And I’ll be happy in my dreams
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams.
- Roy Orbison
Dreams. Lately I’ve had some doozys.
One that I remember in some detail was where I was in a Chinese prisoner of war camp, run by a Nazi commandant. The camp was coed. The women all lived in a house filled with dolls, and the men in a barracks. One man and woman, however, were secretly married and they kept their baby in a drawer in a table in the workhouse. The camp was going to have some kind of celebration or festival, and the married guy wanted to put a half-balloon, half-straw man underneath a merry-go-round to startle the commandant. I don’t remember what happened but after the festival was over, I was sharing a bagel with the commandant when all of the sudden a train roared out of nowhere and the commandant pushed me out of the way, saving my life. The next thing I knew a bunch of us were on a train (maybe the same one) and either I or someone else asked, “Where are we going?” and someone replied, “Nowhere, we’re just going.” Then I woke up.
I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “Don’t put too much confidence in dreams.”
I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I took it literally. Many people do place great significance on interpreting and analyzing dreams. Freud was one. Edgar Cayce was another. Some people think both were quacks. I know that things we see or experience in our wakened state often suggest the dreams we dream, but I’ve always felt that trying to attach any importance to them is like being on that train in my dream, a ride to nowhere. To me, dreams are just surreal mind movies.
In Buddhism, there are various takes on dreams and their significance. Contradictory takes to some extent, and a lot of them based on superstition and myth. For instance, in the story of the Buddha’s birth, his mother was said to have dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb. She told her husband, King Suddhodana, about it and he sent for some wise men to interpret the dream. They concluded that the dream foretold the future greatness of her soon-to-be born son. Yet, in the Sutta Nipata, (IV., 14), the Buddha advises his followers not to “foretell things from dreams or signs or stars . . . nor practice quackery.”
Dreams are produced by the mind; some believe they are linked to the unconsciousness. The Buddha taught that actually all things are created by the mind, and since the mind is riddled with illusion, waking reality is little more than a dream. As the Rashtrapala Sutra tell us,
This world is all illusion, wrapped in a dream, with no self,
no being – all things are like a mirage or the moon reflected in water.”
The notion of the world wrapped in a dream is a metaphor for ordinary deluded consciousness. A person who wakes up from the dream is a Buddha, an awakened one. However, it is not wisdom that rouses us from sleep; it is suffering. One account of the Buddha’s awakening says that the first thing he realized when he awoke was the truth of suffering.
Suffering gives us the impetus to practice, while wisdom comes as a result of practice. Waking from a dream is what one Buddhist teacher has called the theme of the meditation path.
Life is a dream not in the sense that our perceived reality is a complete illusion like in a fantasy, but rather that our perceptions, our senses, and our ordinary disposition deceive and confuse us as to the true nature of reality. Thought constructions and feelings give rise to suffering.
When we do wake up and see the true reality, we should understand that in the ultimate sense there is no intrinsic difference between our “dreams” and “awakening.” As Zen Master Dogen noted in Muchu Setsumu (“On the Dream within a Dream”), “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”
Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.
I think what the Dalai Lama was implying when he said don’t put too much confidence in dreams, is that we would be better off placing our confidence in dharma, in practice, in the potential of awakening that is always present within the mind. In the practice of Buddhism, the great challenge is to practice in the face of great difficulty and to develop a deep confidence to meet whatever happens in our lives. This means also to have confidence in our mind, for while it is the source of delusion and suffering, it is also the starting place for wisdom and awakening. Instead of trying to fathom the things produced by the mind, it is far better to fathom the mind itself.
Buddhas of the past were just people who understood the mind.”
- Son (Zen) Master Chinul