? There is no world wide enough, no understanding broad enough, to liberate the heart. No, the liberation of the well-frog can as easily take place in the confines of his well as in the vastness of the Universe, for it is a liberation beyond and from every confinement, however ‘narrow’, however ‘vast’. The limitations of the well-frog’s existence are, in the light of True Vastness, no different from those of most expansive consciousness. His liberation is to be had in the transcendence of his own particular limitations, and the limitlessness in which he roams is precisely the same as that experienced by any other relative ‘vastness’.

Let us then imagine that our well-frog has surrendered into his own particular limitations and roams joyfully in the limitless. Here he sits on that very same tile, surveying his domain much as before. And so he is liberated indeed, right here in his well, having seen no greater world nor gained any new knowledge. Still a well-frog—what else could he be?—he frolics contentedly within the realm in which he was destined to be. And when asked by the admiring tadpoles what is the truth about everything and all he only smiles and says: That we are here in our well which is part of it All.

Zhuangzi tells us that we all live in a dream. To dream is to believe that we know what is true. Some are so fortunate as to awaken within the dream and realize they are dreaming. This is the beginning of liberation. But others go further and presume to interpret the dream within the dream. These are those who ‘know’ and share ‘The Truth’. But alas, to awaken to the dream is but to awaken to the dreaming; to believe that one has thereby ceased to dream is to fall back into unconscious belief in a dream. Zhuangzi would have us awaken to our dreaming, realize that it is all a great dreaming, and find our joy therein. This (too) is Walking Two Roads.

*Who is Scott Bradley? Well, let him tell you:

I'm 61. I have lived on a 32' sailboat for about 20 years. I did a 10 year circumnavigation and have come back to the Sea of Cortez, Mexico to hang out. I used to teach English as a Foreign Language (Morocco and Saudi Arabia). I'm a recovering True Believer (Christian) and have an MA in Cross-Cultural Studies from a theological seminary.

Scott's writings will be appearing on this blog frequently. I will also work on getting his writings uploaded to Google Docs and will provide the appropriate links.

To download or print this document replete with footnotes, go here.


  1. how very true and profound, especially the idea that "Liberation is found in transcendence of every relative distinction."

    the more encompassing our perspective, the more we get out of life, even if our range of vision is slight.


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