I arrive by taxi at the Don Mueang train station across the street from the airport about 40 minutes early, despite the usual snarled traffic of this vast and complex metropolis. I don’t know what to expect in the mornings. Nor do I know my way around. I do not relish being at the mercy of an unknown city that speaks a language unknown to me. There is no real measure of control other than giving myself enough time: the paradox of idyllic spontaneous adventure travel meeting the southeast Asian equivalence of Germany. The trains run on time. Be there or get left.
More passengers drift in as I wait. I had purchased my ticket yesterday upon arrival at the airport. It was easier than I expected. The accomplishment of the simplest things in an unfamiliar place, thousands of miles from anything remotely resembling home, are small satisfactions, discrete reinforcements of one’s skills tightly orchestrated by meticulous planning. I know which train I am waiting for. My ticket tells me which car and where to sit. Thank you.
The train arrives. I pile on, store my gear overhead and find my seat. I am in for a long haul, maybe 10 hours–and this is the ‘express’–which I imagine will pass easily with a mixture of scenery, reading, writing, maybe even some conversation. I settle into my window seat, an ageing vinyl recliner with a rickety tray table, no cup holder, a footrest, additional space underneath my seat. The train is only three cars, far smaller than I expected, which also means no dining car and no food for sale on board. I have minimal supplies and I had what passed for breakfast hours ago already. Oh well, I will deal with whatever comes.
I already wonder about the wisdom of traveling during the day. At least overnight I can sleep on a moving train, waking early closer to the destination. As it is, I will arrive in Chiang Mai about 7:30pm, head for the hotel, maybe find some dinner and settle in. But this is the way it worked out.
I am cold. The air conditioning on this train is very effective and very low. The motion is constant, the whistle blows frequently, the noise level fluctuates from a rhythmic low rattle to a loud rumble. There is an attendant who rolls down the aisle serving water, tea and coffee. She hands out an individually wrapped bun of some kind. Two hours later she serves a “lunch” consisting of three plastic containers on a tray with a utensil packet. One is fried mackerel in a red curry sauce. Another is mackerel in a soybean sauce. The third is rice. I eat the mackerel/soy concoction, the red curry sauce only- and the rice. I had no idea my fare paid for food.
Once out of the city and into the countryside, the terrain is totally flat, passing an endless abundance of rice fields. No farming equipment visible whatsoever and people in the fields an extreme rarity. We are halfway between planting and harvest. There is a good deal of water, neighborhoods on stilts, cattle, water buffalo, mostly ramshackle but also some newer homes, wats, narrow paved roads, lots of dirt roads, villages and small train stations where we stop and exchange a few passengers. The conductors are all sharply uniformed and very efficient. There is also a very helpful porter. The train is clean and comfortable, but has seen much better days.
I read. I look out the window. I sit quietly, making up stories about what I will do in Chiangmai. We pass cultivated fields of corn, vegetables and banana intermingled with forest, or should I say jungle. I know that travel is about the immediacy of being in the new and unfamiliar. I wonder if it isn’t also a journey into that jungle, the thick interior undergrowth that masks a clarity I now wish I had. I feel some fear in this moment that maybe there really isn’t much underneath that mask. In the absence of certainty, being in contact with an authentic reality, I throw myself into experience as a contrivance to discover a truth that I’m not even convinced actually exists.
As the passing scenery recedes from view, I can look back upon it and point to it as evidence…of something…my existence? I move, therefore I am. On the other hand, in this moment, I have no past and no future. The train has stopped. We are reversing course, now moving backwards to the station we left a few kilometers back. What? Did this past even exist when we were here before?
We stop. We wait a moment and proceed forward again. If I repeat my experience, does it become any more real? Will I see something new? Will the outcome change? Some people who do that are called compulsive. We are moving faster now. The rice fields stretch out to the left and right, a uniform deep green carpet. Mountains are now visible to the north and east. The sky is hazy in the late afternoon. Very quickly we are in mountains, the tracks winding through lush forest again, the sun dropping low and shining into my eyes.
Amidst this doubt, I refer again to the tenets that regularly permeate my practice, that all of these mental meanderings themselves do not amount to anything substantial. It is all mind, I am told, the continuous play of awareness that has no source, no beginning and no end: emptiness. I am told that there is no substance to me as a separate identity, nor to any of the ideas I have about me, to the mental activity that creates me, nor even to that which questions the reality of “me.”
Sure, we all have to live in this world and we do the best we can. But in the face of this belief, I realize there is something I want. I’d like to know what I’m seeing through before I see through it. I’d like to know who I am at the same time as knowing who I’m not.
It’s difficult to simply leap through to realize the view of empty essence if I don’t also fully know my fullness in the world. Maybe that’s why I am a paradox, at least to myself. I’m ambivalent about accepting the truth. I’m very attached to trying on different stories. One would think I’d be relieved to give it all up, yet there is something much deeper that continues to restrain me and to which I do not have easy access.
Being reminded of the two truths doesn’t quite resolve this paradox either: to understand the truth of appearance and the truth of emptiness being inseparable, simultaneous spontaneous realities is an extremely slippery thing. Sometimes I do access the apparent nature of appearance; objects of perception take on a shimmering gauzy veneer as if everything is mere façade constructed upon a foundation that is itself illusory. Neither the façade nor the foundation has any source whatsoever, at least nothing that can be named. This is the apparent truth of emptiness, but it’s the journey into the appearance aspect, its undeniable material nature that rouses compassion, grief as well as some fear of how overwhelmingly real it truly is or can become in an instant; and my awareness of it changes in every moment of contemplation.
The jungle is thickening now, growing up closer to the tracks in the foothills. There are no inhabitants, no roads, no structures, no cultivation, no distractions, only the winding track going deeper and deeper into the silence of dusk. The train has slowed as if the engineer has forgotten how to breeze through without noticing. We are noticing everything now and we can’t turn away.