In the Lord of All Lineages Prayer it says, “All my appearances in dreams teach me that all my appearances when awake do not exist; thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru.” This verse can be understood at two levels: interpretative instructions and ultimate instructions. Interpretative instructions derive teachings from the substance of what appears in our dreams and ultimate instructions derive teachings from considering the nature of the dreams themselves.
How to interpret our dreams as Dharma instructions
Long-time followers of this blog know that I occasionally have very vivid dreams which reveal to me a host of Dharma lessons which I then write up and share here. Normally, these postings discuss how the substance of what appears in my dreams teaches some Dharma lesson. There are many books about how to interpret our dreams and it is a subject of much fascination in the world. Interpreting what appears in our dreams as Dharma lessons is the first level of understanding this verse. My experience has taught me that what exactly appears in our dreams doesn’t really mean anything – seeing a raven in and of itself has no fixed meaning. For one person, it could mean one thing; and for somebody else it could mean something entirely different. Most – if not all – of the books or popular understandings of interpreting dreams that say this appearance means this and that appearances means that in some fixed way for all people are simply an example of grasping at inherently existent things and meanings. If any appearance can mean anything, then how can we accurately interpret our dreams? The answer is simple: we ask ourselves what did we understand it to mean? If we understood either during the dream or shortly after waking up that the raven we dreamt of meant revealing the two wings of wisdom and compassion, then that is what the raven meant to us and that is the Dharma meaning or teaching our guru is trying to reveal to us through our dream. And if we understood the dream to mean we have perhaps watched a bit too much Game of Thrones and it is becoming a strong object of attachment, then that is the meaning our guru is trying to teach us. The same logic can be used for interpreting any dream. The main point is don’t over-think it. Simply ask yourself, “what did I understand it to mean?” That is your instruction from your guru. But it is not the supreme instruction of your guru, it is the interpretative instruction of your guru.
Contemplating the nature of dreams reveals the ultimate instructions of our Guru
The supreme instruction of our guru is the teachings on emptiness. Venerable Geshe-la has said on many occasions the real meaning of meeting him is discovering the truth of emptiness, and understanding the nature of our dreams is the supreme instruction among the teachings of emptiness. Why? Because we all instinctively understand the nature of dreams is mere appearances to mind. Geshe-la says all the appearances when awake are just like these. The only difference between our dream appearances and our waking appearances is the mind to which they appear – our gross waking mind or our subtle dreaming mind. In terms of their nature of being mere karmic appearances to mind, they are exactly the same.
So let’s dive in a bit to flesh this out by looking at the classic example of a dream elephant. Now mind you, I have never personally dreamt of an elephant, but apparently in ancient India, this was a thing! We all know that even though the elephant appeared vividly to us in our dream, there was no elephant actually there. We don’t go looking for the elephant when we awake, but instantly realize that we were just dreaming and when we awoke, the elephant simply dis-appeared – it ceased to appear to our mind. There was never any elephant there. What was there? There was an appearance of an elephant, nothing more. That is why we call it a mere appearance. There is an appearance of something there, but there is nothing, in fact, actually there. It is merely an appearance to mind.
But it appears to be real…
A particular characteristic of this appearance is despite it being a mere appearance, the elephant nonetheless appears to be a real elephant. When we are in the dream, we do not doubt at all the existence of the elephant. It appears to actually be there and we believe it to be there. Now of course, in truth, there is no elephant there – it is just a mere appearance – but in the dream, we believe without a doubt it is there and can generate a wide range of emotional reactions in response to the elephant, perhaps we marvel at its majesty or we tremble in fear if it is charging us. Because we believe (or grasp at) it is real, we experience it as a real elephant and can even be harmed by it, even though both the elephant and ourselves in the dream are nothing more than mere appearances to our mind. When we wake up, we then know without a doubt there was never anything there and we were never actually in any danger. Sure, our dream body was in danger, but we were not.
Communicating with others
If we encounter our friend in our dream, we can even have a very in-depth conversation about the elephant – what it looks like, what it is doing, how it makes us feel, and so forth. We both seem to see, more or less, the same elephant and as long as we do not investigate further into its ultimate nature, we are able to discuss it. If we are satisfied with its mere name, we can communicate with others about it. In truth, we are discussing nothing. There is nothing actually there that we are talking about, but relative to the dream world, we can nonetheless discuss it, have all sorts of opinions about it, and devise elaborate plans for how we are going to ride it and take selfies atop it.
Differentiating ordinary appearance from conception
Sometimes when we are dreaming we are aware of the fact that we are dreaming and we know that what is appearing to our mind is just dream appearances. This is often referred to as lucid dreaming. The things that appear still appear to actually be there doing their thing, but we know this to be false. Though they appear, we know they do not truly exist. Just knowing that they are false appearances does not give us the ability to make the appearances themselves cease to appear. Despite knowing better, they still appear, but we are not afraid because we know they are just appearances. They can’t actually harm us, though they can still harm our dream self. So it is quite natural and indeed appropriate to not provoke the beast and to avoid its charge if we can.
Understanding the relationship between karma and appearance
Where does the appearance come from? It comes from our karma. All appearances are “karmic appearances,” meaning they arise from our past karma. If we gave somebody a rose in the past, we planted the karma on our mind to have the appearance of somebody giving us a rose in the future. Karma shapes the emptiness of our mind into appearance. There are two types of karma – contaminated and uncontaminated. Contaminated karma is karma created with a mind that grasps at objects existing inherently, from their own side, independent of our mind. We believe that something is actually there and that we are actually there, and in dependence upon these beliefs, we engage in some action with respect to that object. In doing so, we create contaminated karma. This karma will later ripen in the form of appearances of something actually being there, us actually being there, and us actually doing something towards that object. None of it is true or real – but it vividly appears to be so, just like our dreams. In contrast, when we know the objects that appear to us, ourself, and our actions are all just mere appearances like in a dream, we create uncontaminated karma. This karma will ripen in the future in the form of appearances that we know to be just mere appearances to our mind, just like a lucid dream.
Most of the time we do not dream about the same things more than once. We see an elephant, but we don’t see that same elephant tomorrow night. Why not? Because every karmic seed only has the potential to ripen as appearance for a certain duration. Some seeds produce appearances that are long-lasting and other seeds produce appearances that are fleeting. This is primarily due to the degree of concentration the mind had when it created the karma in the first place – deeper concentration producing longer-lasting appearances. I have a friend who has narcolepsy. Unlike us, he sleeps maybe 16 hours a day and is awake only eight hours per day. For him, his dream world is more his reality than his waking world. When he dreams, he returns to the same home, the same life, the same family – night after night. He has a job, relationships, experiences, everything. It all appears to him to be real and he experiences it in that way. For him, it is quite common to encounter night after night the same appearances in much the same way as it is normal for us to encounter day after day the same appearances. His dream appearances are not, in fact, any more real than ours are, the only difference is the karmic seeds producing those appearances are of longer duration and waking up doesn’t exhaust that karma. The same is true for us with our waking appearances, they are just as un-real as our dream appearances, but their karmic duration hasn’t exhausted itself, so we continue to see more or less the same things day after day.
Do things cease to exist if they don’t appear directly to our mind?
Sometimes people wonder what happens to the waking world while dreaming and what happens to the dreaming world while awake. When we fall asleep, does the world that appears to our waking mind simply cease to exist at all? Does it shift into a state of utter non-existence? What happens to my narcoleptic friend’s dream world when he is awake? Some people argue that yes, both cease to exist at all when we shift from one world to the other. Their argument for why is if there is no dream mind, there can be no dream objects because an object cannot exist without a mind apprehending it. Similarly, if there is no waking mind there can be no waking objects. When the waking mind ceases, the waking world ceases as completely and irrevocably as last night’s dream. These people say if there is some trace of the dream world that remains while awake or the waking world while dreaming, then we would have objects that exist without a mind, which would be inherently existent objects – something we know doesn’t exist at all.
But others argue that is absurd. When I move from one country to another, the former country I lived in no longer appears directly to my mind. Does that mean that entire country ceases to exist at all when I am not seeing it? Do all of the people I knew and interacted with cease to exist at all when I’m not seeing them? When I remember them, do they then go from a state of total non-existence to a state of existence; but then when I’m not thinking about them anymore, do they cease to exist and function at all? If so, when I call them, how are they able to tell me about all of the things they did since we last spoke? When they engage in actions when I’m not looking, do they produce no results? If I put a message in a bottle and send it out to sea and nobody sees it for six months until somebody discovers it on a faraway shore, what happens to the bottle during this time? Nobody sees it or perceives it. Does it not exist at all? Does our heart cease to function when I’m not thinking about it? There are all sorts of absurd consequences that follow from saying these things cease to exist at all when they are not appearing directly to our mind.
Both sides of this debate have valid points. So how can we resolve this apparent contradiction? The answer lies in understanding there are two types of object – manifest and hidden. Manifest objects are objects known directly by a mind and hidden objects are objects known indirectly by a mind. My friends in China used to be manifest objects to my mind, but now that I have moved to India they have become hidden objects. They still exist and function, but as hidden objects and they are known indirectly. For example, if I saw my daughter enter her room and close the door, she no longer appears directly, but if I have been outside her room the whole time and never saw her leave, I can know without a doubt that she is still in her room even if I don’t give her another thought. If my wife asks where she is, I can answer, “she’s in her room,” and this will be valid and correct, even though she doesn’t appear directly to either one of us. At that time, she is a hidden object to me (but a manifest object to herself). When she comes out of her room, she transitions from being a hidden object to a manifest object for me, just like the bottle arriving on the other shore. She does not transition from being non-existent to existent, she transitions (for me) from being hidden to manifest. But in both cases, whether she is manifest or hidden, she remains equally empty – a mere karmic appearance to my mind. She appears directly or she appears indirectly (even if I am not thinking about her, my mind that saw her enter her room “knows” her to be in her room, thus maintains her existence). There is no my daughter that exists independently of my mind, thus this view avoids the problem of an object existing without a mind apprehending it.
This answers the question of what happens to the waking world when I’m dreaming. It transitions from being a manifest object to a hidden object, and then when I awake, it becomes manifest again. Because the karmic duration for seeing my wife, home, job, and so forth have not exhausted themselves, when I awake, there they are again. They did not cease to exist at all while I slept, they simply made the transition from being manifest to hidden, but in both cases, they remained empty of existing from their own side independent of my mind. This also answers the question of what happens to the dreaming world of my narcoleptic friend when he is awake. It doesn’t cease to exist entirely, it merely transitions from being manifest to hidden. The karmic duration of those appearances has not been exhausted, so he will return to his home when he dreams again, but the karma for them to appear directly has ceased while he is awake. They still exist – as dream appearances – but they are simply hidden. This is no different really then how, when we dream, what appears is only a small fraction of the world we understand those appearances to exist in. Our dream moments can have complete pasts and complete futures, even though neither appear directly to our mind. They exist and appear as hidden objects.
Another example worth considering is what happens to a friend who dies but I didn’t know it? I recently learned that a dear college friend died about a week ago. I haven’t seen him in years, but I assumed he was still alive. When I learned that he had already died, I realized I was wrong to think he had been alive. What happened here at a karmic appearance level? When I saw him last years ago, he transitioned from being a manifest object to a hidden object, but he did still continue to exist in this world and had all sorts of experiences with my other friends. When he died, he ceased to exist at all in this world, he transitioned from being a hidden object to an utter non-existent. The karma for him to exist in this world exhausted itself. How he appeared to different people (as a hidden or manifest object) varied, depending upon their karmic relationship to him. My thinking he was still alive was mistaken with respect to conventional appearance. My believing he existed inherently before was mistaken with respect to ultimate truth. In exactly the same way, the people I see in my dreams cease to exist at all when I awake because the karmic duration of those appearances is fleeting, whereas the people who appear in my narcoleptic friend’s dream world continue to exist because the karma hasn’t exhausted itself. But sometimes, people in his dream world die, at which point they cease to exist at all in his world – either as a manifest or a hidden object. But in all cases, these beings have never been anything more than mere appearances to mind, regardless of how they appeared.
Interpreting what appears in our dreams can provide us with many profound Dharma understandings and insights, but these are not the supreme instructions of our guru. The supreme instructions of our guru are the teachings on emptiness, and considering the relationship between what appears in dreams and what appears in our waking state, how things transition from one state to another, and when they exist (as mere appearances) or cease to exist at all reveal to us the meaning of the profound truth of emptiness.
Why does this matter? There are two main reasons – according to Sutra and according to Tantra. First, according to Sutra, by considering these things, we can gain a very accurate understanding of the meaning of the teachings on emptiness. By contemplating this meaning day and night, with respect to both our dream and our waking appearances, we will gradually be led to the final view or intention of Buddha. This wisdom will free us permanently from samsara.
Second, with this understanding, we can understand how Tantra works. When we received the empowerments, our spiritual guide placed within our mind an enlightened being and a pure world. Our future enlightened self and world were born and they came into existence. It is like our dream world we do not see directly very often, except when we are engaging in our tantric meditations. When we arise from meditation (and forget our tantric pure view), our pure world does not cease to exist entirely, it merely transitions from being manifest to being hidden. It is sustained both by our Guru’s compassion and our knowledge that we received the empowerments, even if we are not thinking about either. By engaging in our tantric meditations, we create new karma that will later appear directly to us as our pure world. That pure world is not created anew, it is discovered – our meditations make it manifest, but it has been there all along (as a hidden object) ever since we received the empowerment. The karma creating the appearances of our normal waking samsaric world will gradually exhaust itself and not be replenished since, as our tantric practice deepens, we will stop creating new karma for samsara to appear. We will at some point have “lucid dreaming” experiences of our samsaric world, where it will continue to appear, but we will know it is just a mistaken appearance. Though it still appears, we will know it does not truly exist. We will have overcome ordinary conceptions, even though we still have ordinary appearances. Eventually, through creating enough karma in our new pure world, it will also start to appear directly to us as a manifest object. We will move into the pure world, which is our guru’s pure dream for us. It will become our manifest reality, and we will be able to communicate with him about it, even though we both know everything that appears to us is just a pure karmic dream. Finally, we will be able to help others join us in purity forever.