Comments on “A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English”

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Greg 2015-12-02

I was reading McLeod’s Wake Up to Your Life last night. Although interesting, I was somewhat put off by the second person narrative of much of it. It seemed, in the style of much Buddhist writing, to purposefully obscure what the basis of the book was. His own experience? Stuff his teacher told him? Unclear, and it is just the kind of obfuscation that teachers seem to like to use to appropriate authority for themselves while carefully avoiding making any overt claims - something I have come to find more and more odious over the years.

Does he say anything about who he learned Dzogchen from? I would not be surprised if Kalu Rinpoche taught it despite his Kagyu affiliation, but I have not heard of him giving Dzogchen teachings before.

Greg 2015-12-02

subscribe to new comments - apologies for the wasted post

David Chapman 2015-12-02

I haven’t read Wake Up. Second-person does sound off-putting. The language in this book is normal and talks about his personal evolution quite a lot. He seems to have “grown up” somewhat since writing that.

I imagine that, like most people, he learned from many teachers. However, this book was prompted particularly by teachings from Kilung Rinpoche. (I had not heard of him before.) From the intro:

At the end of the retreat, Kilung Rinpoche showed me a short text by the 18th century Tibetan mystic Jigmé Lingpa. The way he unwrapped the text and gave it to me told me more than words ever could that this text was dear to his heart. He said that he would be grateful if I could translate it into English. The text was a poem about the practice of dzogchen and effectively summarized all that we had studied during the retreat. It was a bit difficult to understand in places, due largely to Jigmé Lingpa’s style of writing, but with Gerardo Abboud’s help, I translated it and presented the translation to him. A few years later, I taught the text at a retreat in New Mexico. Now, encouraged by the response to my recent book Reflections on Silver River, I have retranslated that poem and written this commentary.

Greg 2015-12-02

Interesting, thanks!

David 2015-12-03

Hah! Buddhism never runs short of products to market to the hungry, does it? Either it’s a nirvana that’s absurdly remote and difficult to attain or else it’s one that’s “too close, too accessible, too present, and too simple.” Zen specialises in this kind of ‘selling water by the river’ too. You already have it… but you just don’t realise it! It’s simple natural awareness… but not quite as we know it! Hmm.

Alf McSacredriver 2015-12-03

” “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.”

As an assertion, it may be. Thing is, as a practice, it only leads to ecstatic states does it not ? And they’re not stupid or harmful. What’s wrong with pointing people in the direction of supreme pleasure and rapture ? And it tends to break attachments to religious forms - on a suck it and see kind of basis. I don’t see the harm, what’s the harm? Are people walking round traumatised because someone said there may be common experiences in all religions ? I suppose the nearest you get to that is the sometimes violent reaction to mystic heretics, and burning someone at the stake for claiming to know the godhead is hardly the act of an victim.
What do you mean it’s harmful ?

rob 2015-12-05

Keep on going everybody, this is a very interesting conversation. When Socrates went around asking people why they thought to be wise and got all their different answers according to their professions, he concluded, he could not just know wisdom and ‘i know, that i know nothing.’ He could have know this before asking everybody, but he was not aware he could not know, until he experienced it. Also he managed to withdraw from the ego, that was speaking in everybody’s answers. dzogchen is buddist, because its not just non self but also non ego. very easy. let yourself go and rest in open awareness. Sokrates rested in the awareness of these answers and maybe in any thought that would come and go until he experienced blank. Dzogchen means great completion or perfection. …

Pasada 2015-12-06

Thanks for your illuminating description of Dzogchen. I’ve been put off by the way it’s been presented to me, because it always seemed like monist eternalism with a Tibetan flavor. Now I know why! Your description here makes me curious to learn more about actual Dzogchen practice.

And as always, I am delighted by the way you deflate monist-perennialist pretensions.

First, let me say thanks for the intro to this book. I’ve only read the poem so far but it really speaks to me.

It also seems to point out a personal dilemma. I love meditative practice and riding the hum and buzz of the nervous system (how I like referring to that base aware state) but I don’t feel particularly Buddhist, or any denomination really. There’s a core element of Buddhism that’s about human nature which captivates me, but there’s also lots of accidental complexity by way of social dressing. Maybe it’s the mathish engineer in me, but I want to understand things via first principles and religious connotations of belief & belonging seems to get in the way. Of course, I could just let it go and enjoy that humming buzz but that somehow feels disingenuous.

I’ll be writing more on all this as I finish McLeod’s commentary (+ relevance to chronic illness)

Thanks again!

David Chapman 2016-01-15

Glad you like it so far!

Many people nowadays share your feelings about religions and isms generally. The secular mindfulness movement is one manifestation of that.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I’d like to see a resurgence of secular Vajrayana. Ken McLeod’s approach is maybe not explicitly that, but perhaps heading in that direction.

Doug Richards 2016-02-03

Perhaps one could look at Dzogchen as the stand alone practice that it is - Rushan, Trekchod, Thogal - without the Vajrayana “beard” - that was forced on the Nyingmas by the New Translation Schools? If you compare the modern Western teachers of Dzogchen - James Low, Keith Dowman, John Reynolds, Surya Das, Ken McLeod (covered in the podcasts of his advanced retreats available on his website), this “Dzogchen without Vajrayana” is a common theme - a theme they learned from their native Tibetan teachers - like Nyoshul Khenpo, N. Norbu, and Tulku Urgyen.

Tulku Urgyen shares:
“Some Buddhist teachers may say about me, “How can he possibly try to immediately point out mind essence without having made his students go through the ngöndro of purifying obscurations and gathering the accumulations.” Some may raise this objection, but, with all due respect, I feel that it is not incorrect to do that. Why? Because we are now in the Dark Age and there is the prediction that, “At the end of the Dark Age, the teachings of Secret Mantra will blaze forth like wildfire.” Secret Mantra here refers to Mahamudra and Dzogchen.”

Doug Richards 2016-02-03

David Chapman 2016-02-04

Hi Doug,

You raise several important and interesting issues, which would take many paragraphs to begin to address properly. Unfortunately I have time for only a brief and incomplete response now!

“Vajrayana” is often (but not always) used to mean “Tantra and Dzogchen considered together.” I think you are using it to refer to Tantra only, which has precedent but seems not to be the typical current usage.

Whether “Dzogchen without Tantra” is meaningful, possible, or a good idea is a complicated matter—depending on exactly what “without” means!

It is importantly true that Dzogchen is a distinct yana, with different principles and functions from Tantra. It is also true that in recent centuries Tibetans have tended to blur the distinctions between them, for primarily political and economic reasons, which I believe has been harmful. It is important to understand how they are different. It is also true that in principle it is possible to practice Dzogchen without having ever practiced Tantra. It can be approached through its own distinctive ngondro, and in principle some highly exceptional people may be able to enter into it directly.

However, throughout the tradition, going back as far as we have any records of Dzogchen, it has been considered a good idea for Dzogchenpas to practice Tantra as well. I believe this is still true.

I think it would be good to ask why someone would want to practice Dzogchen without Tantra. I think the reasons for wanting to avoid Tantra are probably bad ones in most cases. I think that the emotional reasons for avoiding Tantra typically lead to inaccurate, incomplete, and in the end unsuccessful practice of Dzogchen. (This is just my own opinion, based on limited anecdotal and personal evidence.)

I think that some (not all) of the Western teachers of Dzogchen you mention have fallen into this error. Some mis-present Dzogchen as a monist system, akin to Neo-Advaita (which some of them have also practiced extensively). This is a dire distortion.

weitsichtsutras 2017-05-04

Hi, since I found your website I studied it intensely. You guys hence will be reading my name more often around here. There’s a reason me starting commenting here. James Low was mentioning A Trackless Path and its lecture leaves me intensely impressed.

The Article says Much of A Trackless Path is about what Dzogchen isn’t, and how not to do it. - I don’t know which passages you have in mind but this is not how I read it. In fact I have the feeling that if you say later on “Much of McLeod’s commentary is about what it is like to be a serious practitioner” you confirm yourself that the text is quite something about how to do it, right?

I believe that poetry and plain-spokenness to not contradict. As an dzogchen-addicted engineer you may admit that words themselves are just upaya -an instrument that helps getting you somewhere. The choice and order of words may help one more than another to whom that wouldn’t make sense at all. Language is cultural yet individual. However, being so thankful for McLeod’s efforts to find words that help me to approach this topic, I hardly can imagine the path he had taken to make sense out of the Tibetan original text. I (talking just of myself) would harldy get anywhere with the uninterpreted translation only.
Your notion on poetry amused me a little bit. I read Chögyam Trungpa’s poem First Thought earlier this year - dadaistic and yet grasping truth in its very twisted way of being. Somehow dzogchen and poetry seem to be intertwined. -as your notion of jazz in your Dzogchen Ethics Article.

You mention the experience of meaning beyond words. This is when the reader’s capability for subtle understanding kicks in (or doesn’t). I guess that there’s the connection to Tantra if it doesn’t touch you, memorization and repetition of the text may help Massage the Dharma In as James Low puts it. So talking of Tantra I also have a comment on David’s latest post: Dzogchen goes without taking refuge to one master is I am not mistaken. Tantric practices in dzogchen circles are providing refuge just for the time of the gathering. These two issues aren’t black and white. maybe Dzogchen reinterprets already some parts of Tantra (reducing strictness, participation requirements, interpretation of refuge as mentioned, tsog with alcohol etc.).

David writes: “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.” Admittedly I thought so as-well whilst reading. Maybe it would have helped making a separate article out of the “Dzogchen is not monist eternalism” (what by the way included a bit too many unknown terms for me, yet missing what the point of the differentiation could have been).

@David (Dec. 3, 2015): if you already got it, stop reading, stop posting comments, stop surfing the internet for non-sense. Other than that I wonder why you have this opinion whilst just creating another conceptual dualism.

@DougRichards ” “At the end of the Dark Age, the teachings of Secret Mantra will blaze forth like wildfire.” Secret Mantra here refers to Mahamudra and Dzogchen.” Funny, as the teachers’ focus may reshift to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or the readiness of Masters to publicise their secret texts as a referral they may be authourized due to this prophecy. One way or another, I fully appreciate the accessibility.

Just my two cents.

I appreciate your grappling with the “tricky fox” of these poetics, you are from a highly cultivated STEM background, and I’ve found your writings on puzzles and rationality ( as opposed to rational ism to be useful for strengthening my own powers of reasoning. This process hasn’t been easy, and is probably why I left the comment that I did on your post about “spiritual techniques”.

I’ve recently been under the possession of a nihilistic despondency that’s led to all sorts of troubles in my mind, manifesting as a paranoia about technology ( the fruits of Apple, primarily ). I was walking through the rain the other day, trying to escape from my self driven pressure towards writing and entrepreneurship ( the latter not my strong suite, but a newly interesting and necessary goal for my artistic inclinations ) , and I found I couldn’t escape my turbulent , wrenching thoughts in the manner I was accustomed to, and couldn’t even enjoy the music I loved.

I don’t know if it was something within me or an awakening from a source outside , like words from a teacher or book I’d forgotten, but I found myself lowering the volume of the music I was listening to, which was quite loud though melodic, till it was barely a whisper above the rain and car noises. Then I was listening to the street noise and the music, or was it their intermingling?

This trivial, almost non-action ( a dragging of the thumb on some time robbing screen, borne from the infernal labor of a deceased mad hatter’s “historical necessities” in the teeming factories of Asia ) led to me actively listening to something that was intensely aesthetic, in an intensely quiet manner. I won’t presume to write that I “understand” the essence of the “not two” insight, but that’s not a matter for “the understanding” anyways, as I follow your writings on this book. And my anxiety about myself and Tantra is resolving itself in this way, since as you point out with Keegan’s models, a person who isn’t at that stage of development wouldn’t “see” the insight at that higher stage, so there’s not much to worry about anyways. That’s for people in a much different stage of life, I’ve enough to stay engaged with in the territory I’m in.

James R. Martin 2018-02-28


Do you think that which Dzogchen is designed to alert us to, or “point out” might possibly be easy to catch a glimpse of but difficult to sustain as a home base? I think I’ve had a hundred thousand glimpses over a lifetime, but have rarely been able to hang out there for more than a short moment. Well, there was one day when I spent several hours in eternity, but that was long ago!

David Chapman 2018-02-28

Hi James—Yes, you describe the common experience of it.

Trying to hang onto the experience doesn’t seem to work (as you’ve found). The consensus of teachers seems to be that a better alternative is to integrate echoes of the experience with everyday life.

Supposedly that gradually transforms ordinary experience so that it becomes rigpa (the state which “pointing out” points out).

I have just barely enough practice experience to find this plausible, but I’m far from having accomplished it!

James R. Martin 2018-02-28

“Trying to hang onto the experience doesn’t seem to work (as you’ve found). The consensus of teachers seems to be that a better alternative it to try to integrate echoes of the experience with everyday life.”

Nicely put! Echoes. Yes, indeed. I have several of these on a good day, sometimes without trying. Sometimes by deliberate accident – like throwing myself in front of the … not the train, …the flow. Each time I catch a glimpse it feels a little more familiar. And unfamiliar. But always welcome.

About Ken McLeod, just a little internet searching will reveal that he has been accused of sexual impropriety with one or more students. It’s a shame, as he seems to be a good teacher. I can’t help wondering why this type of teacher/student situation crops up with such startling frequency. He could have denied it, or apologised, but he instead went silent according to the accounts. And then he ended all teaching, according to those accounts.

As a general rule, I have no problem with consensual sexual expression whatsoever, but things get complicated when there is a teacher / student relationship. Sigh. I basically subscribe to the view that it is best not to “go there” with someone who is a student, a client in psychotherapy, and similar circumstances. Doing so can cause great confusion and even trauma.

weitsichtsutras 2018-03-13

James, judging on past deeds - your own or others’ creates karma. I don’t mean threatening you, but I want to sensibilize. Each of us has in every moment the potential to do things differently as compared to where we come from. No idea why Ken and his students / temporary partners did what they did or with which intention. It lies in the past and it is none of your or my business (I would draw a line if they would have been underage or disabled or… or…)
I don’t know Ken but regardless of who he is or what he did, Jigmé Lingpa’s text and his performance to translate it into English are very very valuable to me. And maybe could be to you if you are willing to cease clinging to your ego and to your dualistic illusory view of what is around you. This being said, of course I aspire, should I be a teacher, to have the capacity to easily restraining my desires to the degree not enmeshing with students beyond the student-relationship. It’s all samsara.

David (unrelated to the “a trackless path” blog entry), it’s gotten silent about your website. I appreciate your blog and I am missing it. Also I dare to ask whether you still you intendedly do not teach and how come you have such a strong notion about not teaching? You teach already just by being. Only way to avoid that is by retreating to a very remote cave. Restraining yourself from your potential is also a dualistic perception.

Lastly I wanted to ask how come dzogchen is a high form of Vajrayana but still some teachers teach Dzogchen only and do not establish samaya-bound guru-student relationships as known from the Tantra? There seem to be different apprehensions about the degree in which Dzogchen is attached or detached from Vajrayana and I am surprised about the degree of (liberty?) to vary. In the west, the introduction to dzogchen without effort-making, time-consuming preliminaries becomes the new standard.

David Chapman 2018-03-13

Thank you for your encouragement!

In the past year, nearly all my time has been taken up with family responsibilities (I wrote about that here), so I have not had a chance to write much. I hope that changes eventually.

When I do get time to write, I expect to prioritize Meaningness over Vividness… for a while, at least.

Wakeful Awareness

Drew 2022-03-25

I find your description of Dzogchen as “simply wakeful awareness” interesting, if not frustratingly simple. In the context of the four naljors, could it be said that shi-ne is discovering the wakefulness of awareness just by itself, and that lhatong is integrating that wakefulness with phenomena?

As an aside, I love McLeod’s books. He’s probably my biggest influence in terms of practice, particularly the book Wake Up To Your Life. He has described that book as being about the the sutric path, but the final two chapters always seemed Dzogchen-ish to me.

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