We’re joined this week by Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, to explore an approach he has coined “Pragmatic Buddhism.” We explore his early Buddhist training, which included 2 back-to-back 3-year retreats, completed under the guidance of Ven. Kalu Rinpoche. He describes this period as part boarding school, prison, and seminary. He shares why it was such a huge culture shock coming out of that traditional training, and ties that in with the way Buddhism has evolved in various cultures up to this point. Ken goes on to share 4 ways that he has adapted his own teaching style to reflect our culture, touching on issues of translation, power, questioning, and the meaning of practice itself.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Resolving the Questions that Drive Us.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today over Skype with a very awesome guest, Ken McLeod. Ken, thank you again for taking the time to speak with the Geeks. You’re already an honorary Geek and we haven’t even interviewed you, so that’s a pretty big deal.
Ken: What is an honorary geek? [laughter]
Vincent: I think you know. I don’t think I have to tell you that you’ve definitely been one of the main Buddhist Geeks in the West to bring Tibetan Buddhism here, and you’ve been a translator and an author and a teacher, and you’ve been carrying all these roles. So that’s kind of what, in our minds, makes you a Buddhist Geek, an honorary one.
Ken: Oh, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Vincent: Yeah, it’s a great honor to have you here, and just a little bit of biographical info for the people that may not be that familiar with your work. You started meditating in 1970 with Venerable Kalu Rinpoche. He was one of the first Tibetan teachers to take on Western students, I understand, or at least the first one that did the three-year retreat with Western students. One of my teachers at Naropa, Sarah Harding, she told me that you guys were on the first three-year retreat that he did for Westerners. Is that true?
Ken: Yes, that’s right. Sarah’s an old friend and colleague, yeah.
Vincent: Yeah. I was just imagining what it would be like to have gone through something like that with other people—three-year, three-month, three-week, three-day, three-hour, whatever, retreat.
Vincent: That must be pretty incredible.
Ken: Well, yes. It’s a combination of boarding school, prison, and seminary.
Vincent: Sounds lovely. [laughter]
Well, you did do this quite a long time ago, so I guess you have, now, some perspective on it, huh?
Ken: Well, yes, very definitely. I did the retreat in… Actually I did two three-year retreats.
Vincent: Oh. Did you do, like, back-to-back type things?
Ken: Pretty well, yes. So that was 1976 to 1983.
Vincent: Wow, iK. So that gives a sense, kind of, of your deep practice background, and then you’ve been teaching now for 30, 40 years, and your current teaching is happening through an organization called Unfettered Mind.
Ken: Yeah. It’s more like 25 years. Don’t make me too old.
Vincent: Ok. [laughter] So about 25 years you’ve been teaching.
Ken: Impermanence wreaks enough damage as it is. Don’t speed it up.
Vincent: So you weren’t actually teaching while you were in the three-year retreat. Ok. Check.
Ken: Well, no, actually I was, come to think of it. I taught a lot in the second three-year retreat…
Ken: …because the retreat director at that point went to India to attend a series of empowerments that Kalu Rinpoche was giving, so I ended up giving quite a lot of instruction over the last two years of the three-year retreat.
Vincent: Wow, cool. And speaking of Unfettered Mind, this is the organization that you started to kind of do your meditation instruction and programs and guidance in Buddhist practice, and it’s really striking when I go to the site, the tagline is “Pragmatic Buddhism.” And I really, really enjoyed that, and I know one of your main aims with Unfettered Mind is to kind of communicate the essence of Buddhism using, as you say, Western language, frameworks, contexts, models. And I wanted to ask, since you have such a rich traditional practice background, when that shift became important or necessary in how you were conveying things?
Ken: Well, that’s a good question. Even during the three-year retreat, I certainly became aware of tensions between modes of practice that had been developed in ancient and medieval India and carried for 1,000 years or so in Tibetan culture, which was a medieval culture at best, and then coming from a Western, modern, post-industrial society and so forth. And part of what made me question things is that while I could appreciate, and did appreciate very, very much, how the traditional practices worked, certainly when I left retreat I found myself in a quite severe culture shock, having spent seven years in, basically, a traditional Tibetan setting. Then Rinpoche in his wisdom sent me to Los Angeles.
So I went from an extremely secluded environment in central France where we had no visitors whatsoever, and no opportunity to buy or shop or drive or anything like that, to Los Angeles, which is very much a post-industrial city, and a very large one at that. So, I had to figure out how to work and how to function in this environment, and I became aware that a lot of people idealized Buddhist practice, thinking it was going to save them in some way from the vicissitudes of life, and that’s not exactly what happens with Buddhist practice.
It gives you, at least in the way that I look at it, it gives you the ways and means of meeting the vicissitudes of life. In fact, one of the things I did was to adapt a quotation from a Miyamoto Musashi, one of probably Japan’s greatest swordsman. He says this about Martial arts, and I just substituted Buddhism. “Buddhism is a way of freedom. Many people when studying this way, may think that the skills one develops will not be useful in real situations. The true way of Buddha is to train so that these skills are useful at any time, and to teach these skills so that they will be useful in all things.”
So, very soon after I moved to Los Angeles I was quite concerned with, how do you actually live this? Not in any kind of theoretical or the idealistic way but, what does it actually look like in your life? And, two or three years after I came here, that’s when I laid the foundation for Unfettered Mind and I just chose Pragmatic Buddhism, as opposed you might say to Romantic Buddhism, or other forms of Buddhism. [Laughs]
Vincent: That’s so interesting. And I was wondering connected with this, because you were mentioning the 3 year retreat, how do you feel now about that particular traditional form coming from this Pragmatic Buddhist angle?
Ken: You started off the question by talking about the essence of Buddhism. To me, that is a particularly Western notion.
Vincent: Yeah, for sure. A very modern notion.
Ken: The idea that things have an essence. [Laughs] And, the implications of that, in some ways, have really haven’t been appreciated relatively recently. You may be aware of that, in mid-80s, the Shambhala publications published a translation I did of the mind training at several points under the title “The Great Path of Awakening.” Well, if I were to do that again now, I would, without hesitation, insist that the title be “A Great Path of Awakening”, not “The Great Path of Awakening.” And that may seem like a minor difference, but I think it makes a huge one, because one of the ways I see all religions now, is that religions are very very long term conversations about certain questions. This is a perspective I got from a guy called James Carse, who is a retired professor of religion and theology from New York University.
The questions in Buddhism—if you’d say, “What’s the essence of Buddhism?” I’d say “the essence of Buddhism, is a conversation which we participate in our lives, about the basic questions about suffering, about how do we live in our lives in the face of birth, old age, illness, and death,” the major sufferings Buddhism talks about. And when you frame it that way, it immediately becomes very pragmatic. [Laughs]
Vincent: And so, in a certain way, I guess, there are ways that the pragmatism of this context and this culture like you’re saying, post-industrial LA, for instance, is going be a lot different than in medieval Tibet. And I wondered, how are some of the specific ways that you found you’re translating, or reinterpreting, or reimagining even, the Buddhist practices and Buddhist teachings in this context as opposed to the way they may have been taught in medieval traditional Asian contexts?
Ken: Well, I think it’s helpful to look at things in terms of evolution. Buddhism evolved in India. It started off as a renunciate tradition, similar to the saivite traditions, that people still join and adhere toand practice, and the Kumbh Mela and things like that. You watch those things and it feels like you’re watching what Buddhism is like, a couple of thousand years ago. And it evolved into a very rich, cultural, and religious, and philosophical tradition in medieval India. And basically became a part of the whole Indian complex, and ceased to be distinguishable from Hinduism.
But in the course of that, it migrated to other countries like Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and Tibet, China and so forth, and evolved in very very different ways in each of those cultures. Now that it has come to America, and Europe, and South America, and Africa, and other places, it continues to evolve, and in this process, there will always be people who practice very close to the, or as close as they’re able to, to the forms that were practiced in say the Asian countries. And then there will be other people who seek to adapt and make innovations that they deem more suitable to the present situation, and that’s what sparks the process of evolution. And there’s always a tension there, but from the perspective I see now, all of that is going on. There isn’t any one right form. Michael Meade said, “There isn’t a question of American Buddhism, it’s more a question of American Buddhisms,” the plural. [laughs]
So, some of the things that I’ve paid close attention to: One was, after teaching for a few years I realized that people struggled with problems in their practice which could be taken care of in a very, very short conversation. Sometimes they would struggled for six months or a year before I’d become aware that they were having these problems. So one of the things that I started to do after a couple of years was to institute a mechanism by which I was getting feedback from the students about what was happening in their practice. And I would have frequent meetings, in retreats for instance. Whenever possible, I interview every student every day about their practice. And that’s something that doesn’t happen in most retreats, except for the Zen tradition, which is a very different… and particularly Rinzai Zen. And in this way, people find that they are able to make incremental refinements in their practice, so they don’t stay stuck on stuff for a very long time.
There are pros and cons to this. One, I think it helps people refine their practice in a way that’s more suitable to them more quickly. On the other hand, they don’t necessarily have the experience of struggling with something and finding their own way, though I think there’s enough of that that goes on that that’s not completely lost.
Another thing that has been very important to me is to refine my own ability to translate, and really put things into contemporary English. This is not so much important, necessarily, for scholastic translations, but I really think for translations for which people are going to use in their practice, they should be able to read the prayers and verses and so forth and not have the feeling they’re reading something that was once in a foreign language. It should speak to them in English, and it enables them to relate to the material emotionally and to understand it transparently in a way that really becomes alive. And so that’s something that’s really important.
Another thing that I’ve done is to emphasize the role of power in practice. I find that people—and this may be part of the Asian inheritance—that they are often loath or seem hesitant to ask questions which are vitally important to them in their practice, and just wait for the answer to come sometime, and that may take years. So I encourage people to ask questions at every point in their practice, and make it their responsibility, make sure that they understand the practice in a way that works for them.
And a fourth area, I guess, is the—because I’ve seen this just be so destructive—is to remove the tension, or to do what I can to remove the tension between life and practice. In many Buddhist traditions you get the feeling that you’re only really alive if you’re meditating, and your life is only meaningful if you’re in retreat. And these are very natural ideas to have, given that Buddhism is very, very firmly part of the Indian renunciate tradition. But that’s probably not the form that Buddhism is going to take, or it’s not going to be the only form Buddhism takes, in the West. There are retreat facilities and monastic facilities that are being developed, and have been developed and are continuing to develop, and that will carry on the renunciate tradition, but a very, very large contingent of practitioners in this country live lives like you and me. We are right in the world, and that’s where I come back to Musashi’s quote. “How do you actually live this?”
So many people have said to me, well, if only I could spend more time in retreat, and in a certain sense I want to go back to how the Greeks approached life before Socrates came into the picture. And that was, they didn’t split religion and philosophy. It was very much, how do I live—to use Jon Kabat-Zinn’s phrase—in the full catastrophe? Wife, children, husband, work, etc. How do you actually live in this life in the way that you want? And the answer to that, from my perspective, is to find a way of experiencing life so that you aren’t struggling with your experience of life. And I think Buddhism provides some extraordinarily wonderful and powerful tools to bring that about.