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  • Karl Thunemann

Dharma or Dreams? Take your Pick

It was mid-evening by the time I wrapped up my first two epistles on the Lojong slogans. I still had time to take a look at my next topic. I decided to go on to Slogan #2, rather than doubling back to the “four thoughts” that underlie #1. Why buy trouble this late in the day?

Slogan #2 landed with a deadening thunk: Regard All Dharmas as Dreams.

Think about it. In our material world we already regard dreams as ephemeral and insubstantial. By comparison, dharma—actual events and perceptions—is granted superiority. Dreams are imaginary; dharma must be real! And then along comes the sloganeer to discredit both categories as fleeting and flimsy. Doubt began to form. If my mind were not open to their very assumptions, how could I become a diligent student of these slogans?

Of course the slogan as set forth above is truncated. Other translations add a bit of flesh—as in Regard all dharmas as dreams; although experiences may seem solid, they are passing memories.

Still, I struggle with this slogan. Some forty years ago I decided to throw my lot in with dreams. I had taken a week for a retreat at a rustic cabin on Hood Canal. Among other books I brought Irving Stone’s fictional biography of Freud, Passions of the Mind. As I read about Freud and his dreams, it occurred to me that I might collect and analyze my own dreams. So I set about that zealously, though later when I reviewed my notebook of the retreat I could make little sense of neither the dreams I recorded nor my efforts to analyze them. Now I wonder how differently my life might have been if I had committed the same energy to meditation.

I could never completely fold myself into one of the many attractive branches of Buddhism or Taoism—and it is not simply because mastering a technical vocabulary set forth in Tibetan or Chinese lies far beyond my band width

But over time my dreaming self would make itself known with clarity. I wonder now if I had any conception of dharma during that long-ago retreat. I think not. Even now, I find the term confusing, especially after scrolling through screen after screen intended to explain the different ideas about dharma attributed to Buddhism, Hinduism, and other Indian religions.

Over the years I have put great emphasis on dreams, inviting them to define and guide me. I have had a number of dreams that provided a framework for organizing my life for months or even years. To me, dreams—fleeting though many of them are—have substance, even personality. Now I am compelled to wonder whether my fealty to dreams could torpedo my efforts to penetrate the Lojong slogans and the universe they carry with them. And as synchronicity would have it, I chose this moment to read “Dancer in the Dark,” an article from The New Yorker about Sharon Stern, an American dancer who dedicated her life to Butoh, the Japanese dance form, and sought to suppress the traits of the culture she was born into. (The New Yorker, April 6, 2020, page 32.) The article explores the ramifications in many ways.

I could not help pondering why my friend Adrienne sent me the magazine. Well, of course the article is intensely interesting. But I think back to the point a few years ago when Adrienne cautioned me against trying to practice Tonglen (a form of meditation closely bound to Lojong) without a teacher. Subsequently I discovered a book by Pema Chödrön that addressed those concerns. But does Adrienne see me embarked on a course that would throw me into a confused state of identity? I think not. If Adrienne meant to express alarm about direction, I’m certain she would say so in person rather than sending an article as an obtuse hint. I readily agree that trying to change the structure of one’s own thought and behavior through a practice created by a different culture does pose hazards. That is a main point of The New Yorker piece.

As it turned out, Adrienne said she had sent me the article because of my interest in estrangement. This certainly was fitting, for there was a degree of estrangement between Sharon and her parents, and her father sued her Butoh teacher after she committed suicide.

I could never completely fold myself into one of the many attractive branches of Buddhism or Taoism—and it is not simply because mastering a technical vocabulary set forth in Tibetan or Chinese lies far beyond my band width. I am a Westerner, not alone in the sense of identifying with Euro-North American culture but thanks to a life spent on the “Left Coast” and to my taste for such diverse writers of the true West as John Steinbeck, Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, Joan Didion and Ursula K. Le Guin. Whatever I have yet to absorb from the East will be filtered through these Wests.

I worry I might have misled you by posing the question: Dharma or Dreams? Take Your Pick, as if Slogan #2 were a boxing match. They are not even opposites, as in the case of yin and yang. And even the latter pair must be viewed as complements, constantly shifting in search of a satisfactory whole. I refuse to believe these slogans demand an exact interpretation, as if they were the playbook for some fundamentalist religion. I suspect I will have to struggle with Slogan #2 over the time left to me, considering all its aspects, and the measure of success will not lie in my “answer,” but in the quality of my grappling.


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