Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

If life is nothing more substantial than a dream, as this old nursery rhyme suggests—and as Buddhism teaches—then why should we take it seriously?

But we do take it seriously. We row not with but against life’s current, a current that often seems swift and treacherous. We tug at the oars, struggle and sweat, swerve to avoid rocks and eddies, fearing that at any moment we might capsize and drown—because, eventually, we will. So this dream of life becomes a nightmare from which we cannot awaken.

According to the ancient legend, after years of painful and desperate searching, an Indian prince named Gautama did exactly this—he woke up—and was afterwards known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. He helped others to do the same, and over the centuries, as Buddhism spread through Asia, this experience of awakening has retained its place at the center of Buddhist study and practice.

But what does it mean to say that Prince Gautama “woke up?”

The concept of awakening is predicated on the idea that before he became the Buddha, Gautama was in some sense asleep and dreaming. This trope is at the heart of Buddhism and even appears in the Upanishads, a collection of Sanskrit texts that predate Buddhism by centuries. The conviction that birth and death are an illusion (Skt., maya) has served as the pivot point around which turn all the philosophies and practices that make up the spiritual life of India. In the words of the Diamond Sutra (author’s translation):

All the things of this world should be seen as
A phantom’s mask,
A shooting star, a guttering flame
A sorcerer’s trick, a bubble swept
On a swiftly moving stream.

A flash of lightning among dark clouds.
A drop of dew,
a dream.

From the Buddhist point of view, the dream is real in a sense—it is a real dream—but its true nature is veiled as it masquerades as waking life. When I’m dreaming, I experience myself as an individual moving through a world populated with objects and people separate from me. But the truth is that there is no real difference between the “I” and the objects or other people—it’s all an effect of the imagination, a vivid fantasy. To be lost in a dream means, then, to be unaware that the perceived distinction between “me” and “not me” is an illusion created by the mind.

So it is that when I wake up in the morning I say to myself, It was all just a dream, and I marvel at how profoundly I was deceived while I slept. Then I get out of bed and go about my business. The fact that only hours before I was wholly betrayed by my mind—taking imagination for reality—does not, as a rule, provoke me to question the contours of my waking life and its fundamental distinction between self and other.

This is somewhat curious. Where do I derive this unreflective confidence that I and my world are exactly what they seem to be even though I am routinely misled in my dreams? What would it require to shake my certainty that things are not as they appear?

Related: Waking from a Crazy Dream

Consider, from this perspective, the peculiar experience that psychologists refer to as a “false awakening”:

[False Awakenings] can take a number of distinct forms, but in all of these a person believes that he has woken up when he has not. Thus the dreamer may appear to awake realistically in his own bedroom and finds his room, which may seem to be familiar in all its details, around him; and if he does not realize that he is dreaming, a more or less plausible representation of the process of dressing, breakfasting and setting off to work may then follow… the environment often appears to be meticulously realistic and the dreamer in a fairly rational state of mind. (Green & McCreery 1994: 65)

Some years ago I talked with a woman who had experienced three false awakenings in a row, one after another. In the first, her alarm sounded, she reached over and turned it off, lay still for a moment, realized she was dreaming, then slipped back into dreamless sleep. In the second, she turned off the alarm, got out of bed, put on her slippers and was half way down the hall when all over again she realized she was dreaming then drifted back into deep sleep. The third time she got all the way to the bathroom and was brushing her teeth when she chanced to look up and saw no reflection in the mirror—just the vacant, polished glass where her face should have been. Immediately she awoke, again, startled, and this time found herself lying in bed. She told me she lay there for quite a while after that, recalling the previous dream episodes, examining her hands, scanning the room for clues. At last, she got up and started her day. And there she was, only a few hours later, telling me all of this.

“How do you know?” I began, hesitantly. “I mean, how did you know, the last time it happened, that you were really awake?”

She shrugged her shoulders and grinned sheepishly. “I couldn’t just lie there forever.”

The border between waking and dream is notoriously porous, as is the border between memory and imagination. It would be more accurate to speak of an “interface” than a “border.” But to speak in this way immediately suggests a number of troubling reflections about the nature of reality as conventionally defined through reference to the waking state.

The first thing to notice, in this regard, is that the difference between waking and dreaming is not a simple matter of reality versus unreality. As the psychologist and philosopher William James pointed out over a century ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience, a dream may be misleading, but it is, after all, undeniably real as a type of first person experience, similar in this respect to the experience of seeing a hallucination or a mirage. And the dreamer is not necessarily fooled. Just as I can see the pool of water on the road ahead and know it for the mirage that it is, it is also possible to dream and simultaneously know that I am dreaming. The woman I mentioned above, for example, realized that she was dreaming at some point in each of her false awakening experiences. So-called lucid dreams are, in fact, relatively common.

Here’s an example, drawn from my own experience:

I once found myself caught up in a weird sensation that things were not as they appeared to be. The setting at the time was picturesque, but otherwise not especially provocative. I was standing at one end of a spacious room lined with windows opening onto a mountain valley that extended for miles into the distance. I was looking out the windows when it occurred to me that I might be dreaming. Nothing in particular was unusual, yet something was not quite right.

How could I could I confirm my suspicion? I had read about lucid dreams, but never myself had had the experience. One of the books suggested that if I think that I might be dreaming, I can test the hypothesis by attempting to do something I wouldn’t be able to do in waking life. Preferably something safe, like levitation. So I turned my attention to a vase that was sitting on a nearby table. Summoning the invisible force of my will, I commanded the vase to move.

To my great astonishment, it wobbled slightly, tilted, then rose an inch or two into the air and glided sideways down along the surface of the table, picking up speed and altitude as it went. Lofting it into the air was one thing; managing its trajectory was another. When I looked directly at the vase, it would dart away. So, in order control its movement I had to keep it in my peripheral vision. It was like trying to steer a floater—one of those gray specks that migrate listlessly in front of your eyes. Eventually I was able to home this method and drag the vase through the air, creating a full circle and settling it down back on the table.

I was thrilled. And in the aura of my excitement the whole world lit up. Colors became extraordinarily intense, shapes and textures blossomed around me like exotic flowers. It felt as if everything were newly created, emerging from the void literally as I watched. Or had it always been that way, and I only now noticed? It was then that I saw I was not alone. Over in one corner three men stood facing each other in a tight circle, engaged in muted conversation. Immediately I went over to them and interrupted their discussion.

“This is a dream,” I blurted out, unable to restrain my enthusiasm. “I’m dreaming! This is a dream!”

They quit talking, turned in my direction and regarded me with baleful consternation, clearly not pleased at the intrusion.

“All of you,” I stammered, suddenly cognizant of their reaction, “all of us— we’re in a dream! It’s so cool!”

They looked at me as if I were mad.

“You don’t believe me,” I said. “But it’s true. Watch this.” I glanced sideways at the vase, now some distance away, and made it rise and float. The men stood placidly observing. One of them rolled his eyes, ever so slightly. After a few seconds they turned away and resumed their conversation.

That’s the last thing I recall from the dream.

Remarkable as it was, my lucid dream experience was not unique. To know that one is dreaming—to be awake in the dream—alters, in an essential way, the nature of the experience. In a full-blown lucid dream, the dream world often feels more real than normal waking life. And of course, one can do things—like levitate a vase—that would normally violate the laws of nature. Nevertheless, even in a lucid dream one does not have complete control; there is always an element of the experience that lies beyond the range of the dreamer’s will. In my case, I could not compel those three men to share in my astonishment. Displaying the magic of the dream world was not sufficient to warrant their interest. (Of course, they were dream people, at home in that world, so perhaps they had witnessed such things countless times before and had long since started taking them for granted.)

How does all this bear on the question I posed earlier, the central question of Buddhism? What does it mean to say that Prince Gautama woke up?

Just as a false awakening leaves one lost in the dream without knowing it—still fooled, that is, by the apparent division between self and other—so, according to the Buddha’s teaching, we experience a similar kind of false awakening every morning. Like the woman who only imagined she was awake, we transition from one dream to another, chagrined at how we were taken in by the first without ever suspecting that we are now wandering lost in a second—namely, in this dream of birth and death, where an isolated, independent self appears to struggle for control in a world of fixed, immutable objects. The essence of a false awakening is to imagine you have left the dream behind when in fact you have not. The Buddha, however, awakened not from the dream of life but rather in it; his awakening is more analogous to the experience of a lucid dream. To falsely awaken from a dream is to move from one misconception to another; to wake up in a dream, however, is to experience a realization that profoundly transforms the illusion without any sense of leaving it behind.

Related: Dream Yoga: How Far Are You Willing to Go to Wake Up?

Still, the analogy only goes so far. Everything about a lucid dream is experienced as illusory, but there is nevertheless an outside world where I am asleep in bed. Moreover, in the dream I know as much, and this knowledge provides a fixed reference point: the dream is illusory or unreal only in comparison with the reality of waking experience. The “I” within the dream may be mere fantasy, but that fantasy consciously refers back to the “I” of the dreamer. For a buddha, however—one who has awakened again within the waking dream of birth and death—there is no other reality in comparison with which this is an illusion and no other self apart from the self in the dream. For a buddha there is only our present experience, and our present experience is a dream that refers back to nowhere and no one, a ship without an anchor.

This, I suggest, is the import of this notoriously enigmatic line from the Lankavatara Sutra: “Things are not as they appear, nor are they otherwise.”

The story of the Buddha’s awakening implies the possibility of a gestalt shift in our attitude toward the ordinary day-to-day world, which he perceived to be in some profound sense both inherently deceptive and entirely sufficient unto itself and worthy of unsparing love.

What the Buddha discovered will remain, from our present perspective, an unfathomable wonder hidden right here before our eyes, here where crimson and yellow-gold leaves drift past my window twirling in the pristine light of a late October afternoon, here in this fleeting, fragile world where we delight in our gifts, and suffer, and die.

We see and see, says the Gospel of Mark, but do not perceive; we hear and hear, but do not understand.

And yet . . .

I think of the woman who dreamed three times in succession that she had woken up. She was right: We can’t just lie in bed waiting to figure out once and for all what’s real and what’s not (as if such a feat were even possible). The problem is, this whole elaborate business of the self and its world hangs—or falls—together, so we can never know with any certainty who or where we are. But we can begin to see clearly what we don’t know, and—transformed by this seeing—get up and pack the kids off to school, clean the house, go to work, pay the bills.

We know what it is to be lost in a dream, and at least some of us know what it is to be aware we are asleep and dreaming. These analogies are useful, but they are ultimately inadequate to capture the profound unknowing that characterized the Buddha’s awakening. All we can hope for are hints. Just so, the experience of waking up to the fierce, ungraspable beauty and sorrow of this world is hinted at by the Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) who wrote, on the death of his newborn child:

Tsuyu no yo wa
Tsuyu no yo nagara
Sari nagara

This dewdrop world
Is nothing but a dewdrop world.
And yet . . . And yet . . .

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