The second line of our Four Practice Principles says, “Waking to a dream within a dream.” I was recently informed that independent of the early Buddhist sources for the phrase, Dream within a dream, Edgar Allen Poe wrote a poem with that title. So I’d like to read that this morning, and then maybe say something about the different ways in which the phrase is used. . . .
We might start by saying that Poe’s poem certainly shares with Buddhism an emphasis on impermanence. We have the image here of nothing graspable, of sand slipping inexorably through his fingers, of time being unstoppable, taking its toll. In the first stanza, what we’re focused on is loss, the loss of love, the loss of hope, the loss perhaps of a romantic fantasy. He says it’s as if we lose something, it’s simply a figment of our imagination, like meaning or home or love, that only exists in our mind. Is that loss still not real, as real as losing your keys? Losing an object. Even though it has no physical substance, for us a loss is just as real, even though in some sense we can say it is dream-like.
His dream within a dream is a picture of the insubstantiality of something like love or hope within the dream of the impermanence of life itself. But the mood here is entirely one of loss and regret. That I think is where his use of the phrase diverges from what we see in the Zen use of it, or at least it’s only one aspect of it. Certainly, as I say, impermanence is at the core of both, but we could say this is a representation of impermanence without realization. What is that? What difference does that make?
We say, “Waking to a dream within a dream.” Waking up implies a kind of coming to our senses, seeing things clearly. And in a certain sense it implies a kind of release from an illusion, we’re out of the grip of something. I’ve often said that our realization is like the relief we experience from taking off tight shoes. The first line of the Practice Principles says, “Caught in a self-centered dream only suffering.” So waking implies a relief from the suffering of that self-centered dream, of being caught by self-centeredness. Our self-centeredness is a painful dream that we can potentially awaken from.
In our version of the “Dream within a dream,” the first dream is the self-centered dream. It’s the dream of a substantial self. It’s the dream of a self that must be protected, maintained, can be hurt or insulted. Our self-centeredness gives rise to a whole way of being in a kind of adversarial relationship to life, which is always impinging or challenging our longing for control. Our longing can be at the center of things, our longing to have control over them, having them not change. As long as we have that kind of self-centered dream about how life is supposed to go, life is always our enemy, always frustrating us.
So waking up from that involves a kind of relief from an impossible struggle. Someone once defined anxiety as the feeling of trying to control the uncontrollable, and that’s the pain of the self-centered dream, the pain of the self endlessly struggling for a kind of control in the midst of life that’s not possible. So there’s a waking up, a letting go, from that wish that seems to want to provide us with security but in fact endlessly provides the opposite.
When we say waking from a dream within a dream, the second dream is the insubstantiality of the self, that has no solid substance, that’s ephemeral, that disappears when we wake up. Ordinarily we contrast the emptiness, the fleetingness of the dream with the solidity and permanence of reality, but our waking up eliminates that dichotomy. It says all the things that we usually attribute to dreams are in fact attributes of our waking world. A world of solid objects is in fact as fleeting and impermanent as the world of our dreams. And this gives rise to poignancy and awe, wonder.
The Japanese enshrine that in the viewing of the cherry blossoms, something that comes each year just for a few days, a beautiful manifestation, that we know even as we enjoy it, is about to go away. This becomes a model for our life itself, even as we enjoy it moment after moment, we know it’s going away. And the beauty of the cherry blossoms is not separate from their fleetingness. We don’t become obsessed we gotta breed cherry blossoms that will last all year. There’s something really wrong with that tree. The flowers fall too fast. We’re able to accept that part of their beauty is in their transience. This is an attitude perhaps that gradually develops in our practice about the entirety of our life.
So the Poe poem, I think, is an interesting picture of what happens with how we suffer from impermanence, if we don’t wake up to it as well.