I dream that there are two poisonous snakes in a room with me, of two different species. I am glad they are in the room, so I can keep an eye on them. The snakes start twining together amorously, it’s a strangely sexy scene. I wonder if they will reproduce since they are different species. Then the door opens and they get out. Now I’m more worried—will I always be fearfully looking for them?
In Zen, there is a strong tradition of seeing life as a dream. The character for dream, yume, is often hanging on the walls of Zen temples, a show of great respect. In keeping with the Japanese tradition of writing a poem about the essence of life at the moment of death, the Zen master Takuan picked up his calligraphy brush and wrote yume, dream, as he died. In the great myth of the birth of the Buddha, his mother is called Mahamaya, which means the Great Dream of the World. Buddha is conceived in her dream of a white elephant carrying a lotus flower melting into Mahamaya’s uterus. And so there is a way that our tradition originates in this dream conception, and like most dreams, it’s a little strange.
Zen koans, too, partake strongly of the dream. Koans, like dreams, are enigmatic, not to be understood with ordinary logical mind. They point us to something ineffable. Dreams and koans help us explore the pregnant place where all things are possible, and where things flow into and around each other in surprising ways. In my dream, two different snakes twine together and offer creative possibilities. In this way, the human psyche is an egg endlessly hatching into the dream world. Koans are a way to explore the dream world creatively, but also systematically. Feel the dream qualities in this koan.
In a well that has not been dug,
water ripples from a stream that does not flow.
Someone with no shadow or form
is drawing the water.
This koan evokes a deep well in the mind, from which the streams of the world flows. And yet, there is no well or stream. What’s it like to sit next to this stream, and draw no-water with your no-hands? This is only possible in a dream.