Review of Rebel Buddha: A Guide to a Revolution of Mind, by Dzogchen Ponlop (Boston: Shambhala, 2011)

Rebel Buddha

Rebel Buddha is an interesting title for a book on Buddhism, and Dzogchen Ponlop is an interesting author who has had an interesting life. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a 48-year old American-Tibetan teacher and founder of the Nalandabodhi Foundation, who was trained as a Rinpoche in the Tibetan refugee community of north-east India, but who describes himself as a generation Xer. Rebel Buddha is about freedom and limitation, beginning with the radical freedom that the Buddha offers to suffering beings stuck in the “rat race” of day-to-day existence and ending with the servitude that secular and religious authorities alike impose upon those subject to them. This includes, shockingly to some, the very religious authorities that are charged with the preservation of the spiritual teachings. Dzogchen Ponlop’s book is by no means orthodox or conventional. The essence of his thesis is that the Buddha was a radical individualist who stood against the conventions of his time – spiritual, religious, and political – and thought for himself, and that we must be and do so too if we are to follow him truly. Thus, Dzogchen Ponlop rejects in no uncertain terms the blind faith in, cultural packing of, and fundamentalism in religion. It is also an exposé of the many false freedoms that characterize modern society, especially in the West. In a sense, Rebel Buddha describes Dzogchen Ponlop’s own journey from the authoritarian monasticism of the traditional Tibetan diaspora to the pseudo-individualism of American consumer society. This journey led him to question what Buddhism means in the 21st century. Rebel Buddha is his answer.

Rebel Buddha begins with the mind. The mind, intrinsically, is radically aware, but it is asleep. Why it is asleep is a long story – in fact, infinitely long, but that is not to deny the fact that it can awake any time. The choice as to whether we shall be asleep or awake is our own. But be careful. In its sleeping state the mind is suffused with more or less pleasant dreams and delusions, phantasmagoria of the imagination that intoxicate and delight us but also terrify us. Trapped within the dreaming mind, we imagine that our experiences are real, we objectify them, and we crave the pleasure that we imagine they give to us, even as we fear the nightmares that can also come and the death that seems to us in the dreaming state to be the ending of the dream. Consequently, we spend our lives desperately craving pleasure and sensation and trying to avoid pain and death, more or less unsuccessfully, but never realizing that our terms of reference are fundamentally illusory, because we are asleep. In this state of ignorance and despair we live, die, and are born over and over again, playing out every kind of scenario, in what appears to be an infinite span of time, but which is really not “in time” at all, time itself also being part of the mirage.

So how do we wake up? The question is rather like the practice of lucid dreaming. In lucid dreaming, we train ourselves to watch for a sign that we are dreaming. One sure sign that we are dreaming is that when we closely examine the dream, it falls apart. Similarly, to wake up from the dream of life we look at our experience, not superficially, but really look at it. And what we find when we really look at life is that it is actually something completely different from how it appears to us. For example, things seem solid and real to us. We seem to experience real objects that are outside of ourselves but (some of) which we can (more or less) control by an effort of will. In this scenario we experience other beings more or less like ourselves. We objectify these beings as “selves,” and we see ourselves in this way too. We are a self. In fact, we are very fond of our self and because the world has a nasty habit of frustrating our control and not giving us what we want, and other selves seem to be competing with us for the same objects in a situation of general scarcity, we seek to maintain our sense of self by aggressively expanding it, acquiring more and more resources and power for ourselves at the expense of others. Thus we suffer. The more we suffer, the more competitive we become and the more we focus on our selves and our apparently endless quest to assert ourselves at the expense of others. Thus the human project is an endlessly expanding circle of destruction.

The human struggle for survival has, however, led to the development of intelligence, which has led to science, which we have in turn appropriated to develop technologies in the service of our self-aggrandizement. But science has also had an interesting side-effect, and that is that the worldview or picture that science has produced no longer conforms to our common sense prejudices. For example, the more closely we look at “matter” the more mysterious it becomes. Upon analysis matter devolves into infinitesimal, high-energy “bits” rapidly moving in complex patterns of interaction in what is apparently empty space, and when we look at these “bits” closely they devolve into more and smaller bits, energy, spatial and temporal anomalies, and finally these lose their “particularity” and appear as extended “waves” of probability that have no materiality at all and are infinitely intervolved. This is also what we find when we look at our “self.” Instead of a self we find infinitely intervolved aggregations of experiences, and when we look at those experiences they too disappear into a “froth” of extended processes. Interestingly, the picture of the world that science is now building up corresponds to nothing so much as the philosophy of the Buddha, enunciated in north-east India about 2,450 years ago. Thus, the Buddha described the Three Characteristics of existence: impermanence, non-self-identity, and suffering, and declared that mind, not matter, is the ground of reality, and that reality itself is infinitely intervolved with only the illusion of particularity.

Unlike science, however, which is still tied to the self-destructive acquisitiveness and greed for sensation of modern, largely (but not exclusively) Western, man, out of this realization of the true nature of our experience the Buddha developed a praxis for change. This is the “revolution of mind” to which Dzogchen Ponlop refers. Unlike Christianity, which promises salvation won by someone else, the praxis described by the Buddha is a solitary journey. Even if it is pursued in association with others, each individual must find the way for himself or herself, and while others may describe and assist one to find and even to follow the path, only the individual can walk the path itself (paradoxically, since the individual does not exist apparently). Despite the complexities that inevitably arise from the complex phenomenon of mind, the essence of this praxis is simple: one simply (!) examines the mind. By examining the mind closely one finds out what it is intrinsically, and by finding out what it is intrinsically one discovers the reality of experience that does not at all correspond to the common sense appearance of the dream. As in lucid dreaming, realizing the dream as a dream causes us to wake up! When we wake up, the dream that we call our life simply vanishes, like a bubble bursting, and we emerge from the dream into the state of full waking awareness. Unfortunately, to the dreamer this appears like a death and since most people are asleep, the minority who do wake up may be subject to the wrath of those who do not wish to awaken, or do not believe that anything else is possible, like the watchers in Plato’s cave. All too often the dreamers are willing to defend the dreaming state to the death, resulting in still more suffering (we see this process working itself out before our very eyes right now in Tibet especially). In the West, we have nicer methods of suppressing awakening, like alcohol, sex, money, and all the entertainments and distractions of contemporary consumerist culture. For the more recalcitrant cases we have electroshock therapy and chemical lobotimization. One out of five of Americans now are on some kind of psycho-suppressive medication, and in the past 20 years this number has quadrupled, while psycho-active drugs like LSD and DMT are legally demonized, so intense is our desire to remain asleep. At this rate, in another 20 years (or less, if the rate of increase accelerates) 80% of the population will be drugged.

Today, armed with nuclear weapons and threatening as we are to destroy the delicate ecosystem of the planet, while millions if not billions of human beings are starving to death or being killed, maimed, and mutilated by warfare, the need to wake up is overwhelming. But how shall we do this without incurring the enmity of the mob? Rebel Buddha is served up in the saccharine language of pop psychology and self-help books, but this is a ruse. What better way to deceive the sleepers than the friendly face of the Dalai Lama pleasantly gazing down on groups of meditators quietly practising “relaxation” techniques on comfortable cushions and listening to distracting mantra melodies in rooms filled with flowers, art and incense? But make no mistake: the message of Rebel Buddha, as the title implies, is dangerous. It may seem like an easy read, but it will blow your world apart, that is, if we don’t do it ourselves first, for mind itself is the most powerful psychedelic, and they can’t make that illegal!  Not yet, at least. This is why Buddhism has been persecuted throughout its history.


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