(Please note: The following first draft of a review is based on an uncorrected manuscript. A Trackless Path is scheduled for publication in November, and a corrected version of this review will be published here, in The Buddha Diaries, and elsewhere at that time. This prepublication note appears in this small venue because... well, it's on my mind.)
I had to get past the thought of writing a “review” of Ken McLeod’s A Trackless Path before I was able to read the book. I had to get myself out of the way, along with my reactive need to understand it all, and the duty I felt, as a “reviewer”, to describe it and communicate its depths. A hard task—and I’ll have to admit I was not completely up to it: here I am, after all, writing a “review”!
Simply put, the book is an introduction to, a translation of, and a commentary on a short text—a poem by the 18th century Tibetan mystic Jigme Rinpoché, The Vision Experience of Ever-present Good. (There’s more to the title, but that would take us out into territory too esoteric for this brief review.) Having written about several of McLeod’s books in the past, starting with his challenging and exhaustive handbook of Tibetan Buddhism for the Western mind, Wake Up to Your Life (2001), I know well enough that they require a lot more of the reader than simply turning the pages and following a narrative or conceptual thread. To read this current book is to make a commitment to a frequent pause for reflection or the translation of an idea into practice, to backtrack or fast-forward between passages or chapters, to agree that the path through its pages is indeed “trackless,” in the sense that the reader must devise his or her own way. We should start, McLeod writes, from “an acceptance that to know directly the mystery of awareness, the mystery of this experience we call life, we have to let [the] conceptual mind go.” Read, he instructs us, “as you might read a poem, paying attention not so much to the meaning of the words but to what happens to you as you read.”
That said, if your mind is ready for the journey, A Trackless Path will open it up and point you in the direction of a dizzying new adventure into mind itself. It’s not easy. When I say that it is a struggle to read, this is intended not as negative criticism but as praise. Like everything, it seems, when it comes to Buddhist teaching or Buddhist practice of almost any kind, it’s simple, but it’s hard. I keep struggling with Jigmé Rinpoche’s text, even as the text itself keeps reminding me that the whole point of his teaching is NOT to struggle, but rather to let go the struggle. To rest. To do nothing…
A mystic is one who has direct, unmediated access to the ultimate mystery of being, and mystery is by definition inexpressible and unexplainable. No matter his insight or his eloquence, the mystic’s interpreter is doomed to failure: words just don’t cut it. The best he can do, as McLeod explicitly reminds us, is to point: Look! There! It’s up to us readers to follow the clues and open ourselves up to that which cannot be expressed in words.
Jigmé Rinpoche writes about dzogchen, the “great completion” practice that leads the practitioner to the “ever-present good”. “In […] dzogchen practice,” writes McLeod,
a distinction is made between mind and mind itself. The former refers to how we ordinarily experience life, filtered and distorted by reactive patterns. The latter refers to a knowing, an openness, present in all experience. That open knowing is free from distortions and projections.
“Mind itself,” he continues, “is not a thing. There is an experience of such vast openness that practitioners are often moved to say, ‘There is nothing there.’” He uses the analogies of stillness and silence to help us understand this concept—or, at times, the sky:
The sky is the sky. No matter what arises in it, violent hurricanes or typhoons, calm breezes, fog, sun, mist clouds, snow, rainbows or the aurora borealis, the sky is still the sky… It remains what it is—open clear space. Nothing defiles it, nothing sullies it, nothing debases it, because there is nothing to define, sully or debase. The sky is originally pure…
To know mind itself requires that we let go of the conceptual mind, that we go beyond all beliefs and dogmas, that we learn to “do nothing,” but rather to simply “rest in awareness”. McLeod offers us this instruction:
Rest in the field of everything you experience, and then pose the question, ‘What experiences all this?’ Do not try to answer the question. Just pose it and see what happens. You may experience a shift. A knowing quality becomes more vivid, perhaps with a sense of vastness or greater space, too. Rest right there.
To do nothing, of course—to not answer the question—this is the hard part, because our minds are conditioned to be active, alert, to wrangle the question, to formulate the answer. But to do this is to defeat the purpose of the exercise, which is to afford us direct, undistorted entry into the mystery, which I take to be the “ever-present good.” This direct awareness practice takes us past thought and belief, and into a place where “awareness is not an observer, an awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations form and dissolve like mist or like clouds in the sky.”
Okay, so here we are—if you’re anything like me!—befuddled once more in concept, in trying to understand. The trouble for most of us is that this “do-nothing,” effortless access to awareness is the result of literally years of study and practice. “Texts such as these,” McLeod reminds us, “are quite misleading for the average Western practitioner, because we do not appreciate how condensed they are in terms of time. Each verse assumes months, if not years of practice”. For this reason, a book like A Trackless Path is not for everyone, as McLeod is at pains to point out. It takes this amount of work and effort to arrive at no-work and no-effort. It takes this amount of seeing to arrive at seeing nothing.
And yet… On each page of this text, I think I glimpse the truth, though it eludes me all too often because I “think” I see it. As one with some years’ modest experience in meditation practice, I find myself able, at moments, to let go, to relax into pure awareness, and actually catch a glimpse. At such moments, I find myself—prompted by the directions McLeod points out—at the edge of nothing, a vertiginous feeling that is at once thrilling and unnerving. On each page I find my heart beating—you know that feeling?—in recognition of some glimmer of possibility that I’m as yet unable to completely grasp, all the while with the understanding that it’s only when I stop trying to grasp that I may have the chance to “get it.”
This is what makes the reading of this book, for me, an always exciting and rewarding challenge. I can’t quite put the experience down in words—but you’ll know what I mean when you read it.