This post by Sowon Park is the fifth in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.
In 1447, Grand Prince Anpyong of Korea (then Joseon) had a dream of strolling in a peach orchard. It was a utopia. He told the dream to the court painter and friend, Ahn Gyeon, who painted his dream vision. This is how ‘Dream Utopia’ (‘Mongyudowon-do’) came to be created (below).
Ahn/Anpyong’s vision, which translated literally means ‘Dream Journey to the Immortal Peach Orchard’, inspired 23 poems at the time and many other creative works since, including a 20-episode historical drama series on Chosun TV in 2018.
The impact of this painting on history is profound. Offering a vision of unity and peace, the dream of a peach orchard came to be perceived as an emblem of a political ideal. Subsequently, Anpyong was forced into exile by his brother, Grand Prince Suyang, and later killed. He was 36 years old.
The symbolic power of ‘Dream Utopia’ is partly explained by the fact that it materialized at a time of extreme factional division in the royal courts. But its influence cannot be fully understood unless one takes into account the cultural belief system of that time and place. For why should a mere dream pose such a potent real-life threat? Because in Joseon, there was a wide-spread faith that dreams offer a privileged and mystical access to the ‘true world’ that is beyond phenomena.
Dreams are culture-sensitive. What they mean to us will be shaped to some extent by our preexisting beliefs because these offer a frame of values with which to make sense of the content. What’s more, the interpretation of dream-content can subsequently influence our judgment and behavior in everyday life. The dream of strolling in a peach orchard gave expression to revolutionary modes of political action in the Joseon courts, which might not have otherwise found an outlet. There is continuity between dream and reality. Dreams are culturally permeable in this sense.
There are many ways of understanding dreams. Modern sleep science charts the neurobiology of dreaming and tends to focus on its functional aspects, such as memory consolidation. Sleep science asks: ‘How does dreaming serve waking reality?’ What is the use-value of dreaming? What are its adaptive functions? In short: what are dreams for? These functional questions, extremely valuable though they are, do not address why the Peach Orchard had such a powerful legacy.
In Buddhist and Taoist cultures, people have thought of dreams very differently, not for their use-value but for their truth-value. The belief system that gave rise to the Peach Orchard instructs that the reality we experience in our ordinary wakeful state is flawed and partial. Human perception is limited not only because our perceptual apparatus is limited, but because our reality is distorted by the self’s constant anxieties, desires, cravings and aversions. The illusory patina of projection, wish-fulfilment and gross egocentric biases that we create in our wakeful state are said to be shed when we are strolling in the Peach Orchard, offering as it does, a connection to an underlying reality relatively independent of the ego.
In this context, life is a dream, as much an illusion as the reality that we assume to be concrete. “Life is a dream. Death is also a dream… waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream” the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, tells us. In the Taoist context, Chuang Chou famously mused on whether he is a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or whether he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man.
These dictums are rich in poetic paradox. But they contradict the more ordinary, contemporary point of view. From the modern, materialist perspective life cannot be an actual dream because life carries on continuously (for 80-odd years) while dreams are transient experiences from which we can awake after a few minutes, and for which we bear no responsibility. To conflate the two is to be superstitious.
So does the dream that Buddhists and Taoists talk about – the metaphorical and mystical kind – have anything to do with the mundane nightly dreaming studied by modern sleep scientists? Can the two meanings of the word ‘dream’ embedded in two distinct systems of thought be bridged?
Unlikely as it may sound, several researchers on American New Age Buddhist literature and today’s scientized meditation literature have found a possible intersection between Buddhism and modern cognitive neuroscience. In my research I trace a series of recurrent Buddhist dreaming in European and American minds found at this intersection and consider the question of cultural permeability of dream and reality.
Sowon Park is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Literary Studies at UC Santa Barbara and specializes in modernism and the unconscious. The founder of the Unconscious Memory Network, she is now pursuing her research on the representation of altered states of consciousness, such as dreams.
 Prince Anpyong was the adopted third son of the Great King Sejong, who invented the Korean alphabet and who is on the Korean green 10,000 won bill.