Buddhist Approach to Dreams
and Junti - Dreams West and East
by Rev. Heng Sure - http://paramita.typepad.com
graduate school, I wanted to look deeper into my dreams so I
joined a Jungian dream circle in Berkeley. A group of ten dreamers
kept journals and told our dreams to each other. The group was
moderated by a Jungian analyst who dispensed insightful guidelines
for us to use on our own. The experience was moderately enlightening;
my dreams became a wider door to enter and explore for self-knowledge.
Later I was thrilled to discover discussion of dreams in the
Buddhist texts I was translating. The excitement was initially
short-lived, because the sutras said, “Dreams are false
and illusory.” Trying to build a bridge the West to the
East and merge Jung’s ideas with the Buddha’s approach
to dreams was, no matter how unwise, nearly irresistible. Both
Jung and the Buddha were consummate psychotherapists, both were
compassionate and practical teachers of dreamers. The major
difference seems to be that Jung lacked religious faith; he
was bound by his senses and he saw dreams as a means of achieving
peace and psychic wholeness in this life. Dreams for Jung opened
a door into the individuated Self. For the Buddha, dreams opened
a door into the ultimately empty and selfless nature of all
dharmas. This emptying out of the self in turn made possible
the liberating vision of Great Compassion, which sees all beings
as sharing the same body and substance.
know how the Buddha and certain Indian Buddhists in the past
dealt with their dreams because detailed writings still exist
in the scriptures and commentaries. This article will present
a section from a particular Buddhist scripture, The Sutra on
the Junti Bodhisattva Dharani, Spoken by the Mother of Seven
Kotis of Buddhas (T.1077), which lists specific dream images.
To put the Buddhist treatment in context, I will present dream
categories from a Buddhist commentary, the Great Perfection
of Wisdom Sutra, called the Ta Chih Tu Lun, (T. 1509) “The
Great Wisdom That Crosses Over,” by Nagarjuna Bodhisattva
(dates uncertain), and his Chinese translator, Venerable Kumarajiva
(343-413 CE). Nagarjuna explains the Buddha’s wisdom-texts
by drawing from an encyclopedic knowledge of the traditional
lore of Indian culture, customs and literature. His presentation
of dreams represents the available knowledge of third and fourth
century India. After translating and investigating some of the
methods that appear in the Junti Sutra and the Ta Chih Tu Lun,
I will present some of the material the ancients passed down
surrounding dreams and draw some conclusions. I will mention
only in passing the ideas of Carl Jung regarding the value and
the purpose of dream analysis. The exercise can make the dream-wisdom
of the ancients relevant to us who seek to awaken today.
One: Two Methods of Dealing with Dreams
European Approach to Dreams
is said that the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in his lifetime
analyzed over 80,000 dreams–. Dreams for Jung played an
important complementary role in the psyche. The general function
of a dream is to try to restore our psychological balance by
producing material that reestablishes, in a subtle way, the
total psychic equilibrium. Jung approached dreams as living
realities that must be experienced and observed carefully to
be understood. He considered Freud’s method of “free
association” as incomplete. “Free association will
bring out all your complexes, but hardly ever the meaning of
a dream. To understand the dream’s meaning, I must stick
as close as possible to the dream images.” During analysis,
Jung kept asking the dreamer, “What does the dream say?”
answer comes from Jeremy Taylor, a well-known authority on Jungian
dream work who postulates five basic assumptions about dreams:
1) that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness;
2) that no dream come simply to tell the dreamer what he or
she already knows; 3) that only the dreamer can say with certainty
what meanings a dream may hold; 4) that there is no such thing
as a dream with only one meaning; and 5) that all dreams speak
a universal language, a language of metaphor and symbol. The
thrust of Taylor’s and Jung’s approach to dreams
is individual-centered, a particularly Western concern. For
serious-minded seekers of truth via dream-work the Jungian approach
helps you puzzle out the integration of your individual psyche
with the analyst as best you can, for a happier and more fulfilled
life in this world. This goal is, nonetheless, far more sophisticated
than the superficial “good and bad fortune” question
that the great majority of people in the world ask their dreams.
An Indian Approach to Dreams
Buddhists in India dreamed they dealt with their dreams in a
variety of ways. Certain types of dreams occurred frequently
enough to the ancients to merit listing as separate categories
for dream-analysis. The categories show the following different
kinds of dreams. The most distinctive use, for Buddhists, was
1) seeing dreams as a simile for emptiness, sunyata,
the ultimate nature of all things.
2) seeing dreams as portents
of things to come, which overlapped with another type of dream:
3) as messages or teaching by
the gods, spirits or bodhisattva.
4) Buddhists in India and in
China thought, like Freud and Jung, that it was possible to
diagnose aspects of the dreamer’s mental and physical
health from the symbols of dreams.
5) The theoretical psychology school of Buddhism, the
Vijnanavada (“Consciousness-only”) school called
dreams “monkey-sleep,” a function of the “isolated
6) Buddhist psychologists saw dreams as the return at
night of things thought on during the day.
7) Finally, Nagarjuna explained dreams as a standard
for testing the quality of a bodhisattva’s vows.
appear in the earliest Buddhist writings, and played no less
an important role in Buddhism than in our lives today. Being
human, Buddhists have always slept; and when asleep, they dream.
While dreaming they perceived the same disembodied shadows and
disconnected images as we do. After waking they sought the meaning
of their dreams. The diviners and prognosticators of India and
China, being culture-bound individuals, interpreted the dreams
according to the modes and methods available to them. Those
methods were in some respects suggestive of methods used today,
in some respects they were quite different. Dreams are very
democratic; both rich and poor alike dream at night. But when
trying to analyze what dreams meant, it is important to know
who the dreamer was. The educated, literate, elite certainly
had more options in their systems of dream analysis. Dreams
could be messages from ancestors and Sages more often for a
prince or a scholar because they had a concept of history. Uneducated
individuals seemed to turn to formula-books of ready-made dream
interpretations to explain the symbols of dreams. Generic do-it-yourself
recipes, such as Aunt Sally’s Dream Book and Horoscope
Love Advisor that we find at the supermarket check-out counter
had its counterpart in most cultures. Dream interpretation formulas
answer some superficial questions, to be sure, but they tend
to center on love, money, and bad luck. Nagarjuna’s Ta
Chih Tu Lun gives us the following important patterns that occur
regularly in dreams:
Dreams as a simile for emptiness.
most common use of dreams in the literature of the Mahayana,
or “Northern School” of Buddhism in China, Tibet,
Japan, Korea, and Vietnam is to see dreams as a simile for sunyata,
(emptiness) the hollow core at the heart of all component dharmas
(things). For example, in the well-known Vajra (Diamond) Sutra,
the Buddha taught that:
“All conditioned dharmas, are like a dream, like an illusion,
like a bubble, like a shadow, like a dewdrop, like a lightening
flash; you should contemplate them thus.”
symbolize the changing and impermanent nature of all things
known to the senses. Sights, sounds, smells, flavors, sensations
of touch and thoughts are all dream-like, fleeting, and ultimately
unobtainable. By pursuing and grasping material things or ephemeral
states, we create the causes for misery and suffering. Those
desire-objects are not real and permanent. When they break up
and move on, we will experience grief, if we can’t let
go. The hallmark of living beings is that we are “sleeping,
“ unawakened to the truth of the emptiness and impermanence
at the nature of conditioned things. This covering of sleep
and lack of awareness is called “ignorance,” and
it makes us in our waking state, from the Buddha’s viewpoint,
look as if we are dreaming.
burst, shadows run from light, dewdrops vanish by noon without
a trace, lightning roars and vanishes, and dreams leave us at
dawn. To continually perceive such things as real locks us into
the endless cycle of birth and death. The Buddha was not simply
giving us an evocative metaphor, a literary device or a philosophical
point. He felt related to all beings, and in his compassion
he was pointing out to his family a way to escape the prolonged
misery of affliction and death. The dream simile occurs over
and over in the sutras to teach about emptiness.
the Ta Chih Tu Lun dreams occur as a didactic teaching device.
Sariputra, the foremost Arhat in wisdom, learns the true application
of the emptiness theory through the simile of dreams. Dreams
are like ordinary waking reality in that both are empty and
false. There is nothing gained by seeking out or clinging to
any thought or mark that distinguishes the two states.
the exception of message-dreams and portent dreams, two categories
that we will look at below, for the Buddha’s monastic
disciples who were intent on cultivating the mind full-time,
dreams were considered as illusory and false, no different from
the illusions of waking-time reality.
Message-dreams or teaching by the gods, spirits or Bodhisattvas;
can be a message from a Bodhisattva, an ancestor, or a god,
The intent of the dream may be to test the dreamer’s resolve:
is he non-retreating (avaivartika) from Bodhi (enlightenment)
even when sleeping? The purpose of the dream visit may be to
communicate information vital to the dreamer’s well-being.
The Buddha himself had five dreams of catastrophes, falling
stars and worlds in collision just before his enlightenment.
The dreams were sent to him not by a benevolent Dharma-protector,
but by an malevolent sorcerer, intent on disrupting the Buddha’s
samadhi and preventing his awakening.
Prescient or Portent Dreams
or portent dreams that predict the future are the only category
of dreams that the ancients considered real or valuable in itself.
Based on the records we have, it seems that dreamers in the
past wanted to know more or less what dreamers want to know
now: whether their dream augured good luck or misfortune. The
office of dream diviner was esteemed, and nobility and commoner
alike, waking after a dreamy sleep, sought to know the meaning
of their dreams.
Aspects of the dreamer’s physical and mental health
according to the sutras, dreams were considered ultimately false,
Indian Buddhists also used dreams as an aid to diagnosing the
dreamer’s state of health. According to ancient Indian
Ayurvedic medical systems, dreams of fire indicate an imbalance
of the fire element, dreams of flying indicate an excess of
water, etc. This methods of diagnosis suggest similarities with
Chinese dream interpretation systems found in one of the earliest
Chinese medical texts, the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of
Internal Medicine. (Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen). The symbols
of the dream have value as indicators of health or illness.
“Monkey-sleep,” a function of the isolated consciousness;”
Consciousness-only School (Vijnanavada) looked into the nature
of mental phenomena. That school assigned the function of dreams
to a part of the mind they called the “solitary intellectual
consciousness.” Dreams share that classification with
insanity, twilight sleep, “monkey-sleep” the marginal
consciousness of drowsiness, and the mind in samadhi.
The return in dreams of things experienced during the day
were understood from a psychological perspective, as a replaying
of the contents of consciousness. What the dreamer experienced
during the day could return at night as a dream image. Dreams,
although considered as empty and false can still produce a physical
reaction, as when a dream-vision of a romantic encounter can
produce a wet-dream in sleep.
A standard for testing the quality of a cultivator’s vows
visions of suffering, such as the sight of beings in the hells
will move a true Bodhisattva to make compassionate vows to rescue
those beings. Great Bodhisattvas would sometimes send dreams
on purpose to novice Bodhisattvas, to stimulate them to make
the great Bodhi Resolve. If a Bodhisattva cultivates compassion
in a dream, then the dream vision of rescuing from suffering
may return to him when he/she is awake. The dream reminds the
Bodhisattva of his ability to endure suffering on behalf of
others. Since dreams and waking are thought to be the same,
then the Bodhisattva gets inspired to repeat his dream-performance
during the day. In light of the Perfection of Wisdom, the theory
of emptiness is merely a raft, an expedient device to help us
ford the river of suffering ourselves and to then to help others
interpretation as an index to the integration of one’s
character, dreams as clues to mental health, or as the high
road to self-understanding was not unknown, but seems to have
been, as it is today, an answer to a question that relatively
few people were asking.
category of dreams as a test of the dreamer’s good roots
is evidenced by the Junti Bodhisattva’s Sutra. Now we
will look at a selection from the sutra that deals with dreams.
Part Two: A Section From the Junti Bodhisattva Sutra on Dreams
The Junti Dharani Sutra, Spoken by the Mother of Seven Kotis
of Buddhas Thus I have heard, at one time, at one time, the
Bhagavan was in the city of Sravasti, In the Jeta Grove, in
the Garden of the Orphans and the Solitary, together with a
great gathering of Bhikshus, and Bodhisattvas, as well as the
gods, dragons, and the Eight-fold Pantheon, who encircled him
on all sides. Out of sympathy and pity for living beings of
future times, who will be poor in blessings and full of bad
karma, he entered into the Junti Samadhi and spoke a mantra
that came from the mother of seven ages of Buddhas of the past.
The mantra runs like this:
Na Mwo, Sa Dwo Nan, San Myau San Pu Two, Jyu Jr Nan, Da Jr Two,
Nan, Je Li Ju Li Jun Ti, Swo Pe He.
If there are Bodhisattvas among the clergy or the laity who
commit the heaviest of offenses for limitless eons, even be
it the Ten Evil Deeds, the Four Unpardonable Offense, the Five
Cardinal Sins, and offenses that merit retributions, if they
cultivate the practice of reciting and holding mantras, and
can recite this mantra fully 900,000 times, all such offenses
will be wiped away. Wherever they live, they will meet the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas, they will enjoy abundant wealth, and will
meet many opportunities to leave the home life and enter the
If they are Bodhisattva’s practicing at home, and their
cultivation of the moral precepts is firm and non-retreating,
should they recite this Dharani, they will always be reborn
in the heavens. If they appear in the human realm they will
always be part of the kings clan. They will avoid falling into
the evil destinies and will get to draw near worthy sages. They
will be revered and respected by the Devas, who will protect
them and bless them. If they get involved with worldly matters,
they will not encounter disasters. Their appearance will be
proper and handsome, their voice majestic and calming. Their
mind will be free of worry.
If the person is a Bodhisattva among the Sangha, they will be
replete with pure precepts. They will recite sutras in the three
periods of the day and they will practice the Dharma as it is
taught. The Siddhis (states) that they seek in this life will
appear before them in samadhi and wisdom. They will realize
the (Ten) Stages and the (Six) Paramitas will be complete. they
will certify straight-away to Unsurpassed, Right and Equal Bodhi.
If they recite this mantra ten thousand times, then in their
dreams they will see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and they
will dream that they spit out a black substance. Even if the
dreamer has committed serious karmic offenses, and they can
recite the mantra twenty thousand times, they will see the heavens
and the celestial monasteries and halls, or perhaps they will
see themselves climbing a tall mountain, or climbing a tree;
or see themselves bathing in a large pool; or see themselves
soaring aloft; or playing together with maidens from the heavens;
or see themselves speaking Dharma, or shaving away hair and
beard, or eating “milk-rice”; or see themselves
drinking white sweet dew. They may in a dream see themselves
crossing a great ocean or river or stream; or ascending a lion’s-throne;
they may see a Bodhi-tree; or see themselves riding a boat.
They may see a Shramana, or a layman, or a white-robed person
wearing a yellow turban. Or maybe they will see the sun and
moon, or virgin lads and maiden girls, or see a ripe fruit tree
over head. They may see a black-hued hero whose mouth spits
out flames and smoke, and in a struggle with him, they emerge
victorious. He may see an evil-tempered horse or cow, that wants
to gore him. The mantra recitor, whether he hits or scolds,
will cause the animal to run in fear. Or he may see himself
eating milk-porridge or butter-porridge, or he may see Sumana
Flowers, or a vision of a king. If someone fails to dream of
visions such as these, you should know that this person in a
past life committed the five cardinal sins. He then should recite
anew, 700,000 times and then these visions will occur to him.
Then he can be assured that his karma has been dispelled. Once
the karma is over, he will accomplish the former practices.
If he then paints an image according to the Dharma, and as is
appropriate to the Dharma, makes offerings to it either three
times or four times or six times, seeking mundane or world-transcending
siddhis, up to and including Unsurpassed Bodhi, all such wishes
will be completely fulfilled.
A) Discussion of The Junti Sutra
The Junti Sutra is based on a Bodhisattva’s vows. The
purpose of the Sutra is to provide an expedient method to erase
evil karma and to create good roots. Junti is a powerful, compassionate
Bodhisattva who lives in the heavens and is known primarily
by the mantra that is associated with his/her name. Like Bodhisattva
Guan Yin (Japan: Kannon, or Tibet: Chen Re Zi), Junti Bodhisattva’s
iconography shows many hands and eyes, each one holding a tool
for crossing over the afflictions of living beings. Like Gwan
Shr Yin, Junti’s image transcends gender. Neither male
or female, Junti blends both compassion and courage. Junti is
called the “mother of seven kotis (myriads) of Buddhas.”
In many respects Junti’s practice seems to belong to the
esoteric, Vajrayana school, in fact her great compassion makes
her a favorite of the Mahayana School as well. Junti explains
dreams, and Buddhists turn to her to find out what last nights
Junti explains dreams in connection with a mantra that is associated
with her Dharma-door. Mantras are sounds of power, seed-syllables
spoken in Buddha-language. When you recite any of the syllables
, for instance, Om (Chinese. “nan”) or Namah (Chinese.
“namo”) the sound acts like a password, like a command,
to grant any positive wish. The spiritual beings associated
with that syllable act on your behalf to do your bidding. Mantra-sounds
were said by the ancients to have the power to create or destroy.
There are certainly positive, “white magic” mantras,
as well as not so wholesome, “black magic” spells.
Junti Bodhisattva’s mantra is decidedly wholesome and
positive. When one recites her mantra, If the reciter’s
mind is pure and unselfish, Junti guarantees that the desired
results will come to pass.
The sutra exists because the Buddha Shakyamuni knew about the
vows made by Junti Bodhisattva. Out of compassion, the Buddha
spoke the mantra. He knew that living beings in the future (i.e.,
us, now) will have spent our bank account of blessings and will
pile up bad karma. By judicious and vigorous use of the mantra’s
power we can reshape our karmic balance, reverse the debit of
evil retribution, and engineer a future of blessings, wisdom,
The connection with dreams occurs with the teaching that whoever
recites the mantra the right number of times will be able to
eradicate bad karma. The sutra gives us dream symbols that will
be seen by one who recites Junti Bodhisattva’s mantra.
Heavy, bad karma can obstruct a person and prevent the vision
of the dreams. Once the person cultivates the mantra and neutralizes
the bad karma, the dream symbols should appear.
We need to recite or “hold” the mantra over and
over from Na Mwo to Swo He. Junti’s mantra is to be recited
while visualizing its Sanskrit letters revolving on a two-sided
metal mirror. One side is Sanskrit devanagari writing, the other
side is Chinese characters that represent the sounds.
Dreams are the sign that indicates the invisible balance of
good and evil on our karma-ledger. The dreams symbols that the
Buddha lists include visions of purging, bathing, good companions,
transformation from defilement to purity, passage over boundaries,
ascending in space and climbing mountains. One sees the eating
of pure foods, healing, auspicious visions of nature, escape
from danger, and scenes of beauty. The feelings that accompany
the dreams will be completely soothing, there will be a sense
of blissful relief, free of anxiety, alarm and doubts.
Among the types of dreams that we found listed in the Ta Chih
Tu Lun, the series of dream images that appear in the Junti
Sutra clearly belong to the category of dreams that index good
roots, and show the dreamer’s state of cultivation. By
using the Dharma-door of the mantra, one puts the beneficial
and pure sound of the mantra in one’s mouth and ear; one
visualizes the symbols of the letters in one’s eye. One
brings the compassionate energy of the Bodhisattva into one’s
mind and plants the ancient seed-sounds in the eighth consciousness.
The power of the mantra neutralizes evil, transforms it to good
and brings about healing in the mind, which is the source of
good and bad karma. This is a transcendent use of dreams. Dreams
become an expedient means to aid one’s spiritual progress
towards Buddhahood, and ultimate liberation.
B) A Comparison of Western and Eastern Methods
Carl Jung believed that because the dream deals with symbols
that have more than one meaning, there can be no simple, mechanical
system for dream interpretation. All attempts at dream analysis
must take into account the attitudes, experiences and background
of the dreamer. It is a joint venture between dreamer and analyst.
The dreamer interprets the dream with the help and guidance
of the analyst. The analyst may be vitally helpful, but in the
end only the dreamer can know what the dream means. We may wind
up frustrated if we expect the Buddhist's use of dreams in the
Junti Bodhisattva Sutra to reflect a Jungian approach.
I present the sutra in the context of a Buddhist method that
was in vogue seven centuries after the Buddha spoke the sutra.
This method is closer in time to his culture and steeped in
the culture of monastic cultivation, but not given only to the
monk or nun. The challenge to contemporary analysis is to search
out the kind of questions a Buddhist might ask of these dreams.
If the list of images from the Junti Bodhisattva Sutra were
to appear to a dreamer in analysis with Jung or Taylor, the
Western analysts would likely investigate the meaning of each
symbol with the dreamer. They would attempt to map out the shadow,
the anima/animus, the self and the various archetypes of the
unconscious as they emerge over a lengthy series of encounters.
Ultimately, like Jung himself, at life’s end one may have
a highly auspicious dream that augurs an individuated character
and a rebirth in the desired heaven.
I find the Buddhist use of dreams profound and broad in scope.
No matter how well we intellectually grasp the patterns and
the symbols of the unconscious, if our karma is still as heavy
as before we began to discuss the dream, then no matter how
thoroughly we penetrate the dream-symbols, we will still be
turning on the wheel of rebirth, bound to endless rounds of
suffering. Buddhist dream analysis says that the images of dreams
themselves are empty and false; but properly understood, they
can serve as another door to liberation.
The Sutra includes a fail-safe; if one follows the Buddha’s
formula and does the right number of recitations, and it doesn’t
seem to work; i.e., the dreams don’t come, then the Buddha
gives a power-booster. Paint or draw an image of Junti Bodhisattva
(I will leave it to the reader to judge whether pixel-based
computer-drawn or painted images qualify) and then make offerings
to the image (virtual offerings probably show less sincerity)
three, four, or six times a day of pure vegetarian food (pure
means no killing involved) and along with the requisite recitations.
Then for certain all the good results that one seeks, up to
the realization of Buddha-hood will come to pass.
Following a Buddhist example, how are we supposed to deal with
dreams? Do we dismiss them as empty and false, do we diagnose
our health from dream symptoms, do we systematically analyze
their symbols as an index of our religious practice? Dreams
used as a teaching device pointing the way to enlightenment
takes a negative approach to a positive goal. The emptying out
of both dreams and reality frees the mind from duality and attachments
to conditioned states. Perhaps the Buddhist approach to dreams
is identical with the path to understanding the purpose of waking
life: transforming ignorance by the brilliant sword of Prajna
wisdom. We must wake up from our “dream within a dream,”
before we can know that we are actually sleeping through our
lives. After awakening there is no need to dream any longer.
Marie Louise von Franz, Dreams. Boston, Shambala, 1969.
Jeremy Taylor, Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill: Using
dreams to Tap the Wisdom of the Unconscious, New York: Warner
___ ___ ___
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