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If Life is Like a Dream, How to change Our Dreams

Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.

Ten years ago, a group of us went to Mount Wutai. One of our friends, a poetess, saw the following poem titled “The Dream Poem” on the wall of the Zhulin Monastery. This poem was written by Master Danxu when he was 82 years of age:

Life is a dream
Everything is like a dream
What can be experienced is but a dream
Dream is even more so a dream
Closing our eyes is a dream
Opening our eyes is also a dream
Although dreams can be long or brief
They are dreams no less
Creating various karma in dream
Will similarly experience karmic outcomes in the dream
For the enjoyment of a moment
Leads to suffering of immeasurable eons
We are all the same in the dream
No distinction in wisdom or status

The mind rises and dream arises
The mind ceases and dream ceases
Recognizing dream as dream
The realization awakens us from the dream
Both the dreamer and dream cease
The clear mind is not a dream

I appreciated this poem very much when I first read it.  Even now I still feel that it is a poem worth reading again and again, especially as a reminder and a solution to physical and mental difficulties we face in our lives. If life is a dream, it can be changed; there is also a time of awakening. Consequently, when we encounter difficulties, we won’t be obsessed and sink deeper into the situation.

Begin by learning how to alter our dreams when we sleep. Once we have this experience, we will have the confidence to alter our dreams when we are awake. Many years ago, Stanford University had a laboratory that undertook research on dreaming. Stephen LaBerge described some of these research findings in the book “Lucid Dreaming”. For instance, a person dreaming of watching a table-tennis match will move his eyes from left to right. Researchers  fortuitously discovered a way to communicate with a person in the dream state. Before the dreamer  performed a pre-determined activity, he would move his eyes left and right to communicate. The researchers found that activities in dream state produced the same reactions in brain waves, muscle and heart as they do when the person is awake.  In the dream, singing a song activated the right brain, counting activated the left brain, and running increased the heart beat.

This dream research laboratory also counseled people who frequently have nightmares. They were trained such that when they realized they were dreaming, they could alter their dreams. A lady had nightmares for many years that she was being chased. Once she became aware that she was dreaming, she changed her past reaction in the dream. In her dream, instead of running away, she turned around to face her pursuer. In the end, the pursuer vaporized into smoke in her dream, and she never had these nightmares again. Stephen LaBerge through training himself to be lucid in dreams eliminated many of his fears. He also had many breakthroughs in his consciousness and his daytime experiences also began to change.

There are a few methods to train ourselves to be aware that we are dreaming. One of these methods is to tell ourselves before we sleep: “One I am dreaming, two I am dreaming, three I am dreaming, four I am dreaming, five I am dreaming, six I am dreaming,  seven I am dreaming …” until we fall asleep. The second method is to frequently tap our body during the day and think: “I am dreaming”. When this becomes a habit, we will also learn to tap ourselves to remind ourselves that we are dreaming. Once we know we are dreaming, we can change our habitual responses in the dream and have a breakthrough. For example, we can face what is fearful but not be frightened, or face what brings anger but not be angry. In this way, the negative energies hidden in our subconscious will dissolve away. What we encounter in our dreams all appear and feel so real, but when we wake up, we realize that all these are creations of our mind. Similarly, the dreams we have with our eyes open are also creations of our mind. They are projections of the cumulative energies stored in our consciousness arising from our thoughts, speech and actions from beginningless time. Some of these projections come from messages we received in our mothers’ wombs,  from our birth or our childhood. If we hold the view that our life’s experiences are real and unchangeable, we will not think of changing and will accept things in a fatalistic way. Mr. Yuan Liaofan of the Ming dynasty had this fatalistic view of life during the earlier part of his life, and hence, he had no aspirations. Later, he met a Zen master who taught him the way to change his dreams. As a result, he later had a son, enjoyed long life, and was promoted to as a government official. He documented his entire life’s experiences in altering his dreams and therefore changing his fortunes. His book “Liaofan‘s Four Lessons” is still popular even after all this time, and has benefitted many people. This is a good book that is worth re-reading in great detail.

To change our daytime dreams, we need to first see everything as illusory, just like what the Diamond Sutra says: “Everything that is conditional is like a dream, a bubble, a dew, a flash of lightning. One should observe this way.” In this way, we can reduce our greed, and aversion, and hatred. These mental states will only cause our nightmares to perpetuate. We have to first realize we are dreaming before we can change our dreams and stop dreaming.

If we understand that what we see, hear and feel all arises from our mind, we can easily grasp the key to changing our dreams and not blindly seek help from external sources, blame others or not accept our own responsibilities. In actual fact, the root cause of our happiness and suffering springs from our mind. Many years ago, when Ethiopia encountered a drought, a strange thing occurred. When originally good water was transported to the drought area, it turned bad. This is because the victims’ minds were all projecting a common dream of a drought, and this blocked the delivery of good water. The same drop of water can be experienced differently by beings of different merits—hungry ghosts do not see water, devas see it as  nector, and completely enlightened Buddhas also see it as nectar.

People around us can be those who are fortunate or unfortunate in whatever they do. The two persons may go to the same place, the same restaurant or meet the same person, but they will have different experiences. There is an ancient Chinese saying that connotes the message: “Lovers see a striking beauty in their partners”. This is a very accurate description—ten people who encounter a person or an incident will have ten different viewpoints. Who is right? Who is wrong? They are both right and wrong.

Altering the dreams when we are awake or sleeping is the same. If our thoughts, speech and actions arise from loving kindness and the wish to benefit others, we experience happiness, fortune and bliss in our dream states. If our thoughts, speech and actions arise from selfishness or intentions to harm others, we experience suffering and difficulties in our dream states. When we encounter obstacles and undesirable situations, we need to both repent our past unwholesome thoughts and actions, and also develop our compassion and wish to benefit others. In this way, our dreams can be altered.

Repentance and purification are methods shared in common by all spiritual practices. The key is to sincerely repent and resolve not to harm others with our body, speech and mind. From beginningless time, we have developed all kinds of unwholesome thoughts and performed unwholesome deeds. These negative energies can be activated anytime and cause us to have nightmares. In Buddhism, practices such as prostrations to the 88 Buddhas, 35 Buddhas, the Great Repetence and the Emperor Liang Repentence are all methods to dispel our mental poisons and change our dreams.

In his discourses, the enlightened practitioner Lama Zopa Rinpoche clearly explains ways to alter our dreams, and how to use a positive mindset to face illnesses and obstacles in our lives. In this way, we can have breakthroughs. In his book “Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion”, he emphasizes how to use our precious gem: our pristine and luminous mind. He tells us to use illnesses to practice compassion, wisdom and awakening. Every word and phrase in his book can be used as a meditative tool for reflection. Some examples include: “Ignorance is the root of all illnesses and all suffering”, and “The medicine we use is the awakened consciousness—our innate nature that understands the ultimate reality”. Chapter 12 of the book touches on how to benefit from setbacks in our lives, and the first page teaches us how to have positive reflections: “What is termed “obstacles” are actually opportunities that force us to meditate and develop our mind. Because of suffering and the associated afflictions, we can eliminate our pride, and develop compassion for beings in cyclic existence. Illnesses are like brooms because they help clear our bad karma and ignorance. During such times, we should contemplate that our setbacks do not mean anything as other innumerable sentient beings suffer more than us. If they can liberate themselves from this suffering, how good it would be. I aspire to free them from their sufferings.”

In addition, he quotes the words of a Kadampa practitioner: “Receiving praise can only lead us to inflate the ego and develop greater pride. In contrast, receiving insults and humiliation will immediately eliminate our past wrongdoings.” Obstacles can develop our loving kindness, compassion, patience, wisdom and other virtues, as well as realize emptiness.

When we can accept the suffering of sickness with joy, we attain freedom. In the case of certain practitioners who have successfully trained their mental consciousness, they can still be happy even when they encounter what people commonly regard as suffering.  Geshe Lama Konchog, who has passed away, had spent 25-year in meditation retreat. He mentioned that he had once fallen down and experienced physical pain. However, at the moment when he hit the ground, his mind was very happy because his wish to take on the suffering of sentient beings had been fulfilled. Another example is Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, who passed away early this year in Los Angeles. Last October, he found out that his stomach cancer had spread to his liver, and elected to undergo chemotherapy treatment. One of his ordained students who was very close to him immediately went to take care of him. In particular, in Geshe’s final 2.5 months, he was literally by his side all the time. He observed that although Geshe  La was very ill and hospitalized, he never paid attention to himself but kept caring about other people—the doctors, nurses, and janitors. He always appeared to be happy. One day, this student couldn’t resist asking Geshe how he kept himself so happy. Geshe replied: there are two verses in his daily practice that are very helpful:

The first is “Compassionate gurus, may all sentient beings’ karmic debts, difficulties, and sufferings be borne by me. Let me give them happiness and merits. May all sentient beings be happy.”

The second verse that enabled Geshe La to maintain his joy is: “Should the fruits of karma of the surrounding and its sentient beings within ripen, and unwanted sufferings fall down like rain, I seek your blessings to let me bear these sufferings and transform them into my dharma path, and realize that because of these sufferings I can exhaust all the karmic consequences of unwholesome deeds.”

The heart that wishes to benefit others is the cause of all mundane and supramundane happiness. Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught many methods of transforming our minds that will allow us to change our dreams.

Rejoicing in the happiness of others is very easy to do. We rejoice whenever we see or hear  others perform virtuous actions or meet with good fortune. We rejoice in the virtuous actions of our past, present and future, and rejoice even more in the past, present and future virtuous actions of enlightened beings. In our hearts, we think: how wonderful, and feel great joy! In this way, we will very easily open our hearts, quickly change our fortunes, as well as counter our tendencies to be envious.

When we wake up in the morning, we can think: “May all living beings be free from suffering and attain ultimate bliss.”
When we put on our clothes, we can contemplate: “May all living beings be warm.”
When we open the door, we can think: “May all living beings enter the door of wisdom and liberation.”
When we close the door, we can think: “May the doors of the three lower realms be closed.”
When we walk, we can think: “May all beings quickly reach the shore of liberation.”
When it rains, we can think: “Rain water is like nectar that washes away all suffering, and satisfy the needs of all living beings.”

When we eat, be appreciative of the hard work that went into preparing the meal, and all the life forms that have sacrificed their lives. Agricultural production necessarily involves harm to many lives. Once you realize the emptiness of food, visualize the food as nectar that fills the entire space and offer it to all enlightened beings in the universe, especially the Compassionate Buddha Avalokiteshsvara, Medicine Buddha who helps to avert all calamities and extend life, and Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha with his great vows. Also offer the nectar to sentient beings in the six realms so that they can be liberated from suffering and attain ultimate bliss. Before we go to sleep, we can chant the names of the 35 Buddhas 35 times, even better with prostration, and this can raise our consciousness and eliminate many of our obstacles. Also think: “May all living beings attain the dharmakaya (pure mind). We can also think about our spiritual teachers, Amitabha, Avalokiteshsvara, God, etc. In this way, our dreams at night will become blessed and auspicious. One day, we will awaken from our day and night dreams, and will no longer be dreaming. Then, we will realize our true luminous nature.

Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion” by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Published by Lapis Lazuli Light