In the fall of 1991 I attended a workshop on dreams given by Jeremy Seligson. A few weeks later we talked over dinner in a quiet Japanese restaurant. Jeremy’s daughter, Cha-ling, a beautiful, intelligent child with large, brown eyes, was with us. She listened thoughtfully as her father talked.
It had taken Jeremy a long time to reach Korea. He explained that he had two experiences which made it impossible for him to lead a “normal” life in the United States. The first was his Peace Corps experience in Ethiopia as a land reform lawyer, which gave him a sense of a different way of thinking. The second was a vision he had in Indian temple, a near-fatal out-of-body experience after he was persuaded to drink some “sweet water.” To this day, this is his only encounter with hallucinogens, and one he referred to as a revelation. After traveling to various parts of the world, he announced to his father that there was a different perspective on life he’d like to acquire, which he thought he could find in Japan. It happened that a Zen Buddhist monk he met in Washington and later by chance in Tokyo helped him find his way to Kyoto. In Kyoto, Jeremy studied poetry writing with an American poet and played an old Suzuki violin, tuned in his own way, out in the woods with his two cats as his audience.
Jeremy has a quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming, somewhat professorial manner. In Asia he found the worldview he looked for, a belief system he expresses on both an intellectual and an emotional level. It clearly guides him even in his most intimate aspects of his life with his wife—as well as providing material for his book.
I had been in Japan a year and a half when I began receiving letters from a woman in Korea. They were romantic letters almost from the very beginning, written on Oriental paper with bits of flowers enclosed. I painted pictures and sent her flowers and poems. After six months I decided to go to Korea.
I got a job at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and three months later my fiancée and I were married. Her parents were very accepting of me. Her father was a mining engineer, a prospector, and also a kind of fortune-teller. He had studied the I Ching. [In Korea this Taoist tome is used primarily for fortune-telling.] He matched our birth dates and thought that we would make a very good match.
My wife used to tell me stories about her family. Her mother had had five children. With each pregnancy she had a dream which indicated the sex and the personality and something of the fortune of the child that was going to be born. In all five cases my mother-in-law’s dreams were accurate.
For one child she dreamed that she went to a tree and picked a beautiful peach; she took it home, laid it on the table and cut it open with a knife, but the inside of the peach was rotten. There are Chinese, Japanese and Korean myths about the Peach Boy, a woman finding a peach floating down the river and opening it to find a boy inside. When my mother-in-law had the child, it was a very handsome boy. The boy’s grandfather said, “This boy’s going to be a star, a general, because he’s so handsome.” But after a hundred days the child became sick and died. He was rotten inside, just like the peach.
When she was pregnant with my wife’s older sister, my mother-in-law dreamed that she was walking along and saw a very beautiful persimmon in a tree. A bird knocked the persimmon down. She caught it and brought it home. But instead of cutting this one open, she put it behind the glass door of a cabinet where she could only look at it. The child was a girl who was very distant, a daughter that her mother could never get close to. She became a nun, and she eventually committed suicide by jumping off a rock. It was strange—like the persimmon falling from the tree.
I had never heard of birth dreams before. I started collecting dreams from my students at the university, and I gave workshops for high school and junior high school teachers and asked them to give me dreams. Many of the teachers were married and had children of their own. I collected two thousand or more of these dreams before I wrote the book. Now I have about four or five thousand. Almost all of them follow a scheme which indicates whether the child will be male or female and something of its personality and destiny. I found no two dreams identical. They were like the inspiration of a poem. A poem cannot be contrived or fabricated. You can tell if a poem is fabricated, and you can tell if a dream is made up. The dreams you read about in folk tales don’t have the same touch as the ones you hear about from the people who dreamed them.
So that’s how I decided to write this book on Oriental birth dreams. Then one day I saw an advertisement for Taylor Hackford’s film Against All Odds. Taylor Hackford was a good friend of mine when we were undergraduates at the University of Southern California. He seemed to have gotten his life together, and I thought I should too. This book is about birth, about beginnings. I thought it would help me start understanding myself—where I came from, where all of this came from. It was strange that nobody in the West had written about Asian birth dreams, although there were some reports of Western birth dreams, like Joseph’s birth dream in the Bible. [According to Jeremy’s book, birth dreams usually are the experience of the pregnant woman, but her husband or relative may have the dream instead.]
Lee Jae-hyung, a friend and an old Taoist and I Ching philosopher, taught me how to distinguish yin and yang elements. Fire, a yang symbol, would indicate a son—or success. Water is more a female element, but also yin. Later it became clear that water is more of a general element indicating conception. Certain vegetables that were shaped like wombs, were watery or had many seeds all indicated a female. Almost always long, phallus-shaped vegetables indicated male children. What was single—one as opposed to many—would be male. A wild animal was male, a tame and docile animal female. What had to be fought or what tried to go out was more male; what was hidden away in a cabinet tended to be female. What came into the woman, under a woman’s dress, would also tend to be male because of the attraction of male and female.
Almost always the combination of the dream and the sex of the child worked out like that, with the child matching the dream. The combination of various yin and yang characteristics was significant because a dragon or a cow or a tiger, everything was both yin and yang. A snake in a dream didn’t necessarily mean a male child. A large snake usually was, but a small snake was female. Often a woman told me her dream and said something like, “Well, it was a dragon, so it was supposed to be a boy, but it was a girl.”
“But it was a very small dragon.”
Koreans don’t always know how to interpret birth dreams, but the scheme is part of their nature. They inherit it from birth. It comes from the days when there were no doctors around to tell people the kind of child they were going to have. There were no sonograms. They had to find out by their own innate capacities. It gave me the impression that in ancient days—and even in modern days with people in the country who were not so affected by telecommunications information—people had the innate capacity to dream about the future.
Life didn’t have so many distractions. People didn’t have a television in front of them or a radio beside them or a newspaper on the table. If they wanted to know something they had to sit and think, “I wonder what’s happening?” They had to extend the antennae of their minds out into the cosmos and listen.
In the Asian way of thinking there’s no break between heaven and earth. It is all a great oneness, and we all partake in it. Information is available about anything that is happening or is going to happen or has happened. We can pick it up if our minds are clean and pure. Most of these women pray for a child, and they try to make themselves very clean and pure-minded. They believe they are going to have a dream, so their radar is watching for a dream and for physical sensations in the womb.
They know what’s happening within their bodies. It’s as if they have an inner eye and are able to go inside and know that they have conceived and know the nature of the fetus inside. If the mind is the entire body, then the mind should be able to know every part of the body, everything that’s happening inside. I think this is a very subtle capacity that has developed over maybe a hundred thousand years, since very ancient times. Even now it still exists, but many of the younger generation don’t believe it anymore. They think it’s superstition. It’s not superstition if it works. But if Koreans lose their belief in it then they could lose their capacity in the future.
If you think about it, you know there are times when an infinitesimally small reaction will come to your consciousness as an itch. You’re lying down or giving a lecture and you feel an itch on the skin of your face. We can close our eyes and meditate and become really aware of the different parts of our bodies. The fetus is a part of the woman’s body. A woman with the capacity for a birth dream can become aware of something in her body, search for it and find it, and then translate what she finds into the language of dreams. The dream brings the information to her consciousness. It’s so vivid she can’t forget it. When she wakes up it’s there, flat in her face. It’s like glue, like it really happened.
It’s as if people consisted just of mind, with the body only as vehicle to carry us around. We’re just spirit. We just break that spirit into a hundred thousand pieces, like so many persimmons on the trees, like individual leaves and grasses, the whole landscape and our bodies in it. Our minds can splinter into that.
In a birth dream it seems that the mind of an incoming spirit is also involved. That’s what people believed, that it was something coming from the world of the spirit. Many Buddhists believe it’s already lived before and is coming back again. Korean shamanism also has the belief in reincarnation. It’s as if the spirit comes and says, “Look, Mom, I’m here. Come and see me.” And she comes to the spirit, and they share the dream together. Then she wakes up and says, “I’m pregnant.” Or if she’s very young she goes to her mother-in-law and says, “Look, I had this dream.”
“You’re pregnant. That’s a birth dream. That’s a t’aemong.”
The mother-in-law has heard hundreds of dreams from other women. In a village all the women tell their dreams to each other—the first dream. With the other children, they don’t tell the child until the child has grown up because the untold dream has power. It’s like visions with the North American Indians. If they keep it to themselves a tension builds up, it acts as a charm. But if you tell it to someone it’s like giving your charm away. Or like a mantra. It’s special only if you keep it to yourself. The dream is the child’s essence, its birth gift or conception gift. Its destiny is already there in the dream, sprouting and branching throughout its life and guiding the child this way and that.
I said to many of my students, “Go find out your birth dream.” Typically, the mother had never told her child the dream and was even reluctant to tell. But then the child said, “My teacher wants this. It’s my assignment. I’ll get an F if I don’t tell him.” So then the child heard the dream for the first time, perhaps amazed at the dream and surprised that there was a dream at all.
Here’s a dream from my second book, which is on prenatal education. In the dream the woman is walking on a mountain when she hears singing and sounds of celebration. She walks to a tree and peeks out from behind it into a clearing. In the clearing there are twelve men dancing and singing, each wearing a different animal mask, and each of them very happy. In the middle of the circle a baby is lying on the ground, laughing and smiling. The moon rises, lighting the whole area. All night the woman watches the dancing from behind the tree. At dawn the men leave. Because the woman can see that the baby is a boy, she walks over to him. The boy smiles at her, so she picks him up, holds him to her bosom, and goes home with him.
So the dream starts out with a quest, walking in the mountains, and then there is the meeting with the dream symbols. In this case the baby symbol is a baby, rather than a fruit, a vegetable, a gem or an animal. Sometimes the child runs away, an indication of a miscarriage or an early death. This is a very auspicious dream because the twelve animals represent the twelve symbols of the Oriental zodiac. They’re all protecting gods, and that means the child will be protected throughout the year. The child will be a special child, a boy who is very close to his mother, and good-natured because in the dream he was laughing and smiling.
Sometimes auspicious dreams are used to boost the careers of Korean politicians. Roh Tae-woo’s mother went to the temple in Taegu and prayed for a child for a hundred days. She had the kind of birth dream that comes after a hundred days of prayer. She dreamed of a big, blue snake. Blue is the color of royalty, the king’s color. Chun Doo-hwan’s mother dreamed that the moon appeared and she caught it in her skirt. I don’t know about the dream for Park Chung-hee, but Park’s wife had a dream that some turtles came out of a pond into her skirt. A turtle is a kind of armored creature, and the son who was born went into the military. The turtle is a reclusive fellow, and the son stepped back from the politicking of his family and stayed rather anonymous, although he’s been somewhat disgraced. He has to stay inside his shell.
My wife and I adhered to tradition with our daughter. We both tried to be pure-minded when making love, and we prayed for a very special child. When our daughter was born we named her Cha-ling, or Moon Lotus. Both the meaning and the pronunciation of the name can have an inspirational effect on the child. [Jeremy’s wife dreamed of a small snake before the birth of their daughter, also an accurate dream.]