“Can we trace the secret workings of an appearing not shaped by the claim of being real?” Tarthang Tulku, Dynamics of Time and Space
A little while ago, I reconnected with a friend via Facebook, a friend I’ve known since I was about three years old (maybe younger, I can’t remember). After I mentioned that I was a Buddhist, he said something to the effect of: “So, you believe everything is illusion.” I don’t remember if I responded to this or not. This friend is involved with yoga and singing, so maybe this is something of a Hindu flavored take on Buddhism.
It’s not far off the mark, in my opinion. Part of me wants to split hairs about what “illusion” means, but it’s not far off the mark. What is real, what is not real, the nature of that reality and unreality, is something a lot of Buddhists spend a lot time thinking about. One way that this begins for a lot of Tibetan Buddhists is by spending a little time thinking about the “three marks of existence”- impermanence (everything is in process, changing, involved usually with some kind of death), interconnectedness (things are made of other things, their lives as things involves interactions with infinite other things), and suffering (in the midst of this flurry of activity, we’re somewhat dissatisfied and anxious).
Now, the quote at the top comes at the end of a chapter in the “Dynamics of Time and Space” book. This chapter is not simple, but to simplify, it deals with how habits of thought and action create a kind of “momentum,” “gravity,” that gets carried forward or “conducted.” “Sameness” is propagated, and this happens in time. The experience of getting mired in habitual patterns happens in the flow of time. It’s like a tree planted in the sidewalk that, as it grows, gets more and more stuck in the concrete. The tree grows up and out, but at the same time, it gets more and more enmeshed in the concrete.
Reality and appearance are stuck together. At least in the Buddhist context, it’s very hard to unstick them. Appearance is used as a term to talk about life happenings, and implies a certain kind of distance or skepticism or unreality (when talked about, appearance implies that there is something beyond appearance, or that appearance is not exactly the same as reality). Reality, though, is only experienced. If it’s not experienced at all, then it’s not of interest. Reality implies, though, more solidity: it’s more comforting. It may “only” be based on appearances and experiences, but it’s “real.”
The “Dynamics” quote nudges in the direction of escaping the momentum of sameness. The interesting thing is that this seems to happen through escaping the “claim of being real.” To a Buddhist, this seems more familiar than to others, I think. The idea that things aren’t real is familiar: not because there are somehow “things” that are unreal, but that “things” never existed in a thinglike way (they were and will always be impermanet, and interconnected: there are no other kind of things around). Thingness itself is unreal. That’s the illusion (the story of thingness).
In all likelihood, the way to go beyond claims of realness is through knowledge. So, returning to the first TSK book, we’re talking about knowledge.
A thought I had over the weekend, and I think it’s a pretty good one:
The spiritual path involves bringing second and third level knowledge down to the first level.
The first level is the conventional world of things and ideas, schedules, places, people, meaning. What happens when you talk to the neighbors. The second level involves the fuzzing and blurring of those things, their boundaries, their meaning, their deadness. The second level seems to involve relative measures that can bring about big changes in everday experience, breakthroughs, big shifts. The third level is perfection in simplicity, all over the place: awake mind is nowhere else. Buddha nature is not something that can be created, fixed, doesn’t go or come, isn’t more available to “good” people, can’t be bought, or understood. But even talking about the second and third levels is bringing them down to earth, to the first level, which needs to happen a lot, because without this process, those “higher realms” get overlooked.
Mostly, Rinpoche has been writing about the first level, in this beginning of the knowledge section. At the same time, we jump back and forth between the conventional and the transcendent (if such a term is really appropriate). Last time, two objections to the “everything is knowledge” idea were raised. First, that knowledge is limited by being only knowledge. Second, that knowledge only works in terms of experiences, which are also limited.
As a general rule, Rinpoche stated that TSK both accepts and rejects these problems. They have their validity, and they have their limitations as arguments. He writes that these arguments get addressed as the book goes on.
Tarthang Tulku mentions that, although the idea of a kind of basic subjectivity/limitation of personal knowledge, has been brought up numerous times in different places, people tend to resist this. It is possible to argue that everything is really subjective, and thus limited. But people hate this, at best, or ignore it. Even people who accept this tend to ignore it I think. If they didn’t ignore it, they’d walk into traffic and jump off of buildings without a second thought: that pain is ONLY subjective. Or they would have a lot more trouble communicating, on the basis of the subjectivity of everyone’s perspectives.
TSK, we’re told, is able to incorporate both the problems with ordinary knowledge, and its limitations, and the objections to that. The objections to this limitation tend to come in the form of being earthy: yes, we can with some effort make fanciful arguments and use wordplay and form connections, but what about everyday problems. What about suffering? What about the heart?
In other words, heaven and earth are joined in the heart. Heaven is the loftinesss of teachings about the nature of reality, and earth is the very reality we’re clinging to.
As a response to the first objection, Rinpoche writes that, like scientific experiments, knowledge in terms of everyday stuff is more useful than some kind of knowledge based on other than that. If ordinary knowledge is limited by only being our ordinary knowledge, that is useful for that very reason. But then, Tarthang Tulku writes that TSK accepts this, while, at the same time, allowing that more a more subtle critique of ordinary knowledge may be possible.
As for the second objection, the counter-argument seems to be that, since we can’t escape the loop of experience/person, saying things are “only experiences” is meaningless. There’s no way to go beyond experience, so to raise the objection is a waste of time. Persons are experiencers, so imaginging some non-experience kind of reality, higher or otherwise, is meaningless. This is similar to the response to the first objection, but less down to earth.
Both responses seem to support the idea of a kind of trapped quality to life. Our wisdom is limited because we’re very limited. Those limitations might be basic and inherent to being human, but that doesn’t make them acceptable, or a small thing: it actually seems to make them more offensive and irritating. It’s like someone saying “You wouldn’t understand.” I had a friend say that once. I think we were talking about physics (so he was probably right). But it’s once of the most frustrating things for me to hear. I want to understand (everything, ideally).
Next, Rinpoche introduces the idea of it all being “mindings.” I’d say this is like stating that everything is a mind-involved process, and this play seems to be acted out by a limited number of elements, or players. We have memories, physical impulses, various kinds of thoughts, sense perceptions. These get presented over and over and over, in different mandalas, different arrangements for our consumption. These are all just “mindings”- mind plays. Each element is mind-involved, if not entirely subjective.
At the same time, you could say that the elements of these arisings are myriad. There are so many thoughts! They are repetitive, but there are so many, and they do have variation. Even just thoughts seem to connect with flavors of memory, sense, energy, directedness, and more. And then there are sounds, tastes, smells…. There is so much.
I guess you could object that it is still just mindings, still just thoughts in some sense. I’ll leave it there, with the contrast between the “just thoughts” perspective and the “richness of experience” perspective.
But the title. My idea was that the experience of life beyond the flow of sameness, the being stuck in patterns of habit and past, this other reality, seems shy, often: it appears but then hides, playing with you. There’s a glimpse of sacredness in an abrupt sound outside, that seems somehow utterly simply symbolic, and simply present, real. There’s a haunting feeling of familiarity that is a familiarity with ? With something other than what you think is happening. That reality is shy. Interestingly, the Shambhala teachings urge people to overcome shyness, to overcome anxiety, and connect with the world. So as people overcome shyness in themselves, maybe the world becomes less shy as well.
Quotes used with permission from Dharma Publishing. Books available from Dharma Publishing.