A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English

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.

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Ritual vs. mentalism

Reading Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity was somewhat shocking.

The book covers many of the same topics I plan to write about, both here and in the Meaningness book; and comes to mostly the same conclusions. Does that mean my work is wasted? I’m unsure. I plan to continue regardless. In the mean time, I recommend Ritual and Its Consequences highly.

The book illuminates diverse topics using a contrast between “ritual” and “sincere” modes of being. The authors’ choice of the term “sincere” may have been unfortunate, because normally it contrasts with “insincere,” and insincerity is often a genuinely bad thing. In fact, as they observe, part of modern hostility to ritual is the belief that it is not merely non-sincere, but anti-sincere, hypocritical, or duplicitous.

Perhaps a better name for the view they contrast with ritual is “mentalism.” Mentalism, in this sense, is the idea that meaning is a matter of mental contents. The classical version says that religion is about beliefs (either true or false, or perhaps meaningless); and ethics is about intentions. Classical mentalism was promoted by the Protestant Reformation, and then by European Enlightenment rationalism. The newer Romantic version says that meaning is about feelings and experiences.

Both brands of mentalism are now central to the modern world-view. Mentalism is, in fact, so taken for granted that most people can’t imagine how it could be otherwise. “What could meaning be, if not something mental?” Traditional views in which, for instance, enlightenment is not an experience strike modern Buddhists as nonsensical: not just false, but incomprehensible.

The central point of Ritual and Its Consequences is in its subtitle: the limits of sincerity. That is, mentalism is both factually wrong and harmful. Sincerity—expressing true beliefs and correct feelings—is often valuable, but not always, and not the only value.

In the mentalist worldview, the only function of ritual could be to express beliefs or feelings. But ritual is, at best, a highly inefficient and imprecise way of doing that. Why not just say what you mean? Worse, if you interpret rituals as expression of beliefs, most of what they say is obviously false or meaningless. If you interpret them as expressions of feelings, they are mostly inauthentic. Ritual, then, is clearly a bad thing, and should be gotten rid of immediately.

This completely misses the point of ritual, however. What matters about ritual is not what it says, but what it does. And what it does is create, sustain, modify, and destroy connections and boundaries. (I have written on this blog about this as the function of Buddhist tantric ritual.)

Because modern culture denies the value of ritual, it has lost important tools for working with boundaries and connections. Therefore, it tends to fall into dualism (hardening boundaries into absolutes) and monism (denying the existence of boundaries altogether). Fundamentalism is an extreme expression of dualism; New Age woo and Buddhist All-Is-One theories of enlightenment are forms of monism. Both these are harmful failures, due in part to rejection of ritual.

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Pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws

This is my second post about Michael Roach and Christie McNally, who tried to teach Buddhist tantra and made a mess instead.

It is about gender-bending, violence, and black magic in Buddhist tantra. It’s about manic pixie dream girls and eating your shadow—and pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws. Understanding how Roach and McNally got these things wrong can help understand how to do tantra right.

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Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco

Michael Roach and Christie McNally, before they blew up, were trying to make Buddhist tantra work in 21st century America. I think that is terribly important for Buddhism, and for America.

Their blow-up is one of several current Buddhist scandals. If you’ve missed the story so far, Roach is a former Tibetan monk who taught increasingly “unconventionally,” and eventually led what has been described as a “dysfunctional” “cult.” He secretly married his student Christie McNally, then dumped her, but left her in charge of a three-year “tantric” retreat in the Arizona desert. After various goings-on, she was ejected from the retreat with another student, who died of dehydration in a meditation cave a couple months later.

The mainstream media—Rolling Stone and the New York Times for instance—found the death angle, together with Roach and McNally’s seemingly strange ideas and behaviors, sufficiently spectacular to run long articles. They have concentrated on the guru/cult/scandal aspects of Roach’s and McNally’s mistakes. Those are interesting and important, but here I’ll ignore them. They’ve been covered extensively elsewhere, and this case seems fairly typical of the pattern.

Instead, I’ll discuss the religious content of their practice. I suspect I understand what they were groping for—and failed at—better than they did. (Or, I may be confused.)

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