The power of dreams, and their relationship to the waking world
This week we're returning to the Zen stories of the Gateless Barrier, picking up where we left off, with case 25, 'Sermon from the Third Seat'. It's an interesting case that, as usual, packs quite a bit into a few words. So without further ado, let's see what we can squeeze out of it.
Don't you just hate a bait-and-switch?
As usual, it's a good idea to start by going through the koan at face value and translating the names and technical terms into something more approachable.
We start with Master Yangshan, who is having a nice dream. (We'll come back to that subject later.) He dreams, in fact, that he goes to visit Maitreya. In ancient times, it was considered that each age of humanity had one major Buddha; Shakyamuni Buddha (aka Siddharta Gaumata) was the Buddha of the present age, and Maitreya was the Buddha of an age yet to come. So Maitreya is a towering figure, sometimes regarded as second only to Shakyamuni himself. And so going to see him is kind of a big deal! So he's assigned a place in the assembly, and he sits down, presumably eager to hear what Maitreya is going to say. (I imagine this as being a little like going to see my favourite band play, and getting a really good spot right in front of the stage.)
But there's a nasty surprise waiting for Yangshan - maybe it isn't such a nice dream after all. One of the 'saints' - most likely an arahant, a profoundly awakened person who is nevertheless somewhat below the status of a Buddha on the Mahayana totem pole - strikes a gavel and announces that, actually, it isn't Maitreya who's going to be speaking today; it's Yangshan himself! (So this twist is, for me, a little like going to see my favourite band and then discovering that I'm the one who's going to be performing - in front of my favourite band, no less. No pressure!)
Fortunately, Yangshan is up to the task. He stands up, strikes the gavel to bring the assembly to order, and then utters a pretty pithy teaching. He starts by saying 'The teaching of the Universal Vehicle is beyond all propositions and denials. Listen clearly!' But what's the Universal Vehicle?
My vehicle is more universal than yours
Once Buddhism began to fork and schism into multiple different traditions, the upstart Mahayana tradition had to find ways to justify itself over the (arguably) more traditional schools it was breaking away from. So Mahayana scriptures often talk about three 'vehicles', or approaches to Buddhism, arranged in increasing order of awesomeness. Lowest of the pile is the sravakayana, the vehicle of the listeners; sometimes this is interpreted as those practitioners following the oral tradition of the oldest stratum of Buddhism, although I've also heard it explained as people who listen to the teachings but don't practice, or those whose approach to practice is simply to hang around enlightened masters in the hope that it'll rub off on them somehow. They may eventually become arahants, but it's generally considered that Buddhahood is out of reach because their view is too coarse and unsophisticated.
Next up the hierarchy we have the pratyekabuddhas - 'self-awakened' Buddhas, those who have awakened by themselves, but who are either unable or unwilling to teach others. Again there's a hint of shade being thrown at the earlier tradition here, since the emphasis in early Buddhism is more on personal liberation from suffering rather than the Mahayana motivation to save all beings.
Finally, top of the heap, we have the bodhisattvas - those who follow the Mahayana path, who are committed to the liberation of all beings, and who have (at least in some interpretations) vowed to postpone their own Buddhahood in order that they can keep being reborn again and again, coming back each time to help others along the road to full awakening.
It's probably not terribly surprising that a Mahayana model of the different 'vehicles' puts the Mahayana at the top. (There's another 'three vehicle' model used in the Vajrayana tradition, which was a later development than the Mahayana. This time the three vehicles are the Hinayana (the early stuff), the Mahayana and the Vajrayaya - oh look, the authors of the model occupy the top spot in this one too. Funny, that.)
However, this kind of sectarian approach has a few problems. One major one is that, if you're going to make a big deal about how all those other people have a practice that's inferior to yours, you have to explain how come what you're practising doesn't look a whole lot like what the historical Buddha actually taught. (Oops.) There are various ways out of this conundrum - Nagarjuna, for example, claimed that he came into possession of secret teachings of the Buddha which had been guarded by mythical serpents for hundreds of years because the world wasn't ready for them yet, and so he wasn't actually innovating, only revealing something that the Buddha had always wanted us to know when the time was right. Yeah, sure, OK.
In any case, a solution was proposed by the author(s) of the Lotus Sutra, amongst others, which was to suggest that all three vehicles (sravakayana, pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva) were actually just 'expedient teachings' designed to get people practising, and that in the long run all three vehicles would merge into the true teaching of the ekayana, the 'One Vehicle' or 'Universal Vehicle' which leads to complete perfect Buddhahood. The Universal Vehicle is the final truth of reality itself - which is why Yangshan says it’s ‘beyond all propositions and denials’. It isn’t something you can debate about or arrive at through logic; it simply is what it is.
Why should I care about a 1,500-year-old religious argument?
Fair question. What can a 21st-century practitioner take from this?
On one level, it's interesting to see that even a tradition like Buddhism - which has at its centre teachings of impermanence, emptiness and boundless love and compassion - can degenerate into sectarian squabbling when egos get involved. I need to find a reason to make people come to my website rather than reading someone else's, so I need to persuade you that I've got the good stuff and everyone else is wrong. The prevalence of some of the less desirable aspects of human nature among communities which are supposed to be dedicated to awakening and ethical action is, I think, quite instructive, and is an indication that we should approach unfamiliar communities and teachers with some caution. Not everyone is in this business for the benefit of others - sadly, sometimes it's as much about one's own power or reputation.
On a more positive note, however, we can also look at the frequent splitting apart and then coming back together of the Buddhist traditions as an indication of a deep perennial core of truth to all the world's great spiritual traditions, which nevertheless has found a profound diversity of expressions over the centuries. Pretty much everyone who practises any of the basic techniques of meditation - concentration, insight and self-inquiry, heart-opening - sooner or later traverses very similar terrain; we all arrive at the same fundamental Absolute, but perhaps coming from different directions and having taken slightly different routes to get there. As we return to the world, however, that Absolute has to find its own unique expression, through each individual teacher and tradition - and so we find the tremendous variety of teachers, styles and systems that are available to us these days.
Basically, it all works. We don't need to worry about finding the 'best' approach, and we certainly shouldn't worry about finding the 'One True Way'. It's all good. Just find something that you like - something that you get on with well enough to be willing to practise day in, day out, until you too arrive at the centre of the labyrinth. Then you can figure out how you're going to tell other people about it!
Dreaming and waking up
Assuming your eyes haven't glazed over from all the historical stuff by now, there's another interesting aspect to this koan: it takes place in a dream. The 'goal' of spiritual practice is sometimes called 'awakening' - implying that we're 'asleep' in some sense even when we're 'awake' in conventional terms. Can one 'awaken' in the spiritual sense within a conventional dream? And why suggest that our waking lives are some kind of dream?
On the face of it, dreams and waking life are obviously different - but if there's one thing I've learnt from years of insight meditation, it's that things which seem obvious to us are often extremely interesting to examine more closely, because they're not always what they seem. So let's take a look - and, by the way, feel free to pause reading here and perform your own examination of dreams and waking life, rather than taking my word for it.
Let's start with the differences. First of all, I quite often don't remember my dreams at all, whereas I tend to retain at least something from having been awake, for a few days at least. (I can't tell you in much detail what I was doing 17 days ago without going back and looking for evidence, but I remember yesterday evening's Tai Chi class pretty well.) Second, each time I wake up, I come back to the familiar world that I've inhabited since I was born 42 years ago, whereas each of my dreams tends to be in a totally different place. Third, the waking world obeys certain rules much more strongly than the dream world - for example, things tend to be where I left them, the layout of my house and the street outside remains consistent from day to day, and so on, whereas in dreams things seem to be much more changeable, often changing from one moment to the next, especially when I look away and look back again.
But then let's look at the similarities. In both the waking world and dreams, I have the same basic senses and types of experiences - I see, hear and feel things, I meet people and talk to them, I try to accomplish tasks (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much). I have a sense of who I am, and what my relationship is to what's going on around me - the 'story of me' - just like I do when I'm awake. I might be tempted to say that the dream world is somehow fuzzier and less clear than the waking world, but really that seems to be more a function of how well I'm able to pay attention - if I'm awake but really sleepy or ill, the waking world is pretty fuzzy too. (I have migraines from time to time, and when one comes on, I can see in real time my ability to think logically getting worse and worse.)
So that raises an interesting question. Where do dreams take place? Perhaps we can say that dreams happen 'in my head', whereas waking life happens 'in the real world' - but are they really that different? As I noted above, both are composed of the same kinds of experiences. How is my tiny brain able to conjure up a whole dream world inside my not-unusually-large noggin, when normally it takes an entire universe 'out there' to provide my waking experience?
In fact, it turns out that my waking life happens 'in my head' as well. When I'm awake, my physical eyes receive light that's bouncing around, and when that light hits my retina it stimulates activity in my optic nerve, which feeds signals to my brain - and, boom, I have a visual experience. But our brains can also generate a visual experience without that external stimulus - and that's why we see things in our dreams. And so on for sounds and all the other senses too.
This is one way to understand what's meant by 'emptiness' in the Buddhist tradition. It seems like, when we're awake, we directly experience a real, concrete world all around us, a world that has very little to do with the purely imaginary world that we inhabit in our dreams. But in fact all we ever experience is the result of our brains whizzing away - it's just that the source of the data being used to construct that experience is different in dreams versus waking life. But the fundamental nature of experience - as being mind-originated - is the same in both cases.
Why does this matter? Because it means that what we experience is not how things are in some final, unalterable sense, but rather what we experience is merely an interpretation of what's going on - and interpretations can change. In particular, through meditation practice, we can come to see the world in a radically different way - we can come to the Buddhist meaning of 'awakening'.
When we're asleep, the dream seems 'real' - the sights, sounds, experiences, the sense of who I am in that dream is all very compelling. And yet, when I wake up, it's clear that it was just a dream. How would it be to wake up from the 'dream' of the waking world?
Who dreams the dreamer of the dream?
Why don't you find out?
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!