There was a palpable sense of excitement and expectation as we entered the historic Boulder Theater to the violin strains of Kailin Yong, the “fiddler for peace.” I pondered the notion of peace — how to bring it into our lives and into the world? This would be a theme for the day-long exploration of what it means to be a “rebel buddha” and the future of Buddhism in the West.
The morning started with a short contemplation led by Mitra Lee Worley, Nalandabodhi Boulder’s resident spiritual friend, aiding us to quiet our minds, be present and open our hearts. A video montage of the life of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom segued to pictures of Elton John, Bob Dylan and other cultural icons of the West, and the familiar sounds of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as Rinpoche took the stage.
Rinpoche first talked about what it was like growing up as a reincarnate lama, saying “I was like a young avatar-in-training, learning how to jump.” Pop culture references imbued Rinpoche’s talk, melding the ancient teachings of the East with the culture of what he terms the “post-industrial West.” Rinpoche explained that his initial obedience as the “CMO” (chief monastic officer) or “CSO” (chief slave officer”) of his monastery gave way to teen rebellion, with questions and more questions: “Why this? Why that? Why am I on this journey? What is right for me? What does it mean? What is it all about? What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in the context of my culture?” These would be the questions and themes of our day together..
Rinpoche spoke about the life of Siddhartha, the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, describing him as a rebel whose “heart of questioning” led him to go against the status quo of his comfortable life as a prince. Rinpoche described Siddhartha as someone who failed, continued with confidence and found awakening as a “genuine human being searching for the truth.” He encouraged us to do the same and not be afraid of failings on the path, describing such failures, like those of Siddhartha, as necessary for success. (As a life-long perfectionist, these words were truly heartening for me.)
Rinpoche told us that that this rebellious heart exists in all beings, and that his book, Rebel Buddha, is meant to upset our complacent status quo and enable us to listen to the inner voice of our awakened heart. Ultimately, this is a rebellion against our own negative beliefs and sense of self — truly a plea for taking personal responsibility and not blaming the world for our suffering. We start our lives in an awakened state, and are conditioned to sleep, believing our dualistic thoughts and cultural norms to be real and solid. According to Rinpoche, “working with our compassion can help us come back to our original awakened state” and meditation can help us find who we really are. These teachings have been invaluable in my work as a psychotherapist. Recently I have begun using the teachings of Rebel Buddha with many of my clients.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche continued with some truly revolutionary and mind-blowing questions: What does it mean to be a Buddhist? What do you mean when you say you’re a Buddhist? Was Buddha a Buddhist? He suggested that such dualistic labeling was not Siddhartha’s intention — he was a free thinker looking for the truth.
A key theme of Rebel Buddha and our day together in Boulder was the importance of adapting Buddhism to the particular culture in which it is being practiced. We continually explored throughout the day the importance of making American or Western Buddhism work, while preserving the original teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni.
I had been thinking about inner peace and world peace as I entered the Boulder Theater that morning, and this theme came back again as Rinpoche’s reminded us that awakening is not a property owned by a few, but is inherent in everyone.He said,”If we can each be more compassionate and understanding, the world will change. World peace will come from our awakened heart.” We left for lunch with these words in our hearts and minds.
Our first post-lunch activity was a presentation by Mitra Lee Worley, Boulder’s resident spiritual friend, a founder of Naropa Institute and lineage holder of the mudra space awareness teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The program notes entitled Mitra Lee’s talk “More Dharma, Less Drama” — perhaps because of Lee’s life in theatre ( and a chapter title in Rebel Buddha), but she chose to call it “Puppies, Space and Turnips.” Lee posited that “Puppy Mind” might be more apt for Westerners than the traditional Eastern term “Monkey Mind” to describe the incessant chatter and wildness of our minds, since the only monkeys we see as Westerners are in cages in the zoo. Lee noted, “There’s something both endearing and infuriating about young puppies — kind of like our minds, right? Puppies make big messes and are wild with no boundaries, and yet, we love and forgive them.”
I pondered how I use this theme in my psychotherapy work — we need to embrace our minds and limiting thoughts in order to transform them. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and many other teachers have said, we need to befriend our emotions to make them workable. Lee, in fact, said that our puppy minds can grow up to be very useful — like drug-sniffing dogs – for sniffing out our laziness, negative self-beliefs and other limitations, or like seeing eye dogs, helping us see through the veils of ignorance and confusion. Lee described space as the aware, rebel buddha aspect of our minds — the opening to all possibilities. In her discussion and the exercise she led, Lee described the importance of “including space in awareness, a sense of where you end and the rest begins.”
I was wondering how in the world turnips could be relevant here. Lee soon explained that a traditional description of Tibetans is that they’re like turnips, rooted in the earth and embodied, whereas Westerners are like ghosts — all head and no body. Culturally, we Westerners tend to live in our heads and don’t pay much attention to our bodies. Often when I ask therapy clients “where do you feel that in your body?” they look at me in complete bewilderment! Lee then taught us a beautiful saying: “I am because we are because I am” and led us in a three-minute chorus of the universal seed syllable “AH.” I was left with a feeling of inner peace and a real experience — and hope — for the possibility of world peace.
Our day ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion with Lama Palden Drolma, one of the West’s few female lamas and a psychotherapist; Acharya Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen, a professor at Naropa University who was Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s colleague at Nalanda University and is now resident lama and teacher to Nalandabodhi Boulder; Mitra Lee Worley, and Rinpoche. The panel was ably moderated by Dr. Deborah Bowman, founder of the transpersonal counseling psychotherapy program at Naropa University, psychologist, and photographer. Rinpoche was impishly mischievous during Deborah’s introduction of the panelists, leading her to exclaim “I knew I should have kept my eye on you!” The audience roared with laughter.
One of the key questions put to the panelists was how we can fully incorporate the wisdom and compassion teachings of Buddhism in our lives in the 21st Century Post-Industrial West. The pioneer spirit of Americans, the revolution for freedom on which the United States was founded and the importance of the 60s hippie generation who were open to going beyond the status quo were mentioned by all of the panelists as components of the rebel buddha fabric of our culture. We are all pioneers exploring new territory — the territory of mind.
A rich discussion of the concept of “surrender” — in the context of keeping our rebellious hearts alive – then ensued. Lama Tenpa talked about the importance of asking questions and examining our motives in our search for a teacher. In an interesting melding of the spiritual path and psychology, he asked “Are you trying to find a mother or father figure?” Lama Tenpa said it is important to be open to other teachers and teachings and not “surrender” to just one, and concluded that “dedication” is a more apt word than “surrender” — dedication to reaching the goals of awakening. Lama Palden posited that surrender is an opening, not a narrowing, and that good teachers can support us in discovering our natural wisdom and rebel buddha nature.
Mitra Lee likened the relationship of the student and teacher to the collaboration of a performer and director, saying “it takes an element of surrender for something to be born or created — the rebel needs assistance in coming out.” Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche stated that the concept of surrender is often misunderstood, and that surrender means to choose something without a sense of sacrifice in foregoing other things. In keeping with his modern way of looking at things, Rinpoche analogized not surrendering to channel surfing — if we don’t choose a program to watch we won’t learn anything.
The day ended for me as it began, with thoughts of inner peace and world peace, as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche shared his parting aspiration: “to dissolve the boundaries and territories of all Buddhist traditions and focus on one dharma, which is the Truth.”