For ten centuries, the Tibetans have been involved in the phenomenology of dreaming. One of their particularly important traditions originated with the eleventh-century Indian yogi Nāropa and was later transmitted to Tibet under the name of the Six Yogas of Nāropa. One of these yogas deals elaborately with dreams and dreaming, and later practitioners and theoreticians improved on this knowledge base so that it became a refined art.
–Having given His Holiness this brief account of sleep physiology, I am curious about the meaning of sleep and dreams in the Tibetan tradition. Is there an idea of different levels of consciousness being the source of different kinds of dreaming? Is there an answer for why we dream?
His Holiness answered: “There is said to be a relationship between dreaming, on the one hand, and the gross and subtle levels of the body on the other. But it’s also said there is such a thing as a ‘special dream state’. In that state, the ‘special dream body’ is created from the mind and from vital energy (known in Sanskrit as prāṇa) within the body. This special dream body is able to disassociate entirely from the gross physical body and travel elsewhere”.
“One way of developing this special dream body is first of all to recognize the dream as a dream when it occurs. Then, you find that the dream is malleable, and you make efforts to gain control over it. Gradually you become very skilled in this, increasing your ability to control the contents of the dream so that it accords to your own desires. Eventually it is possible to dissociate your dream body from your gross physical body. In contrast, in the normal dream state, dreaming occurs within the body. But as a result of specific training, the dream body can go elsewhere. This first technique is accomplished entirely by the power of desire, or aspiration”.
“There is another technique that arrives at the same end by means of prāṇa yoga. These are meditative practices that utilize the subtle, vital energies in the body. For these techniques also it is necessary to recognize the sleep state as it occurs” […].
“Nāropa, a famous tantric adept who lived in India in the eleventh century, was the teacher of Marpa, a Tibetan who traveled twice to India to receive teachings and bring them back to his native country. Marpa later became the main founder of the New Translation lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, which has since evolved into many different schools, some of which are still active today. Such differences within Buddhism remind me of the scientific world, where differing views also coexist for long periods of time without resolution” […].
“Incidentally” –said His Holiness– “Tibetan Buddhism considers sleep to be a form of nourishment, like food, that restores and refreshes the body. Another type of nourishment is samādhi, or meditative concentration. If one becomes advanced enough in the practice of meditative concentration, then this itself sustains or nourishes the body”.
Extract from the book: Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama. Narrated and Edited by Francisco J. Varela PhD. Wisdom Publication: USA. 1997, 2015: pp. 71-78.