About Ken McLeod

Illustration by Ian McKown from a photograph by Ann Braun


In 1970, I met my principal teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, at his monastery outside Darjeeling and began my study and practice of Buddhism. Kalu Rinpoche was a senior meditation teacher in the Karma Kagyu tradition and the lineage holder of the Shangpa tradition.

After completing the preliminary practices and learning Tibetan, I translated for Kalu Rinpoche on his first two North American tours (1972 and 1974-75).

From 1972-76, I helped to develop Rinpoche’s first center in North America in Vancouver, British Columbia. At the same time, I had the good fortune to study with Dezhung Rinpoche, a Sakya master who lived in Seattle.

During this period, I made my first forays into written translation with three texts, all of which were published by Rinpoche’s center in Vancouver: Writings of Kalu Rinpoche (a short text on the basics of Tibetan Buddhism written by Rinpoche expressly for Western students), A Continuous Rain to Benefit Beings (a commentary by Karmapa XV on Chenrezi meditation), and The Direct Path of Enlightenment (a revised translation was published in 1987 by Shambhala under the title The Great Path of Awakening). When I gave a copy of Direct Path to Trungpa Rinpoche, he promptly asked for a copy of the Tibetan and later used the text in his 1975 and subsequent seminary teachings.

To earn money for the three-year retreat, I also completed an M.A. in mathematics at the University of British Columbia and ran a foster home.

In 1976, Ingrid McLeod, Sarah Harding, Tony Chapman, Hugh Thompson, Richard Barron, and I left Vancouver to meet Kalu Rinpoche in France. There, along with Denis Eysseric and a lot of volunteers, we built the three-year retreat facilities from the ground up and in December that year, entered the first three-year retreat for Western students. In the retreat, we studied and practiced meditation methods in both the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu traditions, including ngöndro, Vajrakilaya (Dorje Purba), Chö (gcod), Mind Training in Seven Points, yidam practice (Cakrasamvara, Vajravarahi, etc.), the six yogas of Naropa, of Niguma, and of Sukha Siddhi, the Five Gold Dharmas of the Shangpa Tradition, Mahamudra (from Saraha, Tilopa, Naropa, etc.), Locket Mahamudra (from Niguma, Maitrepa and Sukha Siddhi), The Six-Armed Mahakala, and many other practices. On the completion of this training, I stayed for a second three-year retreat and assisted in the instruction of the new group of retreatants.

Other significant teachers from this period include Karmapa XVI, Jamgon Kongtrul, and Thrangu Rinpoche. I received both the bodhisattva vow and mahamudra instruction from all of them.

In 1985, Kalu Rinpoche authorized me to teach and placed me in charge of his Los Angeles center, Kagyu Do-nga Chuling. Faced with the challenges of teaching in a major metropolis, I began exploring different methods and formats for working with students. In 1988, I moved away from both the teacher-center model and the minister-church model and developed a consultant-client model. This model later became the basis for Unfettered Mind. In 1995, my presentation of this model at a Buddhist Teachers Conference caused a bit of a stir, but it was soon adopted by many Western teachers in various Buddhist traditions.

Beginning in 1991, I started meeting with small groups of students to focus on specific meditation practices and have them report on their experience. These small groups evolved into a number of practice-study groups that worked through a curriculum of meditation practices over a four or five year period.

At the same time, I organized three conferences on Buddhism and psychotherapy, two in Los Angeles and one in the Bay Area with my friend and colleague Yvonne Rand. I also broadened my training, including tai chi and dzogchen teachings (the latter with Nyoshol Khenpo, Gangteng Rinpoche, and Kilung Rinpoche).

In 1996, I started to write up the small group curriculum. In 2001, HarperSanFrancisco published it under the title Wake Up to Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention.

In my work with students, I rely principally on my training in Tibetan Buddhism. I also incorporate perspectives from Zen and Theravada, benefiting from my association with Yvonne Rand and other Western teachers. Where appropriate, I incorporate perspectives from martial arts, Taoism and other spiritual disciplines.

In 1998, Ajahn Amaro and Yvonne Rand joined me in developing and giving a week-long teacher training intensive called Passing on the Dharma. From there, Yvonne and I taught a series of retreats together over the next several years. One of the many outcomes from those retreats was my commentary on the Heart Sutra, An Arrow to the Heart, which was self-published in 2007.

Also, in 1998, I joined forces with Dave Radden and developed an executive coaching and consulting practice, applying the skills and methods of Buddhism in the corporate environment. My clients included Volvo Design, ReadyPac, HBO, Warner Bros., TimeWarner, NetSeer, and QSC Audio.

About the same time, I started mentoring a number of Buddhist teachers. The informal mentoring eventually evolved into a three-year Teacher Development Program for eighteen teachers that began in 2006. In the end, twelve people completed the program.

While I was teaching two retreats in New Mexico in 2008, a passage in a book triggered a profound shift in how I experienced life. The shift changed my relationship with Buddhism and how I was teaching Buddhism. The shift was characterized by a profound peace, accessible and available even in the most difficult situations. It also finished me as a teacher for reasons that are still as unclear to me as they are unambiguous. I started to wind down my teaching activities, teaching only one retreat a year and referring students to other resources. By 2011, my only teaching activity was a monthly Q&A session at a local center in Los Angeles. At a loss for what to do, I turned my attention to writing and completed the first draft of Reflections on Silver River, a translation and commentary on Tokmé Zongpo’s 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.

In June 2012, my living situation, an apartment in Los Angeles, became untenable. On the advice of a friend, I left Los Angeles and wandered around the world for almost two years before settling on Northern California to write A Trackless Path, a translation and commentary on a dzogchen poem by Jigmé Lingpa. I now live in Northern California and continue to write. Tricycle magazine has taken me on as a contributing editor and I am currently working on a book on Vajrayana.