Am I dreaming?

Wisdom Buddha Manjushri (who was on Geshe Kelsang’s retreat in Tharpaland)

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.

The New Heart of WisdomGeshe 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.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

38 thoughts on “Am I dreaming?”

  1. I dream almost every night and usually remember them all. I also dream in different seasons such as the one I had last night. I dream of being in different time periods and scariest of all I dream prophetically as well. My Mother is occasionally in my dreams as well even though she passed away some time ago. When I dream of her, during the dream it’s as if she had not passed away. What can you make of this?

    1. The main thing vivid dreams teach us is that things can appear to be real without being real, that everything is projected by our own minds.

  2. Great read. One issue I’m having is that in our “awake” life there is continuity between days, whereas there is none in the dream life. Any thoughts on that?


    1. There is seeming continuity due to similar karma ripening, but in fact there is no carry over whatsoever between one day and the next. You can check out the articles on subtle impermanence to get more of a sense of that.

  3. Whenever we see something that is not there we are experiencing the mind-dream-mechanism in action in daily life (i.e. a piece of rope that looks like a snake, a movie projected on a screen, especially IMAX, a date on the floor that looks like a cockroach. Whenever we see something that others do not see we are also experiencing this mind-dream-mechanism and the best example that comes to mind is that famous image that is perceived either as two faces or two chalices (I wish I could reproduce it here…maybe Luna Kadampa can?)

  4. This was such a clear and logical presentation of emptiness. It is irrefutable. I think if we all can look at our waking mind the same way we look at our dream mind then the whole idea of emptiness makes sense. It has the potential to free us from the weight of self grasping at our self andd phenomena and all the delusions that arise from this grasping. Thank you so much! I can’t wait to further this discussion

    1. So glad this has been helpful. Nothing more important than for us to wake up from the sleep of ignorance and its dreamlike suffering, and help everyone else do the same.

      1. I have followed buddhism for quite a few years but i struggle with this concept.
        I can see how my feelings about a person or even object are distorted by my delusions in both the dream and awake world
        But surely an object in the awake world can be shown to be ‘real’ even when i am not there or i die
        Sorry to be dim but dont understand
        When the breakfast in the example you give you say exists for as long as the mind apprehending it exists, surely it exists even if my mind suddenly does not exist.

  5. Very profound and very helpful. Ultimately, there is no self and no other; a good thing to think about as well, and how this fits in with the above contemplations !

  6. “groundhog day” is a teaching on the benefit of compassion …… a film made some years ago……

  7. Hi !

    Very interesting post. I was just talking to some friends of mine about dreams and their importance to our spiritual growth.

    Unfortunately, some of them will have to struggle hard to understand your text in English.

    Would you mind if i translate it to Portuguese ?

    All the best,

    1. Hello Hilton,
      I’d be happy for you to translate it into Portuguese, thank you for offering, and perhaps you could send the link so I can share it with Portuguese speakers who visit this blog.
      Best wishes,

      1. Hi, Luna !

        Thanks for your kindness.

        I was going to send the translation by e-mail, but since you asked me for a link, i’m going to create a personal WordPress blog so i can post translations of texts as interesting as yours.

        I’m going to call it “Encontrado na Web”, that’s the Portuguese for “Found on the Web”.

        Thanks for the triple inspiration: the text per se, the intention to translate it, and the creation of a personal blog.

        All the best,

        1. Ha ha! I think you overcredit me, but thank you anyway 😉 Its a good idea, though, your blog. Everything is so English-centric on the web!

  8. I’ve had a dream inside a dream once and I left the inner dream by waking up in the outter dream. Then I waked up in the reality dream again. Much like that Inception movie, but I could only go 2 levels as far as I remember 🙂

    Do the Buddhas tell us why our mind became stuck in samsara? What’s the “paranirvana” that I’ve seen mentioned sometimes?

    1. Hi Giovanni, cool dream! Dreams are so useful for us to break through our preconceptions of what is real…

      Entering paranirvana means attaining enlightenment. Our minds are beginningless so there was no original cause for our getting stuck — we have been stuck since beginningless time due to our ignorance grasping everything as real 🙁

      Time to break free…

    2. I think, Giovanni, you went three levels on this occasion, not two 🙂 The first level of the ‘dream’ actually happens within the dream-like daily existence that we have. The second level of your dream was actually the third 🙂

    3. I think you actually experienced three levels of ‘dream’ experience, Giovanni. The first level of dream was experienced within the gross dream-like experience of the day, so the next level of dream within the dream would have been the third 🙂

  9. Thank you so much for the inspiring articles. Hope there are more of them coming.

  10. GKG uses elephants because they always remember! We dream of remembering emptiness.

    Having mindfulness of the two extremes and a mindfulness of what inherently existent objects would look like are a prerequisite in understanding the negated object, ‘the breakfast we normally see,’ since we assume it exists from it’s own side independent of our mind.

    Using the breakfast example, the essense of the first profundity teaches that breakfast is free from being nothing since we can see it and experience it. It is also free from permanently existing, since it is momentarily arising and will soon disappear (into our tummy!)

    The real breakfast is the middle way, avoiding both extremes. Understanding it’s dream-like nature follows this understanding.

    1. It’s true that to realize the lack of inherent existence of the breakfast, we have first to identify the negated object — inherently existent breakfast, or a breakfast that is independent of our mind, which is the same as the breakfast we normally see. Any breakfast that appears to be more than a dream-like projection of mind is the object to be negated. Realizing its non-existence avoids the extreme of permanence. But in negating the inherently existent breakfast we are not negating mere breakfast, or breakfast as it appears to a conventional consciousness. So we avoid the extreme of nihilism. More can be found out about all this in Modern Buddhism emptiness chapter and Meaningful to Behold.

  11. Some years back I had one of those rare dreams where you ‘wake up’ inside the dream. When this happened, I looked around wide-eyed in the dream and started rapping solid objects with my knuckles, and yes, they felt as solid as the keyboard keys I’m tapping now do. I started saying to myself ‘but this is a DREAM’. And then I woke up and started tapping things around me and comparing the feelings of solidity in the dream and in ‘reality’ – exactly the same experiences of solidity. Hmmm…

    I pay great attention to my dreams in general, there’s so much to think about for many reasons. Sometimes you are speaking a foreign language in a dream, or you meet people with complete histories who you know completely – in the dream. Also, those dreams that colour the whole day after you wake, I’ve had some where I’ve almost been heartbroken on waking as you’ve been with somebody and you’ve now left them and you can’t get back there! Then those dream realities fade away with time and you struggle to remember them and the beings within them. Where does all that come from? Couldn’t make it up if I tried. A lot of it from the past I believe and probably from the future as well.

    Dreaming and waking are such a rich seam to mine in relation to thinking about life, death and rebirth.

    1. So true, if we understand sleeping, dreaming and waking we can understand how it is a microcosym of dying, intermediate state and rebirth — the mind continually cycling through its stages in life after life.

  12. A few of your quotes few of your quotes come from my fave section in Heart of Wisdom. I had a lucid dreem when studying it at MMBC, and went thru all th things GKG suggests, like knocking on solid things and asking folks’ history – and guess what – it all validated th dreem’s reality! Dreem-like emptiness rocks 😀

    1. soz, i posted this then scrolled up to see a big pic of HoW up there. D’h! I thought i was being helpful as well. I was just so excited by an article on dreeming i didn’t even notice it, or my typo LoL.
      Keep ’em coming, Luna

  13. I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed of an elephant but I had a very vivid dream recently, in which I was conversing with two friends (and strangely also with another version of myself!) about how dreams are like the waking world. In the dream I remember touching things and saying to my friends ‘see? This feels real, but in a dream it would feel real too’. In the dream I was totally convinced it was the real world.

    It was very confusing when I woke up because I wasn’t quite sure if I had! But that day was alot less chunky and a good deal lighter and easier to deal with 🙂

    1. Interesting how in these comments and on Facebook several people have explained how they tried to knock on things in their dreams to see if they are real, as Geshe-la explains in Heart of Wisdom! And how the evidence of our dream senses is no evidence at all, any more than is the supposed evidence of our waking senses.

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