Friday, December 17, 2010

The REBEL Buddha

Review of Rebel Buddha 

                I used to be the type of “Buddhist” guy that bought EVERY new book released by Snow Lion and Wisdom.  At one point, I think I probably had like two-hundred books on my shelf.  That was bullshit.  A few years ago, I came to my senses, went through all my books, and probably got rid of 90% of them by putting them in boxes and setting them out in the lobby of my apartment building.  The last thing I need in my life is a bookcase full of books that I’m never going to read again; even if they just so happen to be about Buddhism.  I mean, who the hell am I trying to impress here?
                Ever since then, I’m very careful about what books I keep and which ones I leave on the seat when I’m riding the subway.  (Most get left on the seat, honestly.)  I don’t usually use the library because I like to mark my books up and generally abuse them.  So, I end up spending a ton of money on books.  On the plus side, there are a lot of people in NYC that probably pick up the books I leave on the subway… so good for them.

                Before I start my review, I’d like to say that I’m KEEPING Rebel Buddha.  Yep, that’s right.  It’s not totally horrible.  Dzogchen Ponlop has definitely taken a step in the right direction with this book.  He comes from a very traditional Tibetan background… and we all know how crotchety those old Tibetans can be, right? 
She's yelling at a guy who hasn't realized emptiness yet!

Notwithstanding, DP makes a sincere effort to step away from the traditional formula of Tibetan-inspired literature.  There’s no text translation, no thangka painting on the cover, and not one single mention of the word TANTRA!  As a matter of fact, DP strays away from using any so-called “Dharma-Speak” in this book whatsoever, which is a big RELIEF!

     There are a few problems.  Why is it that in the world of American Buddhist literature it seems like the majority of “books” out there are not really books, but talks that have been typed out by a faithful follower?  I really hate that.  Not that there’s no merit in transcribed lectures, but there’s really something to be said for authors who actually WRITE their books rather than just stick their name on the cover of some transcribed compilation of talks that they gave sometime last decade. 
What ends up happening to the literature is terrible.  All these “talk-books” end up sounding just a little bit off somehow, right?  The tone is weird.  I always feel like I’m being lulled into a stupor by someone who likes to hear themselves speak at length. 
As stated in the Editors Note in the back of the book, “Rebel Buddha is the result of the coming together of two lecture series on dharma and culture presented almost ten years apart.”  I think this book would have been FAR better had Dzogchen Ponlop actually sat down and written it.  I know that some of the accolades given to American Buddhist literature speak to how “conversational” and “straight forward” the reading is, but I’d like to suggest some phrases that are more appropriate:

“John Doe Rinpoche shatters old myths and sweeps away cultural baggage, but also repeats himself often, chooses poor adjectives when describing things, and pads his chapters with unnecessary paragraphs.”                   
 --John Harrison, author of Buddhism Sucks

“Generic Buddha Book is a seminal work for the growth of Buddhism in contemporary society; especially for those who don’t value well written literature.  Be prepared to skim.”                                                                                          
-John Harrison, asshole on the street who happens to spend all his time at Barnes and Noble reading Buddhist books

You see, one of the advantages of writing something over SPEAKING it, is that you can have the chance to revise and refine your ideas before you send it to press.  Although DP most certainly spent time editing and revising the text that his devotee, Cindy Shelton transcribed, it would’ve been nice to have him actually take the time to WRITE the book.  As Buddhists, whenever a new dharma book hits the shelves, we ingest the message and ignore the writing.  Is it too much to ask that our authors write well? 
Yes, DP’s message is fairly strong and somewhat refreshing, but if I had to analyze his writing, I’d probably say that it was “average”, “repetitive”, and “toneless” rather than “accessible”, “profound” or “thoroughly modern.”
Rebel Buddha is refreshing in the sense that the book is almost wholly absent of typical Buddhist anecdotes and tiresome Buddhist terminology.  That’s nice.  Even though I consider myself fairly well-versed in the whole Buddho-speak thing, it’s nice to read a book in my own language.  DP has a thorough knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and a sincerity to impart this knowledge to the reader; so from that perspective, it’s a good book.  Not REALLY, REALLY good, but good.  I think he was going for something similar to what Stephen Batchelor did in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

There seems to be a growing demand for books like this, written BY and FOR Western Buddhists.  Several have tried, but few have won a prize.  I really enjoyed Batchelor’s work.  The difference with “Confession” though is that Batchelor is a very strong writer.  Plus, he’s a westerner.  DP was totally trying to jump on that bandwagon with Rebel Buddha.  He succeeded… in part. 
(Just wait till I write my book.  Then you’re brains will really bleed.)

here’s the breakdown:


Not that I’m trying to rip the guy a new asshole or anything, but a lot of the book (as a lot of many Buddhist books are) is just a fluffy, Buddhist, spiritual pep-talk. 
There is some real meat is found though. 

DP does a good job explaining the Buddhist conception of mind.  He uses the typical Tibetan construct of the “Two Truths”; Conventional Truth and Ultimate Truth, although he doesn’t use that exact terminology.  As he states, “Another way to describe the mind is to talk about its relative and ultimate aspects.  The relative aspect refers to confused mind; the ultimate aspect is its enlightened nature.  This is not a new construct, but DP explains it in with such nonchalance that he demystifies the concept of enlightened mind and makes it seem more approachable and attainable by us lowly Americans. 
Probably the best thing about DP is that he brings Buddhism down from the pedestal that we’ve put it on. 
For example:
I sometimes wonder why some of you are still at it [US, the American Buddhists], because I see so little confidence in the possibility of waking up now… It’s not the message of the Buddha or the intention of Buddhism to provide a partial recovery from confusion.  The message of the Buddha is that you’re awake now and that you can, if you apply yourself, realize it.
Tell that to all the “scholars” working in the Buddhist academic field. 
When you compare your cultural upbringing to that of Asian teachers or historical figures of the past, you usually don’t see any chance of achieving a realization like theirs.  You probably think of yourself as an ordinary, confused person who’s a product of a materialistic, dualistic culture, while they have the advantage of being raised from birth under special, even mystical circumstances.  Such ideas don’t help you; they actually undermine the path.
I’ve always thought it to be pretty ridiculous how we idolize Asian Buddhist teachers. 
The whole idea behind this book is that it’s supposed to appeal to people like ME!  People who are either (1) not Buddhist, but want to learn a little bit without first becoming familiar with a whole list of new Buddhist vocabulary or (2) are already “Buddhist” but are sick of all the dogma surrounding it.  As “new” Buddhists, DP suggests that we need to reinvent the way we choose to practice and study – rather than just follow in the footsteps of our Asian forbearers:
Just as it makes no sense to hang on to the countercultural forms of the sixties, it is senseless to hang on the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way… these forms and activities are simply the means to enter the open dimension of our own mind.
The only problem though is that DP doesn’t really explain HOW to make the transition away from traditional, Asian Buddhism into a newly reinvented Buddhism for today.  He does give some advice though, with regard to how our “practice” should be individualized and tailored to our own personal experiences: 
There is an aspect of traditional study, working with teachers and so on, but the most crucial aspect of the path is the “hands-on” part, where you work directly with your own mind and experience.
Before doing anything else, you must first connect with all your heart to your desire to be free.  Then you can begin to learn the most effective methods for fulfilling your desire.  This means that your individual path must be connected to your own unique experience of life.
The point is that, spiritually, we’re responsible for ourselves.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Rebel Buddha is DP’s explanation of meditation.  As I’ve highlighted in my earlier posts, meditation can be a breeding ground for confusion.  What the Buddhist community so desperately needs are teachers who are willing to demystify meditation and instruct students using practical advice rather than haughty explanations that make little practical sense.

DP includes a great description of meditation in Appendix 1 and goes into great detail on the nuts and bolts of what you’re actually DOING when you’re meditating: 
It’s not about meditating “on” something or getting into a zone where you’re blissfully removed from your mind’s contents.  Instead, the actual meaning of meditation is more like getting used to being with your own mind.
First, we gain intellectual knowledge, then we personalize it through reflecting on it, and then we go beyond that to a whole new state of knowing.

When it comes to the pièce de résistance of Buddhist meditation – MEDITATION ON EMPTINESS – DP does an excellent job of making it sound less formidable than other authors do. 
Scary meditation book

Meditation on emptiness is probably the most confusing, most often misunderstood aspect of Buddhist practice.  Whenever I attend a teaching or read a book on the subject, I usually find myself feeling frustrated.  Of course, to discuss or write about a concept such as emptiness is a difficult task.  DP’s presentation is both heartfelt and simplistic.  The result is that after reading, the concept of emptiness begins to feel a bit easier to understand.  He begins his discussion with a general presentation of Vipassana: 

The tradition of analytical meditation [vipassana] includes a number of logical reasonings that can lead us through a profound analysis of the self and the concepts that sustain our belief in it.

Although he doesn’t venture into the “deep waters” of these logical reasonings, he does leave the reader feeling that meditation on emptiness is a practice that can be done without frustration; that it’s not as hard as it is made out to be.  I believe that he accomplishes this by encouraging the reader to PERSONALIZE their practice:  

If you don’t analyze emptiness, however, if you just take as fact what the “experts” say, then it’s not personal, and it’s difficult to understand or bring into your experience.

Rebel Buddha is a good book.  There are some weak points, but overall I think it met its intended goal: to reach out to curious practitioners who are sick and tired of the same old Buddhist bullshit. 


  1. Thanks for the review! I just finished Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. I thought Buddhism Without Beliefs was a better book personally, but Atheist was interesting in the way it changed my perception of the Buddha. Brought him down to earth and made things seem more attainable for normal folk. I'm interested in Rebel Buddha now. Never heard of it before. =)

  2. I really enjoyed your post--a lot!! And I share a lot of your views on this book. I too don't understand idolizing Asian teachers either. I loved "Confessions" as well. I have also dumped a bunch of books that were from my Tibetan Buddhist days.

    Too much cultural stuff for me. I'm sure it's just what Tibetans need but being a Generation X American - I needed more and found it in the western Zen movement.

    I say that Thich Nhat Hanh is my teacher because he's one of the only ones I can stand.

    And, I admire him. But, usually I am leery of so and so saying their the 15th incarnation of whatever. I only care about your current incarnation. Haha!!

  3. Your review definitely intrigued me. I might just have to check this book out.

  4. I think the problem with turning the Dharma away from the east is hard because a lot of people are still looking to escape their life through Buddhism. The last thing people want is Buddhism to become westerised!

    However i think it will become western naturally over the years anyway. But we still need to keep bringing the subject up and practicing as best we can.

    It's almost like in indian Buddhism. The elders wanting to keep to the dogam/tradition and then the split with Nagarjuna etc

  5. "...getting used to being with your own mind." There it is, meditation demystified. Being with our own minds is what we Westerners resist most of all.

    Thanks for the great review. I especially enjoyed your suggested hypothetical reviews. A dancing mind is always a joy to encounter on the path. I find that much blogging about Buddhism tends to be so excruciatingly earnest.

  6. The word Buddhist, legally defines someone who is a legal member of the Buddhist religion: Buddhism. Consequently, the words: Buddhist Blog, legally defines a blog presenting Buddhism, the Buddhist religion, in accordance to the teachings of the Buddha, otherwise, it is against the Buddhist religion, Buddhism, consequently, it is not a Buddhist Blog, and therefore, it is a crime of hate.

  7. Fantastic review. I won't buy it, but I may look at Hopkins now.
    The cultural trapping that folks buy into as they make Buddhism their identity really fascinate me -- especially since I lived in Asia for over a decade and the self-deception is clear.

  8. Hi, John. I found your site thanks to Sabio Lantz. I love your blog! I'm a teacher, too, and Kobun was my first Dharma teacher, back in the seventies. Points of contact.

    Anyway, I teach kindergarten so the seasoning is different (sweeter), but my efforts to apply Dharma-informed skillfulness in emotional, mental, and social dimensions in the public school setting pretty much parallels what you're doing in the middle schools.

    Thanks for your blog.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. First of all, Buddha only one who shows the way, the one who is most important and one who you must put in focus is yourself. So the answer is not out there and you know this. Second, Buddhism is not for everyone, so wear the shoe as it fits. Last ... if you truly interested in Buddhism and have a interest on like mind, then I found this website very helpful

  11. A very interesting blog, sí senyor. Shall we coin the word "Buddhist-Bubble" meaning the inflacionist tendency of buddhism? After decades selling out the "Buddhist" brand, now it seems we are selling out the "Buddhism sucks" brand as well. I don't buy either.
    Best regards,

  12. Buddhism isn't all about shaving heads and meditating, you know. It's like saying that all Christians walk around the street with a bible in their hand and prays every hour. There are such people who are Buddhist but live everyday lives like you. I'm Buddhist and I have long hair and my ears are pierced and I go to school everyday like everyone else in this damn country, okay?

  13. Hi John,

    I appreciate your angle on this non-religion we're non-practising in our non-hip non-materialistic non-way. We all have our hobby horses (Buddhist pains-in-the-butt, I mean), but I've often found we're saying much the same thing.

    In my case, I've learned to be very suspicious of piety, in all its sickening forms. Many of my reservations about Buddhist books stem from a healthy scepticism of the posing and guru worship we've acquired in the past millennium or so.

    Some books are excellent; some are adequate; some don't seem to contribute anything. And the next Buddhist I meet will sort them into those categories differently. In the end, I think putting your books in the lobby for others was not only an honest, but also a wise and charitable act. Who knows what good it might do? Besides, I love it when people put out free books. I got many of my favourites that way.

    Thanks for the blog!


    Rusty Ring: Reflections of an Old-Timey Hermit (blog)

  14. I have look through your some other blog post and I like to thanks for the worthwhile information you have shared. Great job
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  15. Reading only helps in opening up areas we might have overlooked.

    It's still up to us to walk into those areas, analyze and experience what are to be experienced and analyzed.

    But the greatest part of it all is, at the end of it all, those areas, analysis and experience just dont really exist.

    Everything is nothingness, nothingness is everything.

  16. Keep up the good work, John It's always refreshing to hear voices on the edge. We need more critical reviews like yours. I hope you'll be posting again soon...


  17. Hi--just found your blog--hysterically great--LOVE IT & YOU!! THANK YOU for being honest and articulate, bold, and brilliant, and for making the effort to truly understand what you read and encounter in "Buddhist" literature & experience. I share many of the concerns and outrages you have voiced. Just recently I returned from a "Buddhist" monastic camp way up in the mountains, from which I was literally evicted because maybe the head, control-freak nun thought I was a threat to her egomaniacal authority and control over a small group of suffering nuns & lay people. It would take me a while to explain everything that happened, but the experience was unbelieveable (this was a Theravadan group lead by an American nun who has to be the most conceited ass you could ever imagine). I will be happy to share more if you like. Suffice to say that Americans, and anyone allowing themselves to be under the so-called "tutelage" of some of these nuns & monks could really be putting themselves at great risk--to say the least.
    Well, again, thank you for the work you are doing--it is invaluable!!
    Best wishes!
    Anonymous for now

  18. Thanks so much for writing. I definitely want to hear more! Also, I wonder if you'd be interested in writing something about your experience and I can put it up on my blog... I'd really like to get a "dialogue" going on these kind of subjects. We could keep you anonymous if you want...

    Let me know what you think!

  19. That's why Jesus went to Tibet and India for the lost years of his life in the bible. The rosary is actually from the Buddhist Malas, thanks to Buddhist philosophy many have realized how to practice self-control, balance, and self actualization with all the bullshit removed. The 5 precepts from Sanskrit & Pali translation say to avoid these things, they do not say "thou shalt never" the word means avoid it if you can. Avoid killing, if you need food to survive and there is one chicken sitting beside you, try as long as you can to live trying to find another means, but if need be eat the chicken. There are no strict laws. The idol worship you speak of is part of the Mahayana sect in Buddhism. I practice the Theravada side and it is pure and simple, without all there other "enlightened ones" called Buddhas which clearly means "The Teacher" the one Buddha, who cared enough to find compassion in not hurting the smallest of animals like an ant at a small child grew up in a palace, and had a wife and child, he left the palace knowing he had to find the reason we all suffer whether we are rich, poor, beautiful, repulsive to others animals and humans alike. We all do and why? He found that reason for humans and it is because we desire (the not so beneficial things: money, fame, fortune, acceptance, etc) We have to accept ourselves, cure ourselves. We have to realize we breathe in and out everyday but when do we ever take the time to do it consciously? When do we ever take time to clear the mind? Our minds are constantly being pulled in this direction and that direction with instant messaging, emails every hour, text messages every 10 minutes, 10 big money ads, anchormen speaking with different news scrolling past the screen from left to right and the dow jones from right to left. Buddhism is a way of life in a sense of exercise. The point is to eliminate all the distraction and give your self a break, consciously live in the moment. The point of Karma is not to do good to receive good but do it because it is helpful to others, it ripples ten fold no matter what. The basic science of energy is Energy is neither created nor destroyed it just takes different forms. Buddhists believe if you receive seventh heaven or good energy it's because somewhere along the way it is the energy you enabled and shared once before coming back to visit you like waves in the ocean. We do not use fear as a tactic, the church does that. Your Body, Mind and soul come together during meditation which is simply: 1) focus on breathes in and out as a guide like a ballerina would use a pool to practice different moves. All the way in as one, all the way out as another so there is pure oxygen to feed the deprived mind and body. Next clear the mind, like clouds that come in, just observe it and let it pass, do not hold on to those thoughts you cannot control, soon enough you will be able to clear your mind, aka give you clear thoughts. Imagine a jar of dirt with a diamond inside. You cannot see the diamond if it's all shaken up. That is your mind with distractions. If you meditate, it's like letting the dirt settle, unraveling your true self, your clear and concise way of thinking, makes you more creative because there is less garbage. My boyfriend who was catholic does not even go to church anymore nor has he ever believed Jesus existed and makes jokes of the priests. He enjoys the ideas of Buddhism and recently showed me he contemplated being a monk for one week because he said if he ever shaved his eyebrows, they might not grow back. I think it's wonderful, whatever you think as long as you do not try to gain fame from a hateful website.

  20. I am discovering that to follow these 'sects' and lists of 'don'ts' doesn't get me anywhere. So I am going back to basics, just the Buddha's word. (found in the sutras, try The more I read, the more I realise that it cannot be done en masse- it has to be a solitary journey for me. No masters, or other teachers than the Buddha himself.

  21. Very good.... may you find happiness and wisdom in your spiritual journey. Some journeys are solitary while others enjoyed the friendship being traveling the journey together. They can support and share experiences. This can be helpful when someone's heading is getting difficult. Anyway, the journey is the destination.