A Storm at Sea, JMW Turner, © Minneapolis Institute of Art
A Storm at Sea, JMW Turner, © Minneapolis Institute of Art

Dreams Old and New I

< Articles by Urgyen Sangharakshita
Adhisthana Writings

Dreams Old and New I

Dreams Old and New I

Dreams are part of human experience, and they have certainly been part of mine. I vividly remember a dream I had when I was eight years old and in hospital with scarlet fever and chickenpox. In my dream I saw a boy of fourteen lying full length on a bed. He was brown-skinned, naked, and dead, and I was looking down on him. Reflecting on the dream in my maturer years I have wondered whether the boy was me in a previous life and I was taking my last look at the body I was leaving.

There is only one dream from my years in India that I remember. I had this dream more than once and I used to call it ‘the dream of the two ashrams’. The first ashram was situated at the base of a mountain and was open to all. Various religious activities went on there. At the back there was a small door, and this door led to a flight of what seemed to be hundreds of steps. At the top of the steps was the secret ashram, the existence of which was known to a very few. Standing before the ashram there was a stout, middle-aged man, clad in brahminical white, whom I knew to be the rishi Agastya, who had led the Aryans from the Himalayas down into South India. Immediately behind him there was a kind of showcase in which were many golden figures of the Buddha. To the rear there was a courtyard on the right-hand side of which ran a low wall. Looking over this wall I saw in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, a row of factories, some of which had chimneys.

I had the dream about the dead boy only once, but about the two ashrams I dreamed many times, including once or twice when I was back in England. Another dream that came to me more than once I called the dream of the deserted church. Just around the corner from one of our Triratna centres there stood a large church, seemingly built in the Victorian age. No one seemed to go there, and one day, noticing that there was no lock on the back door, I went in. The interior was quite spacious and bare and there were no pews or chairs. Looking round, it occurred to me that it was a good place for a meditation centre and I started holding classes there. People came to the classes and soon I had a little congregation. I also gave lectures from time to time. These lectures attracted a group of young men, and with their help I built a shrine at the far end of the church. On special occasions the young men decorated the shrine, at the apex of which stood a figure of the Buddha. What with all the flowers, lighted candles, and other offerings, it was an inspiring sight. One day, when I had been using the church for several months, I arrived to find a clergyman there. The church was his, he explained. He did not mind my using it, even telling me that it had been deconsecrated, so that it was no longer a church but just a big building. In the course of the next few months we met several times and became good friends, and we kept up our friendship even after he moved to another town. There were also dreams in which I told different people about the deserted church and how I had turned it into a kind of Buddhist centre. I also told them about my friendship with the clergyman. So vivid were all these dreams that the church seemed actually to have an objective existence on another plane.

In yet another of my deserted church dreams I arrived to find a small group of clergymen there. They had been meditating in a tiny room in one corner of the church that I had not noticed and we got into a friendly discussion. One of the clergymen had his wife with him, and she was so medieval in her views that I told her husband that he ought to have a word with her about it. At the time I happened to be listening to John Robinson’s Honest to God and a recollection of this may have found its way into my dream. There was also a dream in which a neighbour took me to see a church to which there was direct access from the street. Supporting the roof there were two rows of red marble pillars the capitals of which were carved and gilded. It was a magnificent sight but it left me cold.

Around the time of my deserted church dreams I was having many dreams about London, where I was born and grew up. More than once I dreamed that I was standing on the southbound platform of the Tube, waiting for the train that would take me to Tooting Broadway. The train came at last, the name of its destination brightly lit on the front. Once, having arrived at the Broadway, I set out for my old home, perhaps expecting to find my parents there. Instead of my parents I found my grandmother, who in actual life had never lived there, at least not when I did. Indeed, that particular house had never been lived in by me and existed only in that dream. In another dream I was waiting for the Tooting Broadway bus at a bus stop somewhere in North London. It arrived at last and I took a window seat from which I looked out at the shops and other buildings we passed. They were all familiar to me though they did not correspond to anything in my actual life. There were also times when I wandered round central London with a friend. Once we walked right through Westminster Abbey entering through the front door and leaving it by the back door. The vast interior differed in all sorts of ways from the real thing. We also visited the National Gallery, which had a very different layout from the one in Trafalgar Square, and was filled with very different pictures. Once we came upon a tower which was several hundred miles high, and for the cost of a ticket one could go to the top and enjoy the panoramic view. My sister happened to be there and I offered to treat her to a trip. But she declined and I went on my own. In a matter of minutes I had reached the top of the tower which was circular and surrounded by a balustrade. I looked down expecting to see the whole of London spread out far below me, but I saw nothing as we were high above the clouds. On the way down we stopped half-way and I was told that Princess Margaret had recently stopped there and been presented with a bouquet. These dreams were all relatively clear and I did not find it difficult to remember them when I woke up. There were other dreams about London that were confused and unsettling. In them I wandered, sometimes with a friend, among the foundations of the buildings above. Some of these foundations were very complex and for various reasons difficult and unpleasant to negotiate. Once I was being driven through them by a colleague, but eventually the obstacles were such that we had to abandon the car and proceed on foot.

There was a dream in which I saw the tower from somewhere out in space. At that distance it looked no bigger than a needle. At times the needle rose out of London and at times it rose from the summit of a great mountain, such as I often saw in my dreams. The mountain was irregular in shape, with deep valleys and steep pathways. Sometimes I trod those pathways myself, and sometimes, from above, I watched the tiny figures of others negotiating them. One side of the mountain swept down to the sea where there were yellow beaches with which I was familiar. Beyond the beaches there was the dark blue sea, and beyond the sea a vast expanse of brilliant blue sky. This harked back to a much earlier dream in which I was high above the earth. The blue of the sky was not only above me but all around me and beneath me. The sea was far below and on the sea, its intense whiteness contrasting with the surrounding dark blue, there was a cruise ship, and I was about to allow myself to drop straight down onto its deck.

Dreams are part of human experience, and they have certainly been part of mine. I vividly remember a dream I had when I was eight years old and in hospital with scarlet fever and chickenpox. In my dream I saw a boy of fourteen lying full length on a bed. He was brown-skinned, naked, and dead, and I was looking down on him. Reflecting on the dream in my maturer years I have wondered whether the boy was me in a previous life and I was taking my last look at the body I was leaving.

There is only one dream from my years in India that I remember. I had this dream more than once and I used to call it ‘the dream of the two ashrams’. The first ashram was situated at the base of a mountain and was open to all. Various religious activities went on there. At the back there was a small door, and this door led to a flight of what seemed to be hundreds of steps. At the top of the steps was the secret ashram, the existence of which was known to a very few. Standing before the ashram there was a stout, middle-aged man, clad in brahminical white, whom I knew to be the rishi Agastya, who had led the Aryans from the Himalayas down into South India. Immediately behind him there was a kind of showcase in which were many golden figures of the Buddha. To the rear there was a courtyard on the right-hand side of which ran a low wall. Looking over this wall I saw in the distance, silhouetted against the sky, a row of factories, some of which had chimneys.

I had the dream about the dead boy only once, but about the two ashrams I dreamed many times, including once or twice when I was back in England. Another dream that came to me more than once I called the dream of the deserted church. Just around the corner from one of our Triratna centres there stood a large church, seemingly built in the Victorian age. No one seemed to go there, and one day, noticing that there was no lock on the back door, I went in. The interior was quite spacious and bare and there were no pews or chairs. Looking round, it occurred to me that it was a good place for a meditation centre and I started holding classes there. People came to the classes and soon I had a little congregation. I also gave lectures from time to time. These lectures attracted a group of young men, and with their help I built a shrine at the far end of the church. On special occasions the young men decorated the shrine, at the apex of which stood a figure of the Buddha. What with all the flowers, lighted candles, and other offerings, it was an inspiring sight. One day, when I had been using the church for several months, I arrived to find a clergyman there. The church was his, he explained. He did not mind my using it, even telling me that it had been deconsecrated, so that it was no longer a church but just a big building. In the course of the next few months we met several times and became good friends, and we kept up our friendship even after he moved to another town. There were also dreams in which I told different people about the deserted church and how I had turned it into a kind of Buddhist centre. I also told them about my friendship with the clergyman. So vivid were all these dreams that the church seemed actually to have an objective existence on another plane.

In yet another of my deserted church dreams I arrived to find a small group of clergymen there. They had been meditating in a tiny room in one corner of the church that I had not noticed and we got into a friendly discussion. One of the clergymen had his wife with him, and she was so medieval in her views that I told her husband that he ought to have a word with her about it. At the time I happened to be listening to John Robinson’s Honest to God and a recollection of this may have found its way into my dream. There was also a dream in which a neighbour took me to see a church to which there was direct access from the street. Supporting the roof there were two rows of red marble pillars the capitals of which were carved and gilded. It was a magnificent sight but it left me cold.

Around the time of my deserted church dreams I was having many dreams about London, where I was born and grew up. More than once I dreamed that I was standing on the southbound platform of the Tube, waiting for the train that would take me to Tooting Broadway. The train came at last, the name of its destination brightly lit on the front. Once, having arrived at the Broadway, I set out for my old home, perhaps expecting to find my parents there. Instead of my parents I found my grandmother, who in actual life had never lived there, at least not when I did. Indeed, that particular house had never been lived in by me and existed only in that dream. In another dream I was waiting for the Tooting Broadway bus at a bus stop somewhere in North London. It arrived at last and I took a window seat from which I looked out at the shops and other buildings we passed. They were all familiar to me though they did not correspond to anything in my actual life. There were also times when I wandered round central London with a friend. Once we walked right through Westminster Abbey entering through the front door and leaving it by the back door. The vast interior differed in all sorts of ways from the real thing. We also visited the National Gallery, which had a very different layout from the one in Trafalgar Square, and was filled with very different pictures. Once we came upon a tower which was several hundred miles high, and for the cost of a ticket one could go to the top and enjoy the panoramic view. My sister happened to be there and I offered to treat her to a trip. But she declined and I went on my own. In a matter of minutes I had reached the top of the tower which was circular and surrounded by a balustrade. I looked down expecting to see the whole of London spread out far below me, but I saw nothing as we were high above the clouds. On the way down we stopped half-way and I was told that Princess Margaret had recently stopped there and been presented with a bouquet. These dreams were all relatively clear and I did not find it difficult to remember them when I woke up. There were other dreams about London that were confused and unsettling. In them I wandered, sometimes with a friend, among the foundations of the buildings above. Some of these foundations were very complex and for various reasons difficult and unpleasant to negotiate. Once I was being driven through them by a colleague, but eventually the obstacles were such that we had to abandon the car and proceed on foot.

There was a dream in which I saw the tower from somewhere out in space. At that distance it looked no bigger than a needle. At times the needle rose out of London and at times it rose from the summit of a great mountain, such as I often saw in my dreams. The mountain was irregular in shape, with deep valleys and steep pathways. Sometimes I trod those pathways myself, and sometimes, from above, I watched the tiny figures of others negotiating them. One side of the mountain swept down to the sea where there were yellow beaches with which I was familiar. Beyond the beaches there was the dark blue sea, and beyond the sea a vast expanse of brilliant blue sky. This harked back to a much earlier dream in which I was high above the earth. The blue of the sky was not only above me but all around me and beneath me. The sea was far below and on the sea, its intense whiteness contrasting with the surrounding dark blue, there was a cruise ship, and I was about to allow myself to drop straight down onto its deck.