Inside Knowledge: How to Activate the Radical New Vision of Reality of Tibetan Lama Tarthang Tulku

Berkeley, Calif.: Dharma Publishing, 2015. xxi + 225 pp., paper, $18.95

We often experience time and space as a cruel iron prison. They may be navigated, but they cannot be conquered. Knowledge can at best help us live more comfortably within them.

Or maybe not. Tarthang Tulku—one of very few Tibetan lamas in the West to try to go past the boundaries of Buddhist thought—has developed a vision, called Time, Space, and Knowledge (usually abbreviated as TSK), that enables us to see these primordial forces in fresh and revolutionary ways. His first book on the subject, Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality appeared in 1977, and in the years since, he has added to his body of work with titles such as Love of Knowledge (1987) and Knowledge of Time and Space (1990). The latest offering, edited by Jack Petranker, a longtime student and teacher of TSK, is Inside Knowledge.

It’s hard to characterize the TSK vision, because, as Tarthang Tulku stresses, it is not a theory but a method of approach. In his preface to this book, Petranker writes, “the TSK Vision is not about ‘getting’ any specific result or ‘having’ any particular experience. In TSK it is the questions that matter.” It is perhaps best seen through adjectives rather than through axioms: the words “open,” “light,” “playful,” and “spontaneous” appear frequently.

“There is no solid self,” says Tarthang Tulku in an interview reprinted in this volume. “You are an open-ended expression of time, space and knowledge . . . By comparison, ordinary ‘human being,’ in which our Being is obscured, is a very mechanical process. Our reactions are practically of the ‘knee jerk’ variety, and we’re motivated by a small set of needs, predicated on insecurity and lack of fulfillment.”

The TSK vision frequently contrasts an ordinary experience of time, space, and knowledge—frozen, mechanical, and repetitive—with a fresher vision that can be explored experientially. “A zeroless dimensionality is available to us: grounded in uninterruptible openness,” Tarthang Tulku writes elsewhere in this volume.

Rather than pushing any further into the realm of concepts and definitions, it might be better to give a flavor of TSK through its exercises, a number of which appear at the back of this book. Here is one, “Space between Thoughts”: “As you observe your thoughts passing, watch very sensitively for the moment when one thought ends and another arises. This transition is very quick and subtle, but involves the momentary availability of a space which you can contact and even expand. This space has a quality of openness, free from the usual discursive and discriminative thinking.”

From my own experience, I would say that this exercise can shift and has shifted my awareness of time. Normally one thinks of time as a continuous flow: hence the common metaphors of a “stream” or “film” of consciousness. The exercise above suggests a new way of looking at time. One might call it atomistic: thoughts appear separately between the “space” that the exercise mentions, so that they are more like momentary flashes in a field of knowing than a never-ending and unstoppable stream.

I am in no way claiming that this experience, or any other, is the goal of the exercise: rather it is my observation of how things appear from a single given stance. The point is that there is an infinite number of such stances.

Here is part of another exercise: “Bring to mind the future, allowing it to be completely indeterminate. Instead of thinking about this or that coming event, let the unknown-ness of the future come to the foreground. As a gateway into this indeterminacy, reflect on the ongoing transformations through which living being evolves. Within the steady flow of linear time, there are movements we would consider favorable and others that are unfavorable. Yet if you welcome the future, you may become aware of a dynamic that unfolds naturally toward improvement.”

Again to speak from my own experience: doing this exercise, I am less aware of myself as attempting to shift an immovable future away from certain outcomes and toward others. Instead I am aware of the future as a large, dark, fluid, but dynamic presence that is to be absorbed and assimilated and transformed.

This, too, is only one response out of countless possible responses.

The TSK vision is subtle and elusive, and not easy to formulate in a language like English. But it is approachable, and of the several books in the TSK series, this is (as it is meant to be) perhaps the best and most accessible introduction to this “knowingness” of a very different kind. Someone who reads this book is likely to go away from it viewing time, space, and knowledge less as forbidding and impenetrable walls and more like an energy that is always present and available for dynamic creativity.

Richard Smoley

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