Dream or Reality?

Dream or Reality?


In our recent post entitled ‘Do We Really Exist?’ we included a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their student as a means of elucidating some of the subtleties of Buddhist thought regarding the true and absolute nature of mind and reality. Using a similar style of teacher-student dialogue (this time between a university professor and their student), today’s post is set in the not-too-distant future and explores some of these concepts further.


Student: Professor?

Professor: Yes.

Student: Pinch me.

Professor: What are you talking about?

Student: It’s just that we’ve been testing the Shared Dream Inducer so frequently that I can’t remember if I set the time on the Dream Termination Device.

Professor: I hope you’re joking.

Student: No seriously, I know you’ve told me so many times but I just can’t remember.

Professor: You mean …

Student: Yes, there’s no way of knowing whether we’re currently in a shared dream or in waking reality. If it turns out we’re dreaming, the SDI could keep us here indefinitely.

Professor: How shall we remedy this situation?

Student: We could just activate the SDI and try to enter a dream via the brain-computer interface – if it allows entry then at least we’ll know whether we’re awake or dreaming.

Professor: That’s way too risky. If we’re already dreaming we could end up getting stuck in a nested dream.

Student: Ok, I have another idea. In a dream, everything is the product of the mind. Things appear real to the dreamer yet everything is an illusion.

Professor: Agreed. But what is your point?

Student: So all we have to do is choose some objects around us and work out if they truly exist. If they’re real then we’re awake, otherwise we’re dreaming.

Professor: Interesting idea. Here, you can start with my fountain pen.

Student: Well, the pen certainly writes when I put it to paper. Yes, I think it’s real. I think we’re awake.

Professor: So your criteria for existence is based on the function that an object performs?

Student: Yes, of course.

Professor: I see. Go ahead and take away all of the components of the pen so that you’re left with nothing other than the nib. Does the nib still write?

Student: Yes, it still works.

Professor: But the nib isn’t the pen?

Student: Ah, good point. It appears my original premise was wrong. The nib is just a single pen component and cannot be all of the individual parts that comprise the pen. One thing cannot be another thing.

Professor: So is the pen real?

Student: Well, having just taken the pen apart and seen that all of its component parts are present, I would still conclude that it is real. I still think we’re awake.

Professor: So you’re saying that the pen exists as the sum of its component parts?

Student: Yes, that’s right.

Professor: Ah, I see. But you’ve already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Yet now you seem to be saying that when the nib, cartridge, lid, and other pen components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that is illogical. The component parts still exist in the pen but the word “pen” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a pen.

Professor: Right, so you’re saying that the pen is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Professor: If the pen is just a label then it doesn’t inherently exist. So are you now saying that we’re currently dreaming?

Student: I’m a bit confused. Irrespective of whether we are awake or dreaming, although things certainly appear, there is no logical basis upon which it can be said they truly exist.

Professor: Yes, that is correct. Therefore, your idea of investigating whether or not things are real doesn’t get us any closer to working out whether we are currently dreaming or awake. Have you got any better ideas?

Student: If we’re currently shared dreaming, it means the SDI is keeping some of our brainwave frequencies in perfect synchrony. We could try to disrupt them and wake ourselves up by inducing an electric shock.

Professor: If you want to stick your finger in the electric socket then go right ahead, but I’m certainly not joining you. Any more ideas?

Student: Hmm. Well I don’t ever remember bursting into laughter during a dream. So why don’t I tell you a funny joke and if it makes you laugh then that means we’re not dreaming?

Professor: I’m not convinced about this suggestion. For example, I don’t think it concurs with findings from the field of orienology. However, go ahead and tell your joke.

Student: What did the professor who always gave examples say when asked how many eggs they’d like for breakfast?

Professor: I don’t know.

Student: Four eggs ample.

Professor: I thought you were going to make me laugh.

Student: Very funny.

Professor: Well if you haven’t got any more sensible ideas then I have a suggestion. Let’s just stop, breathe, and do nothing.

Student: I don’t understand.

Professor: I built a failsafe into the SDI so that even if the DTD isn’t activated, the dream automatically terminates after eight hours.

Student: What! Couldn’t you have told me that an hour ago?

Professor: Well, haven’t you learnt something?

Student: You’re right, I’ve actually learnt rather a lot. The dream occurs within the expanse of mind and in a dream, there is the impression of coming and going, yet nothing really moves. Whilst dreaming, there is also near and far, but there is actually no distance. In a dream, although things appear, they are illusory and cannot be said to truly exist. However, objects perceived by the waking-state consciousness are also devoid of intrinsic existence. So are you saying that waking reality also unfolds within the expanse of mind?

Professor: You’ll have to work that out for yourself.

Student: But we still haven’t determined whether we’re currently dreaming or awake?

Professor: Does it really matter? Can’t you just relax and enjoy each moment of whichever reality you are currently in?

Student: Yes, I think I can.


Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Author: Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Dr Edo Shonin Dr Edo Shonin is research director of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness Research, and a chartered psychologist at the Nottingham Trent University (UK). He sits on the editorial board for the academic journal Mindfulness and the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Edo is internationally recognised as a leading authority in mindfulness practice and research and has over 100 academic publications relating to the scientific study of meditation and Buddhist practice. He is the author of ‘The Mindful Warrior: The Path to Wellbeing, Wisdom and Awareness’ and primary editor of academic volumes on ‘The Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness’ and ‘Mindfulness and Buddhist-derived Approaches in Mental Health and Addiction’. He has been a Buddhist monk for thirty years and is spiritual director of the international Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has also received the higher ordination in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Edo regularly receives invitations to give keynote speeches, lectures, retreats and workshops at a range of academic and non-academic venues all over the world. Ven William Van Gordon Ven William Van Gordon has been a Buddhist monk for almost ten years. He is co-founder of the Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation, Mindfulness, and Psychological Wellbeing and the Mahayana Bodhayati School of Buddhism. He has been ordained within Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions and has extensive training in all aspects of Buddhist practice, psychology, and philosophy. Prior to becoming a Buddhist monk, Ven William Van Gordon worked for various blue chip companies including Marconi Plc, PepsiCo International, and Aldi Stores Limited where he worked as an Area Manager responsible for a multi-site £28 million portfolio of supermarkets with over 50 employees. Ven William Van Gordon is also a research psychologist and forms part of the Psychological Wellbeing and Mental Health Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University. His area of research expertise is the study of ‘authentic spiritual transmission’ – within mainstream Buddhism itself as well as within contemporary Buddhist-derived clinical interventions. His current research projects are concerned with evaluating the effectiveness of meditation and mindfulness for the treatment of various health conditions. Ven William Van Gordon has numerous publications relating to the clinical utility of meditative interventions including in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. As a separate undertaking, William is currently writing-up his doctoral thesis which relates to the effects of meditation on work-related wellbeing and performance. Ven William Van Gordon enjoys fell running, martial arts, DIY, reading and writing poetry, caring for cancer patients, and studying civil litigation. He is a keen mountaineer with some arctic expedition experience.

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