Life is but a dream

It might be helpful to read Am I dreaming? first. (For a full and inspiring explanation of the subject, you’re welcome to download Modern Buddhism for free and read the chapter Ultimate Truth.)

Appearances are deceptive
Is this really moving?! Or is it your mind moving?! Or both?!

We know from the experience of waking up each morning that our dreams are a moment by moment projection of mind, mere appearances to mind that are totally dependent on the minds that perceive them. However, as in our waking world, this is not how they appear and this is not what we think about them while we are still dreaming. When we dream, our 3D dream world is intact with all its geographical, spatial, and temporal coordinates. There is a sense of here and there, outside and inside, coming and going. There is a sense of past, present and future – if asked in our dream, we’d agree that the people we meet were born and will die, and the same goes for us.

As my teacher Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

When we dream, we may have extremely vivid experiences. We may travel to colorful lands, meet beautiful or terrifying people, engage in various activities, and as a result experience great pleasure or suffering and pain. In our dream a whole world appears to us, functioning in its own way. This world may be similar to the world of our waking state or it may be quite bizarre, but in either case while we are dreaming it appears to be utterly real.

If we are capable of creating a whole world at night, we are certainly capable of creating one during the day!

Sometimes our waking life feels quite bizarre too, when unexpected things happen and we say things like “This feels so dream-like!” When we dream, our mind is more subtle and our mindfulness does not function very well (unless we have trained it), so it often appears as if everything is a little more chaotic or less predictable, just as it would if you were to lose your memory in waking life.

If we test our dreams, say during a lucid dream, by tapping the table or asking people around us “Am I dreaming?”, the table will feel solid to our seemingly solid knuckles and the people will most likely look at us in surprise and say that of course we are not dreaming. I once did try pinching myself in a dream and had to conclude that it proved absolutely nothing! The only way to know for sure that we’ve been dreaming is to wake up. Similarly, if you now tap the table you are reading this on, or ask your neighbor “Am I dreaming?”, or even pinch yourself, see what happens!! The only way to know directly that this is not all out there, independent of our mind, and existing as it appears (i.e. true as opposed to deceptive) is to wake up from our ignorance of self-grasping that clings to everything as being out there, independent, and true. However, in the meantime we can still gain a very strong understanding and sense of it through study and meditation, which will enable us to stop grasping (and its attendant delusions) and profoundly relax.

Like the dream you had last night, this day that you are having right now is a mere appearance to your mind. But, as Geshe Kelsang says in Heart of Wisdom:

“Nevertheless our world functions, following its own apparent rules in accordance with the laws of cause and effect, just as our dream world functions in its own way.”

We can follow these apparent physical (e.g. gravity) and karmic rules as opposed to being entirely nihilistic and throwing ourselves off cliffs or engaging in negative actions, whilst at the same time treading very lightly and happily through life. Emptiness is not nothingness. Inherently existent things don’t exist, but things do exist, even if only apparently.

“This plot has nothing to do with me!” we may think, especially when our lives are unraveling or our delusions are strong. Oh, but it does. It has everything to do with us. And for as long as we have self-grasping and self-cherishing, the projections that our mind throws up will be in the nature of suffering, they will be our own samsara. When we have compassion and wisdom functioning, we will project a peaceful, pure and blissful world that we can recognize as being the nature of our own mind. Depending on the extent of our compassion and wisdom, this will be a world that we can moreorless create and control for our own and others’ benefit.

A Buddha or “Awakened One” is anyone who has completely woken up from the sleep of ignorance and sees all phenomena as they really are. He or she is never again separated from the knowledge and perception that everything is appearance to mind, like objects in a dream, and that nothing exists from its own side. The definition of enlightenment in Mahamudra Tantra is:

“An omniscient wisdom whose nature is the permanent cessation of mistaken appearance and whose function is to bestow mental peace on all living beings.”

Buddhas are omniscient and all-loving, and as a result can help each and every living being every day through the power of their blessings. The only restriction to their power is living beings’ karma and delusions.

Even a slight understanding of emptiness (lack of inherent or independent existence) will revolutionize our outlook and where we put all our energy. If we want to change a dream, do we try and move the dream objects around, or do we need some understanding that we are dreaming and mainly focus on changing our mind? In our waking world, we can and do move things around, for sure; but we’ll be far more effective if we do this while also focusing on the state of our mind and mental intentions or karma.

If we change our mind, we’ll change our world. If we purify our mind, we’ll purify our world. You know in dreams — for example, if you’re having a lucid dream, the monster’s chasing you, and suddenly you think, “This is just a dream”  — I don’t know if you’ve had this experience?! “Ah!  You’re not really a monster after all. Just an appearance to my mind!” You make friends with the monster — maybe the monster starts crying and says, “No one has ever understood me before!” I have a friend who was always dreaming of being chased by a terrifying monster until one day, having heard these teachings, she stopped in her tracks, swung around, stared at him, and declared: “You are just a dream!” He transformed into a peaceful Buddhist monk.

Slight digression: My grandfather used to read me Alice in Wonderland when I was a kid – that and Alice through the Looking Glass are kind of useful for introducing children to some of these ideas. I remember being so struck when Alice declared:

“You are nothing but a pack of cards!”

I heard it again recently at my niece’s musical. I still use that expression! (maybe not out loud).

Whenever we know we’re dreaming, we can change everything in our dreams. It is the same for our whole life. As Geshe Kelsang says in Understanding the Mind:

“If we think deeply about this we shall understand how all phenomena are mere appearances to our mind, just like objects in a dream. Then we shall realize that we can cause all the unpleasant things that we dislike to cease simply by abandoning impure states of mind, and we can cause all the good things that we desire to arise simply by developing a pure mind. In this way we shall be able to fulfill all our wishes.”

We can temporarily abandon the “unpleasant things we dislike” by reducing our anger, attachment and other delusions; and we can abandon them completely, once and for all, by waking up. How? By realizing emptiness directly. The Buddhas’ point is that if we wake up to the fact that we are basically in a waking dream — everything appears so real and yet it’s just an appearance to our mind, a projection of our mind — then our delusions will stop, they will cease, they’ll have no ground left to stand on.

There’ll be no basis for attachment because attachment arises for things that are out there, independent of our mind. If something or someone appears attractive to us, we immediately think that the attractiveness is an inherent part of that object or person, we don’t think that it comes from the side of our mind. We think that person is really desirable, desirable from their own side, and “I have to have you if I’m going to be happy!” Thus attachment is born and we mentally (and/or physically!) pull them toward us, the closer the better. (Of course, a gap between two inherently existent people can never be bridged, so frustration is part and parcel of attachment). Or we see something that appears unattractive to us, and we think the unattractiveness inheres within the object (exists from its own side, in other words) and thus anger is born. We push the object away from us, or try to.

The push and pull of all our delusions come from that grasping at things as being out there, independent of our mind, nothing to do with our perceiving awareness. If we understand how the world comes not from out there but from the side of our mind, just projection, then we can understand that if we want to change our world we have to change our mind. Our mind also depends upon its objects and lacks inherent existence, so we can change it. Emptiness gives us freedom, nothing is fixed. As the great Indian Buddhist Master Nagarjuna said:

For whom emptiness is possible, everything is possible.

All Buddha’s teachings free us from suffering and problems to a greater or lesser extent but, of all his teachings, his teachings on ultimate reality — the emptiness of inherent existence — are the most completely liberating teachings of all. It’s through these wisdom teachings that countless people in the past have attained actual liberation and enlightenment.

Maybe it is our turn now.

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!

16 thoughts on “Life is but a dream”

  1. Where I still get tripped up is with conventional reality- vs. emptiness, and how to view things through these lenses in a functional way. (I’ve decided to eliminate the word “real” from my thought process.) Where I need help and more teaching is with how to correctly view other living beings and their suffering. If nothing is inherently existent, how/why do I help? How should emptiness inform my bodhichitta? Example- this past Father’s Day, I was really missing my dad, who passed on years ago. But did he ever exist? Is my grasping after him what causes me to miss him so much? Can someone point me to some of Geshe-la’s books for me to study on this? I don’t want to fall into wrong view, or end up nihilist-


  2. By calling it instinct, they leave themselves room to have
    a certain belief that undermines the envy. So why sit down on the sidelines, considering that this may all be hokum.
    it just takes some practice; before long, you’ll be able to use this ability at will.

  3. I would love more input on the anonymous comment about her niece. As children, at least in conventional psychology, we need another person to recognize our truth in order for it to be true to us. When children don’t get this they can’t clearly differentiate themselves. Which leads to psychological confusion.

    I struggle as from a buddhist perspective this undifferentiated state sounds appealing. But I remember that we first have to understand the “I” we normally perceive. I wonder if that lack of differentiation, ie where we don’t explore what is true for us, because we don’t feel supported to do so, can be a barrier to understanding emptiness as well. I remember something my teacher once said about being a buddha isn’t the point, it is becoming a buddha, and that means transforming ourselves. But first we need to understand that self.

    1. Really nice, Laura. The comment below is mine and you’ve totally nailed the point I was attempting to get at. Tx.

  4. Fantastic article as always… Last night I dreamt I was with friend in London, Kings Cross (not that it looked anything like it does in this conventional world) and I remembered your blog. I thought to myself ‘this is just a dream’, and I started flying. At one point I was flying over a bridge and I had doubts, and felt I could not fly. I remembered emptiness and carried on. I tried to recall my dream when I woke up as you do, and I remembered how real it felt. I also notice how I had no sense of eye conciousness of my normal body – I guess the moving wind had withdrawn from the door of the eye sense power back to its seat at the heart. I always find this inspiring as it shows me it’s possible to dissolve my body fully into emptiness and generate as a deity, for although the body appears so strongly whilst awake, in sleep it does not appear at all.

    I was thinking about the dream world compared to the waking world. In a dream everything exists in the mind of the dreamer, and in the waking world it is the same, but also other people, although they lack inherent existence, surely are creating their own dream world. Is this explained slightly by collective karma?

    Thank you Luna.

    1. Great dream, Henry 🙂

      Yes, it is explained a lot by collective karma. Sometimes in a dream we do apparently meet “real” people — for example it is said that the Buddhas and spiritual guides can visit us in our dreams. But usually we are just experiencing the ripening of individual karma.

  5. A few years ago when my niece who was then just seven or so, I first noticed her strong need to communicate the truth as she understood it. Back then we’d talk about all sorts of things. She loved the attention and the opportunity to tell a grown up about the things that mattered to her. I just loved being around her. What was always striking, though, was her apparent need to be understood completely. If during one of our discussions she felt she hadn’t communicated precisely what was wanted to say, precisely what was in her mind, she’d ignore all the conventions of polite conversation and go back over and over her point until she was sure it was clear. She’d even grab my wrist and plant herself squarely in front of me for emphasis. It was clear that she wanted to share with me something true for her and in order to know her truth had been transmitted, she needed to see recognition of it in my face. This is one of the many things I loved about her and still do.

    Thing is that I know this tendency very well because I share it, and I should add that it’s sometimes much less charming in an adult. But unlike like my niece I’ve lived long enough to know first hand the hazards of nailing my own truths to the ground. The trouble has rarely come from some initial misperception, mind you. The trouble is always in the inherent inflexibility of these subjective truths. When you’re the only one guarding a position there’s an immediate need to hold on to it more firmly. The amount of energy that this takes is probably a pretty good clue that you have it all wrong.

    In spite of this, though, it’s still hard for me to diminish my own value for seeing clearly what we call conventional reality. And what I’m really talking about here is the hard stuff. All the ugly hard truths that we want to run from because they are so painful. I’m mostly concerned with this because the tendency in our society to deny anything vaguely uncomfortable is so pronounced that i feel I have to guard against it. I’d go so far as to say that for me being able to look at it all is point one. When I’ve done that emptiness comes into play, when I’m on my game at least. And among it’s considerable merits, I’ve come to think of emptiness is one of the things that can save me from despair when all those hard truths pile up.

  6. Oh thank you, that was so well written. I will copy and send to my daughter, she’ll love it.

  7. Thank you Luna! I like how you use your blog to further explore, deepen, and share your understandings of Geshe-la’s teachings! This article was particularly inspiring: that I am the author of my life and that with emptiness I can change my mind and help others. Your pictures are cool too. Infinite thanks and best wishes!

  8. Thanks Luna….you make the subject emptiness so familiar….it is a “Delicious” time to read your articles…and make a lot of reflections and understandings …of all the Gueshe-la´s teachings…. specially today i knew i had to read it…and said to my self…relax…it is just a dream…..!

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