Most days I come to my work with an eager expectation of joy. How could I not, I ask myself. To engage with interesting people and their dreams is a privilege. That is the upside, but of course I know too well the downside that is the deep suffering life brings to all of us.
The suffering comes with many faces in relationships, work, politics, family dynamics, and our fascination with sports and teams. But a deeper level of suffering dwells within each of us. As the Buddha acknowledged, to be human is to face the inevitable pain of aging, disease, and death. In his long quest to discover a way to escape the cycle of suffering, he believed we must face three marks of existence:
- Impermanence. Nothing lasts forever; everything that exists will cease to exist. This is anicca, the Pali word for impermanence.
- Dread, Unsatisfactoriness. The state of mind in which a person cannot find a deep and lasting sense of well-being erodes the fulfillment of being alive. This is dukkha.
- Not-self. This is anatto and has been interpreted in varied ways by scholars of Buddhism. The terms "non-self" and "no-self" are sometimes used. However, a basic intent of this word, and the Buddha's teaching, rests in the fundamental importance of not clinging to the ego's creation of who one is. Thich Nhat Hahn understood anatto as nirvana, the "extinction of clinging."
With these "marks of existence" in his mind, the Buddha dreamed as a Bodhisatta (one who desires to follow the path toward becoming a Buddha). It is important to consider that this is Gautama Siddartha, the prince who abandoned his royal life in the region of what is now known as Nepal, located in the foothills of the Himalayas, and had lived as an ascetic for six years in search of an escape from the suffering of human existence.
My excerpts of Bhikkhu Nanamoli's account of the dreams are as follows:
- "... the great earth was his couch: Himalaya, king of mountains, was his pillow; his left hand lay in the Eastern Ocean, his right hand lay in the Western Ocean, his feet lay in the Southern Ocean."
- "... a creeper grew up out of his navel and stood touching the clouds."
- "... white grubs with black heads crawled from his feet to his knees and covered them."
- "... four birds of different colors came from the four quarters, and, as they alighted at his feet, they all became white."
- "... he walked upon a huge mountain of dirt without being fouled by the dirt."
This concludes the remarkable series of the Buddha's five dreams. The tradition that comes to us includes not only the dreams but their interpretations. They serve a hagiographical purpose within the tradition of Buddhism. And here I move to reflect briefly on the nature of dreams and dreaming.
My ongoing work with persons focuses on the alleviation of suffering and depends greatly on considering their dreams. Most often it is the case that a dream comes in the service of making conscious some aspect of the dreamer's life through which the unconscious is made known and a revised attitude of the dreamer becomes conscious, thereby bringing a new attitude, a "higher" consciousness. This usually happens as the dream compensates the dreamer's previous state of mind.
Now I come back to the Buddha's dreams. It is not my place to offer an interpretation of these dreams, nor would I attempt such a pretentious offering. Are they real? Did the Buddha actually dream these five dreams on the evening before his enlightenment? What did Buddha think of the dreams, their striking images? We can never know the answer to these questions, but we can hold in awareness some of the unique features of these five dreams.
First, they float on the simplest of imagery. There are no grandiose features, no kings and queens, no powerful animals, no great commanders of armies or heroic battles, no angels, no gods and goddesses, no miraculous events. There are no suggestions of supernatural beings or events; there are no calls to the ascetic life. The dreams reside primarily within the natural symbolism of Buddha's immediate world: mountains, oceans, creepers, the navel, grubs, birds, dirt. There are no Brahmins or wondering holy men, no castes, no distinction of people as to social status, gender, religion, or politics. The dreams draw upon nature for their simplicity.
The second feature of the dreams that strike me is in the form of a question. How do they throw any light on the question that drove Siddartha on his quest, "What is the way out of the cycle of suffering?" How might they have influenced his "awakening" by which he entered history as the compassionate Buddha with 506 million followers, 6.6% of the world's population today?
Once again, we can never know how the dreams shaped Buddha's mind, but I offer this brief reflection. A "creeper" is a plant that grows around another plant, sometimes up a wall, extending itself up toward the sky. A "grub" undergoes a metamorphosis, a transformation from larva into an adult. Birds molt, a process in which each year they rid themselves of old or damaged feathers. The dead feathers are replaced by a new plumage. In all of these images of natural processes, transformation occurs. This is a purposive and meaningful transformation that suggests the psychological maturation possible in the growth of human personality when there is no impediment. This makes all the more interesting Buddha's last dream. He walks on the surface of dirt without getting "bogged down" in the 10,000 distractions that cloud our minds.
This seems to have become the Buddha's message. We need not get "bogged down" in the ever-changing flux of life that leads to our states of dissatisfaction and anxiety. With the clearing of our minds we may experience the abiding calm and the distant tones from the stellar sound waves of eternity.
Bhikkhu Nanamoli (Trans.). The Life of the Buddha According to the Pali Canon.
Onalaska, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions, 2001.