Dreams: The Forest of the Night, by John Aske

‘Dreaming is one of our roads into the infinite.’ (Henry Havelock Ellis)

Butterfly on Blue Flowers.You might sensibly ask why those interested in following the Buddha’s path should pay any attention to dreams. They represent—to many of us at least—a retrograde step; a falling back into the emotional and the irrational, and this does not seem to sit easily with the idea of balance and enlightenment. But balance and enlightenment refer to the whole human, not just a part. And if the irrational and emotional are part of us—and they are—then we must deal with them too, and the resulting balance must inevitably take them into consideration as well.

The Buddhist saying that ‘the passions are the Buddha’ was not made idly. The problem is that our conscious mind is too often blind to our faults and problems, and only our whole psyche is directly involved with them and can deal with them. The fact that the rocks are invisible does not mean that they can be ignored, and too many come to grief by doing just that. The dream is one of the psyche’s most effective and powerful means of unmasking and displaying the problem, and often guiding us to its solution.

`I suppose very few of us have passed through even a short period of existence without having noticed the different qualities of dreams. There are those that are evanescent; then there are those that possess you and you can’t shake off; and yet others that may be the urge of your life—its guiding star. Nor can the most superficial fail to observe how dreams and life react on one another.’

So wrote Synesius, the fourth century Greek writer in his work ‘On dreams’.

In the period between then and the twentieth century, dreams were regarded with suspicion by Christian orthodoxy, as an uncontrollable and hence dangerous survival of the pagan past. This was superseded by the rationalists, to whom dreams were an equally unwelcome reminder of the uncertain nature of ‘Reality’.

To them, the waking state appeared so solid and unarguable, that it was difficult to do anything but come to terms with it. But as Freud said, ‘What is repressed is expressed,’ and holding the sleeping state in such disregard, was to commit half of our life to oblivion, and the psyche would not long tolerate such mishandling.

The ancient world—western and eastern—coped very well by taking its gods and demons seriously. A force that is recognised and personified, is a force that we can come to terms with. In the same way, ancient people valued the dream because it opened up the other realms. There were other ways of doing this—magic, black and white, worship, and religious ritual—yet these were at best uncertain relationships between supplicant and deity. The dream world, however, was accessible to all, of whatever persuasion. It was the crossroads of the mortal and immortal, finite and infinite, and perhaps most importantly, body and mind.

But the west, having banished its ‘dark’ gods or at least insisted that we should not accommodate them in any way, simply made them intractable and a great deal more dangerous. Very often, the problems that block our conscious lives have their root in the unconscious, and the old ways at least allowed the problem to be approached. The dark tide that overwhelmed the Nazis and the Soviets and led to such pointless cruelty and loss of life, was the terrible price for disregarding such a large part of our psyche. Ironically, they both claimed a scientific rationale for much of what they did.

The brain does not concern itself with the world in an immediate sense. Instead, it builds a model and uses this to relate to it. A major part of our picture of the world is supplied by a pre-existent, built-in, model, and to the extent that this is different, our picture of the world is different.

Trees by PathIncoming information is gathered in the thalamus and sent to the cortex, where it is sorted out. These two are linked by a very complex series of pathways, and it is here that the model is created and held. The vividness and solidity of our world, the neurologist, Llinas, says, supplied by this complex internal system, not by the information coming in. The pathways coming in from outside are in any case few and the system basic.

In this interaction between the cortex and the thalamus, emotions, impressions, awareness and sensations are gathered together and synthesised to from our picture of the world, and this is updated and `shaped’ by information from the outside.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick suggest in their book, The Hidden Door, that `The main difference between the dreaming and waking states, is that the dreaming state is our basic model of the world . . . it is as if the brain continually dreams, but there are times, when we are awaken, when our dreams are constrained by the outside world . . . If dreams are of the same substance as conscious experience and are created in the same brain structures as conscious experience, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw a distinction between a dream model and a “real” model . . . Perhaps dreaming is the basis of what we call reality. Perhaps dreams are not modified reality, but reality only a modified dream.’

The categories of experience referred to and by extension their part in creating a picture of ourselves are remarkably similar to the Buddha’s description of how the self-image is created out of the khandhas—bodily form, sense perception, feeling, volitional impulses and consciousness.

So how valid are the waking or sleeping states? Surely, our version of waking, for example, is quite different to that of the Buddha. The Buddha’s last recorded words were: ‘See all things as illusion; work out your salvation with diligence.’ And that applies to all states and conditions, sleeping or waking. To recognise illusion, as we know, is hard in the waking state. We are like the blind Samson trying to destroy the Philistine temple with no Delilah to guide him.

The Buddha’s emphasis on waking was in any case quite different to ours. When the Brahmin Drona saw him in the road, and wondered at the remarkable being approaching him, he asked, `Are you a god?’

`No, Brahman, I am not a god,’ the Buddha said.

`An angel then?’

`No indeed Brahman.’

`A spirit then?’

`No, I am not a spirit.’

`Then what are you?’

`I am awake.’

There is a story that the king of Benares once dreamed he was a beggar passing through the city in rags. When he woke, he called his guru and asked him, ‘Am I the king who dreamed he was a beggar, or am I a beggar in the city of Benares, dreaming he is the king?’ And the guru answered, ‘You are neither. You are the self.’ A Buddhist teacher amended this and said, ‘The sleeping and waking selves are both aspects of that.’

Nevertheless, if the waking state is also only an ‘aspect’, the sleeping state has a much clearer value as a field of practice in the untangling of the net of illusion. They are both rich fields of instruction, the one pointing up the other. The sleeping state, for example, emphasises the transitory nature not only of matter but of mental conditions, through which the ‘solid’ is cognised, and also at times breaks down the apparently fixed nature of the self into quite distinct personae.

Not only are dreams of use in seeing things in another way, but in solving emotional problems. A little boy was plagued by a nightmare in which he was pursued by a large bear, of which he was very afraid. When he was taken to see a child psychiatrist, she suggested he ask the bear what it wanted from him.

One day the little boy came to see her free of the nightmare and happy again. ‘I asked the bear what it wanted, like you told me,’ he said.

‘And what did it say?’

‘It said, “I just want to play.”‘

It’s a pity we don’t get two cracks at the bears that chase us in waking life, but as Tarthang Tulku says, ‘Our ordinary tools of consciousness cannot cut through these obscurations because we cling so tightly to the surface of our experience. We can, however, use the dream state. Although in many ways the dream state is quite similar to the waking state, it has much more flexibility. In dreams we can manipulate images with ease, and by changing dream situations, we can learn to change our waking reality. Dreams are not simply fixed patterns of images or collections of reflected images; they are a direct channel to our inner awareness.’

Wheel PathFor too long, dreams were considered either a visitation from the gods, and then by the nineteenth century, a nonsense in the mind. Perhaps in that unstable age which declared at one point that ‘all the great discoveries have been made,’ as the lineaments of the old world were changed for good or ill, we did not want to recognise an area where the tectonic plates were never still. It took arduous work by Freud to change the western mind. And yet the Senoi in Malaya are said to have had a tradition of telling each other their dreams over breakfast, and are reputed to have had one of the lowest rates of neurosis in the world, presumably because they are open not only to their conscious, but to their unconscious lives, and are aware how interdependent these are.

Havelock Ellis writing nearly a hundred years ago, described how the dream state often appeared to ‘compel the dreamer and set problems which the dreamer must solve as best he can, like a game of hide and seek. It may be that the dream process furnishes the key to the metaphysics and even the physical problems of our waking thoughts. And the puzzles of the universe are questions that we invent for ourselves to solve.’

‘However small the path we investigate,’ he says later, ‘It will lead us back to the sun at last. There is nothing too minute or too trivial. I have often remembered with a pang, how long years ago, I once gave pain, with the arrogance of boyhood, that it was foolish to tell our dreams. I have done penance for that remark since… I have cultivated, so far as I care to, my garden of dreams, and it scarcely seems to me that it is a large garden. Yet every path of it, I sometimes think, might lead at last to the heart of the universe.’

Charlie Brown (of Peanuts) once asked his egghead girlfriend what dreams were for. ‘They’re to prepare you for the next day,’ she said. ‘It’s at night when you’re asleep that your brain is really working—sorting everything out for you… trying to make you see yourself as you really are.’

‘Even my brain is against me,’ Charlie Brown says.

From very early on we are consciously and unconsciously conditioned to see the world as society wishes us to see it, not as it is, or as we are. We are not encouraged to be awake—as that would show us how arbitrary the fabric of the world is—and that it is less desirable than it appears, but it is in the interests of society and its stability that we do not question this illusion.

This requires not only the dimming of our waking awareness, but of that of our sleeping world, and Paracelsus wrote: `That which the dream shows is the shadow of such wisdom as exists in man, even if in his waking state he may know nothing about it… we do not know it because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep with regard to that which is real within oneself.’

And so, of course, ‘Each morning systematically, but quite subliminally,’ as Ann Faraday says, `we steal from ourselves and sequester every remnant of our prewaking awareness. We have all learned to carry out this exercise in self-impoverishment with a precise and automatic thoroughness. The alarm rings and instantaneously an axe falls across the continuum of consciousness, sharply dividing awake from asleep…an hour after we awake, for most of us, the dreams are gone and today has blended into yesterday without interruption or distraction.’

How different this is from Bottom’s wonderful dream, which although a ‘Real’ happening, in the play at least, has all the characteristics of a real dream—the asses head on his shoulders, the love of the Queen of the Fairies (the anima?) and the enchanted night.

‘I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had… It shall be called Bottom’s dream, because it hath no bottom.’ Just like the bucket in the Zen story. And on this account alone, Bottom was truly following in the steps of the masters.

A student of Tarthang Tulku asked him, `What is it like when you realise that everything is a dream?’

`It is very interesting as well as satisfying.’

`Is this how you can say samsara is nirvana?’

`Yes, that seems very close to the path.’

`What’s it like when you know?’ the student asked.

`Even the hardest things become enjoyable,’ the tulku said, `When you realise that everything is like a dream, you attain pure awareness. And the way to attain this awareness, is to realise that all experience is like a dream.’

Then we can, as Shelley said, ‘Purge from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.’


Title: The Chinese characters for ‘dream’ mean `evening forest’.

Read more of John’s posts here.



Categories: Buddhist meditation, Encyclopedia, History, John Aske

Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. This is such a beautiful read; I will go bed full of hope and energy to be aware of my inner awareness.

  2. You have blended well: the Freudian theory that dreams are repressed wishes(in Buddhist terms (raganusaya: sleeping passions); the JUngian idea: dreams are attempts at mastering a problem; also that positive emotions may be repressed (king and the beggar); the Buddhist idea that the dream world is not real– but then the whole material world of ‘rupa’ is a kind of dream–to solve this problem you need ‘Buddhist contexualism’.
    [Edited by a moderator]
    Thanks for renovating my thoughts.

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