Nightly Wisdom - Selections

Buddhist Inspirations for Sleeping, Dreaming, and Waking Up

We all sleep.
Whether we acknowledge it or not we all dream. And certainly every single one of us will die. Although these issues affect us all, they retain a sense of mystery and fascination.

The Dalai Lama, in Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

 

Mara the Evil One, on finding the Blessed One lying down mindfully after enduring, without becoming distressed, severe pains from a cut made on his foot by a stone splinter, said:

“Do you lie down in a daze or drunk on poetry?
Don’t you have sufficient goals to meet?
Alone in a secluded lodging
Why do you sleep with a drowsy face?”

The Blessed One:

“I do not lie in a daze or drunk on poetry;
Having reached the goal, I am rid of sorrow.
Alone in a secluded lodging
I lie down full of compassion for all beings.
Even those with a dart stuck in the breast
Piercing their heart moment by moment—
Even these here, stricken, get to sleep;
So why should I not get to sleep
When my dart has been drawn out?
I do not lie awake in dread,
Nor am I afraid to sleep.
The nights and days do not afflict me,
I see for myself no decline in the world.
Therefore I can sleep in peace,
Full of compassion for all beings.”

 

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, “The Blessed One knows me, the Fortunate One knows me,” sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

            From The Connected Discourses of the Buddha

 

All subjects and objects in the dream can be transformed. In dream yoga you may take a hundred things and transform them into just one, or take one thing and multiply it by a hundred. This is the practice that Milarepa did during the waking state, when he emanated innumerable forms of a certain object. In one particular account, he emanated himself inside a yak horn, without the yak horn getting bigger or him getting smaller. That is an indication that he was extremely well versed in dream yoga.

            Gyatrul Rinpoche in Natural Liberation

 

As the familiar daytime aspects of things are gradually lost in the great fragrant darkness, the question of faith grows more distinct, more urgent, for we begin to perceive around us what cannot be relied on or revered as unchangeable   and secure; namely, all of this that we can point to, label, and define, all conditioned, compounded things, however beautiful or alive with the evening’s mystery.

            Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano in Available Truth

 

When I was a student, my first meditation teacher gave me some practical advice. He began by asking me the first thing I did after getting up in the morning.

“I go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Is there a mirror in your bathroom?” he enquired.
“Of course.”
“Good,” he said. “Now, every morning, even before you brush your teeth, I want you to look in that mirror and smile at yourself.”}
“Sir!” I began to protest. “I am a student. Sometimes I go to bed very late, and get up in the morning not feeling  my best. Some mornings, I would be frightened to look at myself in a mirror, let alone smile!”

He chuckled, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you cannot manage a natural smile, then take your two index fingers, place one on each corner of your mouth, and push up. Like this.” And he showed me.

He looked ridiculous. I giggled. He ordered me to try it. So I did.

The very next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and staggered to the bathroom. I looked at myself in the mirror. “Urrgh!” It was not a pretty sight. A natural smile was a nonstarter. So I took my two index fingers, placed one on each corner of my mouth, and pushed up. I then saw this stupid young guy making a silly face in the mirror, and I couldn’t help grinning. Once there was a natural smile, I saw the student in the mirror smiling at me. So I smile even more. The man in the mirror smiled even more.  In a few seconds, we ended up laughing together.

I continued that practice every morning for two years. Every morning, no matter how I felt when I got out of bed, I was soon laughing at myself in the mirror, usually with the help of my two fingers. People say I smile a lot these days. Perhaps the muscles around my mouth got kind of stuck in that position.

            Ajahn Brahm in Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

 

Experiences in a dream are not true, because after waking from sleep not even a trace of them having happened is apparent. They are also not false, because they were experienced during the dream.

            The Fifth Dalai Lama in Taking the Result as the Path

 

Sleep, wake, sleep, wake, until the sleeper wakes no more.Without attention, without the particular turnings of attention developed and practiced through meditative consciousness, forgotten dreams and too-soon forgotten days seem likely all there is: unawakened mind.

            Robert Langan in Minding What Matters

 

The energy necessary to awaken constantly leaks away from us, morning till night. As we struggle to hold our lives together—trying to win, trying to please, trying to hide, trying to avoid discomfort—our energy is dissipated in mindless chatter, needless action, wanton daydreams. We rage, we lust, we fear. We gossip, complain, dramatize; we fidget, tense, strain; we fantasize and worry. Above all we try to plan for the unknowable. And all the while the very energy that could fuel our awakening leaks away, drop by drop. Our task is to learn to stop these leaks.

            Ezra Bayda with Josh Bartok in Saying Yes To Life

 

By examining diverse appearances, the meditator will experience the indivisible union of appearance and its intrinsic emptiness as being devoid of any identifiable essence. This union of mind and appearance should be understood to be like the union between the consciousness in a dream and its appearance. For instance, in a dream    the emergence of diverse appearances is not different from the mind’s unceasing manifestation. The emergence of the diverse appearances and the mind should, therefore, be understood as being an indivisible union.

            Dakpo Tashi Namgyal in Mahamudra—The Moonlight

 

There is said to be a relationship between dreaming, on the one hand, and the gross and subtle levels of the body on the other. But it’s also said there is such a thing as a “special dream state.” In that state, the “special dream body” is created from the mind and from vital energy within the body. This special dream body is able to disassociate entirely from the gross physical body and travel elsewhere.

            The Dalai Lama in Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

 

Those who can remain in meditation while in dreamless sleep have the potential to abide in the realization of the nature of the clear light of sleep. For an ordinary person, the many dreams that occur during the course of the night are produced by latent predispositions, or mental imprints. These come from the activation of the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, which, in turn, stem from a lack of realization of the two types of identitylessness (of persons and of phenomena).

            Gyatrul Rinpoche in Natural Liberation

 

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. Then, when the night was fading, the Blessed One, having spent much of the night walking back and forth in the open, washed his feet, entered his dwelling, and lay down on his right side in the lion’s posture, with one leg overlapping the other, mindful and clearly comprehending, having attended to the idea of rising.

Then Mara the Evil One approached the Blessed One and addressed him in verse:
“What, you sleep? Why do you sleep?
What’s this, you sleep like a wretch?
Thinking ‘The hut’s empty’ you sleep:
What’s this, you sleep when the sun has risen?”

The Blessed One:
“Within him craving no longer lurks,
Entangling and binding, to lead him anywhere;
 With the destruction of all acquisitions
The Awakened One sleeps:
Why should this concern you, Mara?”

 

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, “The Blessed One knows me, the Fortunate One knows me,” sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

            From The Connected Discourses of the Buddha

 

Not a single one of any of the dreams I had last night remains when I wake up. Likewise, not a single one of all these daytime appearances today will appear tonight in my dreams. There is no difference between the dreams of the day and the night.

            Padmasambhava quoted in The Attention Revolution

 

The most profound and effective way to overcome sloth and torpor is to stop fighting your mind. Stop trying to change things and instead let things be. Make peace, not war, with sloth and torpor. Then your mental energy will  be freed to flow into the knower, and your sloth and torpor will naturally disappear.

            Ajahn Brahm in Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond

 

A state called witnessing deep sleep is described as dreamless sleep in which you experience a quiet, peaceful inner state of awareness or wakefulness—a feeling of infinite expansion and bliss, and nothing else. Then, one becomes aware of one’s own existence as an individual—which may lead to emerging from sleep.

            Jayne Gackenbach in Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

 

Although everyone can dream, not all dreams are significant; and some dreams—those that suggest the presence of other realms—need to be understood and incorporated into waking reality.

            Serenity Young in Dreaming in the Lotus

 

Overnight in Ch’eng-Hsiang Forest

We’re visiting together
when the sun goes down,
in a forest of a thousand trees
not yet bare of leaves.

A rock-tangled creek
flows out the valley;
mountain rain
drips on a perching owl.

Around our lamp,
we hear the water clock flow;
thanks to the host,
the guest stays up late.

We enjoyed
this evening fully; but…ah,
if the moon had shone.

Chia Tao in When I Find You Again It Will Be In Mountains

 

When we have a nightmare, such as dreaming we are being burned by a big fire, we can wake up in fright. Even though that fire does not truly exist as it seems to in the dream, it will produce fear as the result. In the same way, the tortures of the hot and cold hells experienced by the hell-denizens as a result of their previous actions do not inherently exist, yet the experience of pain, suffering, and terror resulting from these tortures does exist.

             Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Michael Sweet, and Leonard Zwilling in Peacock in the Poison Grove

 

If we fall asleep with a virtuous or noble frame of mind, then the odds are higher that the first thought that springs to mind when we wake up will also be virtuous   or noble. That is one aspect of karma—the karmic result of consciously planting a thought in our mind. As a result of that first conscious thought, a new thought may occur that is a reflection of that first thought. It’s not the same thought, but something that feels quite similar due to the power of what preceded it. That is how habits are formed. If you fall asleep feeling deeply unhappy, then the  moment you wake up there will be some remnant of that feeling. It’s not likely if you go to sleep feeling sad that you will wake up feeling full of joy. Isn’t that true?

            Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche and David R. Shlim in Medicine & Compassion

 

Dreaming can be viewed as the special case of perception without the constraints of external sensory input. Conversely, perception can be viewed as the special case of dreaming constrained by sensory input.

            Stephen Laberge quoted in The Attention Revolution

 

Let’s say it’s a dark night, and in this total darkness we are dreaming, or experiencing a dream world. The mental space where the dream takes place—independent of the physical place where we are—could be compared to the openness of mind, while its capacity for experiencing, despite the external darkness, corresponds to its clarity. This lucidity encompasses all mind’s knowledge and is the clarity inherent in these experiences. It is also the lucidity of what or who experiences them; knower and known, lucidity and luminosity are but two facets of the same quality. As the intelligence that experiences the dream, it is lucidity, and as the clarity present in its experiences,   it is luminosity. But at the nondual level of pure mind, it is one and the same quality: “clarity.” This example may be helpful in understanding, but bear in mind that it is just an illustration showing at a habitual level a particular mani- festation of clarity. In the example, there is a difference between the lucidity of the knower and the luminosity of that subject’s experiences. This is because the dream is a dualistic experience, differentiated in terms of subject and object, in which clarity manifests itself at once in the awareness or lucidity of the subject and in the luminosity of its objects.

            Kalu Rinpoche in Luminous Mind

 

From Song of the Twelve Hours of the Day

Middle of the night—the first hour
In my dreams, I go here and there and don’t know how to stop myself.
Treading into pieces the green of the eastern hills and the western peaks,
Then turning over to find one’s been nestled in the bedcovers all along.

The cock crows—the second hour
All the routines of everyday life, each one naturally in accord.
Over there, by the banks of the river, they scrub their faces until they shine,
Over here, rinsing the mouth with tea then swallowing it down….

The sun rises—the fourth hour
In the coral tree groves, the colors are bright and radiant.
There is no need to look elsewhere for the Buddha, Gautama,
His sixteen-foot-tall golden body is in a single blade of grass.

            Jifu in Daughters of Emptiness

 

When the World-Honored One was in the world, the asura king Rahula wanted to swallow the moon.
The heavenly moon was frightened and appeared before Buddha and recited to Buddha this verse, “World- Honored Buddha of great wisdom and pure effort, now I take refuge and make prostrations. This Rahula is upsetting me. I entreat the Buddha to look upon me with pity, and help and protect me.”
The Buddha recited a verse to the asura king Rahula saying, “The moon can illuminate the darkness, pure and cool. This is the great bright lamp in the empty sky.
Its color is white and pure with a thousand rays. Do not swallow the moon, but immediately release it.” At this time the asura king Rahula sweated with fear and shame, immediately letting go of the moon.

            Eihei Dohen in Dogen’s Extensive Record

 

The night receives in silence the cricket’s call and our own speechless questions.

            Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano in Available Truth

 

Why do we sleep and dream? What is the purpose of it? There is quite a debate in neuroscience about this, but there are fundamentally two ways of answering the question. Some people think of sleep as a form of restoration or replenishment. But while this feels intuitively true, nobody so far has identified precisely what it is that we are replenishing. You spend a lot of energy during sleep; there is actually more oxygen consumed during REM sleep than when awake, so it’s not a simple matter of letting the machine cool off. Because REM is such an active state, it’s not obvious how we are replenishing, restoring, or refreshing ourselves.

The other answer, which I personally prefer, is that REM sleep is a fundamental cognitive activity. It is the place where people can engage in imaginary play, trying out different scenarios, learning new possibilities; a space of innovation where new patterns and associations can arise, where whatever was experienced can be elaborated. Dreaming provides a space where you don’t just cope with immediacy, but instead can reimagine, reconceive, reconceptualize. It allows you to come up with new possibilities.

            Francisco J. Varela in Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying

 

A friend awoke one morning from one of those dreams that was so vivid it seemed real. He had dreamt that five angels had given him five big jars of gold worth a fortune. When he opened his eyes, there were no angels in his bedroom and, alas, no pots of gold. But it was a very strange dream.

When he went into the kitchen, he saw that his wife had made him five boiled eggs with five pieces of toast for his breakfast. At the top of the morning newspaper he noticed the date, the fifth of May (the fifth month). Something odd was surely going on. He turned to the back pages of the newspaper, to the horseracing pages. He was stunned to see that at a racetrack called Ascot (five letters), in race number five, horse number five was called…Five Angels! The dream was clearly an omen.

He took the afternoon off work. He drew five thousand dollars out of his bank account. He went to the race- track, to the fifth bookmaker and made his bet: five thousand dollars on horse number five, race number five, Five Angels, to win.

The dream couldn’t be wrong. The lucky number five couldn’t be wrong! And indeed the dream wasn’t wrong.

The horse came in fifth.

            Ajahn Brahm in Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

 

When you go to bed in the evening, cultivate the Spirit of Awakening, thinking, “For the sake of all sentient beings throughout space, I shall practice the illusion-like  samadhi, and I shall achieve perfect buddhahood. For that purpose, I shall train in dreaming.” Then as you lie down, rest on your right shoulder, with your head pointing  north, your right hand pressed against your cheek, and your left placed upon your thigh. Clearly imagine your body as your chosen deity.

            Padamasambhava quoted in The Attention Revolution

 

How to cite this document:
© Josh Bartok, Nightly Wisdom (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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