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  • Daoist Views of the Dream State
  • Esmaeil Radpour (bio)

None of you should feel grief about having no dream. For when a person becomes deep-rooted in knowledge, dream will be taken away from him.

—Prophet Muhammad

Words denoting dream, the vision occurring during sleep, mainly go back to two roots in Indo-European languages: dhreugh and swep or sup. The first primarily means “to deceive,” while the latter indicates “to sleep” (Radpour 2015, 14). The old form of the Chinese character for dream, meng 夢, depicts an eye (seeing), a man (seer), a bed (sleeping), and a moon (indirect light), which imply the indirect visions of people during sleep (Sears 2003) (see Fig. 1 on the right). The Chinese word meng, then, is conceptually closer to the second among the two Indo-European roots and does not have the implication of deception, lie, or illusion.

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Daoists tend to see dreams as products of daytime delusions or waking “dreams,” that is, as the result of mental agitation and egoistic tendencies toward external objects. They see the natural state of sleep as dreamless (wumeng 無夢), such as occurring among the true men or perfected (zhenren 真人) who have returned their human spiritual aspects of creativity, vitality, and intellectuality (jing qi shen 精氣神) to their primal (yuan 元) or pre-celestial (xiantian 先天) state. However, true men’s observations during sleep, called “dreamless” mengzhong [End Page 137] wumeng 夢中無夢) are quite different from the dreams of ordinary people.1 They often appear as communications with radiant figures, immortals (xian 仙), deities (shen 神), and ancestors, and serve as a way of gaining knowledge, receiving divine mandates, and the like. The dreams of imperfect Daoists and the common people, on the other hand, are fallouts of diseases caused by the “mischievous mentations” (wangxin 妄心) or even demons,2 for which there are some specific religious treatments.

Ancient Dream Perceptions

Ancient Daoist sources mention the dream state only in fragmentary tales and aphorisms that speak of the waking state as being like a dream. Thus, the Zhuangzi tells the famous story of Zhuang Zhou seeing himself in a dream transformed to a butterfly, as real as if he had been always a butterfly, freely flying about and totally oblivious of his human identity. When he awakes he asks himself if he really is Zhuang Zhou dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuang Zhou and calls this state the “transformation of beings” (wuhua 物化) (ch. 2; see Fig. 2). As he also says,

One dreams of drinking wine, and he cries in the morning. One dreams of weeping all the night, and he goes out to hunt in the morning. Involved in dream, one does not know he is dreaming; he may even dream of dreaming in that state. It is only after awakening that he realizes he has been dreaming. Now if the great awakening (dajiao 大覺) happens, one comes to know that this all was a great dreaming (dameng 大夢).

(ch. 2) [End Page 138]

Another important notion of the text is the state of “no dreams,” famous among the true men of old, who “had no dream while sleeping, had no anxiety while awake” (ch. 6)

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Fig 2.

Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream. Painting by Lu Zhi (Ming dyn.)

The Liezi, too, offers teachings on the dream state. It associates the body (xing 形) with the waking state and the spirit (shen 神) with the dream state. “In the day-time [i. e., waking state], one thinks; in the night-time [i. e., dream state], one dreams. Thus the meeting of the spirit and the body happens” (ch. 3). It speaks of eight types of the waking horizon and six types of dreaming perspective, the latter going back to the Zhouli 周禮 (Rites of Zhou, 3.130):

Waking horizons are happening, action, gain, loss, sorrow, happiness, birth, and death. These are the eight horizons with which the body is connected. Dreaming perspectives are direct dream, upside down dream, thoughtful dream, awakening dream, joyful dream, and fearful dream. These are the six perspectives with which the spirit is crossed.

(ch. 3) [End Page 139]

In the waking state, the body connects...