“Suppose that the inspiration of new knowledge convinced us to open our clenched hand and let knowledge go free. Would we have lost anything? Or would knowledge at last be able to celebrate its own power, shifting and metamorphosing into something far more splendid than we had been able to possess?”—Tarthang Tulku
“Inside Knowledge”, P86, Dharma Publishing, 2015, Jack Petranker
The arrival of a new year invites us to reassess what has value in our lives and to question activities that may have outlived their relevance. In this context it feels like a good occasion to reassess my long-standing interest in Tarthang Tulku’s TSK vision (which began for me in the mid-80’s when I encountered the first of his six TSK books: “Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality”. Dharma Publishing, 1977).
Interestingly, the passage above, quoted from “Inside Knowledge”, the newest TSK book, speaks of letting go. But instead of relinquishing habits with which we have grown exhausted, Tarthang Tulku suggests that we release our hold on a precious resource: the gift of knowledge.
Parents know this paradox: hoping that their children will leave the nest which they have worked so hard to build around them. Even animals rescuers may pause in fond farewell when an abandoned dog is adopted or a wounded falcon lifts free from the cage in which its wing has mended.
Possessiveness routinely arises along with the work of parenting, nurturing, or mastering a subject. In that context, what might it mean to let knowledge free? How can we celebrate “something splendid”, as another year gets underway, in place of tired facts and habits that commandeer our days?
Sharing our understandings with others feels like a good way to “let knowledge go free”. But we may wonder if it is possible to explore the mystery of knowledge in a deeper way than by simply sharing what we have personally learned. For instance, could we “know” our capacity to know, with which each of us has each been born, from inside, just as we know the nature of water by diving into a lake and know the nature of air by breathing?
When we try to fathom the mysterious and the paradoxical, we may recall earlier occasions when a golden note flew in through our window and allowed us to glimpse the possibility that things could be fundamentally different than how we have learned to think of them.
Such a time occurred for me when I was a deckhand, working for the Noranda Bell Copper mine on a barge that towed oar trucks across Lake Babine in northern BC. I had a lot of time to read in the wheel house during those three mile passages. That’s where I first encountered George Gurdjieff’s “Law of Three” (which asserts that active, passive, and reconciling forces are present in everything under the Sun and beyond it).
I wonder if the mysterious interactions of Time, Space, and Knowledge as illuminated in the TSK vision, also reflects this “Law of Three”.
At the risk of reducing a profound understanding to something limited and abstract, I’d like to inquire into this possibility for a moment.
Great Space (passive and fertile), like an ocean that accommodates and provides the allowing medium for all that swims within her, together with the dynamic energy of Great Time (active and penetrating), give birth to all that arises, moves, transforms, and passes on–verily even as the fish dart like lightening beneath sunlight waves. And Great Knowledge (inherently integrating, even when it “passes human understanding”) reconciles the potential of spacious emptiness with the penetrating actualizations of time. Born from a union of time and space, where else could knowledge ever go?
Like the Yin force (fertile, female, open, dark, and as ubiquitous as water), Space is oceanic (open, allowing, accommodating, vast, the mother of all that can ever come into being). Like the Yang force (active, penetrating, male, light, the father of change and transformation), Time animates life in the sea and upon the land, and is the dynamic presence in every storm that tosses the face of the sea and in the reaching forth of every plant and sunrise, every birth and every journey. And like the Tao (the Way, the path, the reconciliation of possibility with action), Knowledge (and knowing) is the eternal child of time and space–the meeting place for all that is possible, alive and knowable.
As a kid, living with my parents and my sister in a residential suburb of Montreal, a few steps from the Saint Laurence River that flows past the city on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, we spent our summers swimming and boating. I remember my mother, who was the first to plunge into the cold Great Lakes run-off each spring, showing me a technique to use, should I ever have a stomach cramp and be struggling to keep my head above water. It is a simple technique that recognizes how we ourselves are made of water.
Instead of struggling to keep your mouth constantly above the surface, she said to relax and let your head fall forward into the lake, trusting that the body’s buoyancy will presently take over. Sure enough, once your entire body is submerged, the downward momentum pauses, like a swinging pendulum, and then starts bobbing back up. At the top of this swing, you then simply raise your face into the air, exhale, inhale, and–with your lungs full of new breath, allow your face to sink once more below the surface. No struggle to capture another breath and no need to exhaust yourself in a frantic struggle not to drown. Instead, one with the water—as a being made of water—you simply bob up and down in the medium of your embodiment.
The subtle intuition I experience when I take a dip in the TSK vision is that the space I inhabit could not exist if it were not one with a greater space, a boundless space that allows and accommodates the arising of everything I embrace and know. And every event, every manifestation, every schedule, each movement that arises in the course of time, all that is born, lives, grows and dies, is the manifestation of a dynamic energy beyond sequence and causality, that emerges from the vast ocean of space as the burgeoning potential of life. Knowing is also an intrinsic element of Being: unlimited, unbounded, and ubiquitous. In every genetic code and every glimpse vouchsafed to awareness, there resides a quality that could not arise if it were not itself the emanation of a knowing universe.
So as another year gets underway, what are we going to do? Will we forget those glimpses when we understood that we are swimming in the stream of life because we ARE the stream of life? Will we become a devotee of a particular glimpse, distributing pamphlets and testifying with conviction? Will we write sonnets to the beloved, meditate, do Bible study with peers in a nursing home, or deliver Meals on Wheels to the homebound?
It can feel as if there are too many alternatives in our modern western world, each promising reprieve from the growing deteriorations of our social compact: materialism, addictions, and chaos.
I think most of us would agree that the arrival of eastern wisdom traditions on the shores of the western world—with their greater understanding of contemplation, mindfulness and compassion–has provided a badly needed medicine to our “younger brother”, materialistic society.
And how are we taking advantage of these antidotes? Do we adapt the new perspectives in order to fit them into our established world views (for instance treating “mindfulness” as a technique to relax and improve our concentration in whatever we are already doing–sports, business, warfare—or are we trying to develop a path of compassion and wisdom?
It is natural to want to share whatever we feel has benefited us personally. In fact, “sharing” can be the natural culmination of a process of realization in which knowledge that we have received, understood, and begun to embody inspires us to share it with others.
Contemplating how we might share understanding that has become important to us will inevitably bring up questions about our own qualifications to do so. Do we really understand and embody it? Do we know others who share the interests that have allowed us to open to this new way of seeing and acting? Does a bridge of communication exist in our society that is capable of transmitting our appreciation (or do we have to rebuild one anew every day)?
In the case of the impulse to share the Time, Space, Knowledge vision with others, how can an ordinary person add anything to the dozen books written by the inspired Tibetan master who has given this vision to the western world?
One answer is that Tarthang Tulku has clearly stated that this is not his vision but rather the spontaneous expression of Time, Space, and Knowledge in and for the modern world. He has also said repeatedly that he hopes that others will take his initial expression as an invitation to explore and test his suggestions in the context of their own lived lives. Perhaps—just as the best way to appreciate a mountain is to climb it—the best way to explore the TSK vision is to try to live it.
One thing is certain: Tarthang Tulku’s belief–that the TSK vision is the right knowledge for our time–is one to which he has remained faithful for more than 35 years. When a Buddhist master, who has devoted his life to preserving and sharing as much as possible of the ancient Tibetan teachings that were threatened with utter annihilation by the Chinese invasion in 1959, writes six astounding books in order to share a radical new way of looking at reality, it is well worth taking a look. As our world sinks further into ghettos of local space, crowded with things we don’t need, while crowding out the instruments of health and growth that ARE needed, it’s time to pause and reground ourselves in the intrinsic openness of a space that can never be occupied or possessed. While the living stream, in which possibilities for health and understanding are always just the other side of this present moment (in a future that is eternally arriving), degenerates into deadened sequences of moments that follow one another like child soldiers in a war that helps no one, we can always pause and recognize that past, present and future are not points on a line but perspectives within our continuing journeys. And when knowledge, born anew each moment in a living cosmos, has been traded in for shattered fragments and cold facts that know nothing of the present and even less of the infinite possibilities of an unbounded future, it is past time to celebrate the knowing that is fully accessible with every breath we take.