Not all interviews are as timeless as this one published in 1996. Here, Tarthang Tulku talks about the Time, Space and Knowledge vision in relation to our lived experience. He explains that “wherever we are and whatever is happening, we are experiencing. And whatever experience we look at, we see time, and space, and knowledge dynamically interacting. This dynamic has brought us to the present, and it shapes all future possibilities.”
This interview is found in the book Teachings from the Heart (pages 209-221), in which Tarthang Tulku, with characteristic warmth and wisdom, engages many topics including mind and meditation, a new way of working, human freedom, and the play of knowledge in time and space.
In this book you will also find two more interviews with Tarthang Tulku: one reflecting on the Odiyan Mandala (1986) and the other entitled Turning toward the Dharma (1981).
May you enjoy it as much as we are by sharing it.
Dharma Publishing Team
Interview with Tarthang Tulku - Spring, 1996
To begin with, what is TSK?
Time, space, and knowledge are what we are—they shape our being. By pointing this out, TSK offers a way of exploring our own nature that does not bind us to conventional categories of thought such as mind and body, self and world, and so on.
TSK suggests that we have access to three different levels of space, time, and knowledge. For instance, in first-level terms the objects in space, the energy moving through space, and ‘empty’ space itself can all be viewed as ‘aspects’ of space. Looking at this space- dimension of appearance directly lets us experience space differently, with very interesting consequences.
Time is essential to all experience and also all measurement: to change and motion and rhythm and pointing. But what is it about time that allows experience? What is the relation between time and experience? When we ask that question in our own lives, a different energy presents itself.
With knowledge, we usually focus on what human beings know. For instance, we differentiate the known from the unknown. But the ‘not-known’ is the only possible source of knowledge, and limits on knowledge are also knowledge. Once we allow for knowledge as a dimension of being, we can go beyond the old, unsuccessful solutions to the same sets of problems.
How did you come to formulate the TSK vision?
Some years ago I saw that wherever we are and whatever is happening, we are experiencing. And whatever experience we look at, we see time and space and knowledge dynamically interacting. That dynamic has brought us to the present, and it shapes all future possibilities.
We think of our experience in terms of particulars: I am located here at a certain point in space and time, observing something over there that possesses certain qualities. But once I saw that these distinctions are all bound to the same dynamic, part of the same ‘read-out’, I found myself turning toward space-time-knowledge as fundamental. Things took on surprising aspects.
Your formulation of TSK seems related to your experience in the West, perhaps especially the United States. What in the American character strikes you as being best adapted for this kind of inquiry? Where does it seem to be limited?
Westerners share a scientific outlook that encourages asking questions and conducting analysis. In America in particular there is a natural curiosity, a fascination with how things work, as well as an emphasis on challenging authority. When you put all this together, you get a fantastic creative energy that is very exciting. But when the excitement fades, inspiration goes too, and then discipline disappears. People lose interest or lose heart. Americans think of themselves as very practical: Before they take on something new, they want to know what the benefit will be. But sometimes you can’t see the bene§t until you have gone into something deeply.
In many ways America is spacious and allowing. But externally space is becoming chaotic and disordered, and internally there is no mental space where we can really relax and feel at peace. As for time, everything moves so fast that we can never catch up; even though we are obsessed with saving time, we are always hurried. And knowledge is problematic too. We have more and more information, but still we keep discovering new problems for which we have no solutions.
Each of us paints a picture of the world based on our own perceptions and projections, but time feeds back experience at a deeper level that what we project. If this deeper dynamic does not match our projections, problems quickly arise. That seems to be what is happening in America today. This is deeply worrying, but it also means that time and space and knowledge have become real concerns and possibilities for everyone.
Our experience of time, space, and even knowledge is often one of entrapment. Is this feeling of being trapped the kind of problem you are referring to? Is there some means of ‘escaping’ or transcending the conditions we find ourselves in?
The idea of ‘transcending’ limitations or conditions is actually its own trap. Once we accept the need to transcend, we have to reject all present experience in favor of something ultimate or absolute or ‘transcendent’. We don’t know what it is; we can’t really imagine it; all we have is the idea of an idea—yet we let this idea convince us that where we are right now is incomplete and unsatisfactory. Somehow we expect to make a sharp break with the past. How can we do it? How can we ever go beyond what we are? Aren’t we condemning ourselves to failure?
In TSK, being trapped is potentially very valuable —the door to liberation. If we investigate, maybe there is no trap in the first place. Our understanding comes from time-space-knowledge and goes to time-space-knowledge, and the coming and going reflect time,space, knowledge. Why insist on ‘trapped’ as the right description for what is happening? Why not allow for other possibilities?
Let me be more specific. Your writing indicates that one form of entrapment is what we normally take to be a sense of ‘self’. How are we limited by our conventional notions of what we are?
Actually we have many different selves, which is one reason the idea of ‘self’ is so hard to pin down. There is the conceptual self, the idea of the self, the selfish self. There is the self that owns the intellect, the self that owns the body, the self that owns experience, the common-sense self, and the self that holds all this together. There is the self that I experience in experiencing. There is the self that is happy, the self that entertains itself, the self that blames itself, and the self that suffers. There is the self that is identical with ‘I’ and the self that goes beyond ‘I’. There is the self that I can analyze and the self that persists even when I tell myself I have no self. There is the self-evident self and the self of the philosophers. There is the enlightened self, the self as seen in religious inquiry, and the self in psychology.
With all these ways of understanding the self, and many more, what does TSK have to offer? I could say this: TSK is the self. The self is TSK. Only TSK. There is no other.
You might ask, “But what about ‘my’ self, right here? Is that different from a ‘TSK self’? How do these two kinds of self interact? When I look from the TSK perspective instead of my ordinary ‘close’ perspective, does it change my immediate experience?” Those are good questions—just the kind of questions TSK asks.
You seem to use the terms ‘time’, ‘space’, and ‘knowledge’ in ways quite different from those implied by ordinary language. Could you elucidate some of these differences?
Events occur in space and time, revealing knowledge. In this interaction, the message, the vehicle of communication, and the self-understanding of the interpreter are all closely bound together. Since language expresses this interplay, if new dimensions of knowledge become available, new ways of speaking may emerge. That is what happens in TSK.
Language tells us what we are by telling us where we are: It gives us the specifics of our situation. Once we understand something about TSK, our sense of ‘where’ expands. It includes our usual narrow space and pressured time instead of being bound by them. When we understand ‘time’, ‘space’, and ‘knowledge’ in this more encompassing way, we tend to go beyond language-centered knowing—even beyond experience.
Still, no matter what terms we use or how we define them, we still classify and make distinctions, and ultimately that misses something fundamental. Even if our language specifies a tremendous range of feelings and characteristics, ultimately we are not like that. We are space-time-knowledge, and we have no history other than that. Our ‘from’ and our ‘to’ are TSK.
Are you saying that language itself becomes an obstacle to knowledge? If so, is that equally true for all language? Specifically, how useful or limited is English as a tool for expressing TSK ideas?
As long as we take its projections seriously, any language will limit knowledge—it will encourage us to relate to experience as outsiders and ‘bias-standers’ so that we lose the direct connection to time, space, and knowledge. Whether the TSK vision appears in English or some other language is really secondary to understanding this relationship between language and knowledge.
Usually we think of language as referring with various degrees of accuracy to something real, but for TSK language does not name any ‘actual’: It just feeds back our previous outcomes. Once we see this, we can work with language differently. For instance, when we give up the idea that knowledge or experience is owned by someone, language is no longer separate from what it names. The pointer merges with the pointing, the projector with the projecting. Time reads appearance, space shows it, and knowledge determines it.
When we allow language to reflect this interplay, we use words more playfully. The distinctions and characteristics that language assigns are the only interpretation available to us—our only possible point of reference. But we can make our language alive and dynamic, so that we penetrate worn out ways of saying things. We can do that in English or in any other language. Just keep in mind that what is pointed out is not a solid state or place; it is not what we say it is.
Can you say something about the method of TSK?
Our perceptions and our possibilities are based on what we know—through the intellect and through experience. That is the real trap, but it doesn’t even feel like a trap. For instance, we believe that my ‘self’ is the owner of experience. How could it be otherwise?
TSK invites us to see these limitations in operation, to see them taking form. Now we have access to a knowledge that was not available before. Now our limits are not limits in the same way—they are a part of knowledge too. That is the TSK way.
TSK seems to offer an approach to knowledge that depends on questions just as much as answers. Does this way of knowing have the potential to go beyond our ordinary conceptual categories? Does it have anything to do with mystical experience or insight?
TSK questions the distinction you are making between ordinary knowledge and mystical experience. Suppose I look at a plant with my naked eye and then under a microscope. I see two different realities, and I order those two realities in terms of scale. In the same way, if I have a mystical experience, I link it to ordinary experience by insisting on its special quality. I set up a hierarchy and assign values. Someone is fortunate enough to have a certain kind of experience; someone else is not. This person is gifted or chosen; that person is not.
Now what about the hierarchy itself? What guarantees its validity or accuracy? TSK suggests that the standards I use to compare one experience to another are not independent of the experience. That means I cannot really assign values. The ‘level’ of my experience turns out to depend more on attitude than aptitude, and whether I experience one way or another is just accidental.
The purpose of saying this is not to reject the validity of mystical experience. If my judgments do not stand apart from knowledge, they express knowledge. Now we can investigate knowledge (and experience) at a more fundamental level, before the distinction between ‘mystical’ and ‘ordinary’ gets made. All knowledge becomes equally interesting—and equally mysterious.
For instance, what is known to be true changes over time. The present is the outcome of an array of such past ‘knowings’, and the shapes and forms we have instrumentally instigated in the past—as expressions of the power of our knowledge—may lead very precisely to a specific future. We can read this time/knowledge interplay backward or forward. One moment reflects every other moment with an accuracy too perfect to dismiss and too powerful to escape. This evolution is a beautiful read-out of knowledge through time, an education in the workings of time.
There are also countless other ways to look. For instance, past, present, and future are relative to one another and to the kind of perception in effect. At present we read time’s presentations in a particular way, but time is also reading itself, revealing itself to knowledge through its dynamic and rhythm, offering meanings independent of any interpretation we impose. The power of time’s paradigm is all inclusive, because everything exists ‘in’ time. Instead of struggling to impose some new hierarchy, we might decide to investigate this ‘inclusiveness’ of time. What does it mean to say there is nothing beyond time? How committed are we to the idea of ‘beyond’? What would it mean to go beyond ‘beyond’?
Are you suggesting we should give up on searching for mystical knowledge?
I don’t say that one form of knowledge is better than another. It is natural to look for non-standard forms of knowledge, because ordinary forms of understanding— thoughts and perceptions and so on—present themselves as intrinsically limited. But the idea of going ‘beyond’ ordinary knowledge perpetuates the present hierarchy. Who goes beyond? Who remains after the going is completed? Is ‘beyond’ a place? How is that place related to other places we know about? We can ask these questions within ordinary experience and also within extraordinary experience.
Some people are deeply attracted to speculation about what lies beyond. They like to make myths, to present ‘beyond’ as a kind of paradise, a glorious retirement home open to everyone. When we have had a hard day and come home feeling exhausted and discouraged, this can sound very attractive. We may wonder how to sign up.
Ultimately, though, the idea of ‘beyond’ can only limit us, because it is somewhere else. Living in time, knowing knowledge, being part of space, there is no separation and no need to go beyond or seek out something special. In TSK terms, ‘higher’ levels of time-space- knowledge are not separate states or conditions or experiences, even though it may look that way from an intermediate, second-level perspective. It is all much more simple. Are we? We are.
What is the relation of TSK to Buddhism and Buddhist doctrine? Are there any parallels that are useful or interesting to pursue?
Any comprehensive belief system—and especially Buddhism—deals with understanding the self, the order of reality, and the problem of impermanence and death. So knowledge, space, and time are natural concerns in every tradition. In Buddhism, there is also the question of how to wake up, and that makes knowledge a central concern. Drawing other parallels is up to you. It’s a matter of interpretation: How TSK interprets Buddhism and how Buddhism interprets TSK.
Let me suggest one major difference. In Buddhism virtuous action is a part of the path. But in TSK transformations in knowledge lead in unpredictable directions. In practice, that means that TSK does not particularly develop most of the indicators of Buddhism and other religions: faith, virtue, rules of conduct, dogma, hierarchy, authority. It just quietly says: “Knowledge is enough.”
TSK does not exclude. As TSK students, we may find ourselves practicing faith or invoking blessings or activating merit, empowerment, and lineage. But we would understand them all as revelations of knowledge. Remember that knowledge in TSK is the comprehensive Body of Knowledge, which includes enlightened knowledge. So it is not surprising if there are parallels to Buddhism or other religions, or that TSK offers inspiration to those who follow their own faith. But TSK is different from religious traditions, starting with the first page of the first book.
What is the practical value of the TSK vision? How is it likely to affect our lives?
At each point in space and time a particular set of values manifests. So what does it mean to speak of ‘practical value’? Suppose your ideas of what has practical value change as a result of TSK inquiry? Would my answer have to change also?
Some values do seem fairly constant. For instance, we all want to be happy, but we don’t seem to have much control over whether this happens. Will TSK give us more control at this level? If I answer yes, I create an expectation and a wish in you as the listener, and that wish will undermine your efforts at TSK inquiry. If I answer no, you may give up before you ever begin. Perhaps it is best to say that TSK does not aim at changing our situation as human beings.
When you ask if TSK has practical value, you are really asking whether I have something to sell you. Well, I don’t. Knowledge is simply available. The great surprise, the wonderful present, is that this mystery of human knowledge can open up—completely unexpected.
TSK does not just leave us in our present predicament, stuck with problems and wanting solutions. It challenges the mind we can’t control and the thoughts that distort reality. But if we study TSK hoping to arrive at a place where we can say, “Now I have got something for myself,” we will miss the point. This expectation guarantees that knowledge will stay at the level of gossip and limited meanings, with time and space the blank background for the way we usually live.
TSK says that knowledge could be something very different—healer, counselor, invaluable treasure. Can we learn how to embrace this kind of knowledge without insisting on owning it or getting specific results? Can we learn not to be manipulated by our own problems and attitudes?
In TSK, we can think, talk, read, and exercise. No one else is in charge and no one is setting limits. There is no one off-stage directing the action, no writer preparing the script. There is no ‘prior to’ time-space-knowledge, no sponsor or parent or agent or other power. TSK tells us that we are the dancer and the dancing, the musician and the song. It invites us to engage a close communication with our own being. Some people seem to find that approach valuable.
If you find this description too mundane, we could also put it differently. Perhaps knowledge is mysteriously giving messages, and perhaps this knowledge is beyond our comprehension. But ‘beyond comprehending’ does not establish distance or distinctions; it does not even establish ‘beyond’. It simply names another characteristic of the situation, another pattern that has been put in play. When we ask, the question is the agent of knowledge. When the answer comes, that is also the agent of knowledge. We are not separate from this process.
Here is some ‘practical’ TSK advice. Rely on the best knowledge available to you. Trace your hypotheses and assumptions—experience them in operation. Use inquiry and investigation for evidence without expecting or favoring any particular outcome. Your willingness to ask again and again will demonstrate your growing confidence in knowledge. That is TSK.