Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Life is But a Dream

(9.9abc) Just as you receive merits you consider to be truly existent from making offerings to a Buddha you consider to be truly existent,
So we receive illusion-like merits from making offerings to an illusion-like Buddha.

We can sometimes think that if things do not exist inherently then nothing on the stages of the path will actually work because nothing is actually happening. To overcome this doubt we can consider dreams. It is clear that dreams are mere projections of mind, but we nonetheless do things in our dreams and our actions have effects in our dreams. For example if we get in a car and go someplace in the dream ultimately we are not going anywhere, but conventionally with respect to the appearances we are going from one place to another. In exactly the same way, when we engage in the stages of the path to enlightenment and other virtuous actions, ultimately we are doing nothing, but conventionally we are shaping the karma which determines what appears to our mind. Our actions have effects within our dream-like state. The merit that we accumulate through engaging in virtuous actions does not inherently exist, but it nonetheless functions. The blessings we receive from buddhas ultimately do not exist, but they still function within our mind to move it toward enlightenment. Buddhas themselves ultimately do not exist but nonetheless function to lead us along the stages of the path. Things do not have to truly exist to function and our actions do not have to truly exist in order to create causes. Dream actions create dream effects, it’s as simple as that.

(9.d) (Proponent of things) “If, as you say, living beings lack true existence and are like illusions,
How can they take rebirth after they die?”

(9.10) Provided all the necessary conditions are assembled,
Even an illusion will come into being.
Why, simply by virtue of their longer duration,
Should living beings be any more true?

Even we are like illusions.  We ourselves and all living beings are like illusions.  We come into existence in dependence upon causes and conditions and we will disappear at the time of death, just like an illusion comes to an end.  Sometimes people say the dream world is not true because it does not last long, but the waking world must have some truth to it because there is a continuum to it – the appearances we see have a longer duration.  But what about a longer duration makes the appearances any more true?  A short 30-minute video or a 9-hour Lord of the Rings epic are equally fictional tales.

We can sometimes likewise object thinking that the appearances in our dream cease when the dream ceases but the appearances we see when we are awake continue to appear day after day. Surely this means there’s a difference between the appearances of our dream and the appearances of our waking state. Actually no. First, it is not uncommon for people to have recurring dreams and see similar things in one dream after another. I have a friend who has narcolepsy and he actually spends more time in his dream state than he does in his waking state. For him every time he goes into his dreams he returns to the same place where he has a family a job a home and so forth. For him, his dream state is actually more his reality than his waking state. Second, The strength of our karmic actions determines the duration of the appearances that arise from that action. For example certain concentrations that are particularly strong can create the karma for rebirth as a long life god. Some actions which are very superficial only create a very short duration appearance, whereas other actions can create appearances that last for a very long time period in general, the extent or strength of our concentration determines the duration of the karma created. Our actions in the dream state tend to be more superficial, so it is normal that the duration of the appearances of the dream state are likewise short in nature. In contrast, our actions during the waking state tend to be stronger or more intense, and as a result the karma we create will last for a longer duration.  

But then we object, ‘but this world has a complete past from before I was here and has a future after I am gone, whereas when we dream it does not.’  How can we overcome this doubt?  First, it is not true.  When we dream, it also comes complete with an entire past and future – we have many dreams where there is an understood past or an anticipated future, even though none of it actually is real.  The past and future appear vividly and completely.  Second, the past and future are recreated all the time.  Every time we make a decision, we invent a new future for ourself.  This new future exerts an influence on the present.  The same is true for how we relate to and interpret our past.  Perhaps for a time we viewed a certain event in our past as our greatest curse, but later we came to see it as our greatest blessing.  Neither the past nor the future are fixed, but are constantly being recreated. 

But we may think, ‘OK, I see how that is true for myself, but even if I reinterpret my past and recreate a new future, all other living beings will have a long past in samsara and a future in samsara long after I have left for the pure land.  So there must be a difference.”  As long as the causes and conditions for suffering sentient beings in samsara remain assembled, a samsara filled with such beings will continue to appear.  But when these causes and conditions are removed, samsara will just dissappear, like an illusion or a dream.  If last night we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Clearly both the person and the wheelchair are coming from our own mind. In exactly the same way, if we see somebody in our waking state experiencing suffering, who created it?

Conventionally, of course, the person created the karma to experience whatever they experience. But ultimately, the person in our waking state is equally just a person in our dream. If they appear to inhabit samsara it is because we have mentally created other living beings of our dream to remain in samsara. Likewise, if we purify completely our own mind then the beings that appear to our mind will likewise appear to be completely pure, therefore also having been freed from samsara.

This can raise a question of whether Buddhas see suffering sentient beings. If a Buddha is omniscient, then surely they know that we are still drowning within samsara. If they do not know that we are still drowning in samsara, then how can we say that they are omniscient? The answer is Buddhas see all living beings as already Buddhas because this view functions to ripen living beings to become Buddhas. They do not see us as already having attained enlightenment because we actually have already attained enlightenment. We have or have not done anything because the things we normally see do not exist. But them maintaining the view of us having already attained enlightenment functions to bless our mind to be able to attain that state. If they continued to see us in samsara, then they would be mentally projecting us to be in samsara which a compassionate Buddha would not be willing to do.

This then can create the doubt of do Buddhas see our past as having previously been in samsara? Again, the answer is no. When Buddha attain enlightenment they see all living beings as having always been enlightened because that is again the most compassionate view they can maintain for other living beings. By viewing our past as having always been pure, it functions to bless our mind to reinterpret our own past to also see it as having always been pure.

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