Saturday, March 28, 2009

Buddhist Dream Interpretation

A Buddhist Approach to Dreams
Jung and Junti: Dreams West and East
Rev. Heng Sure (

Part 1: Dealing with Dreams

A. European Approach to Dreams

It is said that the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in his lifetime analyzed over 80,000 dreams. Dreams for Jung played an important complementary role in the psyche....

B. An Indian Approach to Dreams

When Buddhists in India dreamed they dealt with their dreams in a variety of ways. Certain types of dreams occurred frequently enough to the ancients to merit listing as separate categories for dream-analysis. The categories show the following different kinds of dreams. The most distinctive use, for Buddhists, was
  1. seeing dreams as a simile for emptiness, sunyata, the ultimate nature of all things.
  2. seeing dreams as portents of things to come, which overlapped with another type of dream:
  3. as messages or teaching by the gods, spirits, or bodhisattva.
  4. Buddhists in India and in China thought, like Freud and Jung, that it was possible to diagnose aspects of the dreamer’s mental and physical health from the symbols of dreams.
  5. The theoretical psychology school of Buddhism, the Vijnanavada (“Consciousness-only”) School, called dreams “monkey-sleep,” a function of the “isolated mind-consciousness”.
  6. Buddhist psychologists saw dreams as the return at night of things thought on during the day.
  7. Finally, Nagarjuna explained dreams as a standard for testing the quality of a bodhisattva’s vows.
Dreams appear in the earliest Buddhist writings, and played no less an important role in Buddhism than in our lives today. Being human, Buddhists have always slept; and when asleep, they dream. While dreaming they perceived the same disembodied shadows and disconnected images as we do. After waking they sought the meaning of their dreams.

The diviners and prognosticators of India and China, being culture-bound individuals, interpreted the dreams according to the modes and methods available to them. Those methods were in some respects suggestive of methods used today, in some respects they were quite different. Dreams are very democratic; both rich and poor alike dream at night. But when trying to analyze what dreams meant, it is important to know who the dreamer was.

The educated, literate, elite certainly had more options in their systems of dream analysis. Dreams could be messages from ancestors and Sages more often for a prince or a scholar because they had a concept of history. Uneducated individuals seemed to turn to formula-books of ready-made dream interpretations to explain the symbols of dreams.

Generic do-it-yourself recipes, such as Aunt Sally’s Dream Book and Horoscope Love Advisor that we find at the supermarket check-out counter had its counterpart in most cultures. Dream interpretation formulas answer some superficial questions, to be sure. But they tend to center on love, money, and bad luck. Nagarjuna’s Ta Chih Tu Lun gives us the following important patterns that occur regularly in dreams.

1. Dreams as a simile for emptiness.

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 Sutra (Diamond Discourse), 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 [enlightened disciple] 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.

2. Message-dreams or teaching by the gods, spirits, or bodhisattvas

Dreams can be a message from a bodhisattva, an ancestor, a god, or a spirit [brahma or deva]. The intent of the dream may be to test the dreamer’s resolve: Is one non-retreating (avaivartika) from Bodhi (enlightenment) even when sleeping? The purpose of the dream visit may be to communicate information vital to the dreamer’s well-being.

The Buddha himself had five dreams of catastrophes, falling stars, and worlds in collision just before his enlightenment. The dreams were sent to him not by a benevolent Dharma-protector, but by a malevolent sorcerer, intent on disrupting the Buddha’s samadhi (concentration) and preventing his awakening.

3. Prescient or Portent Dreams

Prescient or portent dreams that predict the future are the only category of dreams that the ancients considered real or valuable in itself. Based on the records we have, it seems that dreamers in the past wanted to know more or less what dreamers want to know now: whether their dream augured good luck or misfortune. The office of dream diviner was esteemed, and nobility and commoner alike, waking after a dreamy sleep, sought to know the meaning of their dreams. More>>

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