For years I have been using my dreams to gain a deeper understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. I’ve trained myself to remember my dreams first thing in the morning and compare them to my waking world in order to see for myself the truth of Buddha’s teachings that everything is like a dream.
Why do I want to do that? Because I find life is a lot more fun when I am not grasping at it in a crunchy real way, and can instead dissolve away appearances and have choice over how to impute and perceive my world. Our own dreams show how everything depends upon our mind – if our mind changes, our world changes, and if our mind ceases, the object ceases. As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in How to Understand the Mind:
Just as all the things experienced in a dream are mere appearances to mind, so all beings, their environments, their enjoyments, and all other phenomena are mere appearances to mind. This is not easy to understand at first, but we can develop some understanding by contemplating as follows. When we are awake many different things exist, but when we fall asleep they cease because the mind to which they appear ceases. During our dreams we become a dreamer, and at that time the only things that appear are dream objects. Later, when we wake, these dream objects cease because the mind to which they appear ceases. Other than this there is no specific reason why they should cease.
So, can you all remember a dream you had recently, a vivid dream? Some people dream every night and remember it. Some people don’t dream every night, but all of you can probably remember at least one vivid dream.
Let’s say you dreamed of an elephant last night. Geshe Kelsang always uses elephants, I don’t know why. He’s got a sense of humor. This elephant in your dream had big flappy ears, a long trunk, and appeared fully and all at once in all its detail. You could see it, you could hear it, you could smell it, you could stroke it if it let you – all this is appearing vividly to your dream senses.
I actually did dream of an elephant once. He was waiting in line to use the restroom with me. He was a huge gray elephant and he was very friendly, but he accidentally trod on my toe, and I said, “Owww!” (as you might imagine), to which the elephant immediately apologized in a posh English accent, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” I talked with this elephant for quite some time, and only when I woke up did I realize what a fool I had been, by which point I was quite fond of my elephant and was half-wondering where he would be, where I could find him.
But of course I knew the moment I woke up that I had just been dreaming, and that there was no point pining over my new elephant friend or buying an expensive airline ticket to Borneo to look for him in the jungles over there. I realized that he never existed from his own side. However at the time of meeting my large gray friend I could talk to him, relate to him, he could make me sad, he could make me happy. Objects in our dreams can do all of these things, can’t they?
This is amazing, if you think about it, seeing as we are just making it all up. When we wake up, we know this for sure. “Oh, that was just a dream!”
Where did the elephant go? Where did it come from? Where did it disappear to? It just came from our mind, didn’t it? Where else could it have come from? If it came from anywhere else and we woke up, the elephant should be sitting there at the end of our bed; but, as Geshe-la points out, big elephants generally don’t fit in our small bedrooms. So there’s no elephant outside the mind. Is there? Or did someone ship the elephant into my dream and then ship it out again at the end? I don’t think so.
How can something disappear if it’s real? How can something disappear if it’s more than just appearance to begin with? How can things just disappear? Where do our dream appearances go? How can they just vanish if they exist from their own side? If our entire dream world is independent of our mind as it appears to be, why does it all disappear when the mind perceiving it disappears?
That elephant felt so solid and real, as if it existed from its own side, just as real as an elephant would feel like if you visited one in a zoo. But when we wake up we realize we made the whole thing up — the elephant was just a projection of my mind, just an appearance to my mind. It was never out there like it appeared to be, and yet I was taken in by it, completely and entirely, hook, line, and sinker. Again. And how many dreams have we had?!
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? How we get caught up and caught out by our dreams every single night? Yet when we wake up we assume we’re so much more sensible when we’re awake, and we think, “Things appear real when I’m awake, so they must be.” The experience of dreaming night after night for however many years we’ve been dreaming has not managed to convince us, once we fall asleep again, that we’re just dreaming. We still think it’s real. So why do we trust our waking perceptions to be any more valid?
Interesting thought, isn’t it? We do though, don’t we? We think the waking world is real, compared to the dream world. Guess what? It’s not.
In his new book, Oral Instructions of Mahamudra, Venerable Geshe-la says:
All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru. ~ page 76
There are three points we can think about with respect to our dreams. The first one is that the elephant in our dream, say, is not our mind itself, because our mind itself is formless clarity and functions to cognize and so on, whereas the elephant is dream form, It is a big, gray, chunky thing, an appearance to the mind rather than the mind itself.
But, secondly, nor is it in any way independent of the mind. The dream elephant we see is entirely dependent upon our perception of elephant, we can’t separate it out from our perception of elephant, can we? If we could, we’d be able to find it outside the mind, for example in our room. But it is inseparable from the mind apprehending it. It cannot in any way exist independent of the mind, from its own side — not at all. There’s no part of that elephant that can exist in any way independent of our mind.
So then third point is that when our mind dreaming the elephant stops, or ceases, the elephant stops, or ceases.
Geshe Kelsang says in New Heart of Wisdom:
If we check carefully we shall realize that our waking world exists in a way that is similar to the way in which our dream world exists. Like the dream world, our waking world appears vividly to us and seems to have its own existence independent of our mind. Just as in the dream, we believe this appearance to be true and respond with desire, anger, fear and so on.
If you want a very helpful and profound daily reminder of the ultimate nature of reality, when you wake up from your dream in the morning you can immediately compare it to the waking reality of the day ahead using these three points. First of all, take an object in your dream for which you had strong feelings, and apply the three points to it until you know conclusively that, although it appeared utterly real, it was no more than a projection of your own mind — you owned it and could have controlled it. There is a sense of relief — you let it go because there was never anything there to grasp at in the first place.
Then you can think forward to your breakfast for example. You are going to be able to see it, smell it, touch it, taste it, feel it. It is going to feel very real, as if it exists “out there”, independent of your perceiving consciousness — you just stumbled into the kitchen and there it was waiting for you to perceive it. But in fact our breakfast shares the three points of similarity with our dream object: (1) It is not our mind, (2) it is not independent of our mind (we cannot find our breakfast out there if we look for it, for example in its parts), and (3) it only exists for as long as the mind apprehending it exists. Again, if you do this contemplation, you’ll have a sense of relief of letting go, there is nothing there to grasp at!
(In the logical meditation on emptiness, called “four essential points”, we look at the second point of similarity more closely by seeing if we can or cannot find things “out there”, or independent of our mind. For example, can you find the royal wedding!?)
In Modern Buddhism Geshe Kelsang says:
The only difference between them is that the dream world is an appearance to our subtle dreaming mind while the waking world is an appearance to our gross waking mind. The dream world exists only for as long as the dream awareness to which it appears exists, and the waking world exists only for as long as the waking awareness to which it appears exists. Buddha said:
“You should know that all phenomena are like dreams.”
When we die, our gross waking minds dissolve into our very subtle mind and the world we experienced when we were alive simply disappears. The world as others perceive it will continue, but our personal world will disappear as completely and irrevocably as the world of last night’s dream.
I’m out of space for now, but I’d like to continue this subject in a future article, particularly with reference to how a realization of the dreamlike nature of reality will free us from our problems once and for all.