We are, I think, finally beginning to see the full flowering of a literature of true native Western Buddhism. By this I mean works written by Buddhists who are Westerners first and foremost, and whose understanding of both Western life and Buddhism complement each other. Brad Warner was one such writer: it was hard for an Akron, Ohio-born punk rocker turned ordained Soto Zen Buddhist not to have both his Buddhism and his Western-ism speak to each other. His books document all of that in a fun, accessible way for beginners, and perhaps also for experts who have gotten lost along the way.
Rebel Buddha is another well-written general introduction to Buddhism, by way of Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and for that reason alone is worth checking out for beginners. What makes it doubly interesting is how it attempts to approach Buddhism as something that is inherently transplanted from one culture to another. Buddhism has migrated from India to China, Korea, Japan, the rest of Asia, and into Europe and the United States, and along each step of the way has found ways to become a living part of the culture that accepted it.
It’s been debated whether or not this integration is even possible in the West, which today is bound together more by the values of capitalism and certain principles of governance than any spiritual traditions per se, Bible-thumping aside. Ponlop believes it is possible and even urgently required — that a truly Western Buddhism is finally taking shape, and that what’s needed is more work to make Buddhism’s core principles available without spiritual baggage that is really only of interest to historians or hard-core scholars of Buddhism. People should not have to learn about the principles of internal combustion to drive a car, and likewise people curious about Buddhism probably don’t need to be simply dropped into the deep end of the dharma pool when they want to learn how to swim.
This stands in somewhat stark contrast to many of the unspoken assumptions about Buddhism that I have personally encountered. Buddhism is first and foremost a philosophy of action — something that is done, not simply talked about or entertained as a nifty idea — and few people dispute that. But time and again I have encountered the sense that true Buddhism consists of also embracing some manifestation of its cultural exoticism. It didn’t matter if you picked Zen or Tibetan or what have you, as long as you picked something that had real cultural force behind it — otherwise, the lessons imparted would have no weight.
I was never able to come out and admit the problems I had with this attitude, in big part because I myself believed they had a grain of truth to them. Wisdom always seems to have more heft to it when it comes blasted from the trumpet of authority, and authority in turn has that much more weight when it comes with the force of centuries of history and the breadth of a whole culture behind it. It seems harder to take the same advice when it comes to us just-so, out of our own lap of discovery, so to speak. It’s easier to distrust in that form, because it has more the flavor of something merely pulled out of the ear, and the last thing we want is to be duped all over again by someone who’s just, well, pulling things out of their ear.
But a big part of why Buddhism operates the way it does is because it uses teachings and doctrinal texts as starting points, not foregone conclusions. The meaning of a given sutra is rooted only partly in its origins as a text in a given language, and in fact some of those things can get in the way of the real meaning. Hence all the (mostly fruitless) debates about whether or not Buddhists believe in reincarnation, just because the Buddha used the terminology of same to make metaphorical points to an audience that at the time was primed to believe in such things (as Richard Gombrich pointed out). The more we use the cultural context of a given piece of wisdom as the only starting point by which to access that wisdom, the more dependent we become on contexts that are alien to us.
This is one of Ponlop’s key points, and he demonstrates it to us in his own introduction to the book. He had his own identity crisis of sorts: he spent his early life in a monastery in Sikkim, then spent time in Canada and then the United States, and now resides in Seattle. No one label seemed to suffice for him. Out of that came the sense that the wisdom he had been imparted, and which he wanted to impart to others in turn, was something that deserved to transcend easy cultural labels. Tibetan Buddhism in particular is strongly bound to its own culture via practices and concepts like tonglen or dzogchen, much of which is esoteric and doesn’t lend itself to being communicated without its associated Tibetan cultural elements. But Ponlop had some practice with this before in his 2003 book Wild Awakening, where he did just that, albeit with language a little drier and less engaging than what he shows here.
Rebel Buddha is based on two lecture series that Ponlop delivered — one written, one spoken — and covers roughly two parallel tracks. The first track is a general introduction to Buddhist concept and practice, aimed at the layperson with no prior experience with Buddhism. The second, which intertwines with and is derived from the first, is about how Buddhist practice has evolved over the years and how it has become a separate incarnation as a cultural force in every land it’s taken root in. A Western, and even an American, Buddhism is not a watering-down of Buddhism, but simply its newest iteration — that is, as long as its motives are sincere and its practice is true.
Ponlop’s own introductory explanation makes it clear that the book’s main intention is practical, not theoretical. “[This book is] an exploration of what it means to be free and how we can become free.” The rebel part of “rebel buddha”, he explains, is a metaphor for the Buddha’s own description of how our enlightenment is always there — always dormant, always ready to burst out and allow us to liberate ourselves, and not something that needs to be discovered or added to us so much as it is something to be let out of us. From time to time, if we pay attention, we can feel “rebel buddha” (small b) manifesting within us. The trick is to find out how to let the tiger out of its cage in a constructive way, to ride it instead of letting it chase us around and gobble us up.
The Buddhism Ponlop espouses could be called “core” Buddhism, since it focuses entirely on the practice and nothing else: “Buddhism is primarily a study of mind and a system for training the mind. It is spiritual in nature, not religious. Its goal is self-knowledge, not salvation; freedom, not heaven.”
One of the mistakes I have seen made in many other “introductions” to Buddhism is how they quickly become top-heavy with the mythology and spirituality of Buddhism, while the practice — the most important part — becomes relegated to a second- or third-tier part of the work. Ponlop wisely avoids most of this, since he starts not by talking about the historical Buddha and his quest, etc., but rather by looking at our day-to-day experiences, and how inner freedom and rebel buddha manifest there. Since Buddhism is about the mind, first and foremost, he steps us through why knowing our own mind is crucial — how and why we construct an image of the self, and how to use our own neurotic understanding of ourselves as a starting point for all the work we need to do. I particularly liked this aspect of the book, since it helps cut an end-run around one of the things most people stumble over when they investigate Buddhism.
The idea that there is “no self” or that all things are “empty” seem alien and threatening, but Ponlop takes the reader by the hand and leads them around to the real meaning of those things using plain, friendly language, and by relating the book's subjects to everyday practice. In fact, he makes it clear that there isn’t anything but everyday practice for most people. “If you need reminders that will urge you toward practice, you can easily find them in your own life. … Look at your mind when you wake up in the morning and discover that there’s no milk for your coffee, it’s raining again, the car needs gas, and your kids have their headphones on and are refusing to speak to you. In that moment, where is your equanimity, your compassion?”
Time and again, he stresses how these practices are things that we must find in the lives that we are surrounded with right here and now, and not in the cultural origins of Buddhism. “The purpose of our meeting [the Buddha] is not to become a student of another culture or to discover someone else’s wisdom. We’re not practicing Indian culture to become Indian, or practicing Japanese or Tibetan culture to become Japanese or Tibetan. Our purpose is to discover who we truly are, to connect with our own wisdom.” There’s more than a little echo of Brad Warner in such things: he, too, is most interested in Buddhism as a way to examine ourselves fearlessly, and not just as a way to assimilate trappings of a culture. One can produce a remarkable simulation of wisdom that way, but it isn’t the real thing.
The pieces that form the second track of the book, where Ponlop talks about where Buddhism came from and where it’s headed, are not integrated into the rest of the book with the elegance they could have been. Some of this is because, ultimately, the whole subject of Buddhism’s past and future as a cultural force could easily be a book, or a whole series of books, on its own. That said, I did appreciate having this material here, because it supplies (if occasionally in a clumsy way) a context for the quest described in the rest of the book. We can be “Buddhist” without that implying any particular cultural connection, and that in fact might turn out to be for the best since it puts more of Buddhism’s vital elements directly into the hands of the people who need it most.
Rebel Buddha has been mentioned along with, but stands in contrast to, Stephen Batchelor’s works (e.g., Confession of a Buddhist Atheist). The two works don’t seem to be comparable: Ponlop’s book is practical, while Batchelor’s work, what I have seen of it, is mainly philosophical and focused more on the intellectual interpretations of Buddhism in the modern day. Batchelor was immersed headfirst in some of the headier strains of Tibetan Buddhism and over time grew disenchanted with its mysticism, while Ponlop seems to have found a more graceful way to keep separate the mystical and practical parts of Buddhism.
Most of the complaints about Buddhism’s mystical overtones seem to be more criticisms of the way Buddhism exists as an extension of local belief systems, rather than a proper criticism of Buddhism itself. Time and again Buddhism has merged syncretically with local belief systems whenever it was brought to new lands, acquiring both new variations on its practice and new spiritual accoutrements. That might explain why Buddhism was welcomed most broadly into the West when it appeared in the form of Zen – its most stripped-down, un-religious incarnation, which was broadly compatible with any number of other spiritual practices (as Thomas Merton could attest). The real heart of the matter is the practice, though, and every work like this one that lets us strip things back down to the basics is always welcome.