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:
The GOOD The BAD and The BULLSHIT:
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.
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.