“Although there is a truth that the Buddhas’ liberating efforts continue unceasingly in the waking life, the truth of the Buddhas’ and ancestors’ realization consists invariably of what a dream makes within a dream.”
~ Eihei Dogen Zenji
In pursuit of an always elusive happiness, humans have sought since time immemorial to modify their current state, devising and employing myriad idealistic strategies in the process. The human body/mind organism seems to come with a downloaded software program that is primed to seek pleasure, and often without regard for the consequences.
At the gross physical level, immediate gratification based on stimulating sensual experiences, or a plethora of longer range schemes promising enhanced physical health, well-being, and longevity, all comprise the efforts and activities that are typically indulged to “feel better”, and avoid boredom, doubt, and discomfort. The consumption of various intoxicants, even apparently harmful and addictive ones, also derives from that same motive.
At the intimate personal level, the endeavor to acquire the most desirable and satisfying mating partner is undertaken in the hopes that the results will fulfill the promise of conjugal happiness advertised in the propaganda. For the majority, however, even state-sanctioned monogamy ultimately becomes a mere formality when it comes to mating pursuits, and rotating multiple partners in search of “the right one” is more common than not over the course of the average lifetime.
At the social level, efforts to gain greater wealth, territory, power, and influence for oneself and one’s immediate group, tribe, or political party are common manifestations of that process. Wars often result from conflicting interpretations of that basic impulse at this level (as well as at the religious level).
At the intellectual level, efforts to gain more knowledge through the acquisition of information are seen as methods to attain a more desirable state. Likewise, in the so-called “spiritual” realm, countless techniques have been adapted by eager seekers intent on some transcendental transmutation, and the whole history of religion and its cultish offshoots vividly demonstrates the variations on that search.
Prayer, meditation, chanting, mantras and musical tones, physical and energetic manipulations and “yogas” of every sort, dietary experiments such as fasting, visualizations, out-of-body explorations, complex symbolic rituals and ceremonies, pilgrimages, codes of specific conduct, the imbibing of exotic substances, devotion and surrendering to various alpha personalities in the form of priests, elders, or gurus, and clinging to a multitude of hopeful belief systems all serve to represent the efforts of humans to change their given state and thereby acquire happiness via the spiritual route.
In my essay on The Pursuit of Happiness, here, I examined this matter from one particular angle – the fundamental contraction at the heart which spawns the whole desperate search, but in this essay I am going to explore the consideration from a somewhat different point of recognition. For example, when thoroughly investigated, who is the one believed in need of transformation? Could it all be a case of creating what is essentially a dream-like persona and then mistaking it for what’s real?
Indeed, from the native position of ever-existent Happiness, in a feat beyond human comprehension, the vast universal totality has been imagined and then populated with all sorts of imaginary beings and objects. Accordingly, these fictional creations appear to be involved in endless adventures in consciousness that ultimately represent non-binding modifications of the essential creative impulse, generated in a mystery of light and resonance that expands and contracts in a play of unspeakable love-bliss. In other words, it is all the play of love for the sake of love.
Although they are essentially indivisible from the ever-existent Happiness at their Source, these various dream characters have been endowed with a form of amnesia in order to give the ensuing play a sense of substantial reality. Thus, forgetting their origin, they act out all of the various possible permutations of apparent separation from Source. Their consequent longing, manifesting as the search and pursuit of happiness through innumerable efforts to change and transform their given state, is merely the poignant but deluded elaboration of the wandering child’s yearning to return home.
In reality, when the dream ends, the dream characters do not awaken, become “enlightened”, and find happiness at long last — they dissolve. After all, they were dream characters to begin with. Pinocchio does not become a living boy; he remains forever a storybook character, a fictional creation. As Ramana Maharshi said: “When you wake up from a dream, do you go about searching for the characters in that dream, to awaken them?”
Just so, regardless of how many times and to what extent we may change and transform our state, no matter how many raptures and emotional triumphs we may experience, no matter how much wealth, power, knowledge, or longevity we may come to possess, and in spite of all of our dedicated efforts to acquire some lasting concrete happiness, it still only amounts to “what a dream makes within a dream”.
With such a realization, it is not uncommon for one to fall into what has been classically described as a “dark night of the soul”. Contrary to the popular psychological diagnoses, it does not represent an aberrant, dissociative, or pathological condition, but rather a transitional spiritual phase of death and re-birth. It is here that a spiritual guide can be of real service – one who has already made the passage and can help shed a light on the path through the apparent darkness, as one begins to awaken within the dream.
Truly liberating wisdom consists of nothing more than recognizing, accepting, and integrating the truth of the emptiness of both the self-image as well as the world of phenomena. Moreover, to fully embody this realization does not mean that one becomes paralyzed by the seeming futility of experience and consequently rendered unable to act. Rather, it clears the way and simultaneously inspires direct selfless action without craving or fear, hope or regret. Love and happiness are not two.
In Buddhism, this awakened mind of compassion is called Bodhicitta, and represents the selfless love in which all of one’s behaviors and relations serve as a generous and unqualified expression of the creative play and presence, rather than a symptom of the dreamy search for escapist transformation. When we recognize that the world of which we are now aware is just as unreal as the worlds in which we live our dreams, then our corresponding attitude will also become imbued with a depth of compassion for our fellow dream creatures who are desperately striving to attain a happiness that will always elude them, as long as they are imagining themselves to be separate needy individuals, divided from Source, and lacking in perfect Happiness.
Ultimately, to awaken from the dream itself includes awakening from the restless fantasy of separation from Source, and thus involves relaxing, seeing through, and discarding any pretense of independent personhood, or any separation between awareness and experience. The notion that there has ever been anything lacking, or even that there has ever been a seeker, a path, and progress to some elsewhere destination, or any separate wisdom in need of attaining and integrating, is purely imaginary — a complex pattern of conceptual designations and idealistic fantasies with no substantial or inherent reality, to which we no longer are compelled to pledge allegiance.
In the midst of timelessness, the recognition pertains that nothing is or ever was in need of being enhanced, boosted, or blotted out in order to become happy. True happiness is not a future attainment, based on the manipulation of self and phenomena. Rather, it becomes obvious that all is, was, and always will be perfect, just as it is. Happiness is our primordial nature, or as Meister Eckhart noted:
“In this divine birth I find that God and I are the same: I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and forever. I am carried above the highest angels. I neither increase nor decrease, for in this birth I have become the motionless cause of all that moves. I have won back what has always been mine. Here, in my own soul, the greatest of all miracles has taken place — God has returned to God!”
“Seeing that everything is but an illusion, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one might as well burst out laughing.”