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Buddhism and Dreams

The story of Gautama Buddha’s life (567- 487 BC) starts at preconception when his mother, Queen Maya, is said to have dreamt that a six-tusked elephant pierced her side with one of its tusks. This produced an immaculate conception. She understood the dream to mean the resulting child would become a monarch whose domain was the world. The Buddhist scriptures contain mention of five of the Buddha’s dreams, and also include dreams of his father, King Cudhodana, and his wife, Gopa.

The fundamental aim of Buddhism is to find liberation from the things that bind consciousness to illusory concepts of oneself. This goal, called Liberation or Nirvana is sometimes described as the blowing out of the sense of self or ones ego. This should not be thought of as a killing of oneself psychologically, but rather an untangling of our fundamental self from the many influences it is usually enmeshed in. Part of this is the illusory view we have of the world. Buddhism does not see the world itself as an illusion, but the emotions and concepts we hold which provoke our responses to the world are seen as the illusion. Therefore dreams are not thought of as being illusions, but depict the illusions of our everyday experience of life. The very nature of dreams are expressive of the complicated realm of fears, longings and mental concepts we are deeply enmeshed in. Nightmares especially show how deeply involved our waking self is with the internal world of passionate feelings and imagery.

Example: I am trapped in a bricked room with no way out and I shout for somebody to help me. Then either a big bird or a creature with long arms tries to catch me, and I scream. My flat mates used to help me, as I would wake the whole house with my screams. They describe my screams as blood curdling. When I awoke I would be extremely upset, heart pounding and sometimes crying. Twice I woke up sitting on the windowsill trying to open the window, and as I was three floors up you can imagine this was not a very pleasant experience. Another dream I have is that somebody is chasing me or attacking me, and I try to scream but nothing comes out of my mouth. I try and try to scream but nothing happens, when in fact I am actually screaming the house down. Karen S.

Example: I was walking around alone when I found myself in a graveyard which was half under water, like a paddy field. It was dusk and as I looked at the grave stones each one had engraved on it S. J. SMITH – my name – nothing else. The dark water moved slowly between the stones – lapping round them. I woke terrified and couldn’t stretch out my hand to turn the light on. Sarah S.

Example: Three men with clubs were chasing me but never actually caught me as I believe I woke in terror. I was determined to tell myself it was only a dream and the next night as they were chasing me I remembered it was only a dream and lost all fear – stopped running – turned to face them and said ‘This is only a dream, you can’t hurt me,’ and with that as they came closer they faded into nothing and I never saw them again. Mr. S. C.

The examples show the sense of reality existing for the dreamer at the time of the nightmare. In fact the terror is often only banished slowly by the dreamer realising that it was simply dream images, which are like a magic mirror reflecting the state or condition of our own inner world! The last example in a simplified way shows the liberation that arises by recognising the source of what we had taken to be reality. Buddhism is saying that much of the workings and influence of our inner world goes unrecognised, so we are an unconscious prisoner of our mind and emotions.

In Tibetan Buddhism the way to enlightenment or Nirvana is spoken of as being a path on which one penetrates the illusory nature of waking consciousness, dreams and dreamless sleep. To do this with waking consciousness one must arrive at a state of awakening from ones usual ‘dream’ of, or response to, everyday life. In other words a radical shift occurs in how one sees life. Usually one takes all ones emotions, ones thoughts and physical sensations so personally, and as a sort of reality. Yet no thought is ever the thing it is about. We think of the future sometimes for instance and might go through agonies of worry. But the thoughts are not the events that follow. And when the events themselves arrive, we can respond to them in countless different ways. Therefore to take thoughts and emotions as if they were real in a stable sense is an illusion. Recognising this not as a philosophical concept but as an experience is like waking up. See Dream Yoga.

Another form of awakening occurs within the experience of Liberation itself. It is the awakening from the experience of thought and the mental world. This also pertains to dreams in that within dreams we are totally immersed and identified with this internal mental life. The following example explains this.

Example: For some weeks I had been practising a meditation in which I slowed my breath. Then suddenly one day my thinking stopped. What this felt like is extremely difficult to describe because all of us have lived in this world of thoughts and emotions all our life. We are so immersed we don’t even recognise it – rather like the story of the fish who doesn’t know what you are talking about when you mention water. It only knows it has been in the water if it jumps or is lifted out one day. This is how it was for me. I had never known that ‘I’, ‘me’ could exist without thoughts. The freedom was wonderful, almost as if I had arrived at a different world or universe, and was looking back at what I had thought was the only way of life. To have this alternative gave me a new way of responding to life, because thoughts are so clumsy and can only deal with tiny pieces of experience. So our view of things is limited to what we can think with words. Beyond that are immense spreads of experience not limited to defining concepts. Mary P.

Dreams often express this theme of an awakening, especially in people using some forms of self inquiry. The following dream and description depicts this.

Example: Have just woke from another of my recent unusual dreams. In it I was first in a street being manhandled by a group of rowdy men. I did nothing to defend myself or fight back, and they pushed me onto the ground and poured spirits, alcohol, over me and into my mouth – saw this in the film The Elephant Man.

Then I awoke alone in a room. Or perhaps it is more correct to say I came to, because I felt as if I had been unconscious for some time. I didn’t know the room or where I was. I had the sense it was partly to do with business or a shop. The phone kept ringing and the calls were for me, and I wondered how people knew where I was because I didn’t know myself.

This dream may not seem much in itself, but in linking with some powerful feelings I am meeting in everyday life it becomes part of some inner process working in me. This is because I keep experiencing the feeling of having woken up. The only way to describe this is to say that I honestly thought I was Pete who has been born, grown up, had children. I took all his worries and pains, all the events of his life so seriously. I was totally involved in it all. But now I feel as if I am something that has always lived. It went to sleep and its dream was Pete. While it dreamt of being Pete it was utterly involved in the events of Pete’s – my – life as if they were real. But now I wake up to realise the importance given to them was unreal. This is almost exactly like waking from any deeply experienced dream. On waking the dream is not unreal in that it was an experience, but the attitude toward what happened is quite different. Pete W.

Various forms of meditation or practice are used to aid this process of waking up in life and in dreams, principal among them is Vipassanâ, which aims at constant self-awareness. This form of self witnessing gradually allows one to catch oneself in the act of getting lost in fantasy, in thoughts, in the ever shifting tides of emotion and sexual drive. It is not an act of denial, but an awareness that enables insight into behaviour to arise.

Example: I was in a prison cell with two other men. We ate, slept and defecated in the cell. I was standing at the bars of the cell, and had the impression of having been in the prison for years. I was shouting and cursing the people who had put me in the prison, full of hate and self pity. Suddenly I realised that my years of shouting had availed nothing. The only person who was upset by it was myself. I was the victim of my own anger and turmoil. I dropped the attitudes and was free of them. Years went by and one by one I dropped other habits of emotion and thought with which I had trapped and tortured myself. I realised I could be totally free within myself. One morning I woke and sat up on the mattress on the floor that was my bed. The last ghost of inner entrapment fell away. A fountain of joy opened in my body, pouring upwards through me. So intense was it I cried out. The cell mates called a warden. They stood looking at me as I experienced a radiance so strong I felt as if I must be shining. I was aware my joy poured into them, although they thought I was mad. Nothing would ever be the same again. Andy.

Such self-awareness enables one to slowly avoid getting caught in the waking ‘dream’ of long sojourns into such things as guilt, depression, and emotional pain arising from childhood patterns. This is because one becomes aware of just how such internal events arise or are triggered, and one can make a choice of whether one wishes to ‘re-play’ them again, rather like deciding whether to play a CD. Perseverance with the process cannot help but produce an entrance into areas of experience that had been deeply unconscious. Ones life history is brought to consciousness piece by piece. There is also the attempt to remain in the self-aware state even while dreaming. This is not an attempt to control or repress the action of dreaming, but to ‘see through’ it to the underlying processes creating the images.

In the Buddhist literature the story of Milarepa tells how he meditated for eight years alone in a cave. Through these years of discipline he was able to remain lucid while asleep and dreaming. He says, ‘By night in my dreams I could traverse the summit of Mt. Meru to its base – and I saw everything clearly as I went. Likewise in my dreams I could multiply myself into hundreds of personalities, all endowed with the same powers as myself. Each of my multiplied forms could traverse space and go to some Buddha Heaven, listen to the teachings there, and then come back and teach the Dharma to many persons. I could also transform my physical body into a mass of blazing fire, or into an expanse of flowing or calm water. Seeing that I had obtained infinite phenomenal powers even though it be but in my dreams, I was filled with happiness and encouragement.’

The awakening and the penetration of consciousness into what were the dark places of our being, leads to the realisation that, in a way that is difficult to accept until we experience for ourselves, we are the Creator of our own inner life, and Co-creator in the external world. Our dreams are created unconsciously out of mental and emotional factors that are usually deeply buried. For instance a person may have had a traumatic experience in childhood which leads to their constantly being afraid of closeness in a relationship. But the memory of the original event, and the powerful emotions leading to decisions about behaviour, are no longer conscious enough to review. They therefore give rise to reactions and dreams which may be puzzling, but are usually explained away by the dreamer. The dreamer may say something like ‘I don’t like men – or women. I don’t like to be near them.’ If they were aware of the sources of their reaction they would rephrase it to say, ‘I had an experience in the past that was painful, and out of this I now avoid relationship. Beyond that pain though, I want to be close and in touch with others.’

Nevertheless, in the widest sense, one is creating ones own life and dreams, even though being unconscious of how and why. The penetration of consciousness into these realms of hidden behaviour enables the process of creativity to become more directed.

Of course this self-formation needs to be understood in connection with Buddhism’s aim of dissolving the rigid boundaries of the ego, and finding insight into the illusory nature of our self image. We therefore need to realise that self-formation means not only creating our own inner life and responses to the external world more capably, but also the ability to dissolve what we have created, to realise that the source of all form is the nothing that at the same time is everything.

Example: I felt a very real power working in my body, but could not define it. The result was that my breathing slowed down until it stopped – how long for I do not know. This produced an experience of personal thoughts and feelings slowing to a standstill also, leaving stillness. Accompanying this was the sense of myself being in an ocean. As I floated in the ocean I began to be lifted by a large wave. I expected to get to the top of the wave and plunge down again. At this point the breath was taken in and it stopped. So when I came to the top of the wave it was so immense I floated at its peak on and on forever.

In trying to describe this I have to use the image of a great mural painted on a cliff face. The mural has trees and grass, animals and humans. I am one of the humans and have stepped out of the mural to become three dimensional. Being three dimensional is everyday life. When I reach the top of the wave and the usual ebb and flow of breath and consciousness stops, I step back into the mural again. I fade into the background of life again and disappear. This is wonderful. I sense this is what happens when one dies. The personal sense of self recedes and there is a blissful merging with all things. I want to stay there forever. I want to go into this ocean of blissfulness. I feel that I could stay there for a hundred years, and if I then took a breath I would emerge from the mural again and take up my everyday life just as I left it, except that events will have moved on. I want to do this. P.D.

The dissolution is Nirvana. The ability to dissolve self in this way may not be possible until we can master or penetrate the processes that work toward our formation. The secrets of our creation are in the unconscious, the mysterious world of dreams. Thus the need to wake in sleep, or if not that, to wake up from the dream of our life. See: dream as spiritual guide; Life’s Little Secrets; What we need to remember about us.


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