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Reviews of books, movies, websites, etc.

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.



Review of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Peter Masefield (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986; rpt. Routledge, 2008)

A few years ago, Routledge Library Editions came out with a cloth reprint of what is quite possibly the most important book on the Pali Canon to appear in English to date. It is Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism, by Dr. Peter Masefield. The fact that this book is based on the author’s peer-reviewed doctoral thesis (University of Lancaster), prepared under the tutelage of no less an authority than Dr. Ninian Smart, acclaimed British pioneer in the field of secular religious studies, has not deterred a slew of religious and religious-academic Buddhists from denouncing the book. In a recent interview, Dr. Masefield has somewhat ruefully remarked that since the book’s original publication the book has generated no interest or discussion in the academic community or elsewhere, and that he has not heard a word from his publisher in eight years. Such is the state of things in the contested field of Buddhist studies, where academic mediocrity, nit-picking, and back-biting are so common that it is really impossible for anyone with a comprehensive, synthetic, or speculative understanding to exercise any significant influence at all (I was once told by an academic at the University of Toronto that Mircea Eliade, probably the greatest comparative religions scholar of the 20th century, was not a “real scholar”). Considering the original goals of Ninian Smart, viz., fostering cross-cultural understanding of religions as “worldviews,” this is a sad thing and exemplifies the increasing fundamentalism that we see taking hold in all societies, even as the world is dragged, nolens volens, into globalization.

Nevertheless, the first edition of this book, along with Herbert Guenther’s Teachings of Padmasambhava, has been one of my prized possessions since I first obtained it in the late 1980s. To my shame I only sat down to read it cover to cover recently, spurred on by the aforesaid interview with Dr. Masefield and my reading of a typically vicious exchange concerning him on the notorious Free Sangha forum, dominated by the usual anti-intellectualism and pettiness with which I, as a past participant in that forum, am all too familiar. I picked up the book out of a desire to learn about the worldview of the Nikayas, the same desire that had led me to enroll in an introduction to the Pali Canon course offered by the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies here in Toronto, now defunct. I was shocked then by the ignorance, viciousness, mediocrity, and reprehensible social views of the professor who, rather than teaching us the worldview of the Pali Canon, which he did not know in any case, having obtained his Ph.D. in education, trotted out a handful of stock lists and called it a course. Unfortunately, in the world of Buddhist academics this is the norm. Online forums of professional academic translators debate enthusiastically over minutiae of footnotes, but have no understanding or even interest in what they translate, such understanding being berated as “subjective,” “culturally relative,” “arbitrary,” and “meaningless.” One searches in vain for a single comprehensive study of the Pali Canon. The only scholar I know of that I might compare with Dr. Masefield is Richard Gombrich, who has also earned the ire of the fundamentalists, both inside and outside academe, for his searching inquiry and speculative originality.

I was, therefore, delighted to discover on the first page of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism a frank and explicit recognition of just these facts. Referring to the tens of thousands of academic papers that have been published on Buddhism over the past century, Dr. Masefield writes,

One might think, therefore, that by now an extensive bank of knowledge were available and that little more remained to be said … Yet when we seek for a book going beyond a general introduction to the religion we tend often to seek in vain … ‘Invalid generalisations seem to be one of the cardinal sins of scholarly works.’ … not only are the majority of such generalisations not substantiated by the texts but also that they are often contradicted by the wealth of suttas lying between those usually cited. … the fact that a good many terms were used with a definitely technical sense has often escaped most scholars including, it may be noted, translators of the Pali Canon.

And so on. It came as a complete revelation to me to discover that just the conclusions to which I had come, nolens volens, are echoed by a great religious scholar of the calibre of Dr. Peter Masefield, and that his methodological approach, viz., to study the Pali texts in their entirety with a view to identifying and understanding the philosophy implicit within them, is exactly the methodology that I had sought to employ at the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, which was denounced by my aforesaid professor as “unscholarly” and for which I was unceremoniously cast out of academe.

Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism is a breathtaking book, both in its depth and range. Taking in nothing less than the entirety of the Nikayas, including the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara Nikayas and the Udana, Itivuttaka, Dhammapada, and Sutta Nipata[1] as its universe of discourse, and despite being written in a dense narrative that includes both translated and untranslated quotations from Pali and French, Dr. Masefield has succeeded in deciphering the philosophy of the original Buddhists during the Nikaya period, corresponding to the fifth century BCE. According to tradition, these texts originated in the First Buddhist Council, held shortly after the Buddha’s death, according to the best Western estimates between 405 and 383 BCE.  Rather than attempting to identify the original teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, through a process of linguistic, historical, and cultural reduction – an approach that has proved to be completely sterile in Christian theological studies – resulting in a kind of “academic Buddhism,” Masefield has taken the opposite tack of comprehensively studying, comparing, and collating everything, looking for continuities and recurring themes, from a non-sectarian perspective, including the Mahayana. This latter point also corresponds to a conclusion to which I have increasingly come, viz., that the sectarian distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana is a somewhat arbitrary imposition of later times, and that in fact the seeds of Mahayana and even Tantra are already implicit in the Pali Canon, which is not Theravada, Hinayana, or Mahayana, but simply dhamma, in contrast to my Nalanda College professor, who insisted that Tantra, Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana of course, and indeed much of the Pali Canon itself [sic!] are “not Buddhism” but Indian (and therefore bad).[2] Thus, Masefield is quite willing to discuss the Pali Canon in the context of the Lotus Sutra, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Prajnaparamita, nor does he seek to alienate the Buddha from his Indian cultural context, as my professor sought to do, motivated clearly by racist and political biases that he did not attempt to hide or conceal in any way.  On the contrary, Masefield is committed to understanding Buddhism in the context of Indian traditionalism, as his final chapter on the remythologization of Buddhism makes very clear, whereas my professor wished to have it that the Buddha was a tabula rasa with no cultural indebtedness or antecedents at all.

Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism consists of four chapters on (1) the spiritual division of the Buddhist world, (2) the path, (3) the goal, and (4) the new Brahmin. In these chapters, Masefield probes more deeply into the Buddhism of the Nikaya period than any scholar of which I know. His research develops a line of argument that does not sit well with many Buddhist religionists, hence the controversy to which I alluded at the beginning of my review. Masefield’s line of argument is, in essence, as follows:

  • The fundamental division of the Buddhist world was not between the monastics and the laity, as it is today, but rather between the puthujjana and the ariyasavaka, the former consisting of those who have not “right view” and the latter those who do. Those who have “right view” are said to have the “dhamma eye” (dhammacakkhu). These categories existed amongst both the laity and the monastics at first, and only later was the category of savaka (“hearer”) attributed exclusively to the sangha. The Pali Canon clearly attests that it is possible for a householder to become enlightened, and for a monastic to be unenlightened, nor is enlightenment able to be obtained merely by the application of practices and rules.
  • Buddhism itself comprises two spiritual praxes, one related to kamma and rebirth and the other, higher path to the pursuit of transcendence. The former relates to the practices of morality, which the Buddha clearly identifies as elementary and inferior, whereas the latter, reserved for the ariyasavaka, was reserved for those who have “right view,” without which it cannot be practiced. The kammic practice of merit-making, in particular, which replaced the Vedic sacrifice, by giving alms to the sangha, is only efficacious if the recipient is duly qualified by “right view.” Giving alms to puthujjanas, whether lay or monastic, generates little or no merit.
  • Right view consists of the radical transformative insight, characterized even as a “rebirth,” into the true nature of existence that distinguishes the Buddhist worldview and is the first step of the path, for without “right view” there is no impetus to escape. It is, not, however, a purely intellectual knowing, but rather a deep interior or intuitive realization that is always communicated, usually by the Buddha himself, by means of what Masefield calls a “progressive talk.” Right view is the first step in the Ariyan eightfold path, which cannot be followed otherwise. Those who had experienced “right view” quickly disappeared following the Buddha’s death, thus resulting in the sangha being completely overwhelmed by the puthujjanas as soon as seventy years following the parinibbana. The overwhelming implication of Masefield’s analysis echoes that of Herbert Guenther, that the modern Buddhist sangha is a puthujjana sangha, completely devoid of authenticity, offerings to which have no kammic value or efficacy whatsoever.
  • The relationship between dhamma and sound, i.e., mantra, is essential, so that true initiation must always be auditory. This discovery is an extraordinarily important confirmation of the Tibetan emphasis on personal oral transmission. Dhamma cannot simply be studied and intellectually understood and accepted to be efficacious. Something more, which is intrinsically intimate and ineffable, is required.
  • It is “right view,” and not years or even lifetimes of observance of meditative or other rules or practices, that is the essential thing in obtaining emancipation. The suttas make it very clear that, once right view is attained, one can achieve full emancipation in a matter of days, although it might also take years or even multiple lifetimes, the distinguishing factor being kamma. The latter is the only possibility for obtaining right view in this decadent age, but must be extremely rare, if it even occurs at all, since the maximum number of rebirths of one who achieves right view is seven and buddhas themselves only appear at intervals of eons.
  • The Buddha was not an innovator. His goal was to restore Brahminism to the original and true dhamma of the rishis from which it had degenerated, which had been taught by all the Buddhas of the past. The ariyasangha, therefore, is the new and true Brahminism, to whom alone offerings should be made due to their exclusive and immediate spiritual connexion with the supramundane.
  • Finally, at the end of the book Masefield draws the obvious conclusion that contemporary organized or institutional Buddhism is utterly decadent and corrupt, having degenerated from the Buddha’s time in exactly the same way that the Brahmins of the Buddha’s time had degenerated from the original dhamma of the rishis some 1,100 years before, nor is there any possibility of redemption, since “right view” can only be obtained from a buddha or a deva. Neither the lower (lunar) path of kamma nor the higher (solar) path of transcendence is technically accessible to moderns for the reasons stated above.

In a future post I will explore the implications of the foregoing conclusions for the Dharma Transmission to the West.


  1. The four Great Nikayas constitute the core of the Buddhavacana, consisting of roughly two million words, or four hundred hours of speech. This works out to less than ten hours for each year from the Buddha’s Enlightenment to his Parinibbana. Even allowing for repetition, this is a remarkably small number, especially given the fact that the Buddha is represented as teaching more or less continuously for forty-five years, suggesting that a significant proportion of the Buddha’s teachings, especially during the first twenty years of his career – before Ananda became his permanent personal attendant – have been irretrievably lost. In addition, the Buddha’s statement that he only taught a small portion of the dharma in any case vastly amplifies the conclusion that the Pali Canon by itself cannot be taken as a complete presentation of the dharma.
  2. This at a time when the Sri Lankan government was engaged in the mass murder of as many as 120,000 innocent Tamil civilians, according to a recent exposé by CBC Radio. And yet such an individual is employed by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Religious Studies, his salary paid for by Canadian taxpayers!