“…the relaxing character of space contrasts in an interesting way with the tendency of objects to lure us into endless close-minded engagements. When used in a certain way, these considerations need not be merely poetic daydreams. They can be pleasing and accurate symbols of a reality that cannot be shut out.” Tarthang Tulku, Time, Space, and Knowledge


In discussing space, last time I touched a bit on symbolism, both in Tibetan Buddhism and in TSK. My understanding of this is limited, in Buddhist theory, and even moreso with TSK.

My understanding of the idea of symbolism as presented by Trungpa Rinpoche it relates to a few things:

1. Communication with the sacred world. He often seems to have given the example of getting angry and then slamming your finger in a door.

2. Nowness. Nowness is not just presence, but a sense of direct presence, and one based on some connection to the past. In this case, the sharpness or directness of nowness is what I’m thinking of. The finger in the door example speaks to that sharpness.

3. Relating to nowness, there is an element of stopping or cutting through or confusing conceptual mind. The very sharpness of a perception does this. In this sense the thing is a symbol of awake.

4. Finally, drala. This connection is not drawn out, and is more Shambhalian than Buddhist. However, it does connect to stuff about the senses, vividness, and the aliveness of a sacred world.

That is a very brief summary of some ideas about “symbolism” Trungpa Rinpoche presented. I think it has to be said that there is an obvious connection to mahamudra teachings, which I haven’t had a chance to receive. So there’s that whole significant angle, which I’ll have to wait to talk about in depth (or someone else will have to write about).

One way to read the quote at the top is that the exploration of space itself is a kind of metaphor or symbol. It has been said many times, presumably in many traditions, that the real, or the ultimate, or what have you, can’t be said in words, pictures. But it’s often useful to use words and symbols. We need something to spark our inspiration, get us thinking, questioning, to open our ears.

So space is not space as such, but a symbol pointing at something else. Of course I can’t say what that is.

The fact that there are so many different “levels” and ways of seeing space suggests this interpretation. Based on a quick glance through the TSK books that I have, here are some thoughts about symbolism:

1. First and foremost, it has to do with skillful means: getting the reader to inquire, and rethink. In TSK this is done with various means, including symbols, metaphors, and wordplay. TSK is open ended in some ways, although I think at the same time, it has some very solid concepts or structures (which the symbols and verbal play turn you towards).

2. Focal shifting- I just made this term up. Focal settings determine in part what we experience. Working our mind through an unusual symbol or sentence can induce a focal shift. In this example, the symbol represents openness itself: a freedom of being and perceiving.

3. A move away from the ‘first level’. First level meaning and understanding tends to be more straightforward, linear. Symbols move into second level. There’s more play, and flexibility.

4. Then there’s the third level. This always has to be considered, although it’s the toughest for me to write about personally. As I see it, this move incorporates elements of openness, and second level of play. It also brings in the intoxication or cutting through of conceptual mind I mentioned with the Trungpa Rinpoche material. When I read about the third level, I usually feel confused, frustrated, and also that there is something at the horizon, that I’m just starting to glimpse. And of course nowness and the idea of perfection and nowhere to go are similar.

As often happens, I meant to write about one thing, and wrote about another. I’ll say some more about space, and then that will be it.

“It looks like space is projecting into space- that is all! Even what seems to fill up space as a present tense, existing object is also space. So,


That’s my favorite TSK quote. Is that relaxing, as the first quote suggested, or terrifying? What’s the role of relaxation and ease on the path, when we can actually mess up our bodies and minds in the search for truth, redemption, or fulfillment?

So much of the time, there’s just something right about it, for me. I hear the dharma, and it touches something in my heart.


Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publishing. Books available from Dharma Publishing.


About jakekarlins

Aspiring writer and artist, dharma practitioner, yogi.

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