A video flashes sepia-colored photos of Sikkim and Buddhist monasteries in Northern India, while a voiceover explains that Dzogchen Ponlop, author of Rebel Buddha, was once an attendant to the great lama, the 16th Karmapa, who was largely responsible for bringing Tibetan Buddhism to America. Then the narration quickly turns our attention to a young, Generation Xer who graduated at the top of his Buddhist Studies debate program (with two degrees, equivalent to an MA and a Doctor of Divinity).
Segue to bright colors of Elton John in silly costumes, Polaroids of Bob Dylan playing acoustic guitar, and luminous fireworks from Rolling Stones concerts exploding onto the screen, depicting Western culture. I can’t help but think, “Where is this going?”
It soon becomes clear that the video biograpnhy is not only telling us of a young prodigy who grew interested in Western culture and its behaviors—especially its music and technologies—but also of a passionate Buddhist teacher who is questioning and rebelling against outdated ways of teaching and bringing the authentic Buddhist philosophies to Westerners.
When Dzogchen Ponlop finally enters the stage he jokes that, from early youth he was treated as “a young Avatar in training,” alluding to the popular Hollywood film. Then he humorously suggests that he is really “simply a CEO, in a chain of CEOs of a monastery.” He is referring to being recognized as a tulku, a reincarnate lama, but more importantly, he says, “a basic human being with a sense of rebelliousness.”
All of the above, Dzogchen Ponlop states, while eliciting laughter from the audience at the opening of the Rebel Buddha Book tour at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City, “naturally brought me to a deeper investigation of this path I’m on.”
Dzogchen Ponlop, an avid Twitterer, artist and poet, goes on to explain that “expressions of intelligence and love” show the true heart of a “rebel,” and that “the true attribute of rebellion has the quality of openness—a sense of freedom for awakening,” and that we must get to know our minds very well to do that.
He ends by saying, “Rebel buddha is not a person. It’s the innate genuine heart of compassion and wisdom—the wonderful spark in our own hearts—so let’s be rebels!”
The second half of the day was a provocative Q & A with author Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and leading Buddhist scholars, Shastri Ethan Nichtern (panel moderator) of the Interdependence Project, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of NYC’s Village Zendo, and Nalandabodhi’s Mitra Mark Power.
Ethan Nichtern started things off with the question, “Where is Western Buddhism?” and Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara confidently answered, “It’s right here. And the question will continue until we drop the ‘Western’ and simply ask, ‘Where are we now?’”
But the afternoon’s Q & A took many twist and turns. Discussions ranged from titles and form, idolatry and support, marketing and motivation, to the heated topic of the “R” word: “Is Buddhism a religion?” To which Mitra Mark Power responded, “What is the definition of religion anyway?”
The day was packed with much to consider—about Rebel Buddha, the true meaning of freedom, and the future of American Buddhism. About the latter, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara said: “A hundred years from now I’d like to see the words Zen or Buddhism drop away, but the practice still be there. I’d like to see our children being taught to look at their minds, to moderate their emotions from an early age. That would be just fine by me.”