by Jeff McMahon
Even by his own description, Ken McLeod is an unusual teacher. His primary training is in Tibetan Buddhism—he met his teacher Kalu Rinpoche in 1970— but instead of adhering to that or any particular lineage, McLeod incorporates perspectives from Zen, Theraveda, martial arts, Taoism and other spiritual disciplines in a style of teaching that departs from tradition.
“In 1988, I moved away from both the teacher-center model and the minister-church model and developed a consultant-client model,” McLeod writes in his online bio. “This model later became the basis for Unfettered Mind.”
Unfettered Mind is the “Buddhist service organization” McLeod runs in Los Angeles: “a place for people whose paths lie outside established centers and institutions.”
If McLeod’s sources and approaches have been varied, so have been his students. In the late 1990s he developed an executive coaching and consulting practice and took his teaching into the corporate world. “My clients included Volvo Design, ReadyPac, HBO, Warner Bros., TimeWarner, NetSeer, and QSC Audio.”
McLeod’s latest book, “Reflections on Silver River,” reflects this variety in approaches, sometimes achieving great clarity and insight, and sometimes, in my reading, to mixed or delayed effect.
“Reflections” is a translation and commentary on a poem, “Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhissatva,” by the 14th Century Tibetan Buddhist monk Tokme Zongpo.
If you google Tokme Zongpo, you’ll find the results dominated by McLeod’s relatively unknown book, which—Ken tells me—is because uses a more accurate phonetic translation for the important monk usually known in English as Togme Zangpo or Thogme Zangpo, whose verse resonates with timeless insight and beauty from the first line:
“Right now you have a good boat, fully equipped and available—hard to find.”
I don’t think a sentence could better say, “Start now. Start where you are. Start with gratitude.”
At its best, “Reflections” unfolds the subtle, sometimes difficult, meanings packed into Tokme Zongpo’s terse lines and articulates them with brilliant clarity and simplicity. So much so, that I read the book with a greater hunger for McLeod’s insights than for Tokme Zongpo’s, though it’s possible they are one and the same.
Let me give you an example. McLeod translates Tokme Zongpo’s ninth verse like this:
The happiness of the three worlds disappears in a moment,
Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.
The highest level of freedom is one that never changes.
Aim for this—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
In the commentary that follows, McLeod distinguishes the “exquisite quality” of a practice that experiences life with awareness, peace, and freedom from the fleeting happiness that many of us seek in practice, and even from the bliss states that emerge in meditation:
The quest for happiness is a continuation of the traditional view of spiritual practice—a way to transcend the vicissitudes of the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out a promise of eternity, bliss, purity, or union with an ultimate reality. These four spiritual longings are all escapist reactions to the challenges everyone encounters in life.
Take a moment and think about what you are seeking in your practice. Is it a kind of transcendence, if not in God, then in a god-surrogate such as timeless awareness, pure bliss, or infinite light?
Are you looking for an awareness so deep and powerful that your frustration and difficulties with life vanish in the presence of your understanding and wisdom? Are you not looking for a ticket out of the messiness of life?
If you think of freedom as a state, you are in effect looking for a kind of heaven. Instead, think of freedom as a way of experiencing life itself—a continuous flow in which you meet what arises in your experience, open to it, do what needs to be done to the best of your ability and then receive the result.
Most of us have probably already felt the “exquisite quality” McLeod describes, but he warns us about mistaking that quality for happiness, for bliss, for joy, for truth:
Some call it joy, but it is not a giddy or excited joy. It is deep and quiet, a joy that in some sense is always there, waiting for you, but usually touched only when some challenge, pain, or tragedy leaves you with no other option but to open and accept what is happening in your life.
Others call it truth, but this is a loaded and misleading word, carrying with it the notion of something that exists apart from experience itself. Truth as a concept sets up an opposition with what is held to be not true, and such duality necessarily leads to hierarchical authority, institutional thinking, and violence.
I find “Relections” most compelling at moments like these, as McLeod guides us along a tightrope of subtle understanding. The book reflects the light of a great teacher, like a Pema Chödrön, who can startle us with clarity while steering us to understanding.
But I did not have this reaction consistently while reading “Reflections.” Some chapters reminded me of a self-help book, a self-improvement manual, written in second-person scenarios in which I struggled to see myself.
For example, Tokme Zongpo’s thirteenth verse advises one to accept with compassion the venom of an attacker. Here is McLeod’s treatment:
Your phone rings. It is your boss. Without any warning she lays into you. She is so angry and upset you can hardly understand her. Whatever it is, you are to blame—that much is clear. She tells you what she has done and is going to do. Those words come through loud and clear, but you cannot believe them. When she is finished, she just hangs up. You are in shock. You are speechless. You cannot believe what just happened. You have just lost your job. And you did not do anything!
The first time I read those words I found the scenario far fetched—not that it never happens, but because it’s so specific, I found it difficult to access. And I wondered, wouldn’t an aspiring boddhisatva know how to defuse such drama? The scenario seemed simplistic and extreme. Maybe, I thought initially, that’s a chapter written for a corporate executive.
On my first reading, I struggled to identify with several such scenarios in this book, and as I prepared to write this review, I pondered whether my mixed experience reflects a weakness in the book or in its reader.
Then a friend of mine was fired from her job unexpectedly—one might even say venomously. Through her experience, I was reminded acutely of times when I have worked in venomous conditions.
McLeod may not have written that chapter effectively for the present me, but he describes my fired friend’s turmoil much as she describes it herself. And so it seems he wrote the chapter effectively for others, including some potential or future me.
So when I returned to the sections of the book that troubled me on my first reading, I realized they extend beyond my present range of imagination and experience.
Another reviewer, Stephen Schettini, has suggested that McLeod “uses his own disappointments and pain” to explore Tokme Zongpo’s verses. Maybe that explains the specificity of some of these scenarios: does McLeod follow Tokme Zongpo’s advice too, as in Verse 14?
Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe
Slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart,
Praise his or her abilities — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Elsewhere, McLeod’s second-person scenarios seem more universal, as in his commentary on verse 33, which advises against squabbles over status.
“Imagine you’re going to die in a minute,” he urges us. After that minute passes he asks: “Were you concerned about status?”
While “Reflections” sometimes reads like a self-help manual, it advises us against treating our practice that way, even when our self really does get some needed help:
As your practice matures and deepens, old wounds may come to the surface and heal. You may well become more effective and more responsive in your interactions with others. However, these are side effects of spiritual practice. When you take them as the aim of practice, you reduce practice to a form of self-improvement. The focus on yourself separates you from life, and you limit the chances of your finding a way to embrace the perplexing and baffling mystery of the human condition….
The spiritual practice is not about becoming a better person. It is not about increasing your skills, being more effective in your life, healing old wounds or being successful. It is about finding a way that leaves you at peace in your life and free to respond to others in whatever way is appropriate.
Self-improvement is a transitory endeavor, and the “Thirty-Seven Practices of a Boddhisattva” has endured eight centuries so far. Its wisdom runs deeper than its surface may reflect, and McLeod’s book situates us in its depths. Depths appropriate, perhaps, to a lifetime of practice.