Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche of Nalanda West discusses his recent book, “Rebel Buddha”, at Seattle's ACT theater in early December.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a resident of Seattle and founder of the Nalandabodhi sangha and Nalanda West Center for American Buddhism, returned to the city December 5th on the final leg of an international tour. A large audience gathered at downtown Seattle’s ACT Theater to hear him discuss his new book, “Rebel Buddha”. The book is an engaging and provocative investigation of culture, practice, and the genuine essence of the dharma to America.
Rinpoche began with 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 education in rituals and cultural orientation, but without much questioning. Soon he found “it became an empty form” and curiosity arose. What he was doing? Why was he doing it? His inner 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: someone who questioned the status quo of his palace life; 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?”
The “Rebel Buddha” event included a panel discussion moderated by John Tarrant Roshi, far left. In addition to Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (center), the other panelists were Mitra Tyler Dewar and Joan Sutherland Roshi (far right).
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.”
The afternoon session of the event opened with a talk by 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 members of the audience, who clearly resonated with feelings of 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 study. For 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:
Tyler: Take a look at your mind. It’s not all that bad.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Relax!
John: Enjoy the show!