III. The Great Dream Body
In Buddhist thought, the great dream body is the sambhogakaya, the body of bliss and play. It is one of the three mythical bodies of the cosmic Buddha nature, the other two being the dharmakaya, vast emptiness, and the nirmanakaya, the body of form, of particularity and the everyday world. The sambhogakaya is the realm between the vastness and each manifestation in form. It is a dance of form and emptiness in play.
Form (nirmanakaya) is a way of knowing externality, there really is a world that is external, not a part of the self system. It is also each thing in its vivid particularity. It’s this boy in a hoodie playing with his cat. This cancer diagnosis. This sound of distant traffic.
Emptiness (dharmakaya) is the essential truth of oneness, of no difference, no separation. We come to know the joy of this in deep practice, and find what happens when we allow our awareness of the vastness to permeate more and more deeply into our lives.
We are caught between our particular lives and the infinite, and in this place we find the vast stage of the sambhogakaya, the theater of dreams. Here we at first find our epic dramas of love and hate, loss, terror, and love. Koans and psychoanalysis help us honor the strangeness of the dream world, and to attune to the many teachings to be had in the realm of the sambhogakaya.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke called awareness of the interplay of form and emptiness, “in-seeing.” He described how, in in-seeing a dog,
“to let oneself precisely into the dog, the place in it where God, as it were, would have sat down for a moment when the dog was finished, in order to watch it under the influence of its first embarrassments and inspirations and to know that it was good that nothing was lacking, that it could not have been better made. . . . Laugh though you may, dear confidant, if I am to tell you where my all-greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was to be found, I must confess to you: it was to be found time and again, here and there, in such timeless moments of this divine inseeing."
Rilke is showing us what the view is like from the dream body when we can fully participate in the dance between form, the particular dogginess of this dog, and the vastness, the place from which she rises and falls.
II. The Dream Navel
“There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable—a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams)
In this footnote to his influential “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud points us toward a spot in every dream, it’s navel, where it opens out into a territory that is unknown and perhaps unknowable. For Freud, dreams were emissaries from the unconscious, and important descriptors of who we are as individual psyches. Freud saw dreams as representations of our deepest wishes and desires, and as crucial to understanding the true causes of neurotic suffering. He called dreams the "royal road to the unconscious," and advocated sustained attention to dreams as essential to healing. His writings on dreams have been hugely influential to many contemporary psychotherapeutic approaches, and also to academics and intellectuals in many disciplines. However Freud, a man of his time and place, wasn’t able to elaborate much on the dream navel, and to explore more about portal into the vastness. He pointed toward the depth of this mind, but he said that he himself had never had an experience of what he called “an oceanic experience” and left it to future generations to enter his footnote, to find the dream navel, the place of its point of contact with the unknown.
Freud noticed that in dreams the ordinary rules of logic don’t apply. It would not be unusual for someone to say, in my dream I was my age now, but I was also an old woman. When we enter the world of dreams, things can be fantastical, magical, terrifying. Time and space and identity are pliable. Freud taught that dreams are emissaries from the unconscious and so partake of its qualities. He identified five characteristics of the unconscious: timelessness, displacement, condensation, replacement of internal by external reality, and absence of mutual contradiction (Freud, 1900, 1915). It’s not hard to see that these are also qualities that characterize dreams, as well as art, myth, and eros. In the koan of the well that has not been dug, we come up to a place of no contradiction, and a negation of categories of time and space. We have an invitation in the koan to sit with these mysteries, and to see where they take us.
Freud’s dream navel is a border concept. It is a frontier of exchange between what he calls the unknown and what rises up as a dream experience. The dream always bears the stamp of the unknown, in the form of the navel. It’s notable that Freud’s metaphor for this link is the navel, the marker of the point of union with your creator, Mother. The dream navel evokes associations to our connection to origins, to our actual mother, and to the Mother we relate to in life and in practice. It also evokes an image of the severance from this source, and perhaps a phantasy of a portal back into that point of original union.
Many teachings have described the vastness as like an ocean, out of which particular waves arise, and then fall away. Each one of us, each poignant or painful moment, is a wave that arises and then falls back into the vast ocean. Koun Yamada Roshi taught that reality is like an equation, where the denomenator is always zero, the infinite vastness, and the numerator is all phenomena, each thing in its particularity. In koans, and in dreams, we explore the place where ocean meets wave, the place Freud called the dream navel. This is a liminal zone, a place where dream and mystery come together. I imagine it as a kind of umbilical cord that leads out into the vastness.
Perhaps we can climb into the dream navel, and check out the view from there. In this liminal space, we can see the dream and the mystery at the same time. One eye always in the play of the dream, and another on the navel, the portal into the unknown, the inconceivable. When we stay in this dream navel, life gets richer, deeper, stranger.
The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion used the term “bi-nocular vision” for the kind of perception that allows multiple perspectives at once. He noted that seeing with bi-nocular vision both the conscious and the unconscious mind leads to an experience of depth that is profoundly meaningful to many people. Sitting in the dream navel is a bi-nocular experience. In the dream navel, we find yet another dimension beyond conscious and unconscious mind, the unborn mind that deeply constitutes them. When we feel simultaneously the transience and the beauty and the heartbreak of the dream, and watch it pour ever into the vastness, we are both deeply alive and deeply at rest.
My teacher, Joan Sutherland Roshi, says that the experience of awakening can be felt as a quality of shimmer, a dance between the particular and the vastness. She quotes the Lankavatara Sutra, which says, “things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.” When we attune our inner gaze more and more to this quality of shimmer, we find that we can trust the dream of life, and even join in and dream it further. Sitting in the dream navel, we experience the shimmer between each thing that rises up—teacup, Iphone, heartbreak—and the vast unknown that it is always arising from and falling back into.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..