Sunday, July 20, 2008
Like a dream
The most common use of dreams in the literature of the Mahayana, or “Northern School” of Buddhism in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam is to see dreams as a simile for sunyata, (emptiness) the hollow core at the heart of all component dharmas (things). For example, in the well-known Vajra (Diamond) Sutra, the Buddha taught that:
“All conditioned dharmas, are like a dream, like an illusion, like a bubble, like a shadow, like a dewdrop, like a lightening flash; you should contemplate them thus.”
Dreams symbolize the changing and impermanent nature of all things known to the senses. Sights, sounds, smells, flavors, sensations of touch and thoughts are all dream-like, fleeting, and ultimately unobtainable. By pursuing and grasping material things or ephemeral states, we create the causes for misery and suffering. Those desire-objects are not real and permanent. When they break up and move on, we will experience grief, if we can’t let go. The hallmark of living beings is that we are “sleeping, “ unawakened to the truth of the emptiness and impermanence at the nature of conditioned things. This covering of sleep and lack of awareness is called “ignorance,” and it makes us in our waking state, from the Buddha’s viewpoint, look as if we are dreaming.
Bubbles burst, shadows run from light, dewdrops vanish by noon without a trace, lightning roars and vanishes, and dreams leave us at dawn. To continually perceive such things as real locks us into the endless cycle of birth and death. The Buddha was not simply giving us an evocative metaphor, a literary device or a philosophical point. He felt related to all beings, and in his compassion he was pointing out to his family a way to escape the prolonged misery of affliction and death. The dream simile occurs over and over in the sutras to teach about emptiness.
In the Ta Chih Tu Lun dreams occur as a didactic teaching device. Sariputra, the foremost Arhat in wisdom, learns the true application of the emptiness theory through the simile of dreams. Dreams are like ordinary waking reality in that both are empty and false. There is nothing gained by seeking out or clinging to any thought or mark that distinguishes the two states.
With the exception of message-dreams and portent dreams, two categories that we will look at below, for the Buddha’s monastic disciples who were intent on cultivating the mind full-time, dreams were considered as illusory and false, no different from the illusions of waking-time reality.
A Buddhist Approach to Dreams by Rev Heng Sure
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