Directly outside the window a vacated bird's nest sways in the crisp breeze, lodged in a gnarled limb of a naked tree. The tree, appearing dead, as indeed do many things at this time of year, but sleeps as we know, perhaps enwrapped in dreams that only trees can tell of. And as I gaze, a train of nagging questions comes before me.
Where is the tree that I see before me? Is it in the limbs, and, if so, which one? Perhaps it is in the trunk. But is a trunk a tree? And where does the tree stop and the bird's nest begin? Are they two separate things? Perhaps they are separate only as the naked limbs appear separate. But how can I separate them when I cannot even find the tree? Is it the roots which I cannot see? If so, which one? Where is the tree-ness of the tree before me?
Perhaps the tree-ness of the tree is not even in the tree that I see outside the window. Maybe it is in my own mind which only appears to see it outside? If that is so, then the nest-ness of the nest is also within myself. Does the usual perception stimulate some quality, an aspect, some unknown mysterious factor, lying latent until now in my own mind? Am I myself the tree that I see? Are the perceived and the perceiver two separate entities or are they one? If the perceived is separate, then where is it, for I cannot find the tree itself, only its parts. And what of the leaves? They have gone, fallen in beautiful colors to the ground. Unnecessary, now that the tree sleeps, they have been discarded. And yet the tree remains a tree nonetheless.
I remember a famous Tibetan master taught that the entire universe is a mental concept. He even went further and said that even the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are mental concepts. Certainly everything that we know comes to us through the senses to the mind. Could it be then that everything we know from our experiences of it is but our own mental concept of it rather than the thing-in-itself? Clearly, no matter how hard I search for the tree outside my window I cannot find the tree-in-itself. But I do have a mental concept of the tree. Is this concept the tree-in-itself? And what about others? Are another's concepts, although different from mine, any more or less real? How can I say that my mental concepts are more valid, more true to the facts than another's? This is especially so when I cannot even say for sure what the thing-in-itself really is.
Could it be possible that each one of us is a discrete center of consciousness looking out upon his very own world — a world colored by personal opinions, likes and dislikes? When I die, will I take my own world with me, like falling asleep at night? Will I take the tree-in-itself with me when I leave the window? If any of this be so, then can I really be separate from the world I sense around me? Indeed, can anything really be separate from anything else?
Sometimes I cannot even separate the tree I am looking at from the concept of the tree that I have in my mind. I now realize three trees. The first is outside my window, the second in my mind, and the third the tree-in-itself. Where is the tree-in-itself? It is outside, it is inside, it is both outside and inside, and it is neither outside nor inside. It is all of these and at the same time it is none of them. But even as I am writing this the nest sways on the limb of the tree in the winter wind.
(From Sunrise magazine, January 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)