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In this video clip you can see renowned Tibetan master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu saying that life is unreal and that the Buddha taught it is just like a dream. Is he correct? I've transcribed below:

Sometimes we have very nice dream. Fantastic dream... And we enjoy. We are very happy. We are dreaming, for example... ...I'm looking and someone is selling... lottery ticket. Very, very big lottery. I am taking and buying from someone and I am returning home. And I am seeing the television. And when I am looking at my number... The television is saying that number! Then I feel very happy. "Oh, what do I do now?" All this money. I am really happy and then I wake up. When I wake up, I discovered that is a dream, unfortunately. I am not happy. Or sometimes... very, very bad dream. There are many people that want to kill me. They are arriving in my house. Then they are starting to kill me. I feel very afraid. That moment I wake up. And I discover, "Oh, that is only a dream!" I am very happy. You see, good or bad. Even good or bad. A dream is a dream. Unreal. So Buddha is saying, our life is just like a dream. Big dream. Dream of night is a very small dream, but... Our life's dream, it has many day and night, day and night etcetera. When we discover that... Dreams, we discover when we wake up. But big dreams, we discover... When we are dying and being in a state of Bardo (transitional state).

Emphasis mine.

A closely related question (with answers) is here.

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It might be possible for you to gain the understanding you need from these two powerful excerpts. The first is from the Phena Sutta; the second is from chapter 32 of the Diamond Sutra.

The Phena Sutta

Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick — this has been taught by the Kinsman of the Sun. However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they're empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately.

[ADDITION] How can the Phena Sutta be describing something that is dream-like? The aggregates give their fascination over to form-based ideas such that they develop an unhealthy reliance on those ideas. This is called clinging. Clinging presents itself in two ways: attraction and aversion. It is not objects that we cling to, but it originates from our interpretation of those objects; the way in which those objects are cognized. Therefore, the clinging is always from that origin: the mind - the neurotic mind clings to the body. It is this motion of aversion and attraction that creates a noisy haze in our consciousness, stimulated by feeling/perception. This is pananca. This haze hinders our view; we don't see clearly. This not seeing clearly is avijja from which suffering arises. The experience of suffering is a method by which the body tries to eject wrong views born from that very ignorance, but we misperceive its function. Suffering then becomes an identity instead of knowledge. This is how the aggregates can present themselves as dream-like. It's just another way to speak about ignorance. It doesn't matter how you word it. If dream is suitable for you, then fine, as long as you understand the mechanisms behind it.


The Diamond Sutra

“Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquility and free from any attachment to appearances.”

“So I say to you – This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:”

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.

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  • Amazing answer. Bravo! Apr 3 at 20:12
  • To add to this I'd also recommend Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra the one in 8000 lines being the most accessible. Apr 3 at 20:21
  • I concur. The Perfection of Wisdom isn't fooled by conditionality. ;-)
    – Max
    Apr 3 at 21:45
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    The excerpt I provided does immense justice to the dhamma. What extra things would you like me to include?
    – Max
    Apr 4 at 6:29
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The point is that when we look out into the world and we see (say) a tree, a dog, a car, a white cloud, or whatever you like, what we're actually perceiving is color, shading, texture, apparent movement... We receive this great wash of ambiguous sensation, and in our heads we establish boundaries, conjure up structures and patterns, intuit relationships, and fit these sensations into concepts, discarding most of the sensations that got us there. We then treat these conceptual objects as though they were part and parcel of the real world, instead of fabrications we impose on the real world after-the-fact.

When we sleep these concepts sometimes float free of any referent and appear to us as dreams, but seeing a dog running in a dream and seeing a dog running in a field is merely a matter of degree. Both have that 'dream-like' quality of a conceptualization that is at best loosely connected to anything material.

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But dreams are real—when you are dreaming, you are really dreaming. But their contents are not (always) true. They are like a movie, which is something you can watch, but the movie’s contents—the actors, and the action, and even often the setting—are not true. This comparison just like is not saying two things are identical, it’s comparing one thing—our life in this case—to an evident particular characteristic of the thing it’s being compared to—a dream in this case. A dream is illusory, but you really dreamed it, and it is this characteristic of being illusory that our life is being compared to. But you are truly living. It’s just that there is something illusory about the actors—they seem like they are truly separate beings, but they have no independent self nature; and there is something illusory about the action—it seems as if there is something happening to you, but your intrinsic awareness (he was teaching the view of Tibetan Dzogchen) is not changed in any way by what is happening; and even the location is illusory—every quality you believe is a quality of the world around you is something that is of you, and not otherwise (for example, you see red, but what you believe is red is just how your eyes perceive what is there).

So our lives are real—we are truly living—but everything that happens in them is illusory in some way. That’s what Chögyal Namkhai said. You only thought he said your life is unreal. He said (that Buddha said) that it is like a dream, and the salient characteristic of a dream is that its contents are illusions—seemingly real while you are really dreaming, but then discovered to have been illusory.

Addendum (to answer Yeshe Tenley's request for a definition in the comments below):

To be real, something must be non-contingent, necessary, simple, and evidenced.

Non-contingent, means that it cannot be dependent on anything else in any way. It can’t be brought into being, caused, or created, for example, and it certainly can’t depend on you experiencing it for its reality.

Necessary, means what it says. What is real must be necessary—like a motor in a car, or a charge in its battery—or nothing works. What is real cannot be an option that one can take or leave, something gaudy to set our car apart from those of others.

Simple, means it is not a collection of parts; it is not a union of aspects—it is not structured in any way. The reason for this is that if a thing isn’t simple then it depends on something else to cause it, or make it, to be, and so it is contingent. Therefore, what is real is necessarily non-dual.

And finally, what is real must be evidenced. If a thing isn’t directly evidenced—since I am asserting that it doesn’t exist, i.e., it can’t be experienced—if it is just inferred, hypostatized, or hypothesized, than it’s not real.

When I say that something exists, or I talk about existence, I mean that imperience is happening, could happen, or did happen. And that is all I am saying, having already seen that the contents of experience were ephemeral at best and certainly lacked any inherent self-existence, how can I assert that any of it is real?

Please note, imperience is a technical word for me; we imperience a dream, but experience its content.

This is taken from my article, "Reality and Existence" and the longer subject of what I mean by imperience and experience is another article "Understanding Experience" which is very relevant to this question, but a decently long read.

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  • Is there a difference between having a dream and what the dream was about? Clearly, if you wake up from a dream soaked in sweat, or with other physical symptoms, it is not correct to say that you weren't dreaming; but what you were dreaming was not really happening. That is the distinction that I honestly feel that CN was trying to make with his imperfect English. I know this to be correct because what you are taking away from his use of "unreal" is not to be found in Dzogchen teachings. Don't accept what I say, if it goes against your intuition; but remember all intuitions are not correct. Apr 3 at 17:30
  • Ah, I see you deleted the comment that I just responded to ☺️ Apr 3 at 17:33
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    No, not at all. You have made the mistake, not him. Apr 3 at 19:35
  • But there is only emptiness... nothing to be unreal. Apr 3 at 19:39
  • Apparently, you didn’t ask the question in good faith then. Since you already know that he said what you understand to be the case. Apr 3 at 19:45
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Fwiw Buddha compared sensuality to a dream as well. I don't think this tenet of the Dhamma is central to it because it is still open to be interpreted in favor of an eternal & underlying consciousness doing the dreaming.

As i see it, the latter point not being thus interpreted is the central tenet and what separates the Dhamma from eternalism.

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  • Ahh, you are correct we are not real either. That is key to understanding and without it some can drift into the confusion of eternalism. Apr 3 at 19:55
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The Pali suttas are almost the same as Mahayana agamas in Sanskrit, and so would be on-topic as Mahayana-relevant content.

From Dona Sutta, the Buddha calls himself "awakened":

"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as 'awakened.'

This means he has awakened from a dream of course.

Awakening from the dream does not mean that the world is a dream or that the world is unreal.

It's because the dreamer (the self) is unreal, as the Buddha taught that all phenomena is not self (sabbe dhamma anatta - Dhp 279).

Upon waking from the dream, the dreamer disappears in this case. Also all reification/ objectification-classification/ papanca arising from the self - non-self duality is the dream that disappears.

The chair however doesn't disappear and the Buddha can still sit on it.

From Vina Sutta:

"In the same way, a monk investigates form, however far form may go. He investigates feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go. As he is investigating form... feeling... perception... fabrications... consciousness, however far consciousness may go, any thoughts of 'me' or 'mine' or 'I am' do not occur to him."

From Tuvataka Sutta:

"I ask the kinsman of the Sun, the great seer,
about seclusion & the state of peace.
Seeing in what way is a monk unbound,
clinging to nothing in the world?"
"He should put an entire stop
to the root of objectification-classifications:
'I am the thinker.'

The translator commented:

On objectification-classifications and their role in leading to conflict, see Sn 4.11 and the introduction to MN 18. The perception, "I am the thinker" lies at the root of these classifications in that it reads into the immediate present a set of distinctions — I/not-I; being/not-being; thinker/thought; identity/non-identity — that then can proliferate into mental and physical conflict. The conceit inherent in this perception thus forms a fetter on the mind. To become unbound, one must learn to examine these distinctions — which we all take for granted — to see that they are simply assumptions that are not inherent in experience, and that we would be better off to be able to drop them.

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  • This question was tagged as Tibetan Buddhist and although the Pali scriptures are relevant to Mahayana, I think this answer is from the perspective of the Theravada and as such is not appropriate. Aug 1 at 16:31
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I doubt a Buddha would ever teach life is like a dream. Such a teaching may cause people to act in life nihilistically with negligence, such as Tibetan gurus who engage in sexual misconduct.

In MN 54, the Buddha taught sensual pleasures are like a dream. In Thig 14.1, Subha the nun said being beguiled by a woman painted with make-up is like a dream.

But in AN 3.136, the Buddha taught conditioned things have a fixed quality, in that they are impermanent, unsatisfactory & not-self. Seeing all conditioned things are unsatisfactory is not like a "dream" because dreams can imagine things to be pleasurable or satisfactory.

Also, Nibbana is an experience of those who have lived the Holy Life. In MN 140, the Buddha said Nibbana was "undeceptive" and "true", which, again, is not a "dream".

In MN 29 & MN 30, the Buddha taught the essence of the Holy Life is the unshakeable freedom of mind. This Holy Life is not a dream because Nibbana is permanent and undeceptive.

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