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Dream and Emptiness

That the physical world is not necessarily solid and real can be understood through the example of a dream. When we are dreaming, there is a subject, an object and the action between them. As long as we remain in the dream state, we experience a real world, real phenomena and a real body. However, when we look back at last night’s dream from the point of view of today, we see that the reality we experienced in our dream does not exist.

Furthermore, if we look back at both last night’s dream and yesterday’s waking experiences, then we can see that they are equally nonexistent—as far as today is concerned. There is no good reason to say that yesterday was more solid and real than last night’s dream, except that we cling to our dreamlike experience of yesterday more than to our experience of last night’s dream. Therefore, in the Mahayana path, our whole experience of the body, our entire experience of the physical world, is simply a projection or a production of our karmic mind, and that experience exists only as long as we remain in this dream of samsara.

It is the view not only of Buddhist metaphysics, but also of Western science in general and modern physics in particular, that our ordinary sense faculties, such as the eye consciousness, do not see the subtle nature of the objects we perceive. In a similar way, we mistakenly believe that this life’s appearance of our own body is truly existent and real and that our confusion and suffering are real.

The vipashyana (insight) meditation on the emptiness of form taught by the Buddha in the Heart Sutra, says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form. . .” Maintaining the discipline of seeing the dreamlike nature of our body and bringing our mind back to the awareness of that experience is the mindfulness of body in the Mahayana path.

Method of Practice: Analytical Meditation

There is no way we can really practice mindfulness of body, in the Mahayana sense, without understanding and practicing analytical meditation. In the Mahayana, this meditation is performed by searching for the “self” within the body, searching for exactly what we think of as “I.” For example, when you have a headache, you say, “Oh, I have a headache.” You do not say, “Oh, body has a headache.” And when you cut yourself in the kitchen you say, “I cut myself.” This shows how we perceive our body as being the self.

One practices this analysis by going through the entire body, dividing it into fragments, and asking in an experiential way: “Is any part or all of my hair my self?” “Is either eye my self, or both eyes?” “Are my eyelashes my self?” “Is my ear my self?” “Is my nose my self?” And so on. The purpose of this is to reverse the misapprehension of the body as a self. If the self were a real part of the body, then you would find it through this type of search. In fact, you do not find any “self,” and so you come to know that neither the whole aggregate of form nor any part of it is the self. Through this examination, you resolve that the body is not a basis for the self.

Interdependence and Existence

From the Buddhist point of view, whatever is dependent on something else for its existence has no true existence in and of itself. Because the appearance of something that we take to be a self depends on the coming together of all five skandhas, it exists only interdependently. This is similar to the formation of a “tent” made up of five matchsticks. The first matchstick can only stand upright when the other four are present and support it. When all five matchsticks are present and support each other, then they can form the appearance of a tent. In the same way, the illusion of self can only exist on the basis of all five aggregates, with their attendant causes and conditions, coming together.

The self that we experience coming from the past moment to the present moment to the future moment is like the reflection of a moon in clear water. The reflection is remarkably vivid, yet there is no moon in the water. In the same way, the “self” we experience seems to be real and existent, but when we look at it closely, it is just empty form. When all the causes and conditions of self come together, the five skandhas and so on, then you have the appearance of a self that continues from past to future. But that appearance, like the moon’s reflection, is without any true, independent self and is therefore emptiness.


If this is so, then how do these forms exist? How does this body exist? The body exists in the form of a collection of countless atoms or subtle particles. However, from the point of view of Mahayana analysis, when we examine form, deeply looking for these particles, no matter how precise or refined our analysis, we will not be able to find the subtle particles that theoretically compose the coarser elements. We will not be able to find a subtle particle that itself is partless—that cannot be broken down further.

So if these subtle particles do not inherently exist, how could something more coarse ever inherently exist? This is similar to the analysis of modern science, which likewise finds no solidly existing particles. However, scientists still refer to energy fields, quarks and strings, which is a more comfortable way of describing emptiness.

Similarly, when we analyze “mind,” no solid, truly existent mind can be found. Mind itself has many parts, and each part is momentary. Consequently, both bases of self-clinging—body and mind—are actually empty yet appearing form. This is what we call “illusion,” and all appearances are like  this—empty-appearing forms, like mirages. In the same way, when we are experiencing mental suffering, it seems very solid and real, and when we are experiencing happiness, it also seems very solid and real. However, when we look at these states, nothing solid is actually there.

If we are viewing all phenomena as being like illusions and dreams, then in post-meditation we need to engender dream-like compassion toward illusory beings, who are tormented by taking appearances to be real. We extend our compassion to all samsaric beings, exerting ourselves in pacifying their  suffering and bringing to them the wisdom that will end their illusion.

We have to remember that the analysis we are doing here is from the point of view of ultimate reality, not from the point of view of relative truth or conventional reality. From the perspective of the absolute nature, we say that things are empty and do not have true existence. However, from the perspective of relative reality, from the conventional point of view, things do exist in the nature of interdependence. 

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