Print: Peach Boy, Mayumi Oda, the Original Goddess

An old lady, having just awakened, comes upon an ancient mirror;

That which is clearly reflected in front of her face is none other than her own likeness;

Do not lose sight of your face again and go chasing your shadow.

~ Tungshan’s Five Ranks, chapter 114

Dreams. Since the most ancient of times in Zen, dreams have been seen as a window on the vast underworld of myth and spirit that animates our waking universe. As examples, a couple of beloved poems:

In 12th century China, Hongzhi Zhengjue wrote in his well-known tryptic:

“What about the ones who return? Heads covered in white hair, they leave the cliffs and valleys. In the dead of night they descend through the clouds to the market stalls.”

And in the 15th century Japan, Ikkyu “Crazy Cloud” Sojun wrote:

Hearing a crow with no mouth

Cry in the deep darkness of the night

I feel a longing for my father before he was born.

In working on most Zen koans with a teacher, we try to show rather than tell. We bring the koan into our bodies to explore an undifferentiated world that our cognitive mind cannot know. But in using dreams as a teaching, the telling of the dream is, in fact, the showing. Not needing interpretation, a dream recalled is realization itself. We are now living in the COVID dream world.

Almost every night over the last several months, COVID has permeated my dreams. Sometimes it takes center stage, and sometimes it just hangs in the background. A couple of nights ago, I dreamed I came across a young woman who was lying on her back, dead. I could see her pale, ashen face and long-brown hair, now matted. On her forehead were pockmarks and someone had written COVID-19 there. She had been dead a couple of days, and I began to wrap her up in a shroud, and put her body into the back of my pickup truck. Climbing into the cab of my truck, and realized then that her body was probably still transmitting the disease. I began to feel sick, and realized I had been infected. In the dead of night, they descend through the clouds to the market stalls.

My daughter, who is isolating in Berkeley, recalled a COVID dream she had several nights ago. She dreamed she was on a trip to Los Angeles, and had hopped onto the subway there, but was worried because she had forgotten her COVID mask. On the train, she took a seat next to an old lady. As she looked at the old lady, the lady turned into “Mima”, her grandmother, who died a little over 10 years ago. Mima looked at my daughter, and simply said: “I love you.” Then she changed back into the visage of the old lady. My daughter told the lady: “You look like my grandmother.” An old lady, having just awakened, comes upon an ancient mirror.

Dreams appear nightly, reminding us not to chase shadows, to not lose sight of our lives. They are the lives we are telling and showing.