4. Ken McLeod

Stephen Schettini talks with Ken McLeod on the question, “Does Buddhism Matter?”

Ken McLeod in 2009
Ken McLeod, creator of Pragmatic Buddhism and a distinctive voice in and beyond Buddhism, was trained principally in the Karma Kagyu school of the Tibetan tradition and is founder of Unfettered Mind.

Ken and I both studied in Europe in the 1970s and have crisscrossed many of the same byways for forty-odd years, but only bumped into each other in 2011 at a Buddhist Teachers Conference in upstate New York. Since then we meet regularly to discuss the impact Buddhism on our lives and teaching, and where modern society is headed.

In this talk Ken begins with the surprising statement that he, “Never thought Buddhism would make my life better.” We talk about inner demons and bliss, about truth about whether Buddhism is unique and especially what would happen to society if its citizens were to see through their projections.

Episode 4 – Ken McLeod (51 minutes) RSS

Or, download as MP3: 004: Ken McLeod – 46.6 MB

Sound mixing by Anthony Dominello


The Sound of Viborg by David Kuckherman from his CD The Path of the Metal Turtle

Web Links

Ken McLeod’s website: Unfettered Mind


Author: Stephen Schettini

Host of The Naked Monk

5 thoughts on “4. Ken McLeod”

  1. This discussion made me uncomfortable. I noticed aversion creeping up throughout the talk. I’m relatively new to Buddhism; having just started meditating in the last 5 years. I feel like I’m just starting to grasp some of the concepts of the Theravada school (e.g. Anatta, Dukka, Khamma and of course the Four Noble Truths). These concepts have begun to change my perception of the world and my place in it. Hearing two former Tibetan practitioners openly criticizing these ideas was unsettling for me. It showed me that perhaps I was putting too much ‘blind faith’ into the Dhamma; clinging to ideas and not being critical enough of what I am studying.

    At the beginning of the talk, Ken introduces the thought that perhaps the Four Noble Truths are not “truths” at all. I can appreciate this perspective from a philosophical stance, however from a pragmatic point-of-view (i.e. a meditator), these “truths” serve me well. Perhaps we are getting caught up in semantics when we argue whether they are “truths”, “guidelines”, “ideas”, “spiritual concepts”, etc. The idea for myself is that if one critically examines life – these ideas are universal.

    I dislike when the first noble truth is translated point-blankly: “Life is Suffering”. Too often it turns people off of Buddhism, and we get labeled as Nihilists. I have heard many other translations that are more useful. The ‘truth’, from my own experience is that life IS suffering on every level! As I sit writing this, I have a pain in my neck from sitting uncomfortably sprawled on the couch – so I want to change positions to be more comfortable. In everyday life, I avoid that which is unpleasant and am attracted to that which is pleasant. Is that not suffering? Suffering can be minor (the dull ache of loneliness waking up in an empty bed), or major (in my case, compulsively consuming drugs to the point of near self-destruction). Even in moments of extreme bliss, there is the knowledge in the back of my mind that the feeling/moment is temporary, another more subtle type of suffering.

    I also think we should be careful not to over-analyze, which tends to be a product of our Western culture. We are taught from a young age to be critical and to analyze, always questioning, while in many Asian cultures children are taught by rote learning even at the University level. As a result, we as Westerners have a tendency to take ideas, break them down and put them back together in a fashion that is more convenient for us. We are quickly becoming a “5-minute” society. If we want an answer, we Google it. If we want to talk to someone on the other side of the world, we text or Skype them. We want instant meals and instant enlightenment.

    All this to say Buddhism does matter, because it matters to me.

    I am grateful to Ken for sharing his views.

    1. Don’t take this the wrong way Elliot, but I’m glad it makes you uncomfortable. Insight comes from continually reexamining what we hold to be true.

      I don’t believe the Buddha was in the business of providing consolation or explaining reality. He offered a method, not an answer. Viewing The Four from that perspective is far more disruptive than regarding it as a description of reality. I think Ken’s (and Stephen Batchelor’s) rephrasing of the Four Truths is more pragmatic than philosophical.

      Besides, the Buddha never said “Life is suffering.” He said, “There is suffering.” Perhaps he was suggesting that instead of turning away from it as we instinctively do, we might pay attention to it.

      The Buddha was also questioned by Mahāli [S. 22:60] about the notion that life is “exclusively steeped in pain (dukkha)”? Buddha replied that were life “not also steeped in bliss (sukha), then beings would not become enamored of it.” This makes more sense to me, and is much more respectful of the norms of language.

  2. It would be nice if these podcasts could be downloaded. I, like many, listen to them on-the-go and being tied to the computer for 50 mins is impractical. Just a thought.

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