Theory about Mind-only Explanation for Dreams

Vasubandhu’s mind-only school explains that what one perceives to be true is only a projection of one’s mind.  Hence, external objects do not exist independent of the mind, which is what I believe Vasubandhu means by nonduality. If the mind is the fundamental reality, I was curious to what Vasubandhu would have to say about dreams.

Perhaps dreams reinforce Vasubandhu’s mind-only philosophy, for dreams can create a very real experience. However, the logic of why dreams fall in line with Vasubandhu’s philosophy is hard to delineate. I struggle to understand, if “all subject-object duality in the experience is illusory, and is tied up with the imagined” (Garfield, Vasubandhu’s Trisvabhavanirdesa, 41) then what makes our waking experience distinct from our dream state? For example, our dream experience can not bring about real effects. You cannot die in “real life” if you die in your dream. This is the main argument I can think of that can be used against Vasubandhu’s mind-only philosophy.

Garfield writes, “consummating our understanding is also something that is done. When we achieve consummate knowledge, we stop imagining, and experience the dependent nature as it is, empty of the duality, independence and externality we once imagined it to have. The consummate nature of things is the fact that they are not as they are imagined to be” (Garfield, Vasubandhu’s Trisvabhavanirdesa, 37). This may be a bit forced, but perhaps we are able to distinguish the dream experience from a waking experience because we can achieve consummate knowledge after dreaming. By this I mean once one realizes he or she is no longer dreaming, one has stopped imagining, and hence the momentary reality of the dream is nonexistent.

However, I believe it’s also possible to argue that dreams are as much a real experience as waking experiences as long as one is in the dream state. Dream experiences much like in waking experiences are imagined and objects can exist in space and time as mental projections.

The interconnection between dreams and waking experience is fascinating, and I believe there is a lot that can be explained by Buddhist philosophy when it comes to explaining the capabilities of our minds. For instance, I wonder how phenomenon such as lucid dreaming is explained by Buddhist philosophy. I would imagine that lucid dreaming is way of awakening consciousness in the dream state.

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4 Responses to Theory about Mind-only Explanation for Dreams

  1. SW says:

    This was a really interesting post to read. Thanks for sharing! It really made me think about the differences (if any) between real life and dream life when considering Buddhist thought and Vasubandhu’s beliefs. You argue that it’s possible that dreams are as much a real experience as waking experiences, but here is my counterargument: If our dreams are our mind’s projections when we are asleep, and we know that when we are asleep our eyes are just staring into the black space that is the backs of our eyelids, we know these dreams are not really true. Perhaps this could be an argument or sort of proof that if our mind creates these projections when we are asleep, that it does the same even when we are awake and alert our mind creates what one thinks or sees to be true. Just a thought.

  2. Star Lord says:

    This was such a great and thought provoking paper! I am not really sure how buddhist would distinguish between a dream and reality, but I think you’ve done great at theorizing thus far so I hope this is discussed and confirmed in class! For me personally I think I distinguish between the two because it’s always pretty obvious when I’m dreaming vs. when I am awake. In dreams you can sort of make anything happen, even things that are physically impossible, which of course is way different from the real world. Also a dream doesn’t really impact or effect my life or relationships with others as they may have in the dream. As you mentioned, if you die in a dream it does not necessarily mean you’re going to die in real life. Also if I have a dream where I argue with my parents and am upset with them, when I wake up this is not the reality of my life simply because I dreamed it. I don’t know, things are pretty difficult to explain and wrap your mind around from a buddhist context, but interesting nonetheless.

  3. megonzalez says:

    To me, the concept of lucid dreaming seems like a metaphor for Vasubandhu’s Mind Only theory. Whereas a person who is unable to lucid dream may, perceive a dream as reality for the time that they are asleep, a lucid dreamer will see through the illusion of the dream state’s reality, and realize that the dream’s reality is completely reliant upon the mind. In this instance, if I am describing it correctly, the concept is easy to understand. However, it is more difficult (for me) to accept the theory in terms of waking life.

  4. azhou says:

    I’m so glad you brought up the topic of dreams because I was actually thinking about that the other day! I was wondering how an enlightened person would view dreams if they practice detachment of the self. If they are able to see everything as an illusion made by the mind, is that where lucid dreaming comes into play? I wonder then, if practiced meditators are also frequent lucid dreamers. You also bring up a good point by saying that dreams feel like reality when we are in them. I think that supports Vasubandhu’s Mind Only belief because it explains that our perceptions do not have to necessarily be based on any objective reality.

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