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What Buddhists Believe
Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera

Dreams and Their Significance

'Life is nothing but a dream.'

One of man's greatest unsolved problems is the mystery of dreams. From the very earliest of times man has tried to analyze dreams and has tried to explain them in prophetic and psychological terms, but while there has been some measure of success recently, we are probably no nearer the answers to the baffling question: 'What is a dream?'

The great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth had a startling concept: that this life we live is merely a dream and that we will 'awake' to the 'real' reality when we die, when our 'dream' ends.

'Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting:
The Soul, that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.'

A similar concept is expressed in a charming old Buddhist tale which tells of a deva who was playing with some other devas. Being tired, he lay down to take a short nap and passed away. He was reborn as a girl on earth. There she got married, had a few children and lived to be very old. After her death again she was born as a deva amongst the same companions who had just finished playing their game. (This story also illustrates the world is very different from time in another plane of existence).

What has Buddhism to say about dreams? Just as in every other culture, Buddhism has had its fair share of people who claimed to be skilled in interpreting dreams. Such people earn a lot of money exploiting the ignorance of men and women who believe that every dream has a spiritual or prophetic significance.

According to Buddhist psychology dreams are ideational processes which occur as activities of the mind. In considering the occurrence of dreams it is relevant to remember that the process of sleeping can be regarded as falling into five stages.

- drowsiness,
- light slumber,
- deep slumber,
- light slumber and
- awakening.

The significance and the cause of dreams were the subject of discussion in the famous book 'Milinda Panha' or 'The Questions of King Milinda', in which Ven. Nagasena has stated that there are six causes of dreams, three of them being organic, wind, bile and phlegm. The fourth is due to the intervention of supernatural forces, fifth, revival of past experience and sixth, the influence of future events. It is categorically stated that dreams occur only in light slumber which is said to be like the sleep of the monkey. Of the six causes given Ven. Nagasena has stated positively that the last, namely prophetic dreams are the only important ones and the others are relatively insignificant.

Dreams are mind-created phenomena and they are activities of the mind. All human beings dream, although some people cannot remember. Buddhism teaches that some dreams have psychological significance. The six causes mentioned earlier can also be classified in the following manner:

Every single thought that is created is stored in our subconscious mind and some of them strongly influence the mind according to our anxieties. When we sleep, some of these thoughts are activated and appear to us as 'pictures' moving before us. This happens because during sleep, the five senses which constitute our contact with the outside world, are temporarily arrested. The subconscious mind then is free to become dominant and to 're-play' thoughts that are stored. These dreams may be of value to psychiatry but cannot be classified as prophetic. They are merely the reflections of the mind at rest.

The second type of dream also has no significance. These are caused by internal and external provocations which set off a train of 'visual thoughts' which are 'seen' by the mind at rest. Internal factors are those which disturb the body (e.g. a heavy meal which does not allow one to have a restful slumber or imbalance and friction between elements that constitute the body). External provocation is when the mind is disturbed(although the sleeper may be unaware of it) by natural phenomena like the weather, wind, cold, rain, leaves rustling, windows rattling etc. The subconscious mind reacts to these disturbances and creates pictures to 'explain' them away. The mind accommodates the irritation in a seemingly rational way so that the dreamer can continue to sleep undisturbed. These dreams too have no importance and need no interpretation.

Then there are prophetic dreams. These are important. They are seldom experienced and only when there is an impending event which is of great relevance to the dreamer. Buddhism teaches that besides the tangible world we can experience, there are devas who exist on another plane or some spirits who are bound to this earth and are invisible to us. They could be our relatives or friends who have passed away and who have been reborn. They maintain their former mental relationships and attachments to us. When Buddhists transfer merits to devas and departed ones, they remember them and invite them to share the happiness accrued in the merit. Thus they develop a mental relationship with their departed ones. The devas in turn are pleased and they keep a watch over us and indicate something in dreams when we are facing certain big problems and they try to protect us from harm.

So, when there is something important that is going to happen in our lives they activate certain mental energies in our minds which are seen as dreams. These dreams can warn of impending danger or even prepare us for sudden over-whelming good news. These messages are given in symbolic terms (much like the negatives of photographs) and have to be interpreted skillfully and with intelligence. Unfortunately too many people confuses the first two kinds of dreams with these and end up wasting valuable time and money consulting fake mediums and dream-interpreters. The Buddha was aware that this could be exploited for personal gain and He therefore warned the monks against practising soothsaying, astrology and interpreting dreams in the name of Buddhism.

Finally, our mind is the depository of all kammic energies accumulated in the past. Sometimes, when a kamma is about to ripen (that is, when the action we did in a previous life or early part of our life, is going to experience its reaction) the mind which is at rest during sleep can trigger off a 'picture' of what is going to happen. Again the impending action has to be of great importance and must be so strongly charged that the mind 'releases' the extra energy in the form of a vivid dream. Such dreams occur only very rarely and only to certain people with a special kind of mental make up. The sign of the effect of certain kammas also appears in our minds at the last moment when we are going to depart from this world.

Dreams can occur when two living human beings send strong mental telepathic messages to each other. When one person has an intense desire to communicate with another, he concentrates strongly on the message and the person with whom he wishes to communicate. When the mind is at rest, it is in an ideal state to receive these messages which are seen as dreams. Usually these dreams only appear in one intense moment because the human mind is not strong enough to sustain such messages over a long period of time.

All worldlings are dreamers, and they see as permanent, what is essentially impermanent. They do not see that youth ends in old age, beauty in ugliness, health in sickness, and life itself in death. In this dream-world, what is truly without substance is seen as reality. Dreaming during sleep is but another dimension of the dream-world. The only ones who are awake are the Buddhas and Arahats as they have seen reality.

Buddhas and Arahants never dream. The first three kinds of dream cannot occur in their minds, because their minds have been permanently 'stilled' and cannot be activated to dream. The last kind of dream cannot happen to them because they have eradicated all their craving energy completely, and there is no 'residual' energy of anxiety or unsatisfied desire to activate the mind to produce dreams. The Buddha is also known as the Awakened One because His way of relaxing the physical body is not the way we sleep which results in dreams. Great artists and thinkers, like the German Goethe, have often said they get some of their best inspiration through dreams. This could be because when their minds are cut off from the five senses during sleep, they produce clear thoughts which are creative in the highest degree. Wordsworth meant the same thing when he said that good poetry results from 'powerful emotions' recollected in tranquillity.


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Source: Buddhist Study and Practice Group, http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Clubs/buddhism/

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