A Tricycle Book Club Discussion with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
In my role as a teacher, my intention is simply to share the wisdom of the Buddha and my experiences in both traditional and contemporary settings of studying and practicing those teachings. In my teachings in recent years, I have also been trying to clarify frequent misunderstandings about Buddhism—especially the tendency to make Asian Buddhist culture stand for Buddhism itself—by pointing out the true essence of the teachings, which is wisdom joined with compassion. While not always easy to sort out, my various experiences have led me to see the almost blinding influence of culture in our lives and thus the importance of seeing beyond culture altogether. If we’re ever to understand who we are as individuals and societies, then we need to see the interdependence of culture, identity, and meaning.
Since freedom is the goal of the Buddhist path, and wisdom is what we need to achieve that goal, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What is real wisdom—knowledge that brings freedom and not bondage? How do we recognize it? How does it manifest in our lives and in the world?
Does it have a cultural identity? Are the social and religious norms of everyday life an expression of true wisdom?” These questions inspired me to give a series of lectures on culture, values, and wisdom. It is from these lectures that the present book has been drawn.
To bring the wisdom of the Buddha from one culture and language into another is not an easy task. Simply having a good intention does not seem to be enough. Furthermore, the task is not simply one of direction, say from East to West. It is as much a movement through time as through physical space. It is one thing to visit a neighboring country with different customs and values and figure out how you can communicate with its people. You will find a way, because in spite of your differences, you share certain reference points and ways of thinking just by virtue of being contemporaries—of living together in the twenty-first century. But if you were transported two or three thousand years into the past or the future, you would have to find a way to connect with the mind of that age.
Similarly, we need to find a way to connect these ancient teachings on wisdom with our contemporary sensibilities. Only by stripping away irrelevant cultural and social values will we see the full spectrum of what this wisdom is in its naked form and what it has to offer our modern cultures. A true merging of this ancient wisdom with the psyche of the modern world can’t take place as long as we’re holding on tightly to the purely cultural habits and values of the East or West.
Like never before, the strict distinctions between East and West are dissolving in a world where globalization is bringing all of us the same problems and promises. From New Delhi to Toronto to San Antonio, we’re talking to each other on Skype, sharing our stuff on Facebook, negotiating deals, watching the same silly YouTube videos, and drinking our Starbucks. We’re also suffering the same panic attacks and depression, although I might take Valium and you might take Chinese herbs.
At the same time, every culture has its own unique set of eyes and ears by which it looks out on and interprets the world. We need to appreciate the impact of the psychology, history, and language of each society as it works to uphold a genuine Buddhist lineage of awakening on its home ground. It’s one thing to welcome an interesting new spiritual tradition into our culture. It’s another thing to keep it fresh and alive. When it starts to age, to become commonplace, we can become deaf and dumb to its message and power. Then it becomes like anything else to which we pay outward respect but little attention. When we lose our heart connection to anything, whether it’s an old collection of comic books, a wedding ring, or the spiritual beliefs that will accompany us until the moment of our death, it becomes just part of the background noise of our life.
This is why, throughout the ages, Buddhism has had a history of revolution and renewal, of testing and challenging itself. If the tradition is not bringing awakening and freedom to those who practice it, then it is not being true to its philosophy or living up to its potential. There is no inherent awakening power in cultural forms that have become dissociated from the wisdom and practicality that gave birth to them. They turn into illusions themselves and become part of the drama of religious culture. Although they can make us happy temporarily, they can’t free us from suffering, so at some point, they become a source of disappointment and discouragement. Eventually, these forms may inspire nothing more than resistance to their authority.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is a widely respected teacher known for his skill in making the full richness of Buddhist wisdom accessible to modern minds. He is also a poet, visual artist and city-dweller, based in the United States for two decades. His latest book is Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom (Shambhala Publications). You can connect with Rinpoche on Twitter (@ponlop), become a fan on Facebook, or visit his Web site at www.dpr.info.