Rebel Buddha

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.

Dzogchen Ponlop RinpocheThis 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

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devotedphoenix's picture

Perhaps part of the difficulty with emptiness is that, in our language anyway, it can be used without any indication at all of what something is empty *of* and, when that isn't specified, the connotation lends itself to the notion of a void or a vaccum.

I find it helpful to think of a pitcher. It's usefulness comes not from what it holds, but in the space within that allows it to do the holding. It returns again and again to emptiness in order to have the capacity to be filled. In fact, the basic nature of the pitcher is one of space/emptiness, and that quality doesn't go away when it's also quite obviously full of wine.

I wonder sometimes about the native languages of Buddhism and the nuances that are lost in translation, not to mention the obstacles to understanding that arise as a result.

Lin Jensen's picture

I find Kosho Uchiyama's expression of "opening the hand of thought" a practical, livable way of visualizing, perhaps even manifesting, what Zen refers to as "emptiness." To open the hand of thought I have to let go of whatever I've gotten hold of - all those opinions, beliefs, judgments, certainties of every sort. The place for me to do this letting go is on the cushion. Zazen, the most formless of meditation practices is an invitation to release whatever I'm holding, regardless of how valuable a "possession" it might seem to be. The one thing I ask for more than any other in this life is an open, empty, hand. Give me an empty hand. Give me a whole nation of empty hands. Perhaps then we can curtail the unspeakable damage our grasping has led us to.

DarrellGKing's picture

Somewhere recently (here?) I read:

Not "I am listening to birdsong" but just "listening to birdsong"

Did it for me...:).

D's picture

Hi Lin,
"Opening the hand of thought" - what a beautiful and perfectly complete expression of practice. I'm glad to have heard it. Thank you for passing it along.

DarrellGKing's picture

I wonder about what becomes lost in translation, too, Devotedphoenix. I guess it is a good line of questioning because it eventually leads to the need to experience the original phenomenon for oneself to verify the description!


BenE's picture

While I'm still reading and digesting the material, I do have a question for Rinpoche's students. What does lineage mean to you? Especially since you are studying directly from such a prominent figure. How would you relate that to what he says in Rebel Buddha on the subject of lineage?

Tyler Dewar's picture

Thank you for asking this question, Ben. It's a great one. It's also a huge one, since, in the tradition in which I've studied, the teacher-student relationship, and faith and devotion toward a teacher as a method of awakening, receive a great amount of emphasis. But I'll take a shot at summarizing what lineage is for me.

For me, lineage is the notion that people have been trying to work out some experience of freedom of the heart, some degree of cultivating a clear-seeing that liberates, and a love that truly benefits, since the time of the Buddha (and, I'd like to add, since the time of master teachers from other spiritual and religious traditions). Moreover, they have applied themselves to the teachings they received and made them personal, and, through this, achieved some real realizations and experiences.

They became so habituated to seeking out freedom, seeing clearly, and expanding the heart of love and compassion that they became, through simply their way of being, teachings in themselves.

So there are teachers who are capable of imparting information about views and practices, and there are teachers who, in addition to this, speak volumes about the whats and whys of the teachings simply in showing up to work with others. It is the latter category of teachers that come to be known as "lineage holders." Something about the way they sit, the way they react to others, the way they speak, and so on, instills confidence that "it" can be done, that there is a result that can be achieved through immersing in the practices. So I find this very inspiring.

And in an age where lots and lots of folks seem to have the brightest idea about how to be happy and free of suffering, it's encouraging to see teachers who represent a lineage of awakening, a lineage of altruism, and who have been recognized as deeply competent guides by a community of their peers and, most importantly, by their own teachers.

In this way, on the ultimate level, the lineage becomes the main reference point in terms of guidance on the path. At the end of the day, as I understand it, anyway, the lineage teachers are like a mirror, a place where you can check in to work out the sometimes tricky distinction between wisdom and surface-level mental chatter.

Of course, in the beginning, middle, and end, oneself is the primary witness and judge of one's experience. But much of the time it is healthy to recuse ourselves from assessing our own spiritual development. An accomplished teacher can inspire us to return to the methods of practice, over and over again; the fact that he or she is from a lineage gives us confidence that this whole relationship is not about personalities and placation, but rather about a centuries-old way of using inter-personal relationship to bring out our best qualities.

Rinpoche, in Rebel Buddha, points to another, deeper sense of lineage:

"[L]ineage is the wisdom itself, the content of what is passed on from teacher to student, generation after
generation. We could also say it is the process of passing this wisdom from one person to another, and then
nurturing that seed of wisdom until one’s spiritual offspring are mature, independent and strong enough to
pass it on to others. In this sense, the historical figures in the Buddhist tradition are our ancestors, the
forebears of our realization. Because they passed on methods for awakening, we are able to connect with the
same methods today. So we can think of lineage as our family tree."

I may have rambled on a bit here. Did this speak to your question?

BenE's picture

Thanks so much! This was a fantastic answer.

Just yesterday I went to my University's museum. It's a beautiful place but sadly unused by the student body at large. One of it's many stunning exhibits showcases a study of asian buddhism through India, Tibet, and Japan.

I've had an off week, something unusual for me, and I felt the need to do something about it. So I decided to walk through the gallery.

I was blown away by how many buddhist scholars and sages had sculptures made after them. All of them reminded me of depictions of the buddha, and yet they looked nothing like him. They had this clean bodhi resonance but in curiously personalized manners. It made me reflect on the idea of allowing teachings to invade your personality and sense of self.

When that happens, the teachings become inextricable from your life. There's no other way for you to live, it is either ignorance or truth. And therefore your life becomes the living expression of the teachings. This effect appears to be a transmission.

This seems to parallel what you say as well. I have not searched extensively, but I wonder how difficult it is to find an accessible lineage holder in the west.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Good Morning, All. Thank you Tyler and Cindy for facilitating discussion.Thank you Dennis, Ben, dharmamonkey, and Pilgrim for sharing your thoughts. I deeply appreciate your online fellowship.

My name is Linda Allen. I live in a small town in Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, where some people are open when I mention my interest in Buddhist practice and a few seem terrified or contemptuous. The ideal of being "a rebel" against prevailing tradition and culture feels very real here, and often scary!

I have just begun to read the book and hope to share more substantively soon.

With maitri, Linda.'s picture

Welcome to the discussion Linda. It's nice to know where you are and that we're sharing our thoughts across the country. Tyler and I are in Seattle, which is a pretty diverse and multi-cultural city. Being Buddhist here doesn't arouse much reaction (in my experience). But I realize that's not the case everywhere. As you read the book, I'd be interested to hear a little more about how you work with your Buddhist interests within your cultural/social environment. When you get a little further into the book, Rinpoche talks about this in a very down to earth way. There's a nice section in chapter 9, "Making and Avoiding Meaningful Connections," that's been very helpful to me.
Look forward to hearing from you.

DarrellGKing's picture

Rochester, NY. I don't identify myself formally as Buddhist, but simply apply mindfulness and other teachings to my day. The result has been a few questions around my demeanor or behaviors, which I answer as clearly as I can with reference to Buddhist studies. I am not avoiding association with Buddhism so much as trying not to relpace one case of ritualistic identity with another. It is obvious to me that I qualify for the label based on my lifestyle and practice, but it sure would be nice to have a social choice that did not involve cultural ritual I do not find meaning in!

Sorry if that sounded as though I am applying judgment to others - I meant it only for my own case.

Regarding acceptance, my intuitive reaction based on the experience described above is that I would find almost no resistance at work, very little in our diverse community and some sideways glances amongst the in-laws and my own family.


Edith's picture

Hi Darrel, it didn't come across as judgemental at all, merely the ruminations of one who has given much thought to the topic!
I envy you your certainty, your ability to be able to take a stand, make a choice. You have found the teachings which enrich your days and your life. I do appreciate your desire not to get caught up in another set of ritualistic trappings! Unlike you, I am still trying to find my way.

DarrellGKing's picture

You found your way here, Edith. Perhaps we will nurture each other's growth.


Edith's picture

Hi Cindy, you wrote in reply to Linda:
quote:" As you read the book, I'd be interested to hear a little more about how you work with your Buddhist interests within your cultural/social environment."
Well I don't have the book yet. It won't be published on this side of the water until December 1st, so I shall have to pick up what I can from gleanings submitted by others!
I will be very interested to hear how others try to integrate the teachings and practice into their particular mind sets and ways of life. At the moment I am fascinated with the apparent simiarities between Tibetan Buddhism and some contemplative Christian texts, including those of individuals like St. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, and a host of contemporary Christian writers who focus on the shared truths essential to all the Wisdom traditions. The practice of shamatha seems to me to be very close in spirit and intent to the deep Christian contemplative practices, which are only re-emerging after centuries of being hidden away for fear of leading the uninitiated astray!'s picture

Hi Edith,

Many years ago I took a class in contemplative Christianity and read a little about the traditions of Christian mystics, including the Desert Fathers and Saint John of the Cross. It was fascinating and I wondered then what differences there could be in the deep prayers & contemplations of these Christians and the deep meditations of Buddhists - or of any other spiritual practitioner who stills the mind and goes beyond ordinary consciousness. We discussed this in class and the only point made that seemed plausible (though not necessarily totally convincing) was a difference in view. The view that a separate creator exists, or does not exist, for example, might affect the experience or the interpretation of it. I am not familiar with the texts or the writings of contemporary Christians. In Rebel Buddha, dpr (that's how Rinpoche often signs his name) does say "...we need to see what Buddhist wisdom shares with other wisdom traditions and with the innate wisdom that is everybody’s birthright." and "If we can get over our idea that wisdom is exclusive to certain people or groups, then our world expands dramatically." (p.171) By the way, where are you that you have to wait for the book? Love to hear more.

DarrellGKing's picture

Hi Cindy,

I agree with dpr about the desirability of moving away from any concepts of proprietary wisdom. It only makes sense. The challenge is to present something so elusively intangible in a way that doesn't beg to collect decorative trappings.

D's picture

Hi Darrell and Edith - to continue this thread...
It seems to me that we're talking about moving away from philosophy and labels toward a personal experience or self-discovery of our inner world. In terms of dpr's book and the rebel buddha he talks about, I see that as our natural human impulse toward awakening, some basic desire to see the naked truth of who we are. The wisdom of others and systems of religion and philosophy can help us and carry us so far, but in the end, we have to let go of all that or we never get there - to our own understanding and wisdom. For me, that's where the example of the Buddha is so powerful. Even bringing that attitude (independence of mind/fearlessness to see what is) into our lives and relationships with others is likely to provoke some changes, but not necessarily in ways we'd expect. Perhaps that's part of the "adventure" quality that Rinpoche talks about. What will we discover when we tap into this unknown territory we call selflessness or wisdom or ?? We hear about the qualities of enlightenment or transcendence, but really, what are they? It's challenging...your thoughts?

DarrellGKing's picture


I've spoken here about the solitary nature of my practice - a characteristic of my life since childhood. I am an introvert, although made far less anxious by social contact than when I was younger! I have some concerns around this, but not (yet?) enough to add yet more to my schedule in the form of zen center visits or other gatherings.

I brought this up because of your comment, "[t]he wisdom of others and systems of religion and philosophy can help us and carry us so far, but in the end, we have to let go of all that...". Your post reminded me that before Buddhism there was Buddha and he did all the important stuff sitting around all alone in the woods...:).

Sometimes I wish for a group of like-minded humans to share and discuss with. But I am not looking for ceremony and ritual and other trappings from which to build an identity as a "Buddhist." More like other students out here in the woods who are also too busy with the work to care much about the robes.

Seems like whenever I try to describe my feelings around this, it comes across sounding negative to me. Perhaps somebody else can articulate more clearly for me...:).

D's picture

Hi Darrell,
Far from sounding negative, your comments probably echo the feelings of many people who want to get to the heart of the matter without taking on any religious trappings or labels. I think there is more room for that these days, at least in my experience of community. Looking back (and I can look back for several decades), I realize that I imposed many rules on myself and measured my Buddhist cred in relation to what I thought others were doing . So exhausting, and not very fruitful. Eventually, that goes because it’s just impossible to keep up! Rinpoche talks about the courage to be genuinely who we are in any circumstance, without retreating behind any barriers, and that, for me, is a powerful reminder of what our practice is all about – the discovery of our true nature. And a spiritual community can be a great support in that journey, in its power to reflect back to us where we are on target and where we are fooling ourselves or need a little more work. On the other hand, our life does the same thing – all the world’s a mirror, if we’re looking for reflections. I think open mind, open heart, and an aspiration to make the journey are the primary things, regardless of whether we are in a community or “sitting around all alone in the woods...”

DarrellGKing's picture

I agree, Cindy. It took some time to figure out what I needed to do as a solitary practitioner, but fortunately I have always learned well from reading! Once started, though, each year seemed to get easier. Nowadays, the desire for company balances against the desire to avoid it so that my time can be used for practice, where it is most needed.


Edith's picture

Hi Cindy, as I understand it, what you refer to as moving away from philosophy and labels towards a personal experience of our inner world is exactly what I would call the spiritual journey, and in some sense all the traditions, at least at some level, encourage this.From what you write the message of dpr's book seems, in fact, to apply to all the major world religions! I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of it! It's just such a pity that this discussion group will be over by the time my copy arrives!

DarrellGKing's picture


We could start a group, or perhaps dpr's students already have one we could join...

With the Internet, we need end our discussion only when we so choose!


Edith's picture

Hi Darrell, its been a while since I've been online, hence the late reply! Sorry! 5 children and 2 cats leaves my interactions sporadic at times....!!! :-)
The book club Cindy mentions sounds good. I for one shall be registering. And I just got word that my copy of 'Rebel Buddha' has arrived in my local bookshop!! Yay!!!'s picture

Hi Darrell - as an FYI there will be an online book discussion group that starts in January. (Dates: January 17- February 13.
For information on how to register please send email to: There will be book discussion groups at some Nalandabodhi centers as well. The Rebel Buddha web site will list all options once that information is confirmed. There will also be a discussion guide put up on the web site, which can be used by anyone to start a discussion with their own circle of friends. So, the discussion can continue as you choose!

DarrellGKing's picture

Thanks, Cindy. I will take a look.


Edith's picture

Hi Cindy,
yes it is a fascinating topic, isn't it? I have been practicing a type of Christian contemplative meditation called Centering Prayer for some time now. Recently I have become very interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and I am continually amazed at how the 'felt-sense' of both practices are so similar. Of course the paths leading in to both are quite different, emerging from completely different cultural backgrounds and mind sets. Then of course one wonders whether the deepest levels of meditation can ever be completely divorced from their conceptual backgrounds. Some days I think that yes, they are both emerging from the same well of vast openness and spaciousness;other days I return to not knowing. Perhaps, as you suggest, these ruminations are only a problem when we come to interpreting our experience. Maybe the experiences can be utterly pure and free from conceptual baggage? Presumably it is our faith that this might be so which leads us onwards through our chosen contemplative paths! So we need to distinguish between the raw experience and the interpretation of it. For now this is an open question for me, and one that I shall hold on to lightly while I go on to explore the richness of Tibetan Buddhism.
By the way there is a Buddhist scholar, Ed Bastian, PhD. who is exploring the possibility of a practice which is based upon a number of traditional contemplative and mystical paths from all traditions, yet which transcends any one particular method. He calls it 'Interspiritual Meditation'. Here's a link:
As regards the book -- well I live in Ireland and for some reason it's not due to be published over here until the beginning of December! However sometimes my local bookshop can get books in from the States before they are released here. Here's hoping...!!! :-)

Tharpa Pema's picture

Thank you, Cindy. I jumped ahead and read the section you mentioned, "Making and Avoiding Meaningful Connections."

I feel that labelling people is a common social activity in my community, as perhaps it is in most human settings. I don't want to label others but I catch myself doing it anyway. Fear seems to be my reason.

I participate weekly in a spiritual group associated with an Al-Anon group in my area. We run the gamut of political positions. I am the only Buddhist in the group. The book we study is Christian.

I find myself oversensitive to statements made by others that reflect prejudice against other nations, races, and religions. Yet I see something compulsive and aggressive about my determination to challenge every such statement.

My sensitivity probably has a lot to do with my experience during childhood as the daughter of a white, Southern, Christian minister engaged in civil rights activism. I can still feel today the repeated death threats and verbal attacks on my family in my present tendencies toward isolation and paranoia.

I look forward to an ongoing discussion.

Pilgrim Rich's picture

Hello All
I am finding Rebel Buddha very much to the point ,I have a rough time studying Buddhism as
The culture and teaching gets mixed up for me .I have questioned myself why my faith has
taught me my not to do,s but but not how not to do ,and Buddhism has helped me very much ,and this
book is well written and makes for me interesting and straight forward reading .And this discussion
for me is great and Rinpoche does a wonderful job of explaining . As said above the journey and the
Book ,I can ,t wait to continue.

Tyler Dewar's picture

Rich, I loved your phrases "my not-to-dos" versus "how-not-to-do." I think those few words capture what a lot of people value most about Buddhism: its emphasis on process, path, technique, method. Hope to see you back here, Rich! best, td's picture

I think seeing how the culture and teaching can get mixed up is already a great insight. As someone who's been a Buddhist for years, I can say that it took me a long time to start asking those questions. I agree too that Buddhism is very helpful in terms of giving us a "path" or ways to actually work with our minds - an improvement over just wishful thinking...:) Thanks for your comments.'s picture

I think we have the beginning of an interesting discussion. I appreciate everyone’s comments. The description of ‘rebel buddha mind’ as the mind that exceeds the sum of its parts is great, and the question about whether Rebel Buddha is advocating ‘pragmatic Buddhism’ is a good one to hold in mind as we read the book. In Rebel Buddha [RB], Rinpoche encourages questioning, from beginning to end. He says that the questioning mind opens up the spiritual journey but we have to learn to work skillfully with our questions – hang out with them, give them time, let them lead us to personal discoveries.

“If we merely accept everything that’s thrown at us, then where has our intelligence gone? We actually need intelligent doubt and skepticism; they protect us against mistaken views and propaganda. A healthy dose of doubt and skepticism will lead us to precise and clear questions.” [RB p. 21]

I think of this questioning mind as our rebel buddha mind at work – testing and exploring our experience. That includes looking outside at culture itself and inside at our own beliefs and values. So this is an encouragement to raise and share our questions and see where they lead us.

DarrellGKing's picture

Hi Cindy,

This post has grown on me. In the beginning, I did not look much to the title or term Rebel Buddha, but having just finished the book (with appendices still to go), I am assimilating and the term has floated to the surface.

It has been kind of fun over the past couple years to watch the increasing momentum of my efforts to observe my thoughts. The egoic, thinking mind seems to have an endless reserve of determination to provide stories to grab my attention. From somewhere has come a matching commitment to step outside the stories, to detach and wake up, to rebel against the dream. Having no formal teacher or sangha to spur me on, Rebel Buddha becomes an apt label for this mysterious motivation!


dharmamonkey's picture

This is going to be a very interesting journey, I think, as I know my own tendency is to lean heavily on (and, at times, loose myself in) ritual, often at the expense of finding my own way to and through wisdom that could have been in plain sight.

I admit that I was at first weary of Rebel Buddha after I read where someone compared it to Buddhism without Beliefs. I'll also admit to having not read Stephen Batchelor's book, as the so-called 'pragmatic Buddhism' has always stuck me as odd -- I spent most of my life as a practicing Irish Catholic, and the notion of 'pragmatic Catholicism' seems like the exact opposite of being a devout Catholic.

After reading Rinpoche's introduction to the book, what I believe is his intent becomes clear: to reach back through time in order to tap into the pure essence of Buddha's teachings, stripping away everything that those teachings have picked up through 2,500 year's worth of transmission across numerous cultures, languages, geographies and societies.

I purchased the book and told myself I would read the first chapter, and then try to figure out if a pragmatic approach to Buddhism seemed like it made sense, or if I felt it somehow violated the nature of what I have experienced as a Western Buddhist for the last seven years. At this point, after reading only the introduction and giving those few pages a lot of thought, I have to say that I am, more than anything, curious. I think I see where Rinpoche is going, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's next.


DarrellGKing's picture

" own tendency is to lean heavily on (and, at times, loose myself in) ritual..."

Well put.

I am interested in the teachings. I understand the addition of more thinking will not itself cause all thinking to drop away. Yet my thinking mind exists and this is what it does.

For me as well, ritual usually obscures the reality of present-moment practice. In working with others, the most valuable help I can receive is simply the holding up of a mirror. Preferably in a way that catches my attention rather than with any repetitive ritualistic ceremony! This simple act is perhaps the whole use of sangha for practice.

Are there others who share similar views?


Tyler Dewar's picture

Good points, Darrell. I definitely find in my practice that ritual can lend itself to a certain monotony and feeling of almost sleepiness. Sometimes a break from certain forms of ritual can help to bring freshness back into the practice, i.e. it can help with re-connecting to the original intent and purpose of the ritual itself. All well-constructed rituals can, I think, help us work with our minds in a positive way, but not all rituals are for everyone. And, sometimes, even when we connect deeply to a particular type of practice, we find that we have been following the form without really following or connecting with the meaning.

And we're at an interesting place in this regard when it comes to Buddhism in the West. Which rituals are essential and not to be discarded? Which rituals should we hold onto for a while until we figure out how to do it in a way that feels more culturally "ours"? And are there rituals that we should simply do away with because we can't find a way to feel a genuine connection with them?

Sooner or later, all of these questions should be on the table. Of course, these questions are for individual communities and individual pairings of teachers and students to decide. There's no central church of Buddhism.

Did these remarks speak to your comments, Darrell? In any case, thank you for stopping by and offering this interesting perspective.

best wishes,


DarrellGKing's picture

Thanks Tyler. I agree with the philosophy of decentralization as well. In fact, organization itself might be considered a ritual process of sorts.

I run a Mensan special interest group named Metacognition and we have had many online discussions over the years. A characteristic of that community that I value is that our discussions are open and seeking. By that I mean folks come and go as today's need dictates, and the only two requirements are civility and the very same clear thinking that is mentioned in this thread. We do not have much in the way of form or ritual, but we can be a bit relentless in our exploration of a given topic. Some topics are more sensitive and so we flex our communication rituals as appropriate to meet the goal at hand.

This is the flavor I had in mind when I posted. You ask above, "which rituals are essential and not to be discarded?". I might answer by recalling that I once benefited greatly from bowing and regular, long sitting schedules, but now scheduling pressures have adjusted my sitting to a brief morning session and I no longer bow at all. At the point where I needed an hour of sitting, that ritual was essential. When change brought new needs, I discarded what was no longer appropriate.

There is a theory in psychology and a philosophy in nursing called person centered. It emphasizes the need for treatment to be individualized to the needs of each person - that each situation is unique. Quite Buddhist, really...:). I think it is pertinent here as well: the reality is that ritual is a way to mass-produce the product, an approach that has it's uses but should not occlude the product itself!

I read that Buddha tailored his teachings for the audience in front of him and that statement makes complete sense to me. There was little ritual in Buddha's own original approach and my philosophy is to compare what I choose today with that thought. Every ritual should have a clearly understood purpose related to addressing the relief of suffering, and I should only use each if and when I need it. Otherwise, I end up carrying a lot of rafts around...:).

This has gone on too long and I apologize. For this time, this issue is important to me. I do not even label myself "a Buddhist" because I do nothing to identify with the label except study the teachings and meditate. I would like to pursue this further, even focusing my grad studies on it and building my professional practice around it, but that question of ritual and ceremony is a Big Deal. At my age (52), I would prefer to walk a more focused path rather than simply follow shared forms for egoic comfort.

All of which, of course, makes the book in question rather timely for me,

Apologies for length.


Edith's picture

Thank you for these very enlightening reflections and please feel free to go on as long as you like!! :-) I am particularly delighted to read your comments on creating people centered practices. My own practice is still evolving and as such I am trying to figure out how to combine elements of both practice and study, while integrating both into my daily life, which is a busy one with a family of 5 children to care for.
As far as ritual is concerned, it has it's place, but only so long as it holds meaning for those engaged in it. Reared in an Irish Catholic household I have learned to be somewhat dubious of ritual for the sake of tradition. Like you (though unlike you in that you are so much further along the road than I !!) I am trying to walk upon a path which is focused upon a meaningful essence which resonates in my heart, not simply some antiquated practices which merely serve to dull my mind in mists of incense,much as I love incense!!! --See, nothing is simple really! Sometimes I still hanker for the old containers and all that they evoke; but mostly though I seek the 'truth' whatever that might turn out to be!

DarrellGKing's picture

Hi Edith,

I liked your point about meaningful ritual. The way my mind works, there are indeed values to certain rituals in my day, and I suspect this is true for many. However, I am also aware that these have no intrinsic meaning, but are simply animated by my thoughts. Thus, I feel they are tools and I easily remember that their effects are more important then they, themselves.

By the way, that particular perspective helps me integrate my practice into all corners of my life, too - is this the area you were referring to with "combining elements"? My cultural heritage is to treat each phenomena in my day as absolute and externally seperate. (That description felt clumsy to me - sorry.) The effect is to confuse my mindfulness practice, to quickly return me to old, unconscious patterns.

A helpful tool for me is to ask myself, as I do with any given ritual, what the situation means to me - not "what is happening", but "how am i reacting?". For me, this helps turn my awareness from the habitual perception of the environment to a mindfulness on the meaning I am giving it. It's an interesting exercise for integrating workaday events into practice!


Kate's picture

Hi - I was going to post because reading about Rebel Buddha (just ordered it) resonated so strongly with much of what is going on for me right now. However, having typed away decided not to post. Now I have read your post which is also echoing my experience so I will take that as a sign. I am currently doing a Person Centred Degree course and the past few weeks have been considering the whole issue of race/ culture/ difference. I agree that the person centred approach is "quite Buddhist" but I do not wish to offend anyone on this forum. I know there are questions within the Buddhist communities about losing the essence by practitioners picking and choosing what best suits their practise.I personally LOVE Pema Chodron's message and if there was a monastery that was full of Pema's I would shave my head today. OK so what am I trying to say? I suppose looking at the various theoretical ideas around how to approach 'culture' and how appropriate counselling is to other cultures, I am struck time and time again that what I am reading is a White / Western version of how to approach something that only became separated because we split mind and body and forgot completely about spirit. So I am reading about how a white / educated / western person is trying to approach 'difference,' which in essence is due to a perception that was a product of a view of the universe that saw and objective reality ‘out there’ and failed to acknowledge the interrelatedness of all things. So yesterday I did a bit of a search to see what the Buddhist view is on cultural/ difference and how to heal our sense of separation, and came across some really inspiring stories about Cheri Maples (Captain of Police in Madison County for 20 years) who has been practising engaged Buddhism for 12 years (?) and passing the skills of mindfulness on to her recruits. And then I read about The Dhamma Brothers who are in a max security prison for life but meditating. And I was struck by how on the one hand there are all these really educated people writing books about how we bring counselling/psychotherapy to other cultures, whilst other cultures seem to bringing to the West what we need. There is much resistance to this it would seem from all quarters. Buddhism is worried about losing its traditions, Madison County and the prison had to be sold mindfulness as something other than spirituality because it is against the law to promote religion!! Yet I sense there is a huge surge of awakening emerging all around us & eventually all the old paradigms will have to give way to the new, just as science is having to accept the new physics. This of course does not mean we lose touch with the old, with the ancestral root with tradition, we still stay anchored in it because the emergence is a return to what has always been and always will be in our becoming. I am truly excited by what Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is saying and by what I sense is stirring in the world today.

I sense there is a fear within the Buddhist community of dropping ritual, but in a way I sense we are arriving at a point where what was once Buddhism is now simply an emerging recognition of our essence mirrored in the teachings. It has been important on my path not to identify with anything but to trust my own essence. I do not think I am alone in this. The Buddhist teachings take me back time and time again to my root and offer me a way to shift my limiting perceptions. I would very much like to see Person Centred Counselling link more and more with mindfulness (rather than it being linked with CBT), but first of all we have to find a way of getting our governments to accept that

Kate's picture

Sorry for length of post and sorry for last paragraph that I had deleted but somehow it didn't delete

DarrellGKing's picture

Hi Kate,

Thanks for posting - I feel less self-conscious about the length of my own now! And I'd love to learn more about that degree program - if you think of it, would you send a link to DarrellGKing at

I hadn't thought about that fear of losing traditions. I guess I just figured there were plenty of people for who this or that tradition, complete with rituals, feels right. It never even occurred to me that what I was looking for should replace what is. I guess that's a good thing for me...:).

What I was thinking is that the concept put forth in Rebel Buddha would simply be something new added to the world. A new tradition added to the existing list, not replacing an older on on it.


Tyler Dewar's picture

Thank you for this, Sean. "Reaching back through time" is an interesting metaphor, as is the metaphor of "stripping" away the cultural and terminological clothing that the practice of awakening via the Buddha's teachings has come to layer itself in through the ages. It seems to me that the practice of spirituality has and will always involve these forms of rigorous renewal, since culture and language have and will always be a part of the delivery of the teachings. So even as we shed, if we remain mindful of the distinction and play between the clothing and the clothed, we might run across a few garments that are still useful, a few words and terms that still carry some ability to point us in a liberating or strengthening direction. But there will be greater focus on the garments' utility on the path to freedom from, or at least the loosening or making-more-workable of, our not-so-helpful habitual patterns of thought and perception. I think I recently heard Ponlop Rinpoche use the term "transcendent pragmatism" somewhere.

Thanks again for being here! I hope you come back and continue sharing.

very best, td

BenE's picture

I have to say I just purchased the book today and love it. A lot of what I'm reading are observations I have often made to myself, observations which Rinpoche elaborates on in an elegant and spare manner.

I'm a 22 year old college student finishing up my last year in school and Rebel Buddha is something that sums up the path I have walked while pointing onward.

To me, the phrase and title 'rebel buddha' is revelatory. It calls to mind the rebellious nature of buddhism. Not the rebellion of disobedience but the rebellion from the senses, from the illusion we take to be reality. The rebel buddha mind is the mind that exceeds the sum of its parts.

I look forward to the future discussions!


Tyler Dewar's picture

Wonderful to hear of your inspiration, Ben! Enjoy the read, and feel free to stop back and share some of the salient contemplations the book brings up as you continue. very best, td's picture

Hello dear readers,

I’m really happy to be part of the discussion of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s new book, Rebel Buddha-On the Road to Freedom. It’s quite a title and has already sparked conversation here and there on the Internet. Following Tyler’s lead, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Cindy Shelton. I’m a longtime student of Ponlop Rinpoche, and I’ve had the good fortune to serve as Rinpoche’s editor, including for this particular book. I first met Rinpoche in 1996, at Naropa University. He had come to teach Madhyamaka and Buddha Nature courses in the Religious Studies Department where I was a student and also worked. In short time, Rinpoche’s lectures opened up a new world of learning, and Buddhist philosophy, always a love, suddenly became an adventure—a very personal journey.

How did he do this? By telling the story of the Buddhist journey in a way that felt like we were taking that trip, right then and there. We were walking around with new eyes, which made the world new as well. Those were exciting days, and many years later, in Rebel Buddha, Rinpoche is telling that story again. This time, the story is told more plainly and more humorously than ever before. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book and your experience of it. I’m curious to know what interests you, what you find helpful or perplexing. Since most of you are just getting your books, I’d like to end with a simple question about the title – what happens when you put the word ‘rebel’ with the word ‘buddha’?

Thanks - Cindy

Tyler Dewar's picture

Hello Everyone!

My name is Tyler Dewar, and I'll be serving as one of the moderators for our Rebel Buddha book club discussion. I'm very excited about this opportunity and look forward to interacting with you. Welcome!

A little bit about me: I became interested in Buddhism and meditation in 1996. I met Ponlop Rinpoche, the author of Rebel Buddha, in 1997 and became a formal student of his in 1998. At around the same time that I met him, I also fell in love with the Tibetan language. With Rinpoche's encouragement, I set out to study Tibetan intensively, and, since 2000, have been serving Rinpoche's organizations as an oral and literary translator. Rinpoche appointed me as a senior teacher of his sangha, Nalandabodhi (, in 2005, and thus I also do a little bit of teaching here and there. I live in Seattle, WA, with my wife, Shirley, and our four-year-old daughter, Saeran (rhymes with "Karen").

Rinpoche, being a very busy man, has asked me to interact with readers on this forum since he may not have the time to participate regularly. (We hope to see Ponlop Rinpoche himself weighing in with his wisdom on these very pages this month, but we can't make any guarantees at this time.)

You of course don't have to ask me questions or direct your comments to me in any way, but if you do have any questions about things you have read in Rebel Buddha or things that Rebel Buddha inspired you to think about, I'm more than happy to take a shot at answering them or engaging in further exploration of the topic with you.

I'm happy to be joined by my friend Cindy Shelton, who will also, at Ponlop Rinpoche's request, be participating as a moderator here. Cindy is also a senior student of Rinpoche's and is his main editor and secretary for publications and media. She has an incredible familiarity with the entire range of the teachings that Rinpoche has been giving in the Western world since the mid-90s, so I'm sure you will enjoy her insights and responses--please take advantage of having Cindy here! And please consider me at your service too.

Thank you for visiting this forum; I look forward to reading your thoughts and explorations.

dennishunter's picture

Rinpoche, thank you very much. One of the things I find most inspiring about this book is how you emphasize seeing the difference between the genuine wisdom of the Buddhist teachings and the cultural forms in which those teachings have traditionally been 'packaged.' You so clearly point out the dangers of confusing the two. This feels like such an important conversation for us to be having in Western Buddhism, and such an appropriate moment to be having it.

I was struck by something Mitra Mark Power said at a recent retreat I attended, which was that Western Buddhism, in terms of its maturation process, is now entering the stage of adolescence. As I'm sure we all remember only too well, adolescence can be a turbulent period full of rapid change and growth, which happens sometimes in unexpected or awkward ways. It's also a stage of rebellion against the perceived confines of one's childhood, and a time in which the young person (no longer a child but not quite an adult yet, either) begins to discover and assert his or her own identity and individuality, which may look different from the parents (or the grandparents!). This process is sometimes difficult and messy for both parents and children, but it is absolutely essential. It is the beginning of maturity and independence (being able to stand on one's own feet), and only by going through it can children fully grow up into young adults and become confident of who they are.

I think that is such a rich metaphor for where we are today in Western Buddhism, and true on so many levels. Your book, and your vision of each of us discovering within ourselves our own 'rebel buddha,' seem to resonate very much with that idea. I found the book to be full of the kind of affectionate and respectful advice and encouragement we need from a wise elder who wants to help us reach maturity and manifest our full potential. Your recognition that our path may not look exactly like the paths of previous generations or cultures, and that our process of growth now is going to require some questioning and shaking things up a bit and perhaps letting go of certain cultural forms that may not fit -- and that all of that is okay, and good, and a natural part of the process -- is empowering and refreshing and really inspires me. It's what I, as a slightly rebellious adolescent, would hope to hear from a loving parent who understands me. Thank you for this magnificent book.

Tyler Dewar's picture

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Dennis. Your blogs at have been wonderful!