It is long after midnight. I try to sleep but my mind is restless. Memory drifts back to yesterday’s conversation on middle-way philosophy with another “foreign doctor” with whom I’ve shared the past month doing medical volunteer work in a remote Himalayan village. Lying awake on a thin pad, inside a yurt on the shore of a sacred lake on a high Tibetan plain I try to trace the threads of that conversation. A cool breeze ripples the half-open flap of the yurt. Moonlight illuminates prayer flags suspended over our campground.
Humans assign spiritual significance to Lake Kokonor and receive profound insights about nature and human nature in return. We ritually construct esoteric figures of light in our minds and imbue the lake with sacred symbols and spiritual truths. Where is the boundary between mind’s projections and the lake itself? What method can be used to distinguish mind from phenomena that have external reality as the Tibetans like to say that stand on their own side?
Where is mind? What appearances are projections, what appearances are phenomena on their own side? Where is I in the tapestry of interwoven perceptions and memories? Will a different I emerge with the dawn when social demands displace contemplative I? These musings circle back to Nagarjuna’s middle way philosophy, a method that distinguishes between the conventional (small) i that identifies a unique person and the absolute impersonal (Big) I that has no name, is untarnished, unconditioned by perceptions and has no self. It is immediately clear that this problem can’t be solved by analysis. All one can aspire to do is to momentarily step back from thinking I, stay focused on the experience of being in a body and pay attention to the constant stream of sensations, projections and memories.
According to middle way philosophy certain knowledge of absolute I or conventional i is unattainable. No method can verify the existence or nature of Big I or small I because all categories are arbitrary hence the true nature of phenomena on their own side is necessarily and always unknowable. The work of middle way philosophy is to develop the skill required to hold in a single moment of awareness the experience of conventional I and the apprehension of absolute unconditioned I while resisting the urge to seek a rational solution to a paradox that cannot be logically resolved. By affirming that all phenomena have no substantial existence on their own side, middle way philosophy leads to the inevitable conclusion that emptiness is the true nature of all phenomena. Since nothing can be claimed about the nature of I, mind or outside appearances, all phenomena share in the same unconditioned emptiness and are therefore ontologically equivalent. No other conclusion is possible because no thing is substantial or real on its own side. We are left with metaphors that describe how the world appears through different methodological lenses. As thoughts enter and leave I am aware of noticing thinking, noticing listening to wind, noticing the sound of my ownslow breathing, noticing the quiet beating of my heart—empty categories, labels that label no thing.
It is almost 5:30 now. Bright starlight has been washed out by the growing flame of pre-dawn. There is a barely perceptible blue light as the pale half-moon dissolves into mist and the sun begins its slow ascent. I throw off the quilt that has kept me warm this long night, pull on my down vest, mud-splotched raincoat and hat and step out of the yurt. The campsite is quiet. The other “foreign doctors” are still asleep, perhaps dreaming, perhaps awake musing on the same thoughts that have kept me awake.
I walk down a gently sloping path to the lakeshore enjoying the luxurious sensation of breathing deeply of cool air scented with wild thyme and salt. Taking slow deliberate steps, I notice awareness of thinking, breathing, walking, seeing. A distant seagull cry, a row of gulls angling in semi-darkness above the lake, reflections on glittering water touching the distant horizon. I observe the rhythmic stepping of my feet along the grass-bordered path—down to a marshy area on the rim of Lake Kokonor. Reaching the shore, I stand on a narrow gravel edge that demarcates the open expanse of blue-gray water from wet soil and rocks. Where is the boundary between sacred water and land? I discern silhouettes of other “foreign doctors” quietly standing in anticipation of the coming light. Some are probably renewing their vows as healers or seekers of Dharma. Others may be reflecting on middle way philosophy. One of the greatest mysteries of being human is not knowing how others conceptualize their unique experiences as Big I or small I, as a conventional or absolute self.
I find a place where there is good footing, let mind become still, count each outbreath and focus on this moment—this suchness. I am aware of the intention to notice each unique perception—subtly changing light, temperature, the feeling of wind on my face, my muffled heartbeat and the gentle rhythm of breathing. In this now there is awareness of both I and non-I. There is awareness of the intention to dissolve paradox and embrace emptiness—outside of language. Is this the experience of shunyata I’ve so often read about and aspired to attain but which has eluded me until this now? The question itself reflects an arbitrary assumption about the nature of mind. It implies a construct and a label that is empty. Mind soon returns to reflections on the nature of emptiness. Then there is only awareness of distant cries of gulls.
My reverie is interrupted by a splinter of light that emerges from the sparkling water and gradually builds into an incandescent orange globe. In a few more seconds the sun disc appears to be sitting on its mirror image—reflected in gold-blue on the rim of Lake Kokonor. In one moment I see the sun and I see mind reflected in the sacred lake. There is an awareness that sunlight reflecting on water is mind projected onto what appears to be outside of mind. I note the paradox, let go of categories and labels and breathe deeply. There is no sun, no lake, no I—only the experiencing of mind.
Purple clouds transform into slowly drifting cataracts of shadow and light, faint golden rays pierce the sky brushing the lake’s surface—sparkling blue water in perpetual motion. Crows gyrate and caw in the distance. I breathe in the cool fragrant air, turn around and circle back to the yurt. I enclose my body in a quilt and drift to sleep—unimpeded by philosophical musings and words building into sentences building into shadows of mind.