On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

March 14, 2022

Dreaming Asleep and Awake

Sheng Yen (1930-2009)

The Buddha described the consciousness of waking life as a dream. Acceptance of life as a dream may be difficult, especially if life seems to offer contentment and happiness. No one likes to be awakened from a pleasant dream, let alone be told that their life amounts to nothing more than illusions.

But how can we distinguish between dreaming and waking? According to the Buddha, sleep is made up of short dreams, but life is a long dream. You may awaken to the fact that you are living a dream, and then fall back into the dream once again. In Buddhism, awakening from the long dream of life means realizing your self-nature. A sentient being who does not experience this realization remains forever caught in a dream.

Everything is fleeting, everything is unreal. We think of our dreams as unreal and believe our waking moments to be reality. But when we recognize the illusory nature of the body, of the world, of life and death, we then see that both sleeping and waking are equally dreamlike states.

A famous Chinese photographer, Lang Jing-shan, takes pictures of the areas around the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, and makes them resemble Chinese “mountain and water” paintings. The whole image becomes an impression built from fragments. This is how our minds work. Our experiences are stored as fragments in the subconscious mind. We never remember experiences in their entirety, but rather in bits and pieces. At a certain time or place, the fragments may reappear in our consciousness. And so it goes when we dream.

Perhaps you experience deja vu when you see or read something that you believe you’ve already seen or read. We all have many experiences and thoughts that trigger feelings and responses in our minds. But like impressionistic photographs, these responses are merely fragmentary, illusory reflections of our experiences, thoughts, and fantasies.

Few people know when they are dreaming; fewer still want to wake up once they discover they are dreaming. Someone who does not see their self-nature thinks they are very much awake, that life is real, and that they do not suffer. When they recognize the illusory nature of the self, they realize that they have only been dreaming a very long dream, and that this dream is indeed marked by suffering.

But relatively few people appreciate that recognizing the impermanent and illusory nature of everyday life requires serious daily practice. It is not enough to merely listen to my words, or read a book or reach an intellectual understanding of the concept. Many have heard about Buddhist practice, but few want to really commit to it. Rarer still is the person who practices, awakens from the dream, and, rather than falling back into the dream, comes to realize their self-nature….

Time passing quickly is a common experience, not only in dreams, but in daily life. Sometimes we have dreams that seem very long but which really only last a few minutes of waking time. Differing perceptions of time also occur when we do sitting meditation. If your legs hurt and you can’t concentrate, the time seems to crawl, but if your legs feel fine and concentration is not a problem, the time flies.

Dreams are by nature illusory and passing, and our consciousness of time and reality also passes like a dream. But it is a mistake to think that our actions in waking life are as inconsequential as those in dreams. We may not have to suffer the consequences of our actions in dreams, but we cannot avoid those consequences in daily life. Our actions and speech create strong and lasting effects that do not fade away as easily as dreams do. This is the principle of cause and effect.

Most people think that they are not responsible for their thoughts if they do not act on them. All of us have bad thoughts we never act on; wanting to have everything we see, wanting to harm someone we don’t like, and so forth. For the most part, we do not believe these thoughts break the Buddhist precepts against lying, killing, misconduct, and stealing. But for a bodhisattva, harboring such thoughts is tantamount to breaking the precepts.

Few people think about striking or killing someone when they sit in meditation. But in their sleeping dreams and the course of daily life, violent and murderous thoughts may arise quite often. Anyone who practices regularly, who adopts the attitude of a bodhisattva, needs to let go of such ideas both in sleep and in daily living.

While dreaming, people often experience non-virtuous thoughts or perform non-virtuous actions. That is because such thoughts reside in their minds. But truly advanced practitioners do not dream of wrongdoing, just as they do not break the precepts while awake. This equivalence is called correspondence of thought and action.

Non-correspondence, on the other hand, implies that a person does not break the precepts while awake, but still has wrongful thoughts when dreaming. An anecdote from my teaching experience offers a useful analogy of non-correspondence.

Several years ago, an electrical blackout plunged one of my classes into darkness. The students all began to shout and laugh. Why? Their hidden minds emerged. They exhibited self-control in the light, but felt free in the darkness.

Although we may understand that our lives are vain, unreal, and dreamlike, we still bear responsibility for this sleeping and waking dream. Just as the activity of the body creates karma, so does the activity of the mind. For example, if you do not know someone is behind you, you might accidentally step on their foot and then apologize. In such a case you would not feel as though you had done anything particularly wrong. Likewise, according to a bodhisattva’s perspective, the acts of the body are not serious, but those of the mind are. For ordinary sentient beings, however, the karma of the body is more serious than that of the mind.

Because the bodhisattva way is based on mental realization, we should understand that karma caused by the body means little compared to karma created by the mind. So, we should pay attention to our mental behavior and take responsibility for it.

We must make our minds simple, peaceful, and tranquil. Sincere and rigorous practice lets us calm both body and mind, which in turn allows us, day by day, to reduce our karmic obstructions.

Sheng Yen (1930-2009)

Excerpted from Dharma Drum – The Life and Heart of Chan Practice -Sheng yen 2006

How much clearer can this be? The enchantment surrounds us and creates the almost unmistakable sense of an “I” which is sticky, and like a shadow, which appears attached, seems to be with us everywhere we go.

And then there is the experience we have all had of fooling ourselves, mistaking a false kind of understanding with an experience of Being. Just what cannot be put into words, we find innumerable books explaining how it all is.

It seems a test of our resolve to stay clear. Just like Dorothy in the field of poppies, we so easily slip back into sleep. Then there are those helpful times when there is just enough pause in our forward motion to sense something we are unfamiliar with. To try to name it creates more confusion.

Suffice it to say, meditation creates that space between thoughts where, for a while, we can return to a nameless frontier. Or as some of us like to call it, the pause where we seem out of phase with what is going on around us. The place before action begins. The Uncreate, or Unborn as it is called by some in Zen.

Stopping once again to pause,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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