Rebel Buddha: on the road to freedom

This was a tough book to review. As I read it, I was constantly puzzled at who the intended audience was, and what the aim was. I conclude it’s an overview of the Buddhist path. As it’s based on lectures Dzogchen Ponlop gave to his students, it is – unlike what one might think at first – aimed primarily at US Buddhists. It reads like a spiritual testament of sorts. Not only is the path itself covered, but also the rituals (don’t be attached to them), the relationship to the teacher (think of them as a spiritual friend), how the organisation works, and some of the challenges American Buddhism faces at this time.

I don’t think this book quite lives up to the Pema Chodron quote that’s on the back:

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche shatters old myths an sweeps away cultural baggage, presenting the essence of Buddha’s teachings in a fresh, contemporary voice. With uncommon clarity and authority, he offers a new vision for the future of Buddhism that is at once shocking and hopeful. This is a small book with a big message that is timely and important.

Well, to me, as a non-Buddhist (in the traditional sense) the book didn’t shatter any myths. Compared to say Jiddu Krishnamurti, Dzogchen Ponlop is quite the traditional spiritual teacher. He insists on the importance of Buddhist lineage for instance. I’m not saying he’s wrong. Just that this is hardly a controversial book. Perhaps to American Buddhism today it’s controversial, I would not know.

Does he sweep away cultural baggage? Well, he seems to think American Buddhism started in the 60s. Here his lack of study into even the most basic of academic Buddhism shows: (North) American Buddhism started with Chinese immigrants who came to the US. Wikipedia has it, for instance, that ‘The first Buddhist temple in America was built in 1853 in San Francisco by the Sze Yap Company, a Chinese American fraternal society.’ Not quite the 1960s. And if you think that was merely ritualistic religious Buddhism – The first Zendo was started in Chicago in 1905 or thereabouts.

I mean – if you’re going to talk about this stuff, have your facts straight.

However, all that is merely semantics in a way. The strength of this teacher is obviously not in his academic scholarship, but in his help on the practical Buddhist path. The whole book has only about 10 footnotes. However, help it did do me. His treatment of emotion is excellent. For instance (p. 103)

When anger strikes, we can use its brilliant energy to see the whole pattern of anger more clearly and cut through it.

And p. 98:

First, we regarded our emotions as negative, something to overcome; we needed to cool out, calm down. Now we see how the very energy of emotions sparks our intelligence and encourages us to wake up, so we can appreciate how they help us to see more clearly.

To be clear, he starts out his discussion of emotion saying that in the context of Buddhism (and this book) the word emotion is meant to only apply to the negative side of what we usually call emotion: frustration, anger, attachment, jealousy etc. Joy, Love etc. are not a problem in themselves and aren’t included in this quote.

That thing about the energy of emotions itself being crucial sparked something for me. It helped me see into some of my own issues – seeing into frustration helped me smile at it and dissolve it. Which is of course the text book outcome. And it felt great too, obviously.

I’m used to maps of the path in a theosophical context: they usually involve aphorisms, small books with poetic phrases. This isn’t like that. Each insight is illustrated with examples from our Western world. Things like attachment to gadgets, a Tibetan lama at the MacDonald, even a Chicago Blues club passes by. Again, not quite overcoming cultural baggage – merely replacing Tibetan with Western cultural baggage. However, that’s probably a positive to most readers: it brings his message home into our world.

Despite the kind of publicity the publisher is generating for this book (they let me do a contest for instance), I don’t think it’s suitable for a general spiritually interested audience. The style is too pedantic – there’s a lot of ‘we do this, we do that’. For instance (p. 93)

We can see now that the trip is transforming the traveler. Our path, at this point, becomes less about traveling to a destination that we call “liberation” and becomes more a way of life. We no longer focus solely on how to get out of our own personal suffering. It may come as a surprise to us, but by studying our mind, we discover our heart; by freeing our mind, we open our heart; and our vision of freedom naturally expands to include others.

All that use of the word ‘we’ grained on me very quickly. Perhaps it’s only that in my year as a nurse-trainee, I was taught never to use the word ‘we’ in dealing with patients. That’s my conditioning of course and it has left its mark.

Since the intended audience was so unclear to me for a long time, I think it’s probably useful to share what audience I would recommend this book to:

  • Theosophists who want to deepen their spiritual path with some actual practice
  • Tibetan Buddhists who want to focus on the essentials
  • Buddhists in general who have come to a point where teaching becomes an option

And yes, this book does get a recommendation from me. I think, though it’s hard to tell for sure after one read, that it’s one of those books that one reads differently at every step on one’s own path. In short: deep enough to reread, practical in approach and in the context of Tibetan Buddhism perhaps revolutionary.

Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, by Dzogchen Ponlop

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Shambhala; 1 edition (November 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590308743
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590308745
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches

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