[#24] The Presence of the Present

By Piet Hut

Last week, I pointed out how we are born in the present, live in the present and will die in the present.  Even though we experience our own virtual reality creation, in the form of our mental constructs of a past and a future, those are current constructs based on current memories and anticipations.  This does not necessarily mean that past and future are less real than the present.  However, the reality of past and future is something we do not have direct access to.

But what about the direct access we have to the present?  Whatever happens in the present disappears in the next moment.  How real is a momentary appearance of anything?


We tend to consider something as really existing if we can repeatedly go back to it to make sure it is still there.  We can touch a tree or a rock today, and in most cases we can come back to it tomorrow.  And in those cases where it is no longer there, it is typically easy to find out what happened to it. Perhaps the tree was cut down, or the rock removed, leaving traces of those actions.

When we see a flash of lightning, there is very little duration.  However, we conclude it is real, because we have a concept of lightning, and in our memory we can conjure up previous cases where we saw lightning, or read or talked about it.  Had we never seen a lightning flash, and would we never see it again, we would be hard pressed to call it real if nobody else had ever seen or heard about any phenomenon like that.

We experience the input of our senses, modified by unconscious processing in our brain.  We also experience the thoughts and feelings and other mental phenomena that are largely internally generated.  Together these make up our streams of consciousness, moment to moment.  And from moment to moment our sense of the reality of the world rests on the scaffolding of concepts that holds up and connects our sense impressions and mental events, and weaves them into a stable whole.  Part of the stability here is our utter conviction that it doesn't even make sense to doubt the reality of the world, as existing independently of us.


Yet while we are dreaming, we are equally convinced of the dream being real, as long as it lasts, until we wake up.  What guarantees that our conviction of the world being real, while our living experience lasts, is more correct than it would be in a dream? This is one of the early questions of modern philosophy, asked by Descartes when he started to investigate the nature of reality, abandoning both medieval theology and Aristotelian metaphysics.

These discussions continue, under new labels, such as "the hard problem of consciousness", introduced by David Chalmers as a successful way to rekindle a related dialogue.  He managed to get the enormity of the mind-body problem across to scientists, re-engaging them with these ancient conundrums in new ways, picking up where earlier thinkers in the European cultural sphere have left off.

time to kindle a truly global dialogue

Now is the time to kindle a wider and truly global dialogue. The same questions have been discussed for thousands of years in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and many other traditions outside Europe.  And those discussions were not only theoretical in nature, but also based on experimentation, conducted by many of the brightest individuals within each culture.  These persons and groups spent much of their time and energy on studying the mind, using detailed technologies, the description of which have only recently become available beyond their original culture circles.

Last week I mentioned one of them who was particularly influential, Tilopa, an Indian tantric Buddhist who formed the trigger for one of the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Kagyu, almost a thousand years ago.  Many books have been written about him and the school that he provided the inspiration for.  But we can already get a glimpse of his view of reality in his "six words of advice", which I quoted in my previous post, in Ken McLeod's translation:

         Don't recall
         Don't imagine
         Don't think
         Don't examine
         Don't control

I mentioned there my understanding of these six utterances as: we are told not to dwell on past, future, or present (first three), let alone manipulate them (next three).  Dwelling on past and future means dwelling on a fiction; trying to dwell on the present is like trying to write on water or in the air, because of the ever-changing nature of the present.

I have no intention to try to elucidate what Tilopa may have meant with these words; that would require a much wider context and much deeper level of experience and insight than I can offer.  While I have studied Tilopa's views intensively for the last few decades, as well as similar views going back to my high school days, I lack the professional background, either academically or as a full-time practitioner.  Even so, as a very serious amateur, I feel I have now finally reached a degree of familiarity that makes me confident enough to try to compare scientific and Buddhist views without misrepresenting either.

what kind of rest?

 So speaking for myself, and to the degree of my understanding, I have been wondering why Tilopa's sixth "word" did not appear in negative form.  The other five are all telling us what not to do, as a way to guide us in the right direction.  In contrast, the notion "rest" begs the question: what kind of rest?  And what kind of mistakes should be avoided in order to really rest?

Thomas Doctor

Thomas Doctor

 What I finally came up with was "don't resist".  That seemed to be most in line with the 2x3 logic of the six lines, suggesting the sixth one to be "don't manipulate the present". Interestingly, soon after I got that idea, I met Thomas Doctor, a professional Tibetan translator who spent half of his life living in a Tibetan monastery.  At that time he passed through New York City, and we were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, in response to Thomas' request to find someone whom he could talk to about a manuscript he had written, in which he compared the no-self idea in Buddhism with that in Artificial Intelligence.

 We quickly hit it off, talked into the wee hours of April 1, this year, and we've been collaborating ever since, with Thomas quickly becoming a member of the YHouse team.  Already that evening I asked him what he thought about Tilopa's sixth word.  To my surprise, he told me that just in the last week he had been translating those very words, so he remembered them right away, over our third glass of wine.  And the closest he thought he could come is to translate the two Tibetan versions "rang sar bzhag" and "rang bab bzhag" (the original Sanskrit has been lost) as "leave in its own natural place" and "leave to its own natural flow".  In short, he would catch the essence in either case to be "leave as is."

wu-wei (right to left)

wu-wei (right to left)

 His conclusion was that my expectation of finding something like "don't resist" did indeed capture some of the spirit of the sixth word.  I was happy to hear that, and reflecting further on Tilopa's words, a few months later I suddenly realized that in fact there is a resonance there with the Taoist expression of wu-wei, literally "not doing" (sometimes extended to wei-wu-wei, doing by not doing).

 Indeed, leaving things as they are, with no forcing, no trying, no resisting any aspect of the situation as it presents itself, feels to me to be compatible with at least some aspect of the direction that Tilopa was pointing to.  So my best attempt at translating would now be simply "Don't do".

 But then again, the deep meaning of quotes like this cannot be grasped by reflecting on it, as little as the deep meaning of the equation for a fundamental law of physics can be captured by a few calculations.  In both cases, a lifetime of experience is required, starting from an exceptional aptitude.  I will be content to whet the appetite of those who haven't come across sayings like this, as I would do in a popular science article, referring to much more specialized literature for follow-up.

a supportive environment for science and contemplation.

 I can only hope that in the decades to come at least some young people will acquire a professional-level in-depth understanding of both science and contemplation in the most far-reaching interdisciplinary collaboration that I can envision.  Providing a supportive environment for such studies will be one of the long-term goals of YHouse.

I'm looking forward to attending a study group at YHouse that can discuss the relative merits of translating Tilopa's sixth word as rest, or don't resist, or don't do/act/work/try, in order to provide stepping stones toward a deeper understanding of what Tilopa was pointing to.  I see this as one of the possible entry points into joint research into science and contemplation, two major ways to suspend judgment about the nature of reality, and so to find out more for ourselves.  In the process I expect such a study group to also discuss how to live according to Tilopa's advice, in the presence of the present, leaving it as it is.

Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

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