Monday, February 29, 2016

A Review of Ken McLeod's new book A Trackless Path

by Ulrich Küstner 

By accident, I had just finished reading Sam Harris' Waking Up - a Guide to Spirituality without Religion when Ken McLeod's A Trackless Path reached me. Harris' book had quite unexpectedly turned out to be — among many other things — a book on Dzogchen, which is also the source matter of Ken McLeod's book. There are several seeming similarities. Both authors have studied with reputable Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra masters. Both write very openly and personally about their own experiences. Both are looking beyond a superficial, utilitarian understanding of spirituality and meditation. And both come to the conclusion that in the end, this is not about metaphysical assurances but about a living experience, which is ultimately a mystery.
But there the similarities end. A Trackless Path is quite a different, much deeper and more serious book. Rather than being an introduction or overview, it aims to lead the reader on the path of experience itself.

When you read this book, you do not just read a book written by Ken McLeod. You are actually meeting him, and through him, Jigmé Lingpa, the author of the Tibetan root text. This may sound esoteric. But it actually has something to do with the special style of Ken's translations and commentaries, which he has worked on over the last decades. He understands the work of a translator as translating an experience, making it possible for the reader to experience what the translator has experienced when reading the original.
This is quite different from preparing a scholarly, linguistically correct translation. When it works for you, it is extremely powerful.

A Trackless Path is a root text by Jigmé Lingpa and commentary by Ken McLeod on Dzogchen and Mahamudra, generally considered the pinnacle of the Tibetan meditation tradition. These two are ultimately the same, as Ken explains, but evolved in different schools and teaching styles. When studying these topics with Tibetan teachers, one is usually exposed to a full load of cultural and scholastic baggage that has built up over the centuries, as well as a large amount of so-called preliminaries. The sheer amount of 'stuff' one has to go through in most Buddhist traditions conveys an impression almost of helplessness, like saying: We don't really know what will help you, but some of this might. There is always the promise, the more you study and practice preliminaries, the easier the final step into 'real' meditation will be.
After 40 years, I have come to be doubtful of this assertion. Not that a lot of meditation and effort is not necessary. But along such a gradual path, with its often demotivating concept of 'accumulating the accumulations', a vital truth tends to be forgotten — at the heart of Buddhism lies an experience, not a doctrine.

But the human mind has an astonishing capacity to reify experience into concepts, "inventions", as Jigmé Lingpa calls them. Therefore every generation, in every culture where Buddhism is taught, has to be reminded of this simple truth. Ken McLeod and his new book A Trackless Path is giving us this compassionate reminder.

Ken McLeod is not just a scholarly translator, he is also a Western Buddhist teacher with decades of experience in leading people in meditation, who has gone through intense traditional training under the highly revered Kalu Rinpoche, as well as through his own ups and downs and difficulties. But most importantly, he is somebody who is personally following this trackless path to the mystery, and lets the reader participate in his own quest. His passion for 'this knowing', as he calls it, is contagious and empowering.
Therefore in a sense the whole book is only about one simple topic, one specific movement of the mind. Again and again Ken points us to this simple movement of looking at the place of experience itself, and resting in the shift of experience that then occurs. And repeating this over and over. Then, as Ken likes to write, "new possibilities open up". What it leads to may not be the sparkling 'enlightenment' people are looking for. It can nevertheless change your life.

Jigmé Lingpa's root text and Ken's commentary together are a living manual for this path.
This is not necessarily easy to understand. It is "simple, but not easy". Obviously one of the possibilities of going wrong here is to misunderstand this simplicity for an easy ride. Neither this book, nor the 'trackless path' it outlines, are easy. This book is actually full of the ways in which you can go wrong. If you become too self-confident, you will make all the mistakes Jigmé Lingpa's poem cautions about.

Though this is not a casual or easy read, I am heartily recommending it for everybody who has meditated for some time and is not enlightened yet.
From my meetings and conversations with co-meditators over the decades, I get the impression that many are caught at the stage of 'being mindful of what is happening'. Perhaps this is a useful way to start, but after a certain point there is no further progress, and year after year their meditation stays the same.
A Trackless Path points out where you should be really looking in meditation. On the way it clarifies many topics that tend to be misunderstood, such as buddha nature, awakening mind (bodhicitta), karma, etc. At the same time Ken is not denouncing the original tradition, or branching out into his own tradition, as some modern teachers do. On the contrary, his immense respect and admiration for the lineage of this teaching can be felt everywhere, and for me that generates a sense of trust.

There are a number of caveats that one might mention. First, there is Ken's straightforward warning in the introduction: "If you think this awareness will make you a better person or improve your life, then I suggest you close this book now and throw it away." On the conventional and utilitarian level, there is nothing to be gained here. On the contrary. This approach is almost the opposite of the 'Mindfulness movement' and the ubiquitous effort to apply 'meditation' as a self-improvement technique.
I am reminded of Friedrich Schleiermacher's "On Religion" (1799), the central statement of which is that 'real' religion is different from everything people think about it, has absolutely no purpose and function in conventional life, and consists of nothing but "Anschauung" (= looking!).
Secondly, if you do not have several years of meditation experience, the book might not make too much sense for you yet. If you don't have much experience in meditation, and if you have never read a book by Ken McLeod before, it might be better to start with his systematic manual Wake Up To Your Life, or the beautiful Reflections onSilver River.

And thirdly, if you have not personally met a teacher from the Dzogchen or Mahamudra traditions and spend some time with her or him, I am not sure if it would 'work'. I'm not necessarily speaking about receiving formal 'pointing out' instructions, but about physically, viscerally getting to know a person who is living from that inner knowing, and letting this way of being enter into your bones.

The last one I am even less sure about. But I have a sense that this approach, this focus on a 'knowing', this Revelations of Ever-present Good (the Tibetan title of the root text), may lead some people to become imbalanced in their development. Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism is always trying to balance selflessness and universal compassion with knowing and wisdom. Certainly compassion is mentioned, as a natural outflow of 'this knowing', and in a very poignant and moving passage. But thinking more of others, and less of oneself, is a lifelong training and effort, made necessary by our natural, built-in, tenacious tendency to look after ourselves first. For this reason, we have training paths such as the 'Lojong' (Heart/Mind Training) which is the basis of several of Ken's other books (Great Path of Awakening, Reflections on Silver River). There the central practice of this book, the looking-and-resting, is constantly balanced with straightforward, practical, almost behavioural therapy style, countering of egoistic thinking.
I am not sure how this fits with the 'result path' orientation of the 'Trackless Path'. Maybe not everybody needs behavioural therapy. I do.

Personally I'm deeply grateful for this book. It has pointed me back to the 'Trackless Path', to the yearning for 'this knowing' which originally started my quest in my teens. I left it decades ago for the fool's errand of a constant search for somebody or something to show me the path. Now I am looking again for myself, and trust that Ken is right:

Where that may take you, what may become of you, I have no idea, but I can say this. No matter what the difficulties, no matter what the challenges, if you listen deeply to what calls to you in this poem and go where it leads you, I doubt very much that you will have any regrets. 
— (Ken McLeod, A Trackless Path)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Map 3: a response to a calling

Today I offer a map for something that seems to me to be quite different -- when practice is a calling, or a response to a calling. Maybe you started here and forgotten, or maybe your motivation has evolved out of your efforts in either or both of the other approaches to practice. In responding to a calling, you are not concerned about how practice may benefit you, nor are you concerned about achieving or finding something -- awakening, meaning, etc. It is just something you have to do, something that you are called to do. In this respect, it is analogous to art, and there are many parallels between the path of the artist and the path of the practitioner.

When I look back on my own practice history, I think this is what always motivated me. At the beginning and for a good period of time, I was of course fascinated by the accounts of experiences and awakenings that I came across in my reading. Yet it is hard to say which was the cart and which was the horse, the lure of awakening or the sense of a calling. At this point in my life, it is quite clear -- it is the calling. Awakening, at least as it is presented in the traditional texts, seems to be a well-defined goal. However, it’s a bit like a rainbow -- clear and beautiful to behold, but it mysteriously recedes and fades as you move toward it. A calling, however, is different. It is in you, not out there. You feel it, in your body, in your heart, in the very core of your being. It's always there, to guide you, to push you or to call you back.

Associated with that sense of calling are two powerful emotions, humility and awe, neither of which are particularly easy to write about. 

I’m not going to say much about humility, except to say that it’s essence seems to be in some kind of implicit recognition that this self most of us are so obsessed with is nothing but a story, an idea -- an idea whose maintenance usually disturbs or disrupts the natural flow of life. It is also connected with the recognition that much that comes about in our lives -- good or bad -- does not come about solely through our own agency. 

As for awe, it is difficult for me to imagine a spiritual practice in which awe is not present. By awe, I mean a feeling of being intimately connected with something that is infinitely greater than any sense of who I am. Without the intimacy of connection, there is no participation. One is only an onlooker. (This is one of the reasons that I do not encourage the “detached observer” approach in meditation practice, helpful though it may be to many people.) Without the greatness (and the greatness may come through verticality, breadth, depth, or an aesthetic dimension), one has only that ordinary sense of self, a paltry obsession to put against the grandeur of all that it is possible to experience. 

I encounter awe in various ways. Certain works of art inspire awe - the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem, the statue of Guan-Yin in the Nelson-Atkin’s Museum, Monet’s paintings in L’Orangerie in Paris, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Indeed, many temples, including mosques, cathedrals and memorials such as the Lincoln Memorial were designed to elicit awe, but when there is no sense of participation, they become little more than tourist attractions. Similarly, people’s stories can inspire awe, whether the lives of great teachers, the myths that come down to us today, or the wonder and magic that bring out compassion and understanding, courage and love, in the happenings and encounters of daily life. I also encounter awe (and humility) in my meditation practice, the "it's turtles all the way down" quality, for instance, that I talk about in A Trackless Path, or the seemingly fathomless capacity for love, loving kindness and compassion that seems to part of our human heritage.

To respond to a calling, you need to develop the skills and build the capacities that are essential for spiritual practice. To train deeply in an established tradition can be very helpful. You will certainly learn a lot, and the challenges presented by the traditional methods build capacity. In doing so, you necessarily take on the path and methods that the tradition sets out, along with its world view and ways of living your life. And here a lies a danger: those world views and ways of living may result in your losing touch with your calling. Here it is especially important to distinguish between faith and belief

A traditional training will generally deepen your understanding of possibilities and help you develop skills and capacities. But it may or may not fit with your calling and you may find that, at some point, you have to respond to that calling and find your own way. At that point, the importance of the validation of your understanding by the tradition and your teacher begins to ebb. This is a difficult juncture: whether to set out into the unknown or to stay within the traditional framework. There is no way of knowing except to listen as deeply as you can to the stammering voice of your calling that comes from deep inside you.

Many teachers in the past have come to this point and had to find their own way. You will find some accounts of this in Lives of the Lineage Holders. One has to read these accounts carefully because the internal struggles of the teachers are often described in metaphorical language that disguises the challenges they faced. In  the first few verses of The Magic of Faith, for instance, I try to bring out the internal struggles that Khyungpo Naljor faced. 

From then on, you are in the unknown, in the dark. I’m not talking about the dark night of the soul. The dark here is the dark of the unknown that T. S Eliot writes about in Four Quartets:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

You draw upon all your training to meet the challenges of the dark, but the direction you take is not necessarily that set out in traditional teachings. Rather, you have an internal compass, and you go where it points, regardless of the consequences in your life. 

Map 2: a deeper relationship with life

Today, I want to sketch out a map for those of you who are looking for a deeper connection with life, or deeper meaning. This is a bit tricky because meaning in life is usually related to a sense of identity and/or a sense of belonging. Traditional Buddhist practice eschews both those aims, at least as they are conventionally defined, as sources of meaning in life. In doing so, it flies in the face of common societal norms. Thus, if you are drawn to Buddhist practice, at the very least consider that the norms of society and the conventional notions of success and failure are not what give your life meaning. Also, keep in mind that, as Idries Shah points out in Knowing How to Know, when we adopt practices and disciplines from another culture, we necessarily take in the thinking behind those practices.

As for a search for truth, Robinson Jeffers, a dour Scot if ever there was one, once wrote:

tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth. Only if the mind
tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life cage and seeks further.

Over the centuries, many practitioners have found great meaning through their practice, but then something strange happens. The meaning they have found is often then presented as the meaning that is to be found. Time and again an experience, or a way of experiencing life, solidifies into a concept and a belief. From there, whole schools of thought and practice evolve. Saraha famously summarized this tendency with respect to emptiness. I quote him, with appropriate apologies to the bovine species, whose intelligence, relative to humans, is questioned:

Those who believe in reality are stupid like cows;
Those who believe in emptiness are even stupider.

What has been found and presented as meaningful inevitably takes on an aura of truth, and then Truth with a capital "T", with all the problems that any notion of truth engenders. An elite, i.e., those who know the truth, gives rise to a hierarchy, followed by notions of authority, adherence, conformity, us and them, and eventually coercion, imposition and violence. Thus, seductive as it may, be careful with the notion of truth.

The genius of Buddhist practice is not so much in the promulgation of truth (e.g., the Four Noble Truths, the Truth of the Middle Way or the Two Truths, as if one was not enough), but in the profundity of its methods for dismantling reactive patterns that are based on the three marks of existence: survival, belonging and identity. These reactive patterns lead us into often problematic notions of meaning. Practice can be thought of as a process of dismantling those patterns and learning to see and relate to the world through experience itself, that is, awareness that is not clouded by projections of thought and feeling or distorted by the three marks of existence. One aim in practice is to see through four types of conditioning: sociological, psychological, perceptual, and cultural. 

In brief, to see through sociological conditioning we contemplate death and impermanence. Contemplation of karma (how our actions shape  cuts through psychological conditioning. Breaking through the apparent duality of subject and object cuts through perceptual conditioning. And development of compassion cuts through cultural conditioning. 

There is no one path and all roads do not lead to Rome. In fact, the very notion of a definite path or goal is problematic. As the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching say:

A way which becomes the way is not the way.
A name which become the name is not the name.

That being said, whatever your path, you need these three things: intention, skills and capacities.

Intention is what you are looking for. While many traditions of practice are all too happy to tell you what you are looking for, or what you should be looking for, I have found that such methods as The Five Why's brings you viscerally in touch with your intention. This is intention as a felt sense, rather than a conceptual formulation, however well-defined. It is something you taste and feel, not something you merely think. And it is something that you own. It is not given to you.

I have always found it is helpful to return to intention periodically, at least yearly, if not every six months or so. Why? As we practice, changes take place in us, often without our being aware of them. If practice feels stale and lifeless or loses energy, it's often because we have lost touch with our intention and it is time to look again at what our intention is. It may have shifted, and we need to connect with what it has become rather than rely on what it was.

As for skills, stable clear attention is essential. Otherwise you are at the mercy of every thought and feeling that arises. Indeed, when people are exposed to basic mindfulness training, often they will comment, "This is the first time I've learned what to do with all the stuff in my head." The quest for meaning is more demanding than improving our ability to function in life, and you need a correspondingly stronger relationship with attention.

The ability to cut through, the ability to open, the ability to see and the ability to let go are all important. An appreciation of mortality helps you to cut projections about the world. Faith, devotion and love are all about opening to the fullness of your experience. Insight enables you to see into what arises in your experience and to see what it is. And compassion is, as far as I can tell, the only quality that makes it possible to step beyond the conditioning of our own culture and upbringing.

All four of these qualities are necessary. You will probably find that you have a strong affinity for one, possibly two, some ability in one or two others, but little affinity or ability in the fourth. And that fourth will, in all likelihood, be one of the places you get stuck in practice. 

For the first, The Warrior's Solution will probably be helpful. For the second, theprimary practice is the core method, but you may feel more resonance with other methods such as guru practice  or loving kindness. This second quality, opening, is the main practice in most spiritual traditions and there are any number of methods available. The third quality, insight, is best done with actual guidance. Still, An Arrow to the Heart is all about insight practice as is The Ganges Mahamudra. For compassion, I suggest Reflections on Silver River, or Mahayana Mind Training or other practices that put you right in touch with the suffering in the world.

What is the right order? While the Tibetan tradition is based on a sequence laid down by Atisha in the 11th century, my own feeling is that you develop in these areas when it is appropriate. I came late to the ability to cut through, despite much contemplation of death and impermanence, but I had laid a pretty good foundation in insight and compassion. A Zen teacher I know found that there was nothing in his training that prepared him for death, so he came late to that aspect of practice. 

These four qualities interact with each other in complex ways. As you practice, be sensitive to imbalance and then move in the direction of balance. Don't be concerned about being or staying in balance. That rarely happens and, if it does, it is only for relatively short periods. Instead, just keeping moving in the direction of balance, adjusting as needed, and things will usually take care of themselves. 

Attention, intention and balance - three essential tools for your path.

As I said at the beginning, this approach is about dismantling patterns of reactivity. Our experience is filtered through layers of projections and distortions. What seems meaningful to us is shaped as much by those distortions as by what actually arises in our lives. As those projections are taken apart or fall away other possibilities open up. What you find meaningful then is up to you.