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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Meanwhile, back at the charnel ground…

Half a year ago, I put this site on the back burner. I’ll explain why, and what I may do here next, at the end of this page.

First, I’d like to advertise writing I’m doing on two other sites. If you are following only this one, you might find those interesting as well.

Continue reading “Meanwhile, back at the charnel ground…”

Epistemology and enlightenment

“How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?” asked the ogress in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Here are some similar questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

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Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions

For many Westerners, Buddhism is mainly about wholeness and connection.

Modern life is atomizing and alienating:

  • Multiple social roles demand that you be several different people in different places. Some of those partial-selves are false fronts; others seem natural. If your personality is quite different at work and at home, and yet both are comfortable, which is the real you?
  • Identity is based on cultural concepts. Modern societies contain many cultures that co-exist uneasily. Everyone owes partial allegiance to several conflicting systems. You end up internalizing these conflicts, so you are divided against yourself.
  • The modern social, economic, and technological order artificially separates us from each other, from nature, and even from our own everyday experience.

This fragmentation and isolation seems unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable. Many of us turn to spirituality or religion for answers.

For modern Buddhists, meditation is meant to bring healing wholeness and connectedness. The Buddhist worldview is meant to explain how wholeness and connectedness are lost and regained.

Yet this is not what most forms of Buddhism promised, before the 20th century. Quite the opposite…

Three contradictory visions; one Consensus

“Consensus” Buddhism incorporates three quite different ways of approaching wholeness and connection: no-self renunciation, monist mysticism, and tantra. These appear to be radically contradictory, and unreconcilable.

Can the Consensus successfully synthesize them into a single, unified religion? I’ll suggest that, no, attempts to combine these approaches will always fail, with specific, predictable bad results. What, then, is the motivation for merging them?

First, let’s take a quick look at wholeness and connection in the three approaches.

1. No-self and world-renunciation

  • Mind is only parts (skandhas); the illusion of a whole self is the fundamental cause of all suffering.
  • Connections bind us to an unclean world. Attachments and entanglements are bad things, not good ones.
  • The self should be disassembled through insight meditation (vipassana); connections should be broken by withdrawing from sense-pleasures and worldly involvements.
  • That neuters the negative emotions (kleshas), which lead to negative actions (karma).
  • Enlightenment is the disintegration of the self-concept, the elimination of desire, and the severing of all ties to the world.

This is not at all the approach to wholeness and connection most Western Buddhists are looking for!

But, it is the Asian Buddhism mainstream: the approach of the Theravada scriptures, and of many branches of Mahayana. It is where the Consensus Buddhist teachers began, with modernized Theravada in the 1970s.

However, because renunciation takes you in the opposite direction from the way most Westerners want to go, Consensus teachers have supplemented it with other approaches.

2. Monist mysticism

  • Only the ego, or false self, is divided. This division is the fundamental cause of suffering, and of negative emotions and actions.
  • The True Self is inherently whole; perfectly unified, without parts.
  • All is One; everything is totally connected; all apparent distinctions are illusion.
  • These ultimate truths can be realized through internalizing meditation—going deeply into the Self—which gets rid of the ego.
  • Enlightenment is the elimination of the false self, and the realization of the unity of the True Self with the Whole Universe, which is God.

This is the approach of Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism. It is also the approach of German Romantic Idealism. That’s an early-1800s metaphysical spirituality that remains hugely influential in the West despite few remembering its history.

The monist approach has been explicitly condemned by nearly all Buddhist schools, throughout the history of Buddhism, up to the 20th century.

It has, however, become popular in Western Buddhism in the past few decades. Westerners want wholeness and connection, and monism claims to provide perfect wholeness and total connection.

Why not mix some monism into Buddhism to give the customers what they want? Because monism can’t deliver. In fact, it produces the exact opposite results to what it promises.

Regarding wholeness:

  • The stereotype of “spiritual” people (such as New Agers) is based in fact: monist practices make you scatter-brained. Monists are always following their latest “divine intuition” or “message from the universe,” hopping from one unrealistic path to another. They rarely have enough stability to get anything done.
  • Monism’s insistence on a unitary Higher Self makes it impossible to find workable compromises among conflicting motivations. Those compromises are unromantic hard work, but are the effective path to personal wholeness.
  • In other words, monism produces not personal unity, but mental dissociation into a jumble of fantasies.

And as for connection:

  • Monism promises “total connection with the Absolute Infinite” (or with “the whole universe,” as though that were a single thing). But meaningful connections can only be made with specific, finite beings in this here-and-now world.
  • To achieve unity, internalizing meditation deliberately cuts you off from everyday reality, which is supposedly a distraction and not spiritual enough.
  • You are supposed to “turn inward,” to find a “profound inner experience” that connects you with the divine reality. This is nonsensical. Experiences are not connections; connections aren’t inside you; you can’t connect yourself with all things by cutting yourself off from them.
  • In practice, monists’ relationships with other people, and with their physical environment, usually become godawful messes. Monist practice makes you self-obsessed, unreliable, and unwilling to deal with mundane practicalities.

3. Buddhist Tantra

  • The self is empty form: complicated, constantly changing, and creative.
  • Personal wholeness comes from incorporating and transforming the kleshas. You accept everything that arises in mind, rather than rejecting distasteful stuff as “not me.” Emptiness means mind has no essential nature, so nothing there needs to be a problem.
  • You are connected to some, particular, diverse things, in different, specific ways.
  • These connections are the source of power, delight, and wisdom—as well as unavoidable pain.
  • Wholeness and connections are sustained through tantric practices.
  • Enlightenment is complete transformation.

Explained this way, Tantric Buddhism seems much more what Westerners want. Tantra says wholeness and connection are good things, unlike the no-self renunciate approach. And, the metaphysical claims of tantra are far more reasonable than those of monism.

Yet tantra has had little influence on Consensus Buddhism. Why is it not more popular?

Mixing up contradictory approaches causes trouble

All three approaches have fed into Consensus Buddhism. However, it has not reconciled their contradictions. These conflicts lead to specific, predictable patterns of trouble:

  • The main practice of Consensus Buddhism is vipassana. This method is meant to shatter the self and break connections. Western Buddhists mostly want and expect the opposite results. Using the wrong tool for the job may produce disappointment, or even serious psychological breakdown.
  • Mixing up bits of explanation from contradictory systems made Consensus Buddhism conceptually incoherent. To fix the parts of the story that no longer make sense, teachers substitute non-Buddhist Western concepts. Even if those concepts were valid, at some point there is no longer any point in pretending that they are teaching Buddhism.
  • Westerners want transformation. Buddhism has methods for that, in tantra. Unfortunately, they are politically unacceptable. Instead, Consensus Buddhism substitutes other transformational practices, taken from psychotherapy, the New Age, and Hinduism. These are discordant with Buddhism, and aren’t helpful in pursuing Buddhist goals.

Silencing disagreement

Consensus Buddhism has not merely failed to reconcile these contradictions. It has not even tried. In fact, it has deliberately suppressed the discussions that might have led to clarifying them.

The contradictions have been recognized and discussed within Buddhism for thousands of years. These discussions have often been heated. That is not “nice.”

Consensus Buddhism often dismisses genuine religious differences as:

  • Pointless academic arguments about esoteric philosophical minutiae that make no difference to ordinary Buddhists.
  • Political power struggles disguised as debates about doctrine.
  • Cultural misunderstandings with no practical substance.

Using these excuses, the Consensus has swept contradictions under a blanket of silence. Dissenting voices have been ostracized as “aggressive.” (This is one of several reasons I use the word “Consensus” for mainstream Western Buddhism.)

We need to reopen these questions, not suppress them in the name of tolerance. It is possible to argue about them constructively and respectfully. But even vicious dispute might be better than pretending that incompatible approaches can be combined.

Previous syntheses

In papering over its contradictions, Consensus Buddhism has borrowed rhetoric from two earlier attempts at synthesis. These are the 20th century export-Zen combination of no-self and monism, and the Gelukpa combination of renunciation and tantra.

Combining no-self and monism

Most Zen in the West descends from the New Buddhism of D. T. Suzuki, and/or the Sanbo Kyodan approach of the Harada-Yasutani lineage. (I wrote about these in a previous post, “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

Both of these New Zens were explicitly created as export products for Westerners. Both explicitly incorporate Western monist mysticism. Both explicitly state that their “Zen” is not specifically Buddhist. Both are rejected by mainstream Japanese Zen teachers.

The Suzuki/Harada/Yasutani approach claims that no-self and True Self are the same thing; that various Buddhist concepts (such as Buddha, nirvana, or emptiness) are the same as the impersonal God (or “Absolute”) of Western monism; and that the goal of Zen meditation is to realize the unity of the True Self with this Absolute.

“New Zen” was one of the two main sources for Consensus Buddhism (together with modernized Theravada). Its Japanese origin provides a cover of apparent authenticity, which allows continuing import of dubious Western religious and philosophical ideas into Buddhism.

I find this combination absurd and actively harmful. More about that below.

Combining renunciation and tantra

The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism practices tantra in a renunciate framework. Roughly, it combines renunciate goals with tantric methods. It describes Tantra as an arcane, dangerous collection of adjunct rituals for deepening renunciation, suitable only for monks who have completed many years of preliminary intellectual study.

The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelukpa school. He was directly involved in founding Consensus Buddhism, sponsoring the early-1990s conferences where the Consensus was organized. His take on tantra has formed the Consensus view of the subject.

The Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I belong) rejects the Gelukpa approach. It sees renunciation and tantra both as valid paths. However, they have different goals, and their methods cannot be merged because their fundamental principles are so different. Tantra can be pursued independently from renunciation; it does not require extensive intellectual preparation; and it is especially suitable for non-monks.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the most influential teacher of Buddhist tantra in the West. The 1980s sex and drug scandals around him were one of the main factors leading to the founding of the Consensus (at the Dalai Lama’s conferences).

These scandals discredited tantra for many Westerners. They were a convenient pretext to impose the conservative Gelukpa view that tantra should be reserved for a few special people, and neutered with elaborate moralistic safeguards.

Because the Consensus adopted this attitude, tantric practices are effectively unavailable in Western Buddhism. Tantra’s influence is limited to esoteric concepts, and the general idea that Buddhism promotes personal transformation. The Consensus has continued to use various maneuvers to suppress tantric practice, and to silence debate about its suitability for Westerners.

I’ll discuss this recent history in detail in a later post.

Process note

On average, it takes me three days of full-time work to produce each web page. Early in this series, I was able to write a new post every few days, because I was working on it full time. Unfortunately, other responsibilities make that impossible for now. In hope that I may finish the series someday, I have decided to drop several big pieces of it.

I had planned to write a full page about what went so wrong in export Zen, and how. That turns out to be a big, difficult topic. There is some basis for monist ideas in the Mahayana scriptures. Sorting out exactly how Sanbo Kyodan distorted Buddhism would be a lot of work, and not of interest to many people. In fact, personally, I don’t care in the least whether monism is traditional or untraditional in Buddhism, so I’m dropping that question.

What matters is not that monism is un-Buddhist, but that it is harmful: it causes unnecessary suffering. It leads people in exactly the wrong direction, away from effective methods for establishing wholeness and connection, and instead into day-dream fantasies of magical invulnerability, omnipotence, and immortality.

It’s important to explain this clearly. However, my tentative plan is to do that on my Meaningness book site. Monism is not a central failing of Consensus Buddhism, so it’s not critical to debunk it here. On the other hand, I had already planned to do that in the Meaningness book before I began this blog on the Consensus.

What I want to do here next is to explain how and why tantra has been excluded from Western Buddhism, and what we can do about it. I will advocate a renewed, reinvented tantra that may better address 21st century spiritual concerns than the Consensus approach can.