Stepping into Seattle’s ACT Theatre last Sunday morning, a tag line from the virtual box office for Rebel Buddha Seattle – kept arising in my mind: “This is not your typical Buddhist event!” For flashing on an enormous screen to the musical backdrop of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were vibrant tweet pics by Dzogchen Ponlop and pithy quotes, some Buddhist and some not, displayed in contemporary graphic text. No gongs or gomdens, no golden Buddha statue, no referential silence. “Rebel Buddha indeed,” I mused as I took my seat in the darkening auditorium.
Diane Biray Gregorio, co-chair of Nalandabodhi Executive Council, welcomed us to this, the final stop on the Rebel Buddha tour that had begun three weeks earlier in New York City. How apt, she continued, that in this very theatre, rebels of the past –from Martin Luther King to the rock n’ roll rebellion of Creme, Pink Floyd and the Doors – had delivered their message. Those rebels, as rebels will do, challenged the status quo. And, as we were soon to hear, like those rebels, the Buddhist seeker for truth begins with questions, not answers.
For a mini taste of practice on this path, Mitra Tyler Dewar led an introductory contemplation that ended with smiles all around. Next up: a video montage introducing Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha. It told the story of Rinpoche’s early life at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, India, his extensive training at Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, his subsequent move to the West and his education at Columbia University. The final iconic images of Western musicians from the Beatles to Elton John brought us up to the present moment when, in characteristically ironic fashion, Dzogchen Ponlop entered the stage to the lyrics “. . . Pleased to meet you . . . !” from “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones.
Rock star or reincarnate lama? According to Dzogchen Ponlop himself, “I am a human being, not an alien.” As for “rock star,” the venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Rinpoche’s teacher, told him to run the other way should his organization ever start to look like an empire.
THIS IS NOT YOUR TYPICAL BUDDHIST EVENT floated across my mind in capital letters! Since when did a leading Buddhist teacher of impeccable Tibetan lineage speak in such an unconventional manner? As if on cue, Rinpoche generously began the tale of his own rebellious journey. During what he humorously referred to as his ‘avatar-in-training’ years, Rinpoche engaged in traditional Tibetan Buddhist training in rituals and cultural orientation, but without much questioning. Soon he found “it became an empty form” and questions arose. What he was doing? Why he was doing it? His rebel voice challenged the status quo of his monastic life, and Rinpoche found his “answers right within the question.”Sometimes, he said, you find that the answer is the question.”
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche also found answers by looking at the life of the historic Buddha Shakyamuni. He recognized Prince Siddhartha as a rebel, as someone who questioned the status quo of his palace life, as someone who chose to look deeper, beyond blindly believing in the superficial, outer aspects of his culture. Without blame, Siddhartha turned inward, encouraged by his rebel voice to discover his own awakened heart, the universal qualities of wisdom and love.
That freedom, that genuine heart of awakening, lives within all of us all the time. To peals of laughter Rinpoche asked, “Have you ever seen a child born asleep?” He continued, “No, they arrive fully awake. In the same way, our mind is born awake right from the beginning, but like the child who learns how to sleep, our mind does the same.”
“The good news, said Rinpoche, “is that if we are capable of learning how to sleep, we are capable of learning how to wake up. That is the path, that is the journey . . . If we look deeper into our mind, that’s where we discover truth and awakening . . . Mind is always awake and free.”
Rinpoche closed his talk with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.”
Then Rinpoche thanked his editor, Cindy Shelton, and all the friends and students who helped him develop Rebel Buddha through their many debates and discourses.
The afternoon session opened with a talk from Mitra Tyler Dewar. Tyler described how his own rebel buddha journey got a jump-start after a time of great dread and uncertainty. This sense of dread actually helped him look inward to find ways to loosen up the suffering and find kindness to himself, which he explained, eventually travels outward as compassion for others. A musician raised on old school hip-hop Tyler quoted lyrics from “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash to talk about connecting with personal suffering as a reason to begin practice on the path (“Don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head”). Tyler took a number of questions from the audience, who clearly resonated with feeling dread and uncertainty and were looking for answers in their own lives.
Then came a lively discussion with the panelists John Tarrant Roshi, Joan Sutherland Roshi, Mitra Tyler Dewar, and Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Moderator John Tarrant Roshi opened the discussion by asking for a definition of Buddhism in the 21st Century, explaining that the dharma came to the West as a beautifully wrapped package, but that our job now is to sort the wrapping paper (the cultural trappings) from the package (the essence of the dharma). He asked, “What are the crucial practices that need to remain?”
For John, it is the koans of the Zen tradition. For Tyler, a list ranged from calm, insight and compassion meditation to the path of studyFor Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, “it all goes back to the Buddha and his desire to share his awakening, something not dependent upon cultural form.” Joan said that, for her, “the qualities of kindness, courage, and wisdom created in people become the barometer,” adding with a laugh, “I believe with all my heart that the dharma will survive our best efforts!”
John’s final question, “What is one thing – in 140 characters or less – that you can offer as a helpful take-away?” left the audience with these concluding insights:
Joan: If life is a dream, then we have a choice to dream alone or together.
Tyler: Take a look at your mind. It’s not all that bad.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Relax!
John: Enjoy the show!