A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English

Cover of A Trackless Path by Ken McLeod

Ken McLeod has an exceptional ability to explain Vajrayana Buddhism in plain English. Dzogchen, a branch of Vajrayana, is the most difficult part of Buddhism to understand. It is also, in my opinion, the most important.

It is fortunate, then, that McLeod has just published A Trackless Path, his first book on the topic.

Dzogchen—the thing itself—is simply wakeful awareness. The body of teaching called “Dzogchen” consists of evocations of that awareness. Dzogchen is not a conceptual framework, and not a practice system (although both are available as supplements).

Dzogchen is difficult because it is “too close, too accessible, too present, and too simple.” Wakeful awareness is not some special sort of awareness available only to extremely holy people. Dzogchen is not an altered state of consciousness. It’s the natural state of mind, which in some sense we all experience all the time. However, one may find the question “what is it like to be aware?” difficult to answer. We don’t know, because the natural state is usually obscured by motivated confusions. Most of the time, we are in an altered state—the one called “samsara.” Dzogchen means returning to an unaltered state. You can do that by leaving your mind alone.

The whole of Dzogchen teaching amounts to no more than three or four sentences. They answer the question “what is it like to be aware?”. These are called “pointing-out instructions” or “direct introduction to the mind itself.” If you read those, you probably won’t understand them, because they are too obvious. Ideally, they are only given orally, one-to-one, at an informal moment: when the Dzogchen teacher sees that the student has left their mind accidentally unguarded, so something surprising can be slipped in.

Even then, the meaning is often missed. Then the student wants more explanation; but about Dzogchen itself, there is nothing more to say. So the teacher sighs deeply, and starts to explain how Dzogchen relates to this and that. But since Dzogchen is so basic, it affects everything. The teaching becomes complex and subtle, because the world is complex and subtle.

To write more about Dzogchen than a paragraph, but less than an encyclopedia, is a major achievement—which Ken McLeod has accomplished. His book is, however, difficult to review. Like Dzogchen itself, it is “too close, too accessible, too present, and too simple”!

My “direct introduction” to A Trackless Path is just this: if you care about Dzogchen, it’s well worth reading.

If you want to know more—such as whynow I will something say. However, you should not take anything in this review seriously, as I am extravagantly unqualified to speak of Dzogchen.

In plain English

Accurate, accessible accounts of Dzogchen are rare, which makes A Trackless Path significant. The traditional texts are mainly either impenetrably academic or poetically vague. Tibetans are mostly unwilling or unable to teach Dzogchen. Because Westerners think they want it, lamas and publishers often engage in bait-and-switch tactics. The few lamas who do teach it are mainly surrounded by high social and cultural barriers. As I’ll explain later, the gap has been partially filled by Westerners who misunderstand and misrepresent Dzogchen.

A Trackless Path is accurate, and clear and simple, but it is not “Dzogchen for Dummies.” Probably no such book can exist. A Trackless Path is not for Buddhist beginners, and might even not be the first Dzogchen book to read. Other plausible starting points are Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State as a conceptual overview, and Roaring Silence: Discovering the Mind of Dzogchen as a practice-related introduction.

McLeod writes “if you are reading this book, you probably have a good bit of practice experience already.” The language is straightforward; but his insights may not resonate unless you have done hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of meditation. The book also contains little “information.”

However, as McLeod says, if you just read it and pay attention to your experience while reading, it’s possible you will have a profound direct insight even without much background. This truly can happen when you encounter a text beyond your level of comprehension, if you are lucky.

Otherwise, what you may gain are inspiration and curiosity. Not intellectual curiosity about “this is an interesting system, I want to understand it”—that probably won’t go anywhere. Unlike other Buddhisms, Dzogchen isn’t a system of doctrine or practice. Instead, you may gain experiential curiosity, as in “I wonder what that’s really like—is this actually a thing? Is it possible?” And perhaps even confidence. Not intellectual confidence, that “this system makes sense, so it seems to be true” but “yes, this seems to illuminate my experience—it talks about something real and important, so I want to go further into it.”

All awareness is non-conceptual. Concepts arise within awareness, but are not awareness itself. The Dzogchen preliminary practices are about experientially separating awareness (“mind itself,” sems nyid) from its contents (mental activity, sems).

Poetry is the traditional solution to the problem of describing non-conceptual awareness. This may or may not work for you. Sometimes a line of Dzogchen poetry resonates with your experience in the moment, and an opening occurs. I often find it irritatingly vague and hyperbolic. McLeod too:

The descriptions of sublime results in the sutras and tantras are beautiful and magnificent poetry, but I find it difficult to relate to them in my own experience, even when I regard them as metaphor.

I do appreciate poetry, but as an engineer, I also appreciate plain-spokenness. A Trackless Path is remarkably plain-spoken. Like me, the author has a degree in mathematics. That might have something to do with my appreciation for his approach.

Dzogchen is not monist eternalism

Because Dzogchen is hard to understand, it is easy to mistake it for other things that sound vaguely similar. In Tibet, Dzogchen was always controversial, because of its resemblance to—among other things—Zen, Advaita Vedanta, Bön, Kashmiri Shaivism, Zhentong, and Cittamatra. (These were all considered absolutely not OK by Tibetan theocrats.)

Dzogchen is now commonly mistaken for monist eternalism in the West. Monism is the idea that “All Is One,” so your True Self is actually the entire universe, and is also God. Eternalism holds that there is some Cosmic Principle that gives meaning to everything. Monist eternalism, unlike Dzogchen, is easy to understand; and it is emotionally attractive because it promises immortality and omnipotence (if you just Realize your True Self).

Monist eternalism is now the main non-Christian religion in the West, in the guise of the New Age, “spiritual but not religious,” Integral™ Bafflegab™, and Neo-Advaita. All of these trace to Perennialism, the Western claim that monist eternalism is the mystical essence of all religions. This is a highly aggressive strategy, which tries to colonize and dominate all other religions. “You are doing Christianity/Buddhism/Yazidism wrong,” Perennialism says. “The real meaning of your religion is the same as ours—that you need to discover your Oneness with the Ultimate.” This is stupid, harmful, bigoted, and insulting.

To be fair, it is easy to mistake Dzogchen for monist eternalism, if you just read a little of it. (Especially if you are motivated to misunderstand it because, as a Perennialist, you are looking for evidence that it’s really monist eternalism!) Monists frequently use the word “nonduality,” by which they mean “monism”—the denial of distinctions. Dzogchen frequently uses the term gnyis med, literally “not two,” but typically translated “nonduality.” That does not to refer to monism, however. “Inseparability” would usually be a better translation.

Whenever someone talks about “nonduality,” it is good to ask: which two things are you saying are not dual? And, if they aren’t dual, what is their relationship? Monists probably won’t like this question, because they don’t like distinctions. (That’s the whole point of monism!) The only honest answer they can give is that everything is not dual with everything else, and that “not dual” means “the same.” However, this is obviously false—Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony is not the same as the Greenland ice cap. So usually monists would rather remain vague. In Buddhism, by contrast, various specific pairs are said to be gnyis med, in specific ways. So Buddhism takes more work to understand—and not everyone wants to bother.

It is also easy to mistake Dzogchen for eternalism. Its scriptures are written in the voice of a deity, the embodiment of awareness, who is King of the Universe. They assert that Divine Awareness “creates everything,” and they go on and on about how miraculous and perfect he is. This is, however, all explicitly metaphorical.

There are frequent, unambiguous statements in both the scriptures and authoritative commentaries that Dzogchen is not monist and not eternalist. They explain why monism and eternalism are both wrong, and how Dzogchen is different. (These explanations are the inspiration for my book Meaningness.)

In the West, there there is much more demand for Dzogchen—”the highest teaching of Tibetan Buddhism”—than Tibetans will supply. That demand is increasingly met by Westerners who advertise “Dzogchen,” but actually teach monist eternalism, with a layering of Dzogchen terms. Their training and understanding is based more in Neo-Advaita, a contemporary monist eternalist movement, than in Buddhism.

Unfortunately, this has made Dzogchen even more inaccessible than it already was. If you go looking for Dzogchen, you are likely to find disguised Neo-Advaita instead.

Much of A Trackless Path is about what Dzogchen isn’t, and how not to do it. Although it never uses the word “eternalism,” I take it as explaining how that is wrong and why Dzogchen is not eternalistic. Eternalism, McLeod points out, arises as a defense against uncertainty, applying an illusion of understanding. His advice is to open to uncertainty while paying attention to how it makes you feel, at the concrete level of bodily sensations. And, to let go of the beliefs (including, especially, Buddhist beliefs) that undergird the illusion of understanding.

Dzgochen texts often speak of a space free from concepts or thoughts. Again, this is easy to confuse with other, dissimilar systems that say superficially similar-sounding things. Practices from such systems are now sometimes taught as “Dzogchen,” although they aim at quite different results using quite different methods:

Different practice traditions take different approaches to the arising of thoughts. Most esoteric traditions agree that thoughts themselves are not the enemy. On the other hand, when we are thinking, awareness is dulled and confused. Some traditions encourage the development of a dispassionate observer, but that simply replaces one problem with another. The direct awareness traditions of Tibet teach the possibility of an awareness that is not an observer, an awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations form and dissolve like mist or like clouds in the sky.

This level of attention is not the same as the experience of the watcher in which we observe the coming and going of thoughts. In the experience to which “mind itself” refers, we are the space and we are the thoughts.

“No concept” and “no thought” are a concept and a thought. They can be highly misleading, if you assume you understand what they mean and imply.

Achieving a no-thought state is a non-goal of Dzogchen. It is the first of four steps of Dzogchen preliminary practice.

The contents: text and commentary

I’m terrible at writing book reviews. Actually… it’s worse than that. I deliberately abuse the form as an excuse to go off on wild fantasies and discursions.

In this one, so far, I’ve managed to get away with saying nothing about what A Trackless Path is about!

The book consists mainly of a translation of a poetic text, The Revelations of Ever-present Good, plus McLeod’s commentary on it. The poem was written by Jigme Lingpa (1729–1798), perhaps the most influential Dzogchen teacher of the past five hundred years. It is divided into three sections of roughly equal length, and the commentary follows the same organization.

The first section compares Dzogchen with other approaches: secular materialism, non-Buddhist religious eternalism, and the eight Sutric and Tantric Buddhist yanas. It explains how each sets up “reference points”—ultimate principles that supposedly explain and motivate everything—so they are eternalistic. Dzogchen has no reference point, so it avoids the errors and harms of eternalism.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice the lower yanas, or even that it is possible to skip them. You can’t start with Dzogchen, because it has an “uncommon base.” To practice it, you need the recognition of non-conceptual awareness. Mostly you can only get that through practicing some other system (or a Dzogchen ngöndrö). Even once you start practicing Dzogchen, for most people it is helpful to continue practicing other yanas too.

The second section of The Revelations of Ever-present Good is a poetic description of wakeful awareness—the actual point of Dzogchen. This is more-or-less “pointing-out instructions” plus a highly condensed synopsis of their implications. Without both extensive practice experience and conceptual knowledge of Dzogchen theory, it is easy to misinterpret this as generic content-free spiritual hype and woo. McLeod’s commentary is a helpful down-to-earth guide here.

The third section points out various subtle misconceptions of Buddhism (including Dzogchen), and misapplications of its practice, and how to correct them. Generally, it is directed against the dogmatic, theocratic version of Tibetan Buddhism that has dominated for the past several hundred years.

What it is like

Much of McLeod’s commentary is about what it is like to be a serious long-term practitioner. Not about the cosmic insights and ineffable bliss, but about the ups and downs, the grit required to make progress, and the gradual accumulation of experience and confidence that makes practice increasingly accurate.

The challenges I faced over the years forced me to examine again and again what was I doing and why. Those re-examinations ruthlessly stripped away the ornate prose, the rich poetry, and the glowing accounts that abound in traditional texts.

He compares the path of life-long practice with the discipline of artists:

When a musician learns to play an instrument or even a piece of music, he or she begins a journey. No one knows or can know where that journey will lead. Maybe a teacher or a respected friend or colleague suggested that particular piece. Maybe the musician heard someone else play it and it moved something inside. What is important here is that he or she feels a call and is called to respond.

Like spiritual practice, art often involves long periods of rigorous, even harsh training (as in ballet), a kind of asceticism that is often similar to renunciation, a relationship with a teacher that may be hard to understand from a conventional perspective and a call to an ideal that is difficult, if not impossible, to put into words.

Giving up hope for magical salvation is indispensable:

In traditional Buddhism, [the supposed result] is presented as the end of suffering, nirvana, enlightenment, freedom, awakening or any number of other promises. For me, those words now ring hollow. I think I believed them at one point, but I am not sure.

Giving up hope leads to Buddhist practice is that is tough, skeptical, and realistic; yet confident, reverent, and inspired.

When we read poems such as Jigmé Lingpa’s, possibilities open — possibilities we may never have thought of or possibilities we may have sensed but did not know how to pursue. Practice is about exploring those possibilities and we do so because they are or become intensely meaningful to us.

Whether one attempts to describe this awareness as an awakening or as a deep peace, it opens up a profound freedom.

The essence of Dzogchen is wonderment. A Trackless Path is a call to that wonder.