一切有为法 All conditioned dharmas [phenomena]
如梦幻泡影 are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, shadows,
如露亦如电 like dew, also like lightning [flashes].
应作如是观 [All] should have such contemplation.
– 金刚经 Diamond Sutra
Does the breaking of precepts (by killing, stealing, having sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants) in a dream state create any negative karma? And if it does, should we practise repentance after waking up? The answers to these questions are not as categorical as a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as we shall see.
Whether there is karma created depends on whether there was intention involved. That said, there are two main kinds of dreams. The first is as an observer, much like simply watching a 3D immersive movie unfold before oneself, at times involving oneself. The second is as a participant, where there is active giving rise to intentions with decision-making on whether to follow them through with speech and actions.
For the first case, as there were no intentions involved, there was no karma created. Yet, dreams are at least partially karmically manifested from our minds, subconsciously made up by our minds to some extent, even if without mindfulness of active participation, being more of an experiencer than doer. For the second case, there is karma created as there is deliberation, being more of a doer than experiencer.
That said, a dream is not always only about mere observation or mere participation (experiencing and doing). It can be a mix or rapid alternation of both observation and participation, much like our real waking lives now. Likewise, our waking lives are at least partially karmically manifested from our minds, individually or collectively, with the other part having new deliberated thoughts, speech and actions.
With all other factors alike, karma created at the level of thought is weaker than that at the level of speech, which is in turn weaker than that at the level of action. Although all dream deeds are at the level of thought, whether the dreamer is aware of this or not, if one behaves as if awake with clear intentions, the equivalent of real life karma might be created in spirit, though not in the letter, as no real external harm might be done.
To summarise, it is difficult to tell whether we have created karma and to what extent in dreams. Thus, especially when uncertain, we should practise repentance sincerely. Doing so also purges us of guilt and uneasiness, lessening the tendency to generate more similar dreams. If we practise mindfulness better, we will be able to discern a dream to be a dream too, to be less adversely affected. The truth is, waking life is already dreamlike, as long as we have yet to awaken fully to its transient and unsubstantial nature!
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
– Nursery Rhyme & Children Song
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