On the Road to Freedom
Shambhala Publications, 2010
224 pp., $21.95 cloth
When Buddhism began spreading across the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, we received the bearers of these teachings as good hosts, but our guests were not your garden- variety visitors who would politely marvel at our comfortable and consumptive lifestyle. Nor were our Buddhist guests particularly interested in an easy exchange or in a hurry to get too familiar, too warm and cozy, too soon.
Transmitting Buddhism to America was going to be a slow process. The Rinzai roshi Sokei-an said it would be like “holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” Sokei-an’s approach and attitude were a little rough, even rude: he hung a sign at the West 73rd Street apartment where he taught that said, “Those who come are received; those who go are not pursued.” Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who was as responsible as anyone for the transmission of Buddhism to America, thought maybe it would take a hundred years to establish his Naropa project, “and we’re not in a special rush.” The early Buddhist teachers displayed a majestic indifference to the fast pace and impatience of American society: it might take a hundred or maybe even three hundred years for Buddhism to take root in America, but they were going to get it right.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom is the latest attempt to present Buddhism to Western audiences in its most essential and naked form, “a culturally strippeddown vision of the Buddhist spiritual journey,” as Ponlop puts it. The book combines two lecture series he gave on Buddhism and culture—one in Boulder in 1999, and another in Seattle in 2008. Both series displayed the same embrace of direct and ordinary language—a freshness of expression and communication that were no doubt partly the result of Ponlop’s having lived almost half of his life in the United States and Canada.
Rebel Buddha contains an introduction to the Buddhist path and some of its methods, but at the same time it opens up larger questions about how to build a practice community and establish a lineage of awakening in the West. Central to Dzogchen Ponlop’s stripped-back Buddhism is an Emersonesque message on self-reliance and the need to recognize the potential for wisdom emerging from one’s own experience. The book orbits around the central image of an inner rebel buddha—“the voice of your own awakened mind”:
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