The following is excerpted from
Dreaming Yourself Awake: Lucid Dreaming and Tibetan Dream Yoga for Insight and Transformation, edited by Brian Hodel and available from Shambhala Publications.
The Dream Yoga Teachings of Padmasambhava
Just as one prepares during the day for nighttime lucid dreaming — doing state checks, keeping a dream journal, developing a critical reflective attitude, and so forth — the dream yogi uses daytime dream yoga practices to prepare the ground for nighttime dream yoga. For both styles of practice, if you can become lucid during the waking state and make that a habit, you will much more easily attain lucidity while dreaming. However, the awakening sought in dream yoga — both day and night — embraces a much wider range of experience than does lucid dreaming.
One lineage of classic teachings on dream yoga was brought to Tibet by the eighth-century Indian adept Padmasambhava. A master of all of the practices of the Buddhist “diamond vehicle,” or Vajrayana, many of his teachings were passed down to future generations as terma (Tibetan for “treasure”), placed in the ground, in solid rock, in lakes, and even in the minds of those who later discovered these treasures, who are called tertöns. Padmasambhava’s teachings on dream yoga given here come from just such a terma — a cycle of teachings entitled Natural Liberation, secreted like a time capsule into a boulder and unearthed by the tertön Karma Lingpa, some six hundred years after Padmasambhava’s time in Tibet. Both the day and night dream yoga teachings found in Natural Liberation presume a degree of mental vividness and stability derived from developed powers of concentration. Therefore, it was Padmasambhava’s opinion that a subtle and serviceable mind, one honed by practicing shamatha, is indispensable for success in the practice of dream yoga.
Padmasambhava’s teachings on dream yoga begin with the provocative statement, “It is like this: all phenomena are nonexistent, but they appear to exist and are established as various things.” At first glance that may seem a bit shocking — even crazy. But taken in context it makes sense. By “nonexistent,” Padmasambhava is not speaking nihilistically — he is not telling us that nothing exists whatsoever. Rather, he is inviting us to change our perspective on not only dream phenomena but waking experience as well. He is suggesting that our normal waking experience is just as deluded and fantastic as our dreams. This is precisely the view of emptiness we touched on earlier, for the phenomena of waking experience are no less devoid of inherent, objective reality than are dreams. So when Padmasambhava states that phenomena are nonexistent — not really there — he means that phenomena don’t exist by their own nature, either subjectively or objectively. In other words, phenomena exist interdependently — their appearance to our consciousness depends on a multitude of factors rather than on their having an independent reality from their own side, so to speak. The fact that phenomena appear to our minds and that we give them conventional labels — cloud, cup, Colorado — does not mean they are ultimately real.
Although we usually apply it selectively, the notion of interdependence is not at all foreign to our thinking. Take a “tennis match.” The validity of this term depends upon there being at least two opposing players, a tennis court, a net, the racquets, the tennis ball, and the rules of the game. It also depends on the players understanding the game and being physically equipped and in good enough health to play. If any of these interdependent factors is missing, you cannot have a tennis match as it is normally understood.
From the standpoint of Buddhist philosophy, all conditioned phenomena require three things for their existence: (1) prior causes and conditions (such as the parents who were the causes of the birth of the tennis players, or all of the work and planning that went into the construction of the tennis court and the manufacture of the racquets and balls); (2) the components and attributes of the phenomenon itself (the collection of players, court, ball, racquets, the rules of the game, and knowledge brought together to create a game of tennis, etc.); and (3) the conceptual designation that identifies the phenomena possessing these components and attributes (our labeling this collection of objects and events as a “tennis match”). Seen in this manner, a “tennis match” is merely a label, an abstraction. You can observe a tennis match, but you cannot find some independent object that is a tennis match. That is not its nature. It is a conventional phenomenon — we label it by convention, but there is no ultimate, absolute, tennis-match-thing to be found.
We can find many similar examples, but when Padmasambhava or other Buddhists speak of “phenomena” and call them nonexistent, they refer to everything we experience with our ordinary modes of perception. Phenomena are traditionally parsed into two domains: the personal self (the “inner”) and everything else — the outside world. Normally we assume that our personal selves and the contents of the outside world really exist as independent entities. We assume that when we close our eyes the outside world does not disappear until we open them again, and based on that and other “proofs,” the outside world exists in total independence of anyone perceiving it. And we certainly believe that we, too, are absolutely real. When we talk about “my body,” “my beliefs,” “my house,” and “my spouse,” we imagine that the person who possesses all of these things is some real “I.”
However, if we carefully scrutinize this situation, we will discover that both the personal self and the outside world are, in the sense that Padmasambhava is using the term, nonexistent. Recall that emptiness corresponds to a “not finding” of something you are looking for. If we look for an absolutely real, independent, freestanding personal self, what do we find? Who or what is this self? If you point to your body, well that is designated “body,” not “self.” We usually think of ourselves as more than our body, so we may say that either the self is in the body or the self is the owner of the body (as in the common phrase “my body”). But if the self is in the body, just where in the body is it? If you point to your chest and say, “it’s in my heart,” you can be sure that no heart surgeon has ever seen a self there while operating. And if you say that your self is in your brain — the assumed center of thinking and the apparently centralized space situated between your main sensory organs — no brain surgeon has ever seen a self there, either.
You might retort by saying that this is a simplistic view of the self and that we really exist as something more complex and sophisticated — some kind of pattern or collection of body parts and neuronally produced thoughts, memories, and emotions. But by asserting this idea we have come back to the Buddhist idea of interdependence. Prior causes and conditions (your parents, the planet earth, etc.) contributed to the creation of your body; the components and attributes of mind and body (thoughts, emotions, and physical activities) provide the collection that is the basis of designation of the self who possesses these components and attributes — my thoughts and opinions, my body, my skill as a tennis player, and so forth. The “me” of “my body” is a mere designation — a label. Over millennia, Buddhist philosophers have searched systematically and thoroughly for evidence of an absolute personal self. None has been found. Buddhist contemplatives train for many years searching for this self to see whether there is any experiential evidence for its existence.
Using the same analysis we discover that objects in the outside world, large and small, are also nonexistent in the sense in which Padmasambhava uses the term. Take the “atom.” The word originated with the ancient Greeks. Democritus (fourth century b.c.e.) proposed the atom as the smallest particle of matter and the building block of the material universe. Science much later discovered experimentally that the atom was composed of “subatomic particles,” and these particles were then assumed to be the real building blocks of the universe — the atoms of the atom. But further experiments, especially beginning in 1900 with the advent of quantum physics, showed that the nature and existence of these particles depended in part on the human thinking that theorized their existence and determined how they were to be measured. For example, a subatomic particle such as an electron can appear as a particle in one type of experiment and as a wave in another. It is the mind of the scientist that designs these experiments, these methods of measurement. But particles and waves are entirely different phenomena — so what does this say about the electron itself? Does it exist? And if so — how? As the pioneering physicist Werner Heisenberg said: “What we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
The quirkiness of the electron is no single, isolated case. Mainstream physics now accepts that the basic components of the material universe have a nebulous, dreamlike quality. So “atom” becomes, like the personal self, an interdependent entity relying upon prior causes and conditions, components and attributes of the observed phenomena, and most significantly, conceptual designation — labeling, measuring, and experimentation that involves a growing list of subatomic particles and their often-bewildering behaviors. And if the subatomic particles of the atom are not ultimates, if they have no absolute existence, then the objective reality of all the matter supposedly composed of atoms — the whole universe — is thrown into doubt.
But we needn’t base our understanding of the nonexistence of the universe on the complexities of modern physics. We can take any common object and arrive at the same conclusion. We made a cursory examination of a teacup in the previous chapter. This time let’s look in more detail at another common object — a pencil, for instance. Is a pencil real? Does it exist from its own side as a pencil or is it just a label we apply to a collection? We attach this label to a thin, tubular object made of wood with a graphite center. Usually there is an eraser at one end. As the pencil is used it becomes smaller and smaller. And the eraser gets used up too, often disappearing entirely. It may get to the point where its functional identity — “a writing instrument” — no longer exists. When we ask for a pencil and are handed a stub, we may cry out, “This isn’t a pencil! Give me something I can write with.” Has its “pencil-ness” evaporated? Where did it go? We could also say that what we call a pencil is merely a short moment in the long history of some wood and minerals. Previously the pencil was a part of a tree and some graphite in the ground as coal, some metal not yet mined and refined, and some rubber in a rubber tree or a synthetic rubber substitute that may come from oil deep within the earth. Later on, the collection, momentarily labeled a “pencil,” will disintegrate into dust, fungi, minerals, gases.
The tree, coal, metal, and so on — along with the whole process of the pencil’s history and manufacture — constitute the pencil’s prior causes and conditions. Its components and attributes are the collection of materials comprising the pencil and its utility as a writing instrument. And it is conceptually designated a “pencil” — an object possessing those components and attributes. But, of course, there is really nothing there that possesses these. The wood and graphite and so forth possess nothing. The pencil exists only to the mind that labels and apprehends this object as such. If future civilizations dug up a nice, sharp-pointed pencil, they might designate it as a weapon. So pencils, and all other physical objects, are nonexistent — empty of inherent existence. Their only existence is a conventional, inter-dependent one; they depend on a collection of other elements being brought together and designated — labeled — by a mind.
Furthermore, we cannot retreat to the components of objects and say that since they are real, what they constitute must be real. Wood is a collection of cellulose fibers and chemicals comprised of molecules that can be further analyzed down to the subatomic level — which, as we’ve seen, has only a tentative existence. The same of course goes for graphite, metal, and rubber. At this point we may start to envision “reality” as something far less substantial than we normally assume. Phenomena — inner and outer — seem to be magically called into existence by their labels.
It is in this sense that Padmasambhava calls phenomena nonexistent. Yet even though they are not real, appearances arise and are established, designated, and apprehended as various things. This parallels the way dream phenomena appear to be real to the deluded, nonlucid dreamer, and are seen to be nonexistent once the dreamer either becomes lucid or awakens. Lucid dreaming beckons us to awaken within our nocturnal dreams — to become aware that the dreamed persona that we think is us, along with all other dream phenomena, are illusory. Dream yoga asks us to go further, to awaken to the true nature of an analogous situation that we mistakenly call “waking reality.”
The Process of Delusion
Padmasambhava continues his preamble to the instructions on daytime dream yoga: “That which is impermanent is grasped as permanent, and that which is not truly existent is grasped as truly existent.” In other words, we reify — we make real to ourselves that which is not real. This could be called the first, the primordial dream sign of Buddhism: If you are reifying, you are dreaming. However, if you awaken to this process — see how you are creating the illusion of permanent, truly existent phenomena — you are on the path to seeing things as they are, to enlightenment. The emphasis here is on discovering the process through which we delude ourselves.
Whenever craving or hostility well up within us, it can be very interesting to observe it, watch it arise, watch the object for which there is attachment or hostility, and then ask ourselves: “How does this object — a person, place, thing, situation, whatever it may be — appear to the mind’s eye, how am I apprehending it?” See whether it is the case that you are apprehending it as if it were something existing in and of itself — taken out of context by its own apparent self-nature. At that moment, is this the target, the focus of your mind — this “real” object? And if it is, recognize you are dreaming. Because that target doesn’t exist in the way you have apprehended it. You are mesmerized by your own assumptions about the object. Your focus is narrow, essentially an invention. The technical term for this in Buddhism is grasping.
This kind of delusion is common both in dreams and in waking reality. An example is how we often decontextualize people who appear to us either when dreaming or in daytime situations. We see someone, observe their behavior, perhaps interact with them, and come away with the opinion that this person is “smart,” “attractive,” “stupid,” “ugly,” or “a jerk.” Taking the last attribute, whether the person appears in a dream or during daytime, he or she seems to us to be a jerk from his or her own side. The person appears permeated with the qualities of “jerk-ness” — inherent characteristics that are merely presented to us and we passively recognize them. It’s a case of judging the book by its cover.
But we haven’t read the book. If we analyze just a little we discover that the true context of this person is immensely complex. For example, this person may have parents who think he or she is not a jerk but is an adorable person. Many other people may not call this person a jerk. The person you perceive as a jerk probably does not conceive of him- or herself as a jerk. And if you got to know this person, over time even the qualities you consider jerky might be apprehended in a different way. (Conversely, there are no doubt people out there who think that you are a jerk — something to which you probably would not agree.)
Obviously, when we awaken from a nonlucid dream about a jerk, the reality of that situation vanishes like smoke. Since the dreamed person was nonexistent, the label “jerk” was also imaginary. When we view people so narrowly, whether in dreams or waking reality, we invariably decontextualize — placing absolute labels where no absolutes exist. The true context for all persons and objects is interdependence. The condition of dreaming, whether it be in the night or in daytime, subsumes a form of ignorance where we can easily misconstrue appearances. Dreaming invites us to become deluded. We can either go with the flow or wake up — check it right there and realize that although the object as we perceive it appears to be real from its own side, that appearance is illusory.
In terms of our normal mode of understanding reality, analyzing phenomena in this way turns everything on its head. But even if we are, at this point, thoroughly convinced that “all phenomena are nonexistent,” our present understanding is only conceptual. In Tibetan Buddhism, conceptual understanding is likened to a patch on clothing that sooner or later falls away. It is the habituation of the practice of daytime dream yoga that will allow our understanding to deepen and prepare us for an awakening that encompasses both the day and the night. To quote Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche — one of the most prominent Tibetan lamas who taught in the West — “All dream yoga is based on the one-pointedness one can maintain on the illusoriness of experience by day.”
The Practice of Illusory Body
“Consider,” continues Padmasambhava, “that since all these things, which are without permanence, stability, or immutability, have no inherent nature, they are like illusions.” What are illusions like? They seem to exist, but they’re not really there where they appear. We have already examined our personal self, the atom, the “jerk,” and a common object — the pencil. And perhaps you can agree that under analysis these objects have an illusory quality: they appear to exist independently, from their own side, but they don’t. We assume they exist, but we cannot pin them down with any exactitude. We have the idea of a personal self in our minds, but phenomenologically — that is, in terms of our direct experience — we haven’t encountered an independent entity that matches our conception of any of these objects. Padmasambhava now asks us to see waking reality in a new way: from moment to moment, situation to situation, person to person, view all that arises as being not permanent, not immutable, not inherently existent but rather to be appearing like illusions, appearing like a dream.
If this sounds like a nutty thing to do — to say, “This is an illusion” to everything that arises in your experience — modern neuroscience, just like physics, supports this affirmation. All of the information that appears to our senses seems to come from “out there.” Earlier we touched on the fact that the colors we perceive in the outside world do not actually exist objectively, independent of perception. The molecules that make up material objects do not have color. The photons that strike our retinas are colorless, and the neurons in the visual cortex don’t take on the colors that we perceive. The colors we perceive therefore do not exist in physical space — not in the objects, not in the space between our sense organs and those objects, and not in the brain. From a Buddhist point of view, colors and all other appearances to our physical senses and to mental perception all arise from the substrate. The cooperative conditions of learning, memory, imagination, along with the electrochemical processes that occur in the optic nerve, must combine to produce the subjective appearance we call “red.” Red roses are not red unto themselves, just waiting for us to passively perceive them. According to the prominent neurologist Antonio Damasio, “There is no picture of the object being transferred from the object to the retina and from the retina to the brain.” And it may well be that other kinds of retinas, optic nerves, visual cortexes, and conditioned minds — such as those of bees, or bats, or bears — give rise to a completely different experience of what we call a red rose. Which is the “real” red rose? There is none. The red rose is an illusion. From the modern neuroscientific perspective, the same is true for the objects of the other senses. So when we close our eyes, the world — in the unique form in which we view it — does disappear. Something is seen by others, but it isn’t precisely what we see. And if those others are of other species, it may be something completely different.
In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says, “Mind precedes all phenomena.” We may interpret the mind he refers to as the substrate consciousness, the continuum of awareness filled with latent tendencies, impressions, memories, habitual modes of perception, and so forth. Mind precedes phenomena in the sense that phenomena are conditioned by the substrate consciousness. It filters all, or practically all, that we perceive. When we awaken from sleep, it is said that the nightscape dissolves into the substrate. And when we fall asleep, likewise the dayscape dissolves into the same space. Note that it is appearances — not photons or sound waves — that dissolve into the substrate. Photons, sound waves, and the like are theoretical entities of science that we cannot perceive directly, so they exist relative to the systems of measurement by which they are detected and relative to the minds that conceive them. And as is demonstrated by our dreams, the substrate is a dynamo, creating one environment after another. The entire world of subjects and objects in which we are embedded — which we call “life,” and which Buddhism calls samsara — out of the entanglement, the complex conglomeration of mutual substrates.
We note again what Stephen LaBerge says so astutely: “Dream consciousness is waking consciousness without physical constraints. Waking consciousness is dream consciousness with physical constraints.” The crux of the matter is: What are physical constraints? What is their nature? Lucid dream researchers, with their scientific orientation, accept them as being real. Or if they are not ultimately real, they are at least of another nature from the phenomena of nocturnal dreaming — “more real” than our dreams. But Padmasambhava, and the Vajrayana Buddhist world that he represents, see all phenomena as dreamlike — empty of fixed, ultimate qualities. Certain Buddhist adepts (and those from other traditions) occasionally demonstrate this fact in public. Some tertöns, we are told, can reach into solid rock as if it were putty and pull out texts and sacred objects. Padmasambhava has left his footprints in solid rock. Modern-day Tibetan lamas have left foot- and handprints in rock and passed wooden staves through the same material.
These “miracles” are sometimes performed before large numbers of people, those who perform them altering waking reality in much the same way as lucid dreamers alter dream reality. The point is not to show off “esoteric powers” but to instill faith that the dream world may extend beyond the night to what we consider “hard reality.” But to make our conceptual understanding of the “nonexistence of phenomena” a reality in our lives, we must do what these extraordinary beings have done: practice.
Padmasambhava gives us the essential, specific instruction for daytime dream yoga practice: “At this time, powerfully imagine that your environment, city, house, companions, conversation, and all activities are a dream; and even say out loud, This is a dream.’ Continually imagine that this is just a dream.” Another Tibetan Buddhist teaching on daytime dream yoga elaborates on these instructions, encouraging the student to “establish single-pointed meditative equipoise in the awareness, I have fallen asleep. This appearance is a dream. It is an illusion.'” Furthermore, you are to “place your awareness in a nonconceptual sphere, without focusing it anywhere. Then direct your mind to all the appearances of yourself and others, and think, All these are just appearances. They are not real.’ By continually practicing in that way, at all times during and after formal meditation, appearances will always seem devoid of true existence and of fear.” Now it becomes clear why the resolve and concentration derived from the practice of shamatha is essential for the successful practice of daytime dream yoga.
This practice points directly to the key difference between the daytime practices of lucid dreaming and those of dream yoga. If in daytime you complete a dozen state checks, and ten times in a row your digital clock gives you the same answer when you glance away and look back — in terms of lucid dreaming you can be 99 percent sure that you are not dreaming. And yet Padmasambhava suggests that even so, even though you are sure you are “awake,” you should tell yourself you are dreaming. Padmasambhava is not inviting us to practice a self-induced illusion. He is asking us to pull the rug out from under our habitual perspective on what we are experiencing. He is reframing what it means to be awake and making this the focus of daytime practice.
Returning to the example of a nonlucid dream: as long as you are operating from the assumption that you are the person in the dream — the dreamed persona — you are stuck in that point of view. If that’s who you think you really are, you’ve sealed the nonlucidity of your dream. You are locked into your illusory role. If a companion were to notice you are dreaming — perhaps by seeing that you are tossing and turning and mumbling and your eyes display rapid eye movement — he might whisper into your ear, “You are dreaming.” And just like this companion, Padmasambhava is asking you to view the dream not from the perspective of the deluded dream persona but, figuratively speaking, from that of the dreamer asleep in bed. He is suggesting that you view waking reality from the perspective of buddha-nature. The Buddha was once asked, “Are you a god, a celestial being, a spirit, or a man?” He replied, none of the above, “I am awake.”
From the Dzogchen perspective, Padmasambhava’s instruction is that we attempt to see reality as it really is. We are to view not only the outside world but our own bodies as dream phenomena. As a preparation for nighttime dream yoga we practice the instructions on illusory body — to view one’s body as simply a matrix of illusions. The body and its constituents are seen as no more substantial than a reflection in a mirror. Since we have not arrived yet at primordial consciousness, we use the power of imagination. So you “powerfully imagine” being completely lucid in the waking state. Doing so is a big step toward actually becoming lucid. By placing the imagination on something for which the fit is perfect — you do happen to be dreaming after all — by pretending to see things as they really are, you have created a template that matches reality. Then your imagination may open up, break down the barriers that are preventing you from seeing what is already there — that you are dreaming. And from a Buddhist perspective, from the perspective of pristine awareness, primordial consciousness, waking reality is not just “dreamlike,” it is a dream. So now we try to truly wake up in what we normally and erroneously call the waking state.
In the nighttime practice of lucid dreaming, when we are able say in the midst of a dream, “I am dreaming,” the reference for “I” emerges from the substrate consciousness. That is its locus. This is the ordinary, conventional “I.” What is the referent for “I” when we say — authentically, with full understanding — “I am dreaming,” in the practice of daytime dream yoga? Who or what is dreaming, is delusional about waking reality? This waking reality is being dreamed by primordial consciousness. This is one reason that it is said in Vajrayana that all visual appearances are the body of the deity, all sounds the speech of the deity, and all thoughts are the mind of the deity. The deity, of course, is fully enlightened — is a manifestation of enlightened mind. And in Dzogchen it is said that all beings are already enlightened and the billionfold universe is a buddha realm. In essence we are not ordinary sentient beings but enlightened beings that fail to recognize the fact. This follows the old Tibetan aphorism, “Although the sun is always shining, adventitious clouds hide it from our view.”
The reality of primordial consciousness, or pristine awareness, is of course something that can be known. But it is not known just by carefully observing appearances, nor by the power of logic, intellect, investigation, and so forth. You could say that it can be known by the power of faith — but that can lead us into semantic difficulties. It’s a knowing that is not simply empirical knowing by way of the senses, not a knowing by way of inference, but a knowing that is immediate, that is unmediated, nonconceptual-intuitive. The experience is one of pristine awareness knowing itself.
I would summarize Padmasambhava’s quintessential instruction for daytime dream yoga in this way: with the power of your intuition and imagination keep on dropping back into the perspective from which it is true to say, “This is a dream.” Sustain that. That will gradually break down the barriers between your normal dualistic mind and pristine awareness. So daytime dream yoga is moved by the power of intuition and sustained by the power of mindfulness.
Teaser image by Powellizer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.