For the past forty years, Ken McLeod has worked as a translator of Tibetan texts and practices. With his new book, The Magic of Vajrayana, McLeod takes a more personal approach, drawing from his own experience to provide readers with a taste of Vajrayana rituals. Through practice instructions, evocative vignettes, and stories from his own life, McLeod offers a practical introduction to many of the rituals that may seem obscure to contemporary Western practitioners, including protector practice and guru yoga.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sits down with McLeod to discuss how rituals can take us to the edge of the unknown, what we risk when we ignore the presence of gods, and how Vajrayana helps us uncover the clear, empty knowing that is always present in experience. Read an excerpt from their conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.
What is Vajrayana, and what is a vajra? Vajra is the name of a weapon. It is the thunderbolt associated with the Vedic rain god Indra. The story behind it is that at one point, a pernicious titan, who was deeply protected by magic, had overthrown Indra. Indra called upon the other gods to help him defeat the titan. The gods saw that because of the magical protection, the only way that they could do so was to come up with a totally new weapon. They prevailed upon a sage, who had been born a sage for seven lives in a row, to give up his life so that they could use his bones to make the weapon. The sage, understanding the situation, agreed. The gods fashioned a vajra from his bones. With the vajra, Indra was able to destroy the titan and bring order back into the world.
Now, this thunderbolt crops up all over the place. It’s virtually the same thunderbolt that Zeus, the Greek god of thunder, holds. Its property is that when deployed as a weapon, it destroys whatever it is thrown at and returns to the hand of the owner unchanged. As such, it is a very suitable metaphor for the clear, empty knowing that is at the heart of all Buddhist practice: when you touch that clear, empty knowing, all afflictions, reactive patterns, and confusions are dispelled, and nothing changes that clear, empty knowing.
The term yana can be translated either as vehicle or as path. It is something that takes you from one place to another. So Vajrayana is the path or the vehicle of clear, empty knowing. Another word that is often used here is tantra, which is also an implicit metaphor. In weaving, tantra means a thread that runs continuously through the cloth and goes back and forth as it is woven. You could translate it as continuity, I suppose. This clear, empty knowing is present in every experience in our lives. We aren’t always aware of it or don’t always touch it, but it’s always there. And so the word tantra means the path of that clear, empty knowing which is always present in experience.
So how does Vajrayana practice create the conditions for the shift into this clear, empty knowing? Well, that clear, empty knowing is always present, and most people have touched into it at points in their lives. These moments are usually fleeting or very temporary, and often we don’t recognize them as such. Athletes, when they are exerting themselves very strongly, sometimes have the experience of moving into a kind of timeless awareness which they call the “zone,” where they’re able to do extraordinary things because it seems like time has slowed down or even stopped. Sometimes people confronted with an accident are able to move into that space. When someone close to us has experienced a tragedy and we’re just with them, we might have the experience of being with that person not as one, but not as two either.
In that clear, empty knowing, the separation that we ordinarily experience between subject and object is no longer there. You’re just present in—and you might even say you are—the world you experience. Vajrayana creates the conditions in which we can move into that kind of relationship with the world. In fact, the Vajrayana tradition is known for having many different methods for precipitating, eliciting, stabilizing, or uncovering that clear, empty knowing.
You say that in practicing Vajrayana, you may have to sacrifice a part or all of your life to practice. What do you mean by that? What are we giving up? If we look at the life of the Buddha, he grew up as a prince in a kingdom. He encountered old age, illness, and death, which shocked him to his core, and he also encountered a sadhu, a religious mendicant, who seemed to be at peace. To the young man, he couldn’t imagine how you can be at peace in a world shaped by old age, illness, and death. That puzzle so puzzled him that he left his wife and child and his royal position and embarked on a spiritual quest. That was a sacrifice. And that question, I think, is the heart of Buddhism: How do we live at peace in a world or in a life shaped by old age, illness, and death? It’s actually a nontrivial question. I know people who have sacrificed their family or their children or other things very dear to them for material gains.
Whatever we pursue, we’re going to give up something. And I think we need to take very careful stock of what we really want in our lives and what we are prepared to give up to pursue it. Those are very important decisions. For whatever reason, and I don’t have an answer to this, something called to me about spiritual practice or mystical practice. I encountered, as many people do, very, very considerable difficulties in it. And I don’t regret it. Because in a small way, I feel I’ve come to understand how to be at peace in life shaped by old age, illness, and death.
You also write about the importance of submission in Vajrayana practice, which you define as living practice in whatever life brings to you. Can you say more about the power of submission? I think it is when we submit to what our life actually is rather than always striving for it to be something different that we come to understand something very profound about the human condition. [When I became sick,] I was forced to accept that: “OK, this is my life. I have this illness, I have this imbalance, I have these problems, and they’re probably never going to go away. What do I do with that?”
I think one of the most important things, at least for me, that this leads to is a humility—you don’t control your life. I don’t take anything in my life for granted anymore. If good fortune comes, I’m grateful for it, but I don’t take it as something that is my due. And if difficulty and pain come, then, well, that is what my life consists of. How can I be in that experience completely? Because it is only by being in such experiences completely that we can find the clear, empty knowing that I referred to earlier. It is our resistance to what is arising in our experience that prevents us from knowing that clear, empty knowing.