Monday, November 29, 2010

Rebel Indeed

The West needs a great Dharma teacher, someone who understands our problems and neuroses; Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche may very well be that teacher. His latest book, Rebel Buddha, is testimony to his extraordinary insight into both human nature and the Dharma. He's a teacher who truly understands how to apply Buddhism to the lives of Westerners, because, despite being born and educated in India, he's lived in the U.S. since the early '90s. Which means he's familiar with all of the challenges of modern American life--everything from road rage and iPods to the stress of managing a career and raising a family.

What impressed me the most about Rebel Buddha is that Ponlop Rinpoche isn't trying sell you his brand of Buddhism. Rather, he wisely recommends that Western Buddhism grow organically. Instead of surgery, he recommends planting a seed and allowing it to grow in a shape reflecting the needs of its (American) practitioners. This is a very radical stance for Ponlop Rinpoche, considering that he studied for years in a traditional Tibetan monastery. But it should come as no surprise, especially in light of Rebel Buddha's title and main theme--Buddhism is a form of radical rebellion, one that runs, to use the Buddha's own words, "against the stream." We each have a Buddha inside, and it will take nothing short of a revolution to awaken it.

Ponlop Rinpoche recognizes that Asian Buddhism in American clothing cannot sustain itself for long; in order for Buddhism to thrive in America, it must take on a life of its own. Despite whatever backlash he might receive from his peers and teachers, Ponlop Rinpoche encourages us to see past Buddhism's Asian cultural legacy, to stop clinging to cultural vestments, and return to the heart of the Buddha's teaching--to the Dharma itself. Historically, Buddhism has always adapted; its migration to the West should be no different.

Rebel Buddha is written in accessible, humorous prose; its tone comfortably conversational. While reading it, I often had the impression that Ponlop was an old friend (or spiritual mentor) and speaking directly to me. I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend you read it. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche will surprise you on every page with his keen and good-humored wisdom.


  1. do you feel that there is no such thing as american buddhism after buddhism has been practiced in america for over 40 years?

  2. Quite the contrary. I think we have a vibrant tradition growing here. We should, however, avoid trying to preserve these traditions for tradition's sake. That would be futile. Instead, we should let the Dharma evolve, just like it has been doing for the past 2,500 years.

  3. the way buddhism is written about sometimes -- like in your review (maybe, i could have misread) and in books like those by stephen batchelor for example -- implies that there has been no american buddhism and we have to invent it from the ground up. we've had american buddhisms develop in this country since at least alan watts.

    personally, i've never been to an asian country and have never practiced in a monastery. i learned about buddhism through people like tara brach, jack kornfield, charlotte joko beck. i've practiced at the insight meditation community of washington and new york insight. i also practice at a place called the interdependence project which does ecumenical buddhism, the arts, and activism, so a pretty new american invention. all i know is american buddhism, with its warts and all. so i don't understand a phrase like: "Asian Buddhism in American clothing cannot sustain itself for long; in order for Buddhism to thrive in America, it must take on a life of its own" -- the buddhism i practice is far from asian and this is true of many americans, for better or worse.

    i think authors who want to improve american buddhism need to address where it is, or where some strands of it are, and say what needs to be added or changed. gotta start where you are, not from some fictional tabula rasa.

    i am interested in getting that book, though.

  4. There is the Buddhism that is practised culturally in different countries. Then there is the pith Buddhism which is the actual teaching, free from cultural influences or interpretations. Cultural Buddhism has many avenues to bringing students to the point of entering pith Buddhism, although in some instances cultural Buddhism ends up being a tangle of some people's bewildered ideas. That is why lineage is important. A true lineage of real masters preserves pith Buddhism, regardless of culture. Buddha taught the path to freedom from samsara, both with provisional meaning for conventional understanding and also with definitive meaning for ultimate direct insight. Actual realisation is unchanging, as is the final path to it. If someone of lesser attainment wants to change the teaching, then it is not Buddhism that is the result.