Between the Way of the Dream and the Dream of the Way

In an excellent article published by Aikido Italia Network, Ellis Amdur Sensei tells how, after a particularly demanding “fight” with a fellow practitioner who had put some of his martial certainties in crisis, thanks to a dream he found a way to integrate the information acquired in that exchange into his skills. The dream allowed him to increase his practical knowledge in a way more directly based on experience than theoretically elaborated 


While this is not the central topic of Amdur’s article, the above point has stimulated a certain interest in some of students of our Dojo, spurring further research that addresses an aspect that is present in many martial events but has not always been sufficiently highlighted.

Am I dreaming or am I awake?

We spend about a third of our life sleeping, and much of this time is occupied by dreams. Clearly this is not the place in which to give a detailed analysis of the dream activity and its implications, therefore we are going to limit our observations on the matter to a few brief notes, while referring the interested parties to other and more specific in-depth studies.

Both in the past and today, the dream lives in a sort of schizophrenic reality. On the one hand, it is an important part of our psychic life, on the other, it is snubbed by most as the expression of a futile, if not harmful, fantasy. Modern psychoanalysis – starting with Freud and especially with Jung later on – has attached great importance to dream activity. Dreaming is considered to be a vehicle for the expression of both unconscious and acting out, of which we are substantially unaware in conscious life. Through the dream, in other words, we often express what when “awake” we do not have the ability to bring out, due to a whole series of conditioning and blockages caused by education, social rules and internal and personal conflicts.

Pablo Picasso, Le Rêve, 1932. ©2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso

On the other hand, in many commonly used idioms we find an evident contempt for those who consider the oneiric activity more than a weird illusion with no practical use. “Dreamer” is rarely used as a compliment and more often it is the stigma attached to those who are believed to have lost contact with reality and pursue projects and dreams (!) that have no hope of becoming reality. There is no need to go into details about it – it would take us too far. It is enough to just point out that many of the discoveries that have enabled humanity’s progress are ascribed to those who were considered little more than visionaries, those who nevertheless dared to take paths never tried before.

If it is true that the dreamer is for many a figure between the naive and the deluded, popular wisdom reminds us that “the night brings advice”. This old proverb highlights how in many cases dream activity is the means through which solutions are found that are impossible to elaborate through a logical-rational deduction which is too tied up by constraints and preconceptions.

Furthermore, with all due respect to those who want to divide the world in a Manichaeism where there is only a “here” and a “there”, our existence is made up of infinite planes that intertwine and overlap, influencing each other. Sometimes they leave us in doubt about what our actual condition is, as a famous Chinese anecdote tells: “Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou”.

Thus, between sleep and wakefulness, there are not only moments in which – for example – we are no longer sleeping but we are not fully awake – but also situations ranging from lucid dreaming to altered states of consciousness (naturally induced or through psychotropic substances), where we can reach up to particular experiences: “deja vu” or “out-of-body experiences”, in which a person perceives the world from a position outside his own physical body. 

Having made this long but necessary premise that has already touched on some points that each deserve an individual study, let’s go a little deeper, addressing the relationship between dreams and martial arts.

One Way, many ways 

Anyone who had the opportunity to deal with the Eastern classic martial arts training pedagogy – even at a superficial level – is well aware that these leave little or no space for individual imagination. Training is strictly regulated by sequences of movements that are repeated essentially unchanged for centuries. Within them, each role is fixed and does not include any exceptions, let alone Pindaric flights and “variations on a theme” inspired by the personal fantasies of the individual performer.

In other simple words, a world where dreams and dream activities in general seem to have very little space. 

But yet…

Yet on closer inspection, this is not the case. If it is true that form is substance, it is equally true that this often serves to conceal the essence from those who do not yet have eyes capable of perceiving it. Thus, every average experienced practitioner will have no problem in acknowledging that kata, like a musical score, when correctly understood allows each performer to fully express his own personality. In the didactic progression based on the shu-ha-ri phases, there it is a time to imitate the Master, a time to comprehend (etymologically) the rules and finally a time to (apparently) transgress them and go further. The caterpillar that does not leave the cocoon to become a butterfly is destined to certain death.

Thus we can discover that even Martial Arts that for centuries have been transmitted from Master to student in a rigidly codified manner, have originated not only from a rational elaboration, but from a “crisis”, a moment of rupture of the ordinary perception, originated – in fact – by a dream.

One of the best-known examples is undoubtedly the one referring to Muso Gonnosuke, an early 17th-century samurai, perhaps most famous for his duels with the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Those who are interested in getting an in-depth analysis of this character’s legendary history are invited to refer to the many sources that tell in detail his life and adventures. Here we will only say that Gonnosuke was trained in Tenshin Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu and then embarked on his musha shugyo (warrior’s quest) to the capital of Japan. Along the way, he faced other swordsmen to test his skills and increase knowledge.

The story goes that along this martial pilgrimage Gonnosuke met Miyamoto Musashi, from whom he was defeated with relative ease. This generated a crisis in him, raising doubts about his ability as a fighter. Continuing on his journey, Gonnosuke went to Mount Homan, a mystical place and a destination for various ascetics and hermits. Here, for 37 days, he continued to practice hard and deeply meditate, until in a dream he had a revelation: with a wooden stick of just over a meter in length he could be able to control the solar plexus and beat any opponent armed with a sword.

Muso Gonnosuke

At this point the story unfolds along different paths: some say that Gonnosuke met Musashi again and defeated him, others instead claim that the second clash ended in a draw and others again who maintain that a second meeting never takes place. What is certain is that Gonnosuke called his art Shintō Musō-ryū (神道夢想流), which we can translate as “School of the celestial Jo revealed in a dream” or “School of divine inspiration”, a system that today is composed of 64 techniques summarized in 12 fundamental kihon and 12 Seitei Katachi (standard combat models). 

It is interesting to note that on some occasions the name of the school is expressed with the characters 神道無想流, which differ from the previous ones in the third kanji. While we can translate 夢想 as “idea/concept revealed in a dream” (夢: dream, vision, illusion; 想: concept, idea, thought), in the second version of the school’s name 無想 can be translated as “mind free from distracting worldly thoughts” (無: nothing, nobody; 想: concept, idea, thought), somehow reaffirm that the origin of the School was born precisely at the moment in which preconceived and rationally established ideas were abandoned.

Iizasa Choisai

If it is true that one swallow does not make a spring, a single instance, albeit remarkable like that of Muso Gonnosuke, would not suffice to support our thesis. Here’s therefore another couple of examples, starting with Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū (天真正伝香取神道流), one the most famous and ancient Japanese sword schools. At the age of 60 years and after a life dedicated to martial practice, its founder Chōi-sai spent 1000 days in the Katori Shrine practising martial techniques day and night. Finally, the kami of the shrine, Futsunushi (経津), appeared to him in a dream and passed on to him the secrets of martial strategy in a scroll called “Mokuroku Heiho no Shinsho”. Chōi-sai called his sword style Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, or the “Heavenly, true, correctly transmitted style of the Way of the God of Katori”.

Next, we also have to mention Matsumoto Bizen-no-kami Masanobu who, according to a legend, received the secrets of the art of the sword in a dream from the tutelary deity of the Kashima Shrine, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto. Later, he founded the Kashima Shin-ryū (Kashima school of divine inspiration) school of sword.

These legends are typical of the Japanese martial traditions and we also find them in other arts, not necessarily martial. It was quite frequent that the founders of these Ryū attributed their mastery to magical or esoteric teachings transmitted by Shinto or Buddhist deities, by historical long-dead figures or by legendary supernatural creatures such as the tengu, Japanese spirits commonly depicted with a long red nose.

If the above examples have their origin in times in which history and legend often intertwine inextricably, we must not assume that in modern times this habit ceased. The best illustration of the above is Ueshiba Morihei’s example. In the spring of 1925, Ueshiba was challenged to a duel by an officer who repeatedly tried to hit him with a sword while he dodged his blows with great ease, owing to a kind of sixth sense developed in his martial studies. After the duel Ueshiba retired to a garden to cool off from the sweat and here he had an extraordinary experience: he was taken to a new dimension and enlightened on the principles of Budo, giving life to Aikido.

Morihei Ueshiba in a picture from the 1920s

O’Sensei described this experience:

I felt that the universe suddenly quaked and that a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time, my mind and body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the Creator of this universe. At that moment, I was enlightened: the source of budo [martial discipline] is God’s love—the spirit of loving protection for all beings. Endless tears of joy streamed down my cheeks… I understood: budo is not felling the opponent by our force; nor is it a tool to lead the world into destruction with arms. True budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect, and cultivate all beings in Nature. The training of budo is to take God’s love . . . and assimilate it and utilize it in our own mind and body.

From the East to the West

We have examined the question of time, let’s now face that of space: having established that this link between dream inspiration and practical definition is firmly grounded in the East (we will leave out other examples so as not to bore the readers, but there are also Chinese occurrences, Korean and from all Asian regions), what do we find in the West? In this case as well there is no shortage of examples. Again, we are going to mention just the best known, not to further take advantage of the attention granted: the first and perhaps most famous – if only for the consequences it will bear on overall Western culture and society is certainly that of Emperor Constantine I. He saw in a dream the phrase “ἐν τούτῳ νίκα (Greek, from the literal meaning: “in (below) this sign you will win” next to a cross before the battle of Ponte Milvio which took place on 28 October 312. Constantine was victorious over Maxentius, marking his conversion to Christianity, which will later become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Constantine’s Dream, from a 9th century manuscript

Considering the importance of its consequences, numerous astronomical and historical analyses, esoteric and religious interpretations have intertwined on this famous episode. Whether the event really took place or whether it is a Christian reworking of a pagan legend matters little for the purposes of our interpretation, except to confirm that even in the West dreams could prove decisive in determining the fate of a conflict.

Premonitory dreams are almost always seen as bearers of good news, but this is not always the case: Roman history still reminds us of what happened in October 42 BC near Philippi, a town in the province of Macedonia. Philippi was the site of the battle that pitted the armies under the orders of Marcus Anthony and Caesar Octavian against the forces of Marcus Giunio Bruto and Gaius Cassio Longinus, the two main conspirators and assassins of Gaius Julius Caesar.

The clash was made famous by Plutarch who tells that Brutus received in a dream the vision of a ghost, according to some the spectre of Caesar himself. When Brutus asked the shade: “Who are you? Where are you from?”, the ghost replied: “I am your bad demon. Brutus, we will meet again in Philippi”. Suetonius adds that, in Philippi, a Thessalus predicted victory for Octavian, since the ghost of the divine Caesar had appeared to him in an empty street.

Dream: reality or illusion?

How much what we dream is able to influence our life as “awake” (deliberately in quotation marks) is something all too well known and experienced by each of us to have to be explained in detail. Who has never woken up distressed by a nightmare, spending the rest of the day sad and embittered or, vice versa, how many times have we woken up happy and enthusiastic after a good dream? What do we do with these stimuli, how do we interpret these dream “messages”, how much we treasure this information which – if properly decoded – can be a precious aid to increase the knowledge of our unconscious psychological mechanisms pertains to the capacities and predispositions of each one. There are those who file them as bizarre fantasies that cannot find any use in real life. There are those who will agree with the Indian chief Tashunka Witko, better known as “Crazy Horse”, who said: “A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky.

Tashunka Witko, Crazy Horse

As in every path of formation, to the same tools given do not always correspond the same abilities of those who receive them. Everyone has the right and the duty to spend as best they can and believe the talents they receive.

We conclude this brief analysis being aware that we have only touched upon the great number of possible insights, and we bid our readers farewell with a quote from Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who in his “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” states: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible“.

To each the dream they deserve!

Copyright Carlo Caprino © 2020
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited


Un pensiero riguardo “Between the Way of the Dream and the Dream of the Way”

I commenti sono chiusi.