“In the conventional sense, we call ourselves free when we can live out our own stories, rather than being assigned roles in stories told by others. But who determines the content and structures of the narratives that we put forth? Who decides the setting of the story and the rules that govern the reality that unfolds?” Tarthang Tulku, Love of Knowledge
This is a provocative quote. It is one that employs the characteristic stepping back type twist- there is this process, but then where does it come from, and how is it observed. This kind of self-conscious, to use a slightly pejorative term, move shows up a lot in Time-Space-Knowledge theory. As a self-conscious person, it appeals to me. The move is, in one sense, a tribute to the labyrinthine quality of the mind. What does this do? I think one thing it does is it begins to intoxicate the mind. The swirl of going beyond begins to intoxicate.
Another thing it does is instigate questioning. In the above quote, the issue seems to be the goal of freedom, and said goal in terms of living out certain “stories.” I think it’s hard to dispute the power, subtle and obvious, of those stories. I want to be loved. I want a career. I want to be talked about. I want to having an array of beautiful, meaningful things. Or I want to be beyond material things, above it. There seems to be no escape from stories, and that speaks to their power. Of course, the questioning mixes in with the stories, at the same time. The intoxication being sparked by the initial teaching easily becomes a negative intoxication, neurosis.
In Buddhist terms, this relates to many things, including: the transformative power of practice (even “basic practice,” even a little), samsara and confusion, the workings of ego, renunciation.
In TSK terms, it relates to knowledge. In starting to work through the knowledge section of the first TSK book, lower knowledge is something I’ll write about a lot.
The paradox there is that, like lower space and time, lower knowledge is mixed in with higher knowledge. This might be less than accurate, but a real life example might be a flash of insight or inspiration that sours.
Regardless of the complexities of communicating with people who don’t confirm you, or with people who do confirm your ideas easily, everyone has, I think, had some insight, tried to explain it, and had it fall flat.
You have some vision about why something happened, or why X person said something that puzzled you. Personally, I’ve wanted to write an English textbook to use in teaching ESL. I had a flash of inspiration to do this, and then as this played out/is playing out, it has changed and soured in some ways. My imaginary English textbook did not materialize as I imagined.
There is some validity to the initial inspiration, I think, and there is almost always a problematic “path” to the actual solidifying of that inspiration. My idea is that higher knowledge is at play in the inspiration, and lower knowledge automatically gets mixed in as you explain, discuss, flesh out, and back up the idea.
I’m trying to expand the idea of lower/higher knowledge being inseparable. A few “follow up” thoughts:
1. As this is a paradox, the intertwining of inspiration and confusion, and paradoxes are said to be problematic in TSK, I want to keep that on the back burner: if there’s goodness inherent in lower knowledge, what’s hidden in that paradox that can be brought out?
2. How do you tell lower knowledge from higher knowledge on an experiential level? Of course, my bias is that practice sharpens this distinction. Sometimes it seems like I keep getting tricked or confused by habitual patterns, reactions, emotions- I really wanted to not lose my temper, and I was remembering not to, but then I lost it, and some voice in my head convinced me to forget, somehow. How does this process of negative intoxication work?
On to the book. Rinpoche writes about higher knowledge being available for our use, and that this tends to lead to a buildup of concepts and limited ideas, like plaque on teeth. At the same time, of course, this limitation of ideas doesn’t limit knowledge itself. This might be too vague, but “knowing” itself is never limited. It’s the activity of awareness and mind. Yeah, that’s a fine point, and one I am far from really understanding (but I wanted to include it anyhow, since with some examination I think I can make something of it).
So, as concepts and ideas tend to separate us from the world, leading to a kind of isolation, Rinpoche writes that we chase after knowledge, and look for various escapes and highs. There was a purity to the initial process of knowing or experience, and then this got polluted, we look for the feeling of that initial inspiration in the wrong places- escapes.
“But there is not anything to escape from, or or to escape to…. Only as long as we are unaware of having a choice are we trapped.”
Any situation, Rinpoche writes, is just the play of Space, Time, and Knowledge, and we can act out whatever sort of play we want. This sort of bad news/good news situation is common in TSK and in Buddhist thought. In some sense, the idea is that whatever problems come up are opportunities. But of course, this, and “choice” are so common to New Age stuff these days that it’s hard for me to talk about this without falling into that kind of realm. I think it’s true, but it’s a dicey area because it can be too easy, too general, and even lacking in compassion (if you apply it to people undergoing really difficult circumstances, as it’s their fault, their karma, part of some plan).
If all situations are the play of these elements, in spite of the problems you experience, what about really disastrous circumstances, huge physical or emotional trauma? I can talk about this a tiny bit from personal experience, without getting too specific. I get depressed, and working on that has been a long long process. The idea that depression is just part of that play of time, space, and knowledge, works for me, although I see it more in Buddhist terms. The idea is the same- trouble as the expression of something to be expanded and worked out (not destroyed, or solved exactly).
As far as events that are difficult, beyond psychological suffering, I think the idea is that you can’t separate the event from the psychological suffering. Taking “extreme” cases involving pain, death, cruelty, as a counterargument doesn’t exactly work. It only works if you callously assume that people suffering from a natural disaster, for instance, should EASILY be able to bear that suffering. Maybe an enlightened being could live through a gigantic natural disaster and be totally fine. They would probably flourish, even. But the rest of us can just do our best.
That was something of a tangent. The idea of “no escape” can connect to examples of larger suffering, so I guess that was relevant. Next, Tarthang Tulku writes that we tend to see lower and higher knowledge as separate, and try to bridge the gap, somehow. This is workable, he writes, higher knowledge is “open” to all sorts of approaches. At the same time, there is another path to higher knowledge:
“a path of using every ordinary presentation as offering ‘knowingness’, a path of thawing all things out by seeing them in their ‘knowing’ aspect.”
This is the idea of awakeness being ever-present. Even the local gods and spirits are, in some way, expressions of the divine, of buddha-nature. Even the turmoil that makes you feel lousy and trapped is a “presentation” by this aspect, I guess you could say, of reality. This is a funny term, I think, in that it makes me think of business meetings, powerpoint slides. Maybe that’s good- thinking of the ever-present aspect of awake not as something precious, but humorous- having to sit through a presentation about what’s going on.
Of course, this path of “thawing out,” and finding “knowingness” is what Rinpoche will draw out in the following chapters. I am not entirely sure what he means by knowingness, or the knowing aspect of things, so I want to keep that, along with the idea of “thawing” on the back burner of the brain.
So, along with all of that, what about the negative/positive intoxication thing, and what about the stories mentioned in the beginning? I will bring out a few rough ideas, and leave them here. In terms of stories, bodhicitta, or the opening of the heart, is important, I think. It can be easy to be self-consciously aware of stories being played out, or one’s dramas, but contacting that deeper level of heart tends to balance things out, cut through the surface layer of discursive psychological babble. In terms of intoxication, the idea of discipline is important. Trungpa Rinpoche writes in “Shambhala” that the warrior, the realized person, is constantly disciplined, and constantly takes joy in that discipline. That level of practice, I think, has to be brought to life in order for positive intoxication to begin to grow. Of course, as a Buddhist, I think the implementation of discipline in practice “on and off the cushion,” in prayer and in daily life, is something that has been received from a representative of the lineage- a living teacher, in person, ideally. Which is to say, I like it if people read my blog, but it’s much better for you to actually find a teacher of some sort, Buddhist or not, and learn some things in person.
Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publishing. Books available from Dharma Publishing.