“Beyond what we can measure, there may be axioms or speculations, but there is nothing to be known. We could compare the absoluteness of this boundary to the nature of zero. Zero is not just something infintessimally small, it is nothing at all. It is the unknown, the ‘x’ of experience… this mystery of an arising founded on nonarising does not operate only at the edges of the universe, or at the most subtle subatomic levels… It is there in what is most familiar. It is there in the subject and the object and in their interaction. If we do not notice this originating mystery it is because ordinary knowledge is dedicated to covering it over.” Tarthang Tulku, Dynamics of Time and Space (Challenging Structures in Space)
I chose this quote for a couple of reasons. One is that it relates to space; it is part of a discussion in the “Dynamics” book that includes a contemplation: what if you went to the edge of the universe, then returned to report on your findings? As Rinpoche writes, this would be problematic (how would you know if it was the edge?). This discussion of space is a different perspective from the one that is developed in the beginning of the first TSK book. But it’s still space talk. It’s also knowledge talk: talk about space, about the limits of understanding in terms of space, and how the limits of understanding or of things relate to how we think.
This is something Tarthang Tulk does with remarkable skill, sometimes in ways that confound the mind: making connections and blurring the lines between time, space, and knowledge.
The other reason I chose the above quote was that it touched on something I’ve been thinking about a little for a little while: ordinary magic vs. the cultivation of wonder/the cultivation of awe. I think part of this is the result of a Buddhist having access to writing of his Christian friends. I think wonder and awe have a place in Christianity, at least some forms, that they don’t in Buddhism. In my experience, the ordinariness of the strange sides of the world, or of enlightenment itself has been emphasized. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala teachings, although not necessarily Buddhist, this idea is expressed in a few ways:
1. The warrior is never amazed.
2. As a warrior, you take your seat.
3. (again) The idea of ordinary magic: the harmony and chaos of things is magical, but this is ordinary (not amazing)
Maybe this is my personal misinterpretation of certain ideas. I’ll go on the assumption that it’s not.
So it seems like in the quote about zero and knowledge, Rinpoche is talking about rediscovering magic. He talks about the mystery in ordinary things. Maybe this isn’t so different from ordinary magic. Oh well. I’ll leave it at this, then: what is the balance between ordinary and magical? And does this connect easily to time, space, and knowledge. Now, back to the book.
Last time I talked about focal settings. Rinpoche writes about this as perspectives and ways of seeing things. In terms of space, we perceive space and objects coexisting. Sometimes the way we see space and things is simplistic, black and white. In general, opening this up is a way of discussing becoming more openminded; space is talked about not just as physical space or lack of thing, but spaces are talked about in terms of all sorts of contrast.
“Throughout history, we have been maintaining a fixed and limiting ‘focal setting’ without even being aware of doing so.”
So, as is often said, the first step involves becoming more aware of the old ways, or the unawareness.
Rinpoche goes on to connect the sense of limitation people often feel with restricted space, boundaries, territoriality. This is a common maneuver in TSK, and if you were to find fault with it, it might be there: the conflation of unhappiness/restrictedness with lack of space. I personally have some faith in the vision of TSK, and in Tarthang Tulku, but if you were to find fault with this teaching, this would be a good place. Is it fair to say that ‘lack of space’ or ‘restriction’ of space is what causes the various miseries people experience? I will come back to that one; I think it’s big one.
This argument being made, Rinpoche goes on to say that opening up space through changing one’s focal setting is a way to escape restriction.
“If we employ new ‘focal settings’ and see the way they work, we can come to an overall understanding that is itself a kind of space.”
So in this theory, the highest kind of knowledge is space. Similar to the way that time at its highest level becomes spacelike.
In terms of common sense, the last quotation isn’t all that off the wall, at least most of it: if part of the goal of spiritual practice is a change of perspective, this involves understanding our perspective shifts and how they work. And if we can accomplish this fully, we gain a new kind of perspective that is sometimes described as expansive, spacious, and which goes beyond earlier perspectives and understandings in some way.
Common sense could be said to have two sides, a lot of the time: a good side, and a bad side. The good side is ordinary magic (the ordinariness of it, the no big deal aspect of the magical rhythms of existence). The bad side is cynicism, depression, even a kind of conceptual exhaustion, an intertia that keeps one from investigating, being flexible, going beyond.
Going beyond is important, and that’s one reason that having steady and enthusiastic practice is important, I think: there are limitations to knowledge, edges to our experience, and these have to be explored somehow if we want to reach a kind of focal setting switch that actually changes things. Maybe that’s one reason so many people try meditation once and give up- they know that some kind of change is the idea, but they don’t know that you can’t just jump over the mountain; you jump over the mountain by taking very very small steps.
Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publications. Books available from Dharma Publications.