12.0 Imperfect Buddha: Ken McLeod on many things

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In this episode, I spoke to Ken McLeod in person in Croatia and we discussed a variety of topics, including; Vajrayana Buddhism, his writing project, issues of language, his appreciation for Wittgenstein, direct experience V the conceptual mind, challenges for advanced practitioners, his ongoing relationship with practice, and more. The episode starts with a longer introduction than usual to prime newer listeners to the podcast and the direction it’s taking. I hope you will find this addition useful. For new listeners, check out some of our past episodes for a different take on western Buddhism. Here’s the episode;

 

Ken McLeod is a senior Western translator, author, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. He received traditional training mainly in the Shangpa Kagyu lineage through a long association with his principal teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, whom he met in 1970. McLeod resides in Northern California, where he founded Unfettered Mind. He has currently withdrawn from teaching, and no longer conducts classes, workshops, meditation retreats, individual practice consultations, or teacher training.

Thoughts: this episode has a preparation piece for regular listeners to investigate if they so wish. It’s here. I think this episode raises further questions and we cannot get away from some of the issues that have come up in past episodes. To what degree is our experience unconditioned is the stand out one. Feel free to leave comments as usual below or get in touch through; Facebook, Twitter, or the Soundcloud page.

Links

Unfettered Mind: http://unfetteredmind.org/

Ken’s Musings: http://musingsbyken.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1

Tricycle articles by Ken: https://tricycle.org/author/kenmcleod/

David Chapman’s review of A Trackless Path: https://vividness.live/2015/12/01/dzogchen-a-trackless-path-ken-mcleod-review/

Sponsor

O’Connell Coaching: https://oconnellcoaching.com

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What’s happening with the podcast Matt?

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(The reason for my absence here is a rather fine one: He’s called Julian)

Stuart and I have had busy summers with little activity taking place in terms of the podcast and my writing here at the Post-traditional Buddhism site. I’ve been promising to produce something for readers and listeners, and can now provide you with this post and the reality of a soon-to-be-released podcast. The latest episode has actually been recorded and will require some editing before becoming available at the end of the coming week. This time round we interviewed Ken McLeod, a prominent figure in Western Buddhism with a rich background in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Ken has authored a number of books that have broken the mould in presenting aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in a pragmatic, western approach, with care paid to language and metaphors (more on this below). His works have been heavily informed by his own experience as a practitioner, and his role in teaching and coaching westerners over a long career. I found his last book A Trackless Path to be most interesting as an attempt by a westerner to decode the Tibetan language into the western vernacular with priority being given to the sort of message being transmitted in the original text rather than a faithfully rigid, word for word translation (BTW, It would be good to see much more of this taking place amongst translators and authors).

The choice of guest was deliberate. We had planned to have Ken on for some time now and he was on the list of our desired guests when we were starting out with the podcast. As luck would have it, he was in Croatia close to where I live this past weekend and so I met up with him in person and recorded enough material for a decent episode. I wasn’t 100% sure of the direction to take, which is unusual for me. I tend to have a clear intention and set of concerns when approaching guests but in spite of giving it considerable thought beforehand, I found myself driving from Italy through Slovenia down to the Croatian coast clutching a handful of loosely connected themes, and I had to play it by ear as the interview went on. Ken was generous with his time and candid in his responses and I felt we touched on a number of interesting and relevant topics. The content of the podcast additionally reflects an important and unexpressed desire that I have for the podcast as a whole, which I would like to write about here.

Ken is an important choice of guest but one that may concern some of our more critical listeners, importantly though, he represents the second strand that informs our podcast episodes. Hiss interview signals an important opportunity to talk to the different types of listeners the podcast gets. For, although we have put out a lot of episodes exploring a critical evaluation of western Buddhism, Stuart and I are practitioners first and foremost, who have deeply personal relationships with Buddhist practices and ideas. Although I consider myself to be post-traditional in my approach and dedicated to the frail, temporal, inquisitive human within these practices, I continue to find Buddhism to be a most meaningful source for the practices I draw on in navigating my life. The question then becomes not whether to be Buddhist, but rather how to relate to Buddhist materials in the sanest, most intelligent way possible, and this is necessarily a work in progress. It is a relationship that is very much personal and very much shared and the podcast navigates these two realms. The whole project is run through with these two primary strands and I cannot see how any meaningful engagement with Buddhism could dismiss one or the other. In fact, part of the desire for the podcast has always been to bridge this divide.

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Is Tonglen truly awesome?

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Let’s twist Tonglen into something new, better and more brilliant, then it would be more awesome…ok, I’m just being silly to grab your attention. Now, here’s a less silly thought, what if the practice of Tonglen were to become something much more immediate, more real, and something we could use to transform the daily grind of our existence, and immediate concerns, including insecurities, paranoia, doubt, performance anxiety, frustration, and whatever other specialities and delicacies in the neuroses department are currently at play in our tiny microcosms?

What if we were to pitch our practice tents somewhere below the universal of all human suffering in a place much closer to our day to day trials and tribulations, and practice exchanging all of the wonderful manure of our neuroses and dysfunctional habits into a workable opening back into the immediacy of the world we inhabit? Not the big all encompassing world out there, but the one we know all too well. The one we live within day in day out. The one we are immersed in with its rhythms and flows, frictions, tensions, challenges, openings and limits.

In its traditional form, Tonglen appears to function in three specific ways; firstly, it develops altruism, secondly, it chips away at our resistance to unpleasant experience and the more stubborn resistance towards the wide world of myriad suffering and misfortune perceived as being out there somewhere in the world and away from me (just where we like it!), thirdly, and clearly linked to the second, it undermines our impulsive self-preservation instinct; not the sensible one that keeps us away from dark alleys and the parasitic elements of society (including Donald Trump), but the deeply held need to maintain the status quo of our sense of who we are. Like all practices, it can be more or less effective in its intended aims, and when wielded badly, it can lead to what we might define as spiritual dysfunction or the immaturity of poor outcomes. As a dysfunctional practice, it can feed utopian fantasies, leave us feeling that we are magically transforming the world whilst living in our imagination, and demotivate us from carrying out real world change. This is not to say that such consequences are inevitable, but rather, that they can and do happen. Tonglen is a very human practice after all.

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11.5 Imperfect Buddha: Hokai Sobol answers listeners questions

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Here it is folks, the latest episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast and the last in our series on post-traditional Buddhism. It is also the final part of our series with Hokai Sobol.

In this interview, Hokai tackles listeners question, well, at least some of them. We had over 18 to get through and although Hokai inadvertently covered some of them whilst answering others, we didn’t get through them all. I think listeners will find something of real value in Hokai’s answers and thoughts as we cover a wide terrain. Some of the questions covered include;

1. Has Hokai played around with any word instead of mystic/mystical?
2. What are the axioms that underlie the mystical approach as you define it? Or, what are the assumptions that drive the mystical approach as you’ve defined it?
3. Can someone pursue all three approaches at the same time? What are some of the possible adverse consequences of doing so?
4. Are religious and therapeutic approaches necessary starting points for a mystical path?
5. Do either of you see a role for community on the mystical path?
6. What are Hokai’s views – if any – about the transmission of mystical practice?
7. Can mystical ways of practice ever be divorced from religious systems/symbolism/language? I suspect not, but I’d be interested to hear.
8. Does Hokai have any general advice for mystical practice in the midst of ‘normal’ life?
9. Where does this approach take us? Is there an end? A goal?
10. Can maps be a tool for people to understand their minds?
11. Is the open discussion of progress on the path helpful? Is it hurtful? Should it be discussed publicly, or left between student and teacher? If it’s hurtful, can you please explain why you believe it to be so?

Hokai’s site & article on post-traditional Buddhism: www.hokai.info/2017/06/meanings-post-traditional/

Theme tune for the episode is from The Naturals: www.hopemanagement.co.uk/thenaturals/

O’Connell Coaching: oconnellcoaching.com/

 

11.4 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: guest Hokai Sobol returns to discuss practice

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This is part two of my conversation with Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher, mentor for wayward Buddhists, path finder and original thinker. In this episode we talk about practice and the idea of mysticism, a term that I find problematic, but one that Hokai unpacks in interesting and straightforward ways.

Hokai is taking questions on the content of both episodes, so, if you find something interesting, curious, or even disagreeable, add a comment below the podcast episode at Soundcloud, here, or at the Facebook page and we will tackle it in a follow up episode.

 

11.3 Imperfect Buddha Podcast meets Hokai Sobol

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We finally got Mr Sobol on the podcast folks. He has been on our top three list for guests since the inception of the project so we are rather chuffed he agreed to come on. As always, Hokai has lots to say and his sharp mind and insight into Buddhism are well worth listening to. We attempted to record an episode about a month back but it didn’t work out so this is actually our second go. We created enough talk time for two episodes and this is part one. We split the conversation nicely by having lunch in the middle. The two halves are connected but discuss different themes. The first looks at approaches to Buddhism and the second focusses on practice and expands on the idea of mysticism.

We have agreed to entertain the possibility of a third chat. Hokai and I live close to each other, which makes it easy for a person to person conversation to take place. To this end, he has suggested listeners write questions or inquiries in the comments section here, at the Soundcloud page, or on the Imperfect Buddha Twitter feed to be used as the basis for a further discussion. If you have Qs of your own and you’re reading this, go ahead and add them below.

 

Interlude to meditation series: Humanity or Human or Humane or what?

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Bear with me please. This post goes in a number of directions but each is linked and important. It is also representative of an Italian rhetorical style which begins with a good deal of preamble before making the central point at the end. This is a writing style that requires a degree of faith on the part of the reader, and is certainly unfashionable in today’s culture of bite-size nuggets and stimulation triggering.

I’ll assume that if you make it to the end, you are a thinker, and if not, enjoy your social media fix and close the door on your way off this page.

Starting off: down with that sort of thing

When I examined my own set of practices in the last years, I was often been brought back to the flurry of insults thrown at certain meditation traditions, teachers and practices by the non-Speculative Buddhism chaps. I also recall a frequent utterance made that was aimed at claims of results or pro-positive feelings that might emerge from them: “So what?” they would ask. Was this a question, a sneer, or an expression of disinterest on their part? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Either way, I took such brusk commentary as a useful reminder to avoid repeating three mistakes; using meditation as a retreat from the world, assuming it was obvious that meditation was always good, and that meditation was what it was being defined as by my fellow Buddhists. Since those days, I have been concerned with the idea that meditation techniques and the framework used to discuss, understand and expand on them be connected more closely with immanence and the non Buddhist world of knowledge and insight, and that the concept of immanence not be taken for granted or encoded within Buddhist lingo. What does it mean to be present to life? What does it mean to be present to the world? What does it mean to engage with something called the present? We take so much for granted; we take so much on blind faith. How often do we stop to ask questions of the exultations that beckon us on into practice? How often do we challenge what can seem so natural? These were just some of the questions that challenged me and brought back a sense of excitement into thinking about meditation, spirituality and Buddhism anew.

To question your assumptions is an essential aspect of practice. This is quite different from forming yourself into the image of a good Buddhist. Questions can radically upset what we take as given. How do you feel if someone undermines everything you hold dear? How do you feel if someone exposes your practice and view of yourself as a practitioner as fraudulent? When our assumptions are challenged and the normalisation of a personally held view is prodded vigorously, typical reactions tend to ensue. They usually include the famous three: retreat, avoidance, or defence. How many are capable of opening to the critique at hand instead, and accepting it may destroy what you hold dear and that this may be exactly what you need in your life? Who is willing to see critique as an opportunity rather than a personal attack in this age of outrage and victimhood? Surely humility involves being willing to be wrong and shown what is hidden behind our ignorance. To be shaken by the world is an invaluable opportunity for genuine transformation. It’s a shame most of us are culturally trained to avoid it. It’s even worse when we bullshit ourselves into justifying our excuses for cowardice in excusing ourselves for disengaging when life invites us to step up.

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