Where is Buddhism now?
For my part, I missed out on the excitement and exploration of the Sixties, but like so many other latecomers I finally made my first pilgrimage to Nepal and India in the early 80s. I still tell stories about the misadventures of transportation, communication, and culture. I learned a lot on that trip about myself and about the world. My friend was pickpocketed in Kathmandu, the hotels we stayed in were mostly phone-free, and ATMs wouldn’t arrive for decades. I don’t think we were clear why we were on this adventure, beyond the realization that it really was an adventure. Yes, we held onto our credit cards, but we were excited to be immersed in another culture, in an economy and society that seemed to have missed the turn toward modernity.
Dzogchen Ponlop performed this exercise in reverse—leaving Sikkim to accompany the 16th Karmapa on his 1980 tour of North America and Europe. What would a 14-year-old from Sikkim have thought of the heartland of late capitalism? Or more interestingly, what would the Karmapa have told him about the local people and their customs as he and Ponlop prepared to receive those strange Manhattanites, both the curious and the devoted, for a Black Hat Ceremony held in the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue?
Just as I couldn’t imagine cell phones in Delhi or Kathmandu, I couldn’t imagine a high lama posting on the Huffington Post. The world is changing, merging with a materialist zeitgeist: the speed and chaos that Trungpa recognized as Western have now spread to the whole world. Globalization isn’t just about commodity, production, and consumption—it is about culture, too. Rebel Buddha addresses superficial aspects of American culture, but seems to leave the root culture of late capitalism’s pervasive materialism firmly intact. As Buddhism encounters the speed, chaos, and technological magic of modernity, does the rebel buddha allow us to see beyond its influence? Are we using the technology, or is it using us? Does it matter? The rebel buddha, Ponlop tells us, asks questions.
In Trungpa’s autobiography, Born in Tibet, he recounts an important lesson about the subtle seduction of the force of materialism that he received from his crazy wisdom guru, Khenpo Gangshar. Escaping Tibet following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s, Trungpa was about to climb into the back of a lorry—his first experience with a motorized vehicle— when Khenpo Gangshar turned to him and warned, “You know how strong material forces are: now you are having one of your first direct encounters with them. Study what you are; don’t lose yourself; If you simply get excited about the journey, you will never find out what we are really up against.”
What are we up against? Cars and trucks are nothing now; faxing is an antique operation. What is the speed and seductive force of a Chinese truck bouncing along a dirt road at 15 miles an hour compared to cell phones, the Internet, tweets, and the consumer’s life of instant gratification? Dzogchen Ponlop exposes some of the cultural overlays of Buddhism and unearths aspects of the essential teachings. In doing so he employs an easy familiarity with technology and many of the cultural tropes of the West. But we need to ask the same questions about Western culture if we wish to “see beyond cultures.” In many respects it is easier for us to see the Tibetan or Japanese cultural components of Buddhism than it is to see the American cultural realities at work.
One can easily make the case that Buddhism in America has succeeded in the sense that it is clearly accepted and respected as an “institutionalized” religion. It seems very outdated to wonder whether or not Buddhism is appropriate to our culture, or whether it is right or wrong to adapt an Asian form of religion and practice to the West. Now the question is, has Buddhism succeeded too easily and too soon in America? Is there a danger of domesticating Buddhism’s radical capacity as an untamable counterforce to our coarse, dense, and speedy existence—of diminishing its capacity to bring about deep transformation, in other words?
There is a clear need to understand the cultural aspects of a teaching as it takes root, but what of the new cultural traps? When Buddhism is promoted as “science of mind” (a popular trend embraced by the panelists on the Seattle stop of the Rebel Buddha tour), have we been captured by a new cultural trap? The favorite metaphor of the panelists was the image of a package and its wrappings to suggest the difference between essential Buddhism and culturally relative aspects of Buddhism. It was unclear to me, however, whether they saw “science of mind” as an expression of essential Buddhism or as a wrapping that made Buddhism more palatable and approachable for an educated, secular audience. Science is a safe bet: who is against science? Yet the characterization of Buddhism as a science of mind is still perplexing: In what sense is Buddhism science? Do scientists take vows? Are scientists initiated into texts and practices that require confidentiality? Association with science seems to work very well for Buddhism at the general level, but as Western practitioners advance beyond the introductory stage, they appear to be comfortable embracing Buddhism’s more religious aspects. Buddhism as science of mind is a creative and attractive wrapping for a materialistic culture, and both the panelists and the audience indicated that they “liked” this approach. But liking something in itself does little more than indicate comfort and ease. If “science of mind” is the newest cultural wrapping, is it a conscious re-presentation meant to make the teaching more accessible—a negotiation with Western materialism on the order of skillful means? Or is the science-of-mind slant a confusion of package and wrapping?
If anything is at risk in making Buddhist teaching too accessible, it is perhaps a deep feeling of scale: the sense of the total otherness of great yogis, lamas, and roshis—not their cultural otherness, but total otherness. Yes, they could be friendly and familiar, but their familiarity always came as a shock and a blessing because it appeared in the atmosphere of their complete otherness, the weight and gravity of their knowledge and being. Their otherness pointed toward sacrifice and the possibility of transformation, while their familiarity and friendship was a bridge and an invitation that made us feel that we too could be part of that world of transformation.
Rebel Buddha is a warm invitation. But don’t forget: you are being invited to a rebellion, and rebellions have consequences. Maybe the best advice one can give enthusiastic readers of the book is to also read the lives of the ancient masters— accomplished, shining adepts like Marpa or Hakuin—to have some sense of the scope of the rebellion and what it might cost.
Rebel Buddha is in many ways the perfect representation of a more mature Buddhism in America, a Buddhism that has put down roots but with fresh and unknowable revolutions ahead. Dzogchen Ponlop has taken on the rebel mantel of his predecessors—pioneers who came to tame the untamable. He is a kind of second- generation pioneer, a blend of two cultures, having studied in Sikkim and at Columbia University, a product of both traditional and modern lifestyles. Dzogchen Ponlop faces the “blinding influence of culture” on two fronts: on the one side, the institutionalized forms and structures of Tibet’s Buddhism, and on the other the forces of materialism in modern culture. As Buddhism in America continues to age and mature, it might very well be the latter that proves to be the more subtle, blinding, and intractable threat to transmission. As the world shifts dramatically, steadily embracing a ubiquitous monoculture, we may find that many cultural differences disappear of their own accord, or are trumped by all that was once Western—or American— but is increasingly everywhere. And that could be a much more serious problem.
Still, in the end, maybe Joan Sutherland Roshi was in touch with her rebel buddha at the final lecture in Seattle when she said: “The dharma will survive our best efforts.”
Stuart Smithers is chair of the religion department at the University of Puget Sound, Washington, director of the Smoke Farm project of the Rubicon Foundation, and a Tricycle contributing editor.