The following is a paper I gave at Life in the Glasshouse: Splintered Memories, held at Birkbeck, University of London, in March 2019.
To begin with I want to share accounts of dreams from two young Tibetans in the 1950’s, shortly before or during the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The first comes from Chogyam Trungpa’s autobiography Born in Tibet:
“About this time I had some strange dreams: though even in pictures I had never seen the things that were made in the West, I dreamed I was riding in a mechanised truck somewhat like a small lorry, and a few days later in another dream I saw airplanes parked in a field.
Also about that time, in my sleep, I was walking through a shop that was full of boots, shoes, saddles, and straps with buckles, but these were not like Tibetan ones and instead of being made of leather they appeared to be of sticky dried blood. Later I realised that these are all the shapes and kinds that are used in Western lands. I told Apho Karma about these dreams and he merely said, ‘Oh, it’s just nonsense.’”
The second account comes from Namkhai Norbu from a short autobiographical piece:
“As a young child I often dreamed I was travelling at great speed inside what seemed to me to be a tiger, a strange roaring beast. I had never seen a motor vehicle, as there were none at that time in our part of Tibet. Later, of course, I came to travel in many cars, and then I recognised them as being what I had seen in my dreams…
I also dreamed of strange flaming flying objects that exploded causing terrible destruction. I now know that what I saw were the missiles that were being developed far away in other parts of the world, but fortunately I have never yet seen in waking life the war I saw then as a child in my dream.”
In the first part of this paper I will take a look at the theory that exists within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that explains how it is possible for a dreamer to have prescient dreams, or dreams that reach beyond the experience of the individual.
Three types of dream in the Tibetan tradition
This is a schema that Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche uses in his book The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep.
First in the schema come ordinary dreams that arise from our own personal karmic traces and emotions. The vast majority of dreams are of this nature, for example dreams that include recapitulation of recent events or memories of things that might have happened in childhood.
Much more rare are dreams of clarity. Although it’s possible that anyone might have this type of dream, dreams of clarity are said to increase in frequency for a practitioner as they develop their meditation practice. In Wangyal Rinpoche’s words: “The dream of clarity includes more objective knowledge, which arises from collective karmic traces and is available to consciousness when it is not entangled in personal karmic traces.” And elsewhere he says: “In the dream of clarity it is as if something is given to or found by the dreamer, as opposed to the samsaric dream in which meaning is projected from the dreamer onto the purity of fundamental experience.”
The third type of dream in the schema - clear light dreams - are said to be only accessible to practitioners of the highest calibre who have already developed some stability of resting in non-dual states of mind.
It is interesting to note that lucid dreams can be either ordinary or dreams of clarity. This means that lucidity, the well-studied ability to develop awareness while dreaming, can happen both in ordinary dreams that merely display elements of one's own consciousness, as well as dreams of clarity which incorporate elements that come from outside of the personal psyche.
The Alaya in the Dzogchen Buddhist tradition
The Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has a formulation of the unconscious which is rooted in the Buddhist tradition in general and especially in the Yogacara school from the 4th to 5th century. Alaya is a Sanskrit word roughly translated as ground. For example, in the word Himalaya, ‘him’ is snow and ‘alaya’ is ground.
In their essay The Bardo, Chogyam Trungpa and Rigdzin Shikpo describe the alaya in this way:
“The alaya is the ground of origin of samsara and nirvana, underlying both the ordinary phenomenal world (samsara) and the trikaya (nirvana). Since it is more fundamental than either it has no bias toward enlightenment or non-enlightenment.” (Trungpa and Shikpo)
However, this fundamental ground is not inert. The energy that develops is traditionally described through these metaphors:
“The creative energy of the alaya became so strong that it broke away from the alaya and became avidya (ignorance), just as a light may become so bright that it dazzles and causes confusion, or someone may be so overintelligent that they see difficulties where there are none, or so overimaginative that they create fearful illusions where none exist.” (Trungpa and Shikpo)
The creative energy of the alaya develops into the alaya-vijnana, or the ground of ordinary consciousness. The alaya-vijnana is sometimes characterised as a kind of subconscious or unconscious. This transformation from the alaya to the alaya-vijnana is one of reification. It is said to be like water changing into ice: an important subtlety being that ice ultimately still has the same nature as water. The following diagram demonstrates this process of the basic split.
The breaking away from the alaya is happening constantly, it is not something that happened once in the past. The purpose of the Dzogchen tradition is to experience this process.
The alaya-vijnana in Longchenpa
The concept of the alaya-vijnana is fully developed in the writings of Longchenpa, a 14th century meditation master who was a key proponent of the Dzogchen tradition. This schema is from an excellent paper called A Comparison of Alaya-vijnana in Yogacara and Dzogchen by David F. Germano and William S. Waldron.
Essentially, the alaya-vijnana (or ground of consciousness) can be seen as having the four strata shown in the left hand column. Germano and Waldron characterize this quartet as: “cosmogonic, cosmological/existential, psychological and somatic functions of fundamental consciousness as four devolutionary phases.”
We'll go through each of these four in turn. Firstly, comes the primordial ground’s own cognitive energy failing to self-recognize itself. This is the basic split that we looked at earlier, described as being like a light that becomes so bright that it dazzles and causes confusion.
Secondly, in the words of Germano and Waldron: “the linking universal ground indicates how this cognitive energy’s deepest substratum operates as the unifying karmic mechanism linking, and impelling, personal continuity across many lifetimes and experiential worlds.” These are the transpersonal karmic traces that allow for dreams of clarity: dreams in which the dreamer is able to make contact with something beyond the boundaries of the personal consciousness.
Thirdly, we have the individual impressions or memories left on the psychic substratum by physical, verbal and mental actions. These impressions then ripen influencing future physical, verbal and mental actions. This is the personal consciousness and, for example, forms the bedrock of ordinary dreams as well as the idiosyncratic way each of us relate to reality.
And finally, the alaya-vijnana’s fourth function (again in the words of Germano and Waldron), “points to its interdependence with embodiment, namely the deeply somatic character of the unconscious.” Three types of body are described: The flesh and blood body which we know in waking life; the subtle body that can be experienced through meditation; and the dream body which we know in dreams.
The point of looking at this is to give an indication of this profound model of consciousness which incorporates both individual and universal elements, and which allows the possibility for a dreamer to go to a deep enough level of mind to access information that transcends their individual consciousness. According to the Tibetan tradition, the existence of the linking universal ground allows for the possibility of prescient dreams because our personal consciousness is a devolution of a consciousness that transcends the personal. The linking ground for the collective is something we are all able to access.
Now, as a break from that (!), we’re going to look at the subconscious in the computer game Final Fantasy VII which was released originally on the PlayStation in 1997. Famously taking 80 or more hours to complete, Final Fantasy VII took up three CD-ROM's of disk space. In a game full of extraordinary narrative sequences there is one that is particularly relevant to this discussion of mind. Partway through the game, the protagonist Cloud has a mental and emotional breakdown during which he is completely incapacitated. The hospital where he is convalescing is destroyed by an earthquake and he is rescued by his friend Tifa. They are unable to escape the earthquake completely and they tumble into the turquoise matter that underlies the planet known as the life-stream. Through the power of the life-stream they are transported to inside Cloud's mind and, in the game-play that ensues, Tifa must coax Cloud to recovery through a therapeutic revisiting of past trauma.
Despite being a mental world, the space that Tifa and Cloud (in various forms) find themselves is a physical one with similar ontological properties to other locations in the game. From the central floating dais they are able to visit Cloud's memories which also arise as physical spaces. The sequence is poignant: Tifa proves especially skilful and Cloud begins to emerge from his catatonic state. Eventually, through this process of healing, closure is reached and Cloud and Tifa ascend the life-stream in order to re-join their compadres and continue in their mission of saving the world.
This sequence can be interrogated through the model of consciousness presented by Longchenpa. Firstly, evident is a sense of the subconscious as an embodied process (the fourth in Longchenpa's schema of the alaya-vijnana). The various forms of Cloud have a somatic quality: a bodily avatar is conjured which allows Cloud to navigate his own mind. Secondly, there is evidence of personal karmic traces (the third in Longchenpa's schema): Cloud's subconscious is a repository of memories. Especially we see the effect that these memories continue to have on Cloud’s personality, which of course allows for the therapeutic process: the repository of memory, although usually hidden, is not static but dynamic. Thirdly, made possible by the Life-stream that engulfs them both, there is a trans-personal entity, from beyond Cloud’s individual subconscious, in the form of Tifa. This correlates to the second of Longchenpa's schema, the linking universal ground. And finally, though it is more of a stretch, a crude analogy can be made to the cosmogonic function of the alaya-vijnana by pointing to the zeros and ones from which the world of the game itself arises.
This sequence is fascinating in its depiction of mental breakdown, masculinity, the therapeutic process, development of emotional intelligence, integration and friendship, however, what is especially apposite to this paper is the seamless way that the computer game allows for the subconscious to be represented as a physical environment with the same ontological structure as the other locales in the game.
Idealism and the Mind-Body problem
Connected to this I want to mention a paper by David J. Chalmers entitled Idealism and the Mind Body Problem. The paper begins with a quip that Chalmers recalls hearing in graduate school: “One starts as a materialist, then one becomes a dualist, then a panpsychist, and one ends up an idealist.” He explains the thinking behind this:
“First, one is impressed by the successes of science, endorsing materialism about everything and so about the mind. Second, one is moved by problem of consciousness to see a gap between physics and consciousness, thereby endorsing dualism, where both matter and consciousness are fundamental. Third, one is moved by the inscrutability of matter to realise that science reveals at most the structure of matter and not its underlying nature, and to speculate that this nature may involve consciousness, thereby endorsing panpsychism. Fourth, one comes to think that there is little reason to believe in anything beyond consciousness and that the physical world is wholly constituted by consciousness, thereby endorsing idealism.”
Idealism Chalmers understands broadly as “the thesis that the universe is fundamentally mental”. Importantly, idealism is not necessarily “anti-realist” - that is denying any reality outside of the perceiving senses - as, for example, certain formations of Berkeley’s idealism do. Chalmers creates a tripartite schema of micro idealism, macro idealism and cosmic idealism. In the main body of the paper he lays out a taxonomy in which he equates various philosophical approaches, both contemporary and historical to these three. (Incidentally, Chalmers considers the Buddhist Yogacara and Dzogchen schools to be loosely aligned with cosmic idealism).
Final Fantasy VII is interesting in this regard because the ludic structure through which the narrative is told means that both the game sequences that take place within Cloud’s subconscious and the game sequences in the ‘real world’ have equivalent physical and spatial qualities. That is to say whether the player is navigating through Cloud’s mind or along a train platform, they are in control of the same blocky character who bumps awkwardly against the edges of their environment. The shift - on the level of game mechanics - from Cloud’s subconscious to the other locales of the game, is seamless for the player, and thus the two types of environment are equated. This equivalence suggests that the world might be mind, or mind might be the world, thereby, if not fully endorsing an idealist view, certainly signalling this possibility.
The City of Samaris
I now want to look at another mental breakdown also connected to the fine line between reality and illusion. This one takes place in the French graphic novel Samaris, which is the first story of the Obscure Cities series by Schuiten and Peeters, originally published in 1983. The story follows the character Franz who, at the bequest of the council, leaves his city Xhystos to travel to the city Samaris. In Samaris he finds a room in the only hotel and a number of weeks pass relatively uneventfully except for Franz’s growing unease that something is not quite right. This feeling gnaws at him, and eventually he decides to stay up all night in order to learn the secret of the strange city. In a rage punches his way through the hotel room wall.
Seeing for the first time behind the façade, Franz climbs to the top of the building to view the whole city from above. He sees the massive mechanical constructs that enable the city to operate as a hydraulic moving maze with the sole purpose of beguiling him. In his shock he falls off the building, and then recovering, he falls again, his downward plummet reminiscent of Tifa and Cloud's.
When he recovers his consciousness, he finds himself in the "very heart of Samaris". On an altar is an obscure book "senselessly encumbered by metaphors" that explains the tentacled city.
“Samaris has always been and will always be like water that replenishes itself everyday. It will seize the likeness of those it captures and make an effigy. Always the same, always different, for all eternity. Day after day it will stretch its roots further and further.”
Reeling from this horrifying concept, Franz escapes the city through the waterways and perilously returns to Xhystos across the desert, however decades have gone by and no one recognises him. He narrates that he’s no longer sure of anything: “Had I really left Samaris? Had I left a piece of me behind?” After great difficulty he wins an audience with the council of Xhystos. However, horror of horrors, as he speaks to them he realises that they too are merely cardboard cutouts! In Franz’s words: “And suddenly I realised what was going on - Xhystos was the simulation of simulations. I had left my real friends to find these cut outs.” And so at the end of the book he begins to make his way back to Samaris.
Samaris on the one hand is an extremely physical place - made of gears, wooden facades etc. - however, we can see that it relies on an improbable or impossible mechanics. In the book Franz describes the city as being like a plant, there are intimations of a magical process that enables the illusion. And finally when we see that the illusion has followed Franz to Xhystos, therefore tainting all of his reality, we realise that the process is more likely within his own psyche than the external world.
Franz’s journey is a terrible one, a continual process of deception, with only occasional glimpses of a reality that cuts through this deception. From a Buddhist perspective it might be said to be analogous to our own experience of relating to a world that is a construct of consciousness. In this light, I will end by mentioning the concept of bardo. The colloquial meaning of bardo is as a reference to the period between one life and the next, however Chogyam Trungpa and Rigdzin Shikpo tell us: “The principle meaning of bardo is the moment between the evolution and dissolution in the alaya, the nowness in every moment of time.” This gap between the past and the future is what the entirety of the Buddhist path is predicated upon. It is this gap that allows the practitioner to transcend the basic split, the development of avidya or ignorance that results in the alaya-vijnana. It is this gap that allows for the possibility of nirvana, that is to say liberation from the city of Samaris, or the continual cycling of Samsara.