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)

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