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The Magic of Vajrayana with Ken McLeod, Part 2 Transcript


Transcription of a Deconstructing Yourself podcast episode, you can listen to here.

Michael Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for meta-modern mutants interested in meditation, neuroscience, hardcore Dharma, shards of Earth, predictive processing, tantra, nonduality, awakening, and much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode, I’m speaking, once again, with Ken McLeod. Ken McLeod began his study and practice of Buddhism in 1970 under the eminent Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche. After completing two three-year retreats, he was appointed as resident teacher for Kalu Rinpoche Center in Los Angeles, where he developed innovative approaches to teaching and translation. After his teacher’s death in 1989, Ken established Unfettered Mind, a place for those whose path lies outside established institutions. His many published works include Wake Up To Your Life, A Trackless Path, and his brand new book entitled The Magic Of Vajrayana. And now without further ado, I give you part two of the episode called “The Magic of Vajrayana with Ken McLeod.”

Michael Taft: So, as promised, Ken, welcome back for part two of our talk about your book, The Magic Of Vajrayana.

Ken McLeod: Thank you. What are we going to explore today?

MT: I think it’s to be discovered, we’ll find out what we’re going to explore. But as I mentioned, I felt like at the end of the last interview, which we did about 10 days ago, or something, I just felt like we hadn’t really gotten as far along with everything I wanted to talk about the book as we may have liked. So I feel like today, we can go a little further in that direction. 

KM: Sounds good. 

MT: I think that in the meantime, a couple of questions have arisen for me, which I think you may be well-positioned to answer. So I’d like to just ask you some questions off the top of my head, apropos our last discussion. One is that in the book, you provide, like very complete practice texts, or what we might call the rubric for doing the yoga of White Tara, which is incredibly beautiful, by the way, practice, and also for Mahakala. And I’m just curious, of course, as you know, in lots, maybe virtually all Vajrayana tradition, one does not just publish this stuff in full detail and tell anyone, anywhere they can do it. Typically, there’s usually some kind of restriction, saying that you need to have an initiation from someone who’s in a lineage and can trace the initiation back all the way to Samantabhadra or something. I’m curious, what’s your thinking about just publishing this openly in this book?

KM: Well, mixed, if I’m going to put it in one word. I’m well aware of the traditional way these texts were presented. And that was the way they were presented to me. And yet, we live in a very different world now from the world of Indian Buddhism and from the world of Tibetan Buddhism. And so people who’ve looked into this more deeply than I have come to the conclusion that the whole matter of secrecy or restriction may not serve as well in the current circumstances as it did in previous times. One Tibetan teacher, a very well-regarded Tibetan teacher who’s taught extensively in the West as far back as the 2000s, said that there’s no point to the secrecy anymore because you can find everything on the web, somewhere or other. I certainly found that to be true. There are a lot more secret teachings than these all over the web. 

I think it’s not terribly helpful to put the emphasis on secrecy because empowerment is very important. And I think I make that fairly clear in the book. And in some way, somehow a seed of experience needs to be planted if your practice is going to be fruitful. So I don’t see any great harm in putting these practices, you know, the details of these practices, out because people are just going to read it. And they may try to practice it; maybe that’ll be helpful to them. I think more likely it will probably inspire them to find a teacher and form a relationship with the teacher so that they can go deeper than the book does.

In many respects, I also tried to write the book in such a way that it would elicit some kind of experience in the reader. That’s for you and others, like you, Michael, to determine whether that is the case or not because it’s all about experience and how we experience the world. And as I said, one can find all of these teachings on the web someplace or other. And I thought it was better to set them in the context—the emotional context in terms of faith and devotion—and the practice context in which they are meant to be practiced, rather than just coming across them on some website somewhere. That’s not a very coherent answer, but I hope you get the drift.

MT: I do. But I want to ask a few more questions about it. One is, are you saying that in some way, even if it’s a non-traditional way, you feel the book itself provides an empowerment or an empowerment-like experience? You said it’s up for readers to decide. But I mean in terms of your intention. 

KM: In all the books I’ve written so far anyway, I’ve tried to emphasize the experiential aspect as opposed to the theoretical or the academic, or what have you. Because I think that’s a better guide for people, and how to practice in particular, how does it feel in the body? And I think you know this from your own teaching experience.

MT: Yes, very much so.

KM: Yeah. So in each of the sections—the guru section, and the deity section, in the protector section—I wanted people to feel something in their body as they read it. And that may act as a seed, which allows something to grow in them. And if that happens, I feel that I was successful in my efforts to write this book.

MT: Do you think the implied magic magical component of initiation can be achieved this way? My guess is, why not? Of course, it can. We’ve all read books that have initiatory power, sometimes startlingly intense initiatory power. That’s why they become spiritual classics. So my guess at the answer is, of course. Now, I’m not asking you to claim that yours does that. But at least how you think about this level? Do you imagine that texts can contain whatever the secret seed of initiatory power is, at least sometimes or for some readers?

KM: Let’s go a little broader first. I know of two eminent Tibetan teachers who now give empowerments in videos. That is when you feel ready to take the empowerment, you watch the video. And some of these are very complex empowerments, like and so there’ll be several hours. Well, that’s not something I would have tried. And so you’re watching the Lama perform the ceremony, usually in Tibetan with some translation. And that’s being regarded as receiving the empowerment.

I think, focusing on the; Is this an empowerment? Or is it not? I don’t think that’s the best way to look at this. I mean, in the Tibetan tradition–I’m thinking of Langri Tangpa, who was visiting–he’s a Kadampa teacher back in the 12th, 13th century, somewhere around there, maybe a little later. And he was visiting a friend and there was a book open at his friend’s house. And he happened to glance and see two lines, award others victory, and take all defeat for oneself. And he had never, ever seen or heard of a teaching like that. And so he asked his host; Where does that come from? And he said, Well, that’s from Langri Tangpa’s Mind Training in Eight Verses, which I translated in the Unfettered Minds website. And so this person sought out that teacher. So obviously, just that one phrase planted a seed. Was that an empowerment? I wouldn’t even get into that game. It’s sufficient to say that it planted the seed, struck something in him that moved him in a direction, and became very important for him.

And so I think these things may happen. It’d be nice if it happened with this book. Certainly, other people have felt that The Trackless Path and Reflections On Silver River, for that matter, opened up ways to practice or approaches to practice that they hadn’t considered. And I think that what’s important is–whether it’s a book or video or whatever–it has that kind of effect. It moves something in the person. It puts them in touch with a calling that they may not have known was there, clarifies something so that new possibilities open up. And I’m not going to get stuck so much on whether that constitutes an empowerment or not in the traditional sense, because then you get into a whole bunch of things. Does it move this person forward on his or her path? And if it does? Well, maybe that’s good enough. Maybe now a dissatisfactory reply, Michael, that’s probably the best I can do.

MT: The main reason I ask is because I will assert that there probably already are online forums where this stuff is being debated to the nth degree, and so just to have your take on it, I think is very helpful.

KM: Well, this is something that I’m very grateful to my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche because he didn’t get stuck on a lot of this stuff. He wanted people to practice, and he gave them the tools and what they needed to practice. I’m talking about the four levels of tantra, and you know, the four this’s, the five that’s, and things like that. He wanted people to understand the spirit and the intention and what is its place in practice, not all the technical details and precise definitions and things like that. You might say the spirit of practice. You know the importance of feeling the spirit of practice. 

You may recall in the deity section, I talk about the spirit of the deity. Well, that’s not a Tibetan formulation. And I’m not even quite sure how one would translate that into Tibetan. But it evokes something in English; you could say it’s the mind of the deity, but the mind doesn’t carry the same connotations and the same power as the spirit. And you feel the spirit of Avalokitesvara, or Chenrezig is radiant compassion or the same as White Tara. And if you have some feeling for that spirit of the deity and you make that the cornerstone of the basis of your practice, your practice is probably going to be more fruitful than if you expend a great deal of energy trying to visualize every detail but don’t have that spirit in it.

MT: Yeah, that tracks for so much of spiritual experience. The spirit is the important part or at least the most important part. Your comment about the word spirit in English reminds me of the roots of psychology in the West, where Freud never wrote about the psyche; he was writing about the Geist, which, of course, means the spirit. And his work reads so much differently if you replace the word psyche everywhere, which, of course, means something similar originally, but the way it was used in the West was as a pseudo-scientific term because it’s using an ancient language and so on. It reads really differently if you replace it with the word spirit, or even–gasp–soul. The work becomes so much more approachable and relatable, and in a way, organic.

KM: That’s very interesting that you should mention that because the way Freud was translated into English changed how he came across in other ways. In German, he used Ich, Über-ich, and Es, which were the common words for I, over I, or above I, and it. But when it was translated into English, it became ego, superego, and id. Latin terms were used. 

MT: Again, making them sound like they’re science terms and kind of removing the immediacy of the living language.

KM: Exactly. So this is why translation and how we express things are so important. And one of the things I strive to do both in translation and writing is to have what I write–whether it’s a translation or a book that I’m writing–have that sense of spirit aliveness in it. And sometimes I read a passage I’ve written and say, that’s just dead. And I go back and rework it until it’s got some life in it.

MT: Yeah, I think that’s reflected in how people respond to your books as living texts and for some people, even a kind of scripture. I’m also curious why White Tara, the sadhana, I think you mentioned is particularly short, which is nice and of course, incredibly beautiful. And are there other considerations for using White Tara?

KM: Yes, I could have used Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, the one that Rinpoche gave to almost everybody. It came from a visionary experience of Thang Tong Gyalpo, a 15th or 16th-century teacher–I can’t remember exactly when–with which I was very familiar. And listeners can find that in a very solid commentary by Rinpoche’s spiritual heir Bokar Rinpoche, in the book, The Lord of Love. But I chose White Tara for two reasons. One a peaceful deity, like Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion, more here, but the association of long life and activity of compassion, but also because the structure of the text was more the traditional structure of a practice text, a sadhana than the Chenrezig, or the Avalokitesvara text. And so I felt that more people would be able to relate to their practice text, whatever it was because it would have a similar structure to the White Tara one. And that was important that these different elements in it and the sequences, it’s clearer in the White Tara than it is in the Avalokiteshvara text that I was familiar with. 

MT: I See. And what about Mahakala? Why choose that particular protector?

KM: Oh, because I like it. 

MT: Yeah.

KM:  I mean, I’ve had a very long relationship with Mahakala, there are many forms of Mahakala. This is just one of them. And there are many practice texts of every form that have this particular form. But this is one that I was very familiar with. Again, it embodies the core practice elements of protector practice: the torma offering, the invoking obligation, etc. With protector practices, there’s all kinds of little ritual elements. And again, the purpose of the book is for people who’ve been doing some of these things, maybe not with Mahakala, maybe with Ekajati or Palden Lhamo or any number of other protectors, they’re going to find that the practice elements are very similar. And this gave me the opportunity to explain and hopefully convey with some energy, the spirit of these practices, what you’re actually doing in them.

I found myself rather bemused, I suppose is the right word there’s a tremendous amount of written on deity practice, or yidam practice that sense of deity. There’s relatively little written on protector practice. And I thought this was very curious. And so I wanted to put something out so that people had a way of relating to protector practices, there wasn’t just this mysterious thing that everybody did. But nobody was quite sure why or what it was about or what the meaning of the text was, or even if they understood the meaning of the text, what the meaning of the practice was, and so forth. So many different layers. Because I think it’s really important when you’re practicing, you actually know what you’re doing.

MT: Yeah, do you have any understanding or conjecture about why so little is written about it?

KM: I thought about that for a while. Why is there so little written about it? I mean, there are texts which explain how to do the practices, and many practices associated with the six-arm Mahakala, which actually makes it into yidam practice more or less in its own right. But, again, as I think I noted, in our last conversation, in Japanese Vajrayana, there isn’t a distinction between deity and protector, your deity is your protector. And so there may be something there. And also, the magical element is more explicit, even though it’s very much part of deity practice, the fact that you’re invoking magic is a little more explicit, or quite a bit more explicit in the protector. That may have been a reason why less was written about it. And it was something that was communicated orally to those who actually had the ability to practice and work magic at that level. I don’t know. This is all conjecture on my part.

MT: You know, the other day, I was listening to a podcast that contained basically what I would classify as ecstatic poetry, or maybe poetry prose, but it was definitely like an ecstatic invocation of the Goddess. It was very moving, I found it very moving and powerful. And it just occurred to me afterwards, how little of this is available anymore in any kind of living text in English, where this is something somebody just wrote recently. It just struck me how rare this is now for anyone to put something out there in that mood. And to me how deeply important that particular mood of like invocation of beauty and expression of both awe and wonder and devotion and maybe even, especially in terms of the goddess terror, and all-encompassing-ness in a mysterious way, it invokes a mystery. There’s just so little of that anymore. And I feel like even in the last, let’s say, ten or maybe twenty years, but more like the last 10 years our society which has been armored against that for hundreds of years has become almost completely immune to stuff like that. I feel like people don’t even know how to approach material like that, let alone be moved by it. It’s just like, what is this? It doesn’t feel linear and rational enough, which of course, it’s not linear and rational at all. That’s why it doesn’t feel that way. 

But as I was just sitting with my feelings after listening to that I was thinking about your book. Yes, it’s talking about how to do these practices and your experience, you know, the experiential component you’re describing. But also, it’s a whole book of what I would consider to be ecstatic poetry to deities that you’ve translated from Tibetan. And for me, one of the things I love about it, it’s just like sitting and reading these evocations, they’re so beautiful. And the images that they bring up are so potent, and I want to just avoid even using the word archetypal because that just puts them in some kind of box that’s so mental. And it’s like, no, this is of the heart and it’s dynamite. It’s explosive, if you really let yourself feel it. I don’t think this is leading to a question. I’m just talking. So I’ll just be quiet for a moment and see if that brings up anything for you?

KM: Well, it does. One of the thoughts that came to mind is that there’s a choral group here in Santa Rosa called Sonoma Bach. It’s more than a choral group, there’s about three or four different choral groups of different sizes, everything from four or six voices up to thirty, or forty voices. And the music is either late Renaissance, or all in the Baroque period, or just very close to the Baroque period. And I love the music, particularly when it’s just the choral music because it is so incredibly pure in tone and tune that I feel, quite literally washed inside and out from listening to it. And at the same time, it brings me a tremendous amount of sadness. Because if you take Bach, for instance, every piece of music that he wrote, he signed For the Glory of God. And this is what inspired him to write this music. And one of the things that I find very sad is that most people hear this extraordinary music that developed in the Christian tradition around that period of time, but now it’s a form of entertainment, not a form of devotion. 

So I think that people are exposed to this stuff but in a very, very different way. And we have the same thing with Tibetans, you know that these touring companies of the multi-tonal singing, the Gyuto Choir, and then the mandala ceremonies and so forth, and even lama dances. For these were all liturgical elements that have now become a form of entertainment, which means that you get to listen to them, but the way that you’re listening to them kind of immunizes against–except in rare cases–them really touching anything deep and moving you in a different direction. And so that’s something that our culture has created. I mean, one could put the blame where one wants, but our relationship with the spiritual has become so weak that for many, the only way to relate to the spiritual is a form of entertainment. That’s one thing that your comments elicited in me. 

And I think that it’s very important if one is going to practice, in this tradition, or in any other, I will say a mystical or spiritual tradition, it can’t be because it makes you feel better. You used the word awe. I remember giving a talk at the Buddhist Geeks conference many years ago, in which I amended Joseph Campbell’s follow your bliss, and said, No, it should be following your awe. Because when you deliberately put yourself into the feeling of awe and I defined awe as a feeling of being intimately connected, with something that is infinitely greater than you. When that emotion arises in you, and you don’t push it away, but you let it penetrate you, then the world and life take on a different kind of meaning and it’s not a meaning you can express in words. And it’s not a meaning, out of which any malevolence, or greed, or any of these things can manifest. There’s a humility in it. And I would even go so far as to say a reverence for life which easily translates into a pretty widespread compassion. Originally, this is what Christian architecture and Islamic architecture was just–particularly Islamic–just incredible at evoking–that sense of awe–but you get the same thing in many of the Gothic churches in Europe. But that’s the basis of spiritual practice, I think it is for me.

And so when you really allow yourself to feel the spirit of the Deity, like Avalokitesvara, as we were talking, or White Tara, Mahakala, or any of the others, they speak to you through that awe. And that allows you to start letting go of the sense of self that we ordinarily hold on to so tenaciously. The sense of self subsides in that experience of awe. If only for a moment, and that’s why it becomes something very intimate. And I think that is what a lot of people are seeking, even if they don’t know it. Does this make any sense to you, Michael? 

MT: Yeah, I noticed that, especially in the very modern, up-to-the-minute West, there’s a lot of talk about invoking some of these deity energies to like improve my marketing, or to help me you know, work out better. There’s a kind of like, yeah, the deity is there to help me clean my bathroom or something. It reminds me of the old commercial, the oven cleanser is doing the cleaning for you while you’re playing cards, or whatever, I’m cleaning my oven. And it’s sort of like, yeah, the deity is cleaning my oven. There’s just this sense of absolute opposite of awe and wonder at something greater than yourself. It’s more like, oh, a cute little self-help meme or something. And obviously, it got its own problem. But it’s reflective, to me anyway, of the fact that our society seems immune to this kind of mystical experience. And yet, we’re still human beings. And human beings require mystical experience to be human beings. And so, this is not a new concept, when we’re not allowed healthy, robust, clear lines of mystical experience or mystical transmission of experience. We have a lot of sick, diseased, unhealthy versions arrive like crazy conspiracy theories and vast conspiracies that are much bigger than me. And they have these twisted elements of mysticism in them because human beings are mystical creatures. 

Again, I’m not sure there’s a question there. You were asking me the other day what I thought about mysticism in our society. And that’s what’s coming up for me is just that, because we’ve so comprehensively banned it from all public discourse, it’s now leaking from the basement up in the form of just like raw, mystical sewage. I see a book like this Magic of Vajrayana and sure you know, it’s like, that’s a nice little text for understanding how to do this stuff. But there’s so much in there that could potentially be a healthy form of connecting with this deep, deep need in human beings.

KM: Well, one way I’ve heard expressed is: when mystic or a spiritual yearning knocks at the front door, if you don’t let it in, it comes in the back door, usually in some distorted form, as you have already expressed, and it doesn’t go away. It just comes in, in a different form. And the question that I pose to you, because a lot of people have asked me, “What do you see as the future of Vajrayana in the West?” or in this country, or whatever. And I was thinking about this in connection with something else I was reading, does our culture have a need for it? And at this point; it doesn’t. It’s been doing extremely well with materialism, and especially over the last 30 years or so. But that period seems to be passing now. And it’s very possible things are gonna get quite a bit rougher, not so easy as they have been in terms of globalization and so forth. And being able to get whatever you want, wherever you want, and so forth. And in the same way that COVID threw people, at least temporarily, off the track of the most important thing to do in your life is work. And people discovered No, there’s other aspects to life that are really like spending time with my children or just going for walks quietly by myself and all the things that people did to adapt to the COVID restrictions. For many people, they discovered that there were dimensions to life, which they kind of knew but had forgotten. And I think something like that may have to happen. From my own part, I’m not at all concerned with changing the nature of the society. I’m much more concerned with providing the people who feel this kind of calling with the tools and the resources, I suppose broadly speaking, that can help them in their spiritual practice and sustain them in their spiritual practice. And that’s basically why right, and that’s the intention behind everything that I write, it’s to be used by people who are looking for a way to approach spiritual practice. Because there’s an awful lot of confusion about that in our society. Not only confusion but distortions of the type you’ve described. And I think some good will come with that. I hope so.

MT: Have you been receiving any feedback about the book?

KM: Yes, I’ve had a few letters, a few emails, and most people are expressing very positive feelings about it. A couple of people, they get the book and the first thing they do is to set up a retreat for themselves as quickly as possible so that they can read it in a setting where they’re going to be quiet for a long period of time, I think that’s rather good.

MT: I really resonate with this emphasis that you’re describing, of not trying to storm the walls of society’s castle and kill the king and create a new society or something like that. But simply, hey, if you’re interested in this stuff, here’s some things you may find helpful, you might not, but here are some things you may find helpful. I think that is an appropriate expression of the mood you’re describing. It has a certain amount of intimacy and humility in it, and not a grand plan. And so that just seems really appropriate to me.

KM: Well, I’ve thought a lot about systems. And in a society such as ours, we absolutely need systems in order to function because the number of people is just so large. But one of the things that happens with systems is that, you know, we all know what it’s like dealing with a cable company, for instance, or any other system, it’s a dehumanizing experience.

MT: Cross yourself and throw some salt over your shoulder, when you say their names.

KM: Well, I could say any other thing like customs officials, I just had a round with that, any large organization, they have to, but it’s dehumanizing to interact with them. But it’s also dehumanizing for the people in the organization because they have to deal with people as averages. And every now and then you find someone in one of those organizations to treat you as a human being. And it’s like a breath of fresh air.

MT: It’s shocking and wonderful.

KM:  Wonderful. And the business gets taken care of very quickly. But they can’t do that all the time. And so because I find–necessary as they are, and I’ve great admiration for people who can actually set up effective systems and get them to run least with a dab of humanity. But I realized that that wasn’t something that I was set up for, or had much inclination towards. And I encourage people who are feeling any kind of spiritual longing to keep it small in terms of numbers, and have real personal connections, real-time connections with people with teachers, or with co-travelers, or so forth. Because in those interactions, you’re going to get so much more than you ever can from an institution or from a system. And I just think that’s very, very important. 

If people find something in this book that I’ve written that speaks to them, then find someone you can talk to about that. I remember, many years ago that a woman had come to a couple of my retreats, asked if she could study with me. And she lived in New York. I said, you know, it’s not really very practical. But she said, I have my teacher who’s in the Theravada tradition, but he never talks about the things you talk about. And they said, well, then here’s what I suggest you do:  go to him and say, “These are the things that I found really meaningful. And I would like to talk with you about these things or their equivalents in the Theravada tradition.” And she actually took my advice, and went and had a talk with her teacher, and said that it was the most amazing conversation she’d ever had with them. 

So that’s what I think’s important is if a person is well trained and knowledgeable about a spiritual tradition, and something really speaks to you. And you’re able to put that in words, even if there are halting, not very eloquent words. Then something real begins to happen. And you may discover that there’s untold depths that you weren’t even aware of because both of you are in some way constrained by the system. So that’s what I would like people to explore.

MT: Ken, can you give an example of your own interaction with Kalu Rinpoche, and just that quality, that it’s personal, that it’s one on one and you really learn something that you couldn’t learn at a distance reading about it or whatever, but it’s really that more like direct transmission kind of thing.

KM: So Rinpoche, generally speaking was a man of very, very few words. He had an extraordinary ability to give the essence of a principal or a teaching in just a sentence or two, quite literally. And there were many occasions where he would say a sentence and I realized that it was all there. And for instance, I think every teacher has their favorite phrase, which embodies the teachings for them, or embodies practice. And one candidate anyway, for Rinpoche, was the Tibetan phrase, ngo she tsam gyi ngang la zhag which means, rest in just recognizing. And it took me a little while to understand what he was pointing to. But as you rest in formal meditation, if you notice that you’re breathing, okay, and then you just rest there. And if you notice the thoughts arisen, you just rest there. And if you notice that you’re tired, you just rest there. So you’re always resting in just recognizing. And I came to appreciate that so many other instructions that’s actually what they were pointing to. Though many times people have made them into quite different meditations and distorted them and distorted the sense and taking them away from the immediacy of just recognizing and resting right there. Suitable candidate?

MT: Yes, Ken, again, time has flown.

KM: It does between us, you know, I think we should do something about that. Maybe slow down the clocks when we talk.

MT: I’m absolutely willing to do that. I’m so glad we got this opportunity to dig into this, delve into this topic, at least a little further. As usual, it feels like there’s so much more but hopefully, we’ve at least intrigued listeners enough to check it out and perhaps if moved to go a little deeper in this direction. So thank you so much again.

KM: It’s always a pleasure talking with you, Michael. I do appreciate it. And thank you for the opportunity again.

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