Dreams within Dreams

Mark T. Unno
Assistant Professor of East Asian Religions
Carleton College

Dreams-this is a word that has had many meanings in the history of Buddhism, but perhaps its most familiar use has been as a metaphor for the illusory world of distinctions, of maya, of the life of those lost in samsara. In pursuit of the relative things of this world-material success, recognition for accomplishments, desired relationships-we begin to define our lives and ourselves in terms of our ideas of what the world is or should be, thus putting into motion the endless cycle of our own ever greater suffering. The opposite of this oneiric ignorance is bodhi, an awakening to the world free of form and distinctions, in which we move past prejudice and preconceptions into a more fluid, intimate, receptive realm of nondual awareness.

Dreams, however, have not only carried this negative metaphorical connotation as the opposite of religious awakening, but also signified the world of awakening in a positive sense-of clairvoyance, prophecy, even enlightenment itself. The use of dreams has been systematically developed in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, as dream yoga, in which the practitioner cultivates states of lucid dreaming in order to investigate facets of the mind and dimensions of experience difficult to gain access to in ordinary consciousness. In East Asian Mahayana, having specific types of dreams have been important at various stages of practice-at the time of precept ordination, near death, and the like. It has been common practice throughout much of Buddhist history for renunciants and householders alike to engage in secluded periods of practice in order to obtain a dream oracle regarding specific questions, such as the birth of offspring and future life-decisions. Even the Zen tradition, which is usually regarded as eschewing dreams as just another dimension of makyo, delusory consciousness, contains many accounts of the key role played by dreams in the lives of its masters. And then there is the well-known case of Myoe Koben, a thirteenth-century monk of the Japanese Kegon and Shingon schools who maintained a journal of his dreams for over three decades, a journal containing everything from dreams of transcendence and erotic tantra to frightening episodes of dismemberment as well as seemingly nonsensical fragments.

Dreams in these positive senses is akin to mystical visions found in the accounts of nearly all religious traditions. In fact, the word for dreams in Classical Japanese, yume, refers to both what in modern usage is divided into nocturnal dreams and waking visions.

In English there is at least one other important meaning of “dream” in addition to those of the dream-like world of samsara and the dream world of awakening just described; that is the world of ideals and aspirations, as when we speak of realizing a long-held dream. This sense of dreams we aspire to fulfill may be helpful in bringing the other two senses of “dream” together, for in Buddhism the greatest dream of all is the dream of attaining enlightenment.

In the pursuit of this dream of enlightenment, dreams and visions have been important vehicles for taking the practitioner beyond the dream-like world of illusions and into the nondual world of compassionate awareness in which one is awakened to the interpenetration of all things that abide in this universe, where all beings have been mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers.

As a conscientious monk living in what he perceived to be a corrupt period of Buddhist history, Myoe felt it incumbent upon himself to observe the precepts and maintain his celibacy. Yet, as a Mahayana nondualist influenced by his Shingon tantric training, he knew that it was dualistic to deny human passion and sexuality. If he could not manifest nondual emptiness in his waking life, he could do so in his dreams:


In a dream seen on the night of the twenty-fourth day [of the twelfth month], a great hall appeared. There was a noblewoman inside. She had a plump face and was exceptionally large. She was wearing a blue multi-layered kimono, and I met her at the back door. I thought, “Her features and appearance are in accord with the Great Master Fazang’s commentary on the scriptures.” This woman was truly in conformity [with the teachings]. Her every aspect revealed the dharma. My encounter with her was also a manifestation of the dharma. I spent the night, and we made love.

Everyone said that the ceremonial act would certainly become a cause of enlightenment. We embraced. There was deep feeling for each other (Myoe 1978).

Here, the Buddhist dream of nonduality is realized in this dream of passion, wherein Myoe and the noblewoman not only break down the barrier between self and other to become one in body, heart, and mind but also the distinction between samsara and nirvana, passion and dispassion.

The dream of Buddhist enlightenment is not, however, to be pursued unconditionally. In the end, Buddhism itself is but an ephemeral dream, an historical and external expression of something too subtle and unbounded to be captured in a finite set of practices, images, and ideas. While established practices may serve as skillful means to enter and manifest the realm of emptiness, they are limited insofar as they represent responses to differing social conditions and cultural contexts. One who is truly awakened can find emptiness everywhere. Thus, when Manjusri asks the layman Vimalakirti where emptiness should be sought, the latter replies, “Manjusri, emptiness should be sought in the sixty-two heretical teachings” (Thurman 1978: 44).

For contemporary Buddhists, this might mean that, in order to be true to the spirit of awakening, one should ultimately be able to realize emptiness everywhere, in a Catholic church as well as a Zen monastery, in the sangha as well as in the workaday world. Even emptiness, Nagarjuna tells us, is empty. As the Zen master Dogen suggests, the goal of Buddhism is not to model oneself after pre-existing buddhas, but to model oneself after oneself; and to know the self, one must forget the self and all its assumptions, returning to the spirit of a beginner’s mind (see Waddell and Abe 1972). Paradoxically, it may be necessary to abandon one’s dream of Buddhism in order that it may continually be renewed.

Of course, this is easy enough to say but difficult to put into practice. Dogen must have been aware of this himself; reflecting on the biases influencing his own study of Buddhism, he wrote, “In spite of this [knowledge of nonduality], flowers fall always amid our grudging, and weeds flourish in our chagrin” (Waddell and Abe 1972: 188). As each of us pursues our own dream of Buddhism and of life, we are continually made to be aware that our dreams are but a dream. This seems not to be a negative thing at all, since life tempers us in this way, renewing us, making it possible to embrace ever greater dreams on this dream-like journey called life.


Myoe Koben. Yume no ki, in Myoe Koben Shiryo II. ed. Kozanji tenseki monjo sogo chosadan. Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1978.

Robert A. F. Thurman, tr. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Norman Waddell and Abe Masao, tr. "Shobogenzo Genjokoan." Eastern Buddhist 5:2 (October 1972).