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Dreams and Rebirth

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by Sangharakshita

... stay there and work for the good of Buddhism which I proceeded to do by starting, among other things the Young Men’s Buddhist Association which could be regarded as a sort of trial run for the FWBO. In the years that followed I continued to study, continued to meditate, continued to practise the Dharma and was so fortunate as to receive instruction and initiation from some very distinguished Tibetan lamas as well as from a Chinese hermit yogi. So fourteen productive years passed in Kalimpong. I did quite a lot of writing, including the ‘Survey of Buddhism’ and also got involved with the Movement of mass conversion in the plains of India – which had been started by Dr. Ambedkar. So, in fact, my life found a very definite force.

In 1964 I came back to this country after an absence of twenty years and three years later I started the FWBO and WBO. The rest of course is, as they say, history and a history of which all of you are now part. So, as I look back now as an old man nearly eighty three I can’t help thinking that there must have been some reason why I followed that particular course without any real deviation. Even the army couldn’t stop me studying Buddhism and I wasn’t captured by one of those famous Hindu teachers. I stuck to the Dharma. The Dharma was my path. It was the Dharma that I wanted to immerse myself in. It was the Dharma that I wanted to experience. It was the Dharma that I wanted to communicate. This was always clear to me.

So sometimes I wonder ‘ Where did this tremendous urge come from? ’ This urge which has played such a dominant part in my life for sixty years. I look back and think what sort of surroundings I was born into. Very ordinary working class surroundings in Tooting of all places. So what was there to account for my interest? I can only presume that in all likelihood it was some powerful samskara carried over from a previous existence which had impelled me to follow a path which I had followed before and to reconnect with teachings and

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practices and experiences with which I had been connected in previous lives. So this has always been to me one of the considerations which has led me to accept the idea of rebirth. Now I deliberately used the word consideration because it isn’t a proof. Many people might say that I am quite mistaken and that my interest in Buddhism and devotion to the Dharma could be explained by some sort of gene in my makeup but to me it doesn’t seem like that at all. To me it really does seem as though I was following a path in this life which I had trodden in previous lives so it is one of the considerations on account of which I do believe in the fact of rebirth. Of course there are other considerations too. This is not the only one and, as I said, and I emphasise that my impression or my conviction that I must have followed this path before does not in any way constitute a proof, much less a scientific proof which might convince those who did not believe in the fact or idea of rebirth.

I am going to talk now a bit about dreams. I wasn’t really expecting to talk much about dreams but I think I will. People are often interested in dreams anyway. According to some buddhist texts it seems that Siddartha had quite a number of significant dreams before his enlightenment. In fact I wrote a poem on one of those dreams which some of you may have come across. Dreams obviously make up quite an important part of our lives. In India there is a traditional division of the human psyche into four parts. There is the waking state, the state of deep, dreamless sleep, the dream state and the state which covers all the higher meditative experiences. Dreams do make up a part of our experience, part of our personality almost.

Many dreams of course are just reflections, shadows of things that have happened to us in the course of the day. I personally believe that there are dreams of a quite different kind also and I’ve had many experiences of these dreams of another kind and perhaps some of you have too. I call these dreams archetypal dreams : dreams which are not just reflections of the day’s events but which are of a higher or deeper significance. I’ve had these sort of archetypal dreams from time to time in the course of my life.

I remember in particular one such archetypal dream which repeated itself in various forms again and again in the course of a number of years. I remember the first time I dreamt this dream. It took this particular form. There was a mountain in the dream and it was in south India. ( I had this dream, by the way, in India itself before I came back to Britain.) At the foot of this mountain there was an ashram and this ashram was open to the public and there were people coming and going. But behind the ashram there was a stair cut out of the rock, a sort of secret stair and this led up to another ashram much higher up and much smaller which people usually didn’t know anything about and the stairs opened onto a wide platform. In the dream I climbed up these stairs and found myself on that platform looking out over a landscape.

It was a very broad landscape and there were several factories dotted here and there. At the top of the stairs there was a man, an elderly man in a white robe and behind him there was a sort of showcase like we see in Tibetan temples with lots of Buddha images behind the glass. So this was the image, this was the dream, the archetypal dream. The public ashram was at the foot of the mountain and the secret ashram which very few people knew about was at the top of the stairs above the ashram which was public and well known. The small ashram was distant or hidden or unknown or sometimes even in ruins and in some of the dreams people had forgotten about its existence.

I used to reflect on this dream quite a lot and ask myself what it could designate. I won’t tell you the results of my reflections. They vary from time to time. Perhaps you would like to

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reflect on that dream yourself and ask yourself whether you have had anything like it in the course of your own experience. That is what I mean by a sort of archetypal dream which has a deep significance perhaps.

I want to fast forward now to five or six years ago. Some of you know that five or six years ago I had a whole year of chronic insomnia for which we have never discovered the cause. It was quite extreme, quite severe, amounting in fact to what is known as sleep deprivation. It was a very painful period, a very painful experience. Since I wasn’t able to sleep, or was able to sleep very little my energy drained away and I thought I might even die. I seemed to have so little energy and felt so utterly exhausted and friends were very concerned. I was quite well looked after during that period and also I was very much helped by acupuncture. Anyway, it was a quite painful period and all I could do was just to remain aware, practise patience and try not to get frustrated.

However there were compensations. In fact I might say there was a silver lining to that very dark cloud. Indeed I might say there was a golden lining because during that whole period I had some wonderful archetypal dreams which seemed to me of very great significance. It felt like a real gift, a real reward, a very positive even, I might say, a genuinely spiritual experience. These archetypal dreams took many forms, One form was that of all sorts of beautiful, brilliant jewels. I have always been fond of precious stones or semi precious stones for their beauty and very different colours. In my dreams I saw the most wonderful precious stones and semi precious stones of all colours all very magnificent and beautiful arranged in wonderful patterns and shapes. These were immensely inspiring. Again, I used to have archetypal dreams of wonderful scenery, very often mountain scenery such as perhaps doesn’t exist on earth. Very often at the edge of the sea. Sometimes I would be high up in the air looking down on the sea, looking down on these mountains. Sometimes I would be in subterranean chasms which contained all sorts of fissures. I had many, many such dreams, all of which I found very inspiring and which helped to sustain me during that year of chronic insomnia, of sleep deprivation. You may wonder why I am going on about these dreams but I will come to something that you may find more interesting.

I also used to have dreams of my various teachers. I didn’t have these dreams very often but they did come from time to time and they still come. Sometimes they are very vivid indeed. There was one occasion when I had dreams of all my teachers.

That was during the week before I handed on my responsibilities as head of the order to a small group of senior order members. During that week immediately preceding the handing on I dreamt of my teachers. Each night I dreamed of several of them and in the course of the week I must have dreamt of each and every one of them a number of times. These dreams were very, very powerful and of a sort of visionary brotherhood. I took them to mean that in handing on responsibility for the order I was doing the right thing and that, in fact, what I was doing had the blessing of all my teachers. So it was of great importance to me and perhaps of importance to the Movement as well, especially to the Order.

Let me now connect up with this question of rebirth. I have also had dreams, though relatively recently, which to me seemed like recollections of experiences in another life. Now, of course, I can’t prove that they are such but some of these dreams have been of such intensity – not the same archetypal intensity that I’ve spoken about in connection with some of these archetypal dreams – it is quite a different kind ...

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