Marketing Dharma

A while back, I wrote about the Rebel Buddha marketing campaign and how some aspects of it bothered me. I seem to stand alone in that regard, because I have seen nary a discouraging word about the campaign. Apparently since there are so many so-called big names attached, no one is bothered by Buddha-dharma packaged and sold as though it were a product.

I found this rather interesting: a video clip “from a panel discussion organized as part of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s book launch tour for Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom . . . Held at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York City on November 14th, 2010.” The moderator asks Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the man behind “Rebel Buddha” how he reconciles the marketing aspect of Buddhism with spiritual aspect. The moderator mentions that he himself has noticed that “Rebel Buddha” has had a very “well coordinated” campaign. You can view the clip here.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s response is rather lame, in my opinion. He says that he “answers this question by working with his motivation, his intention.” In other words, because his intentions are good, it justifies his actions. The end justifies the means. Again.

So what is his motivation? To “contribute something towards Western, American Buddhism.”

Right. American Buddhism needs more commercialism. That’s just what we’ve been missing. I’m sure Dzogchen Ponlop is referring to the message of his book, which is wrapped around his convoluted concept of “Rebel Buddha.” From what I can tell through reading excerpts here and there, it’s just another book that’s supposed to cut through something or other and make Buddhism absolutely clear to everyone, just like any number of other books out there.

Frankly, I can think of better ways to contribute to Western Buddhism than coming up with some “hot” concept and then marketing it as you would any other commercial product. Maybe it’s just me, but I think Buddhists should try to resist the tide of commercialism, not ride it. One of the burbs about the book says “It’s your rebel Buddha the sharp, clear intelligence that resists the status quo.”

How is hitching your team to the commercial bandwagon resisting the status quo? What’s rebellious about that?

Sorry, but Buddhism is not a commodity and if you are a true rebel Buddha, you will resist turning it into one.

To be fair, as Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara points out in the clip, everyone does some marketing. Anytime a dharma group or teacher runs an announcement about some event, either online or in print, this is essentially an advertisement. Every time a Buddhist picks up a phone to call someone and inform him or her of an event, this is a form of marketing.

I think it comes down to how to how far you take it, and perhaps, and if you are willing to sink to the lowest common denominator.  Teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh obviously engage in a certain amount of marketing, and yet, their approach is for the most part, subtle and coupled with integrity, or perhaps I should say, respect for the integrity of Buddha-dharma.

Just because the motivation is good, it doesn’t mean that the actions based on that motivation are also good. The end rarely justifies the means, especially if it means compromising your principles, lowering your standards, or diluting the real message.

I don’t begrudge  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche for wanting to contribute to Western Buddhism. I just think he is misguided. The true rebel Buddhas will be those home-grown Western Buddhists who finally decide to stand up, shake off the traditional lineages and break open the shell of the Asian Buddhist model. The West needs more qualified teachers and new traditions, more home-grown local sanghas, not more marketing.


2 thoughts on “Marketing Dharma

  1. David,

    I have somewhat less negative feelings about the whole Rebel Buddha thing. I attended the Cooper Union roll out of the Rebel Buddha tour out of curiosity because I was intrigued by the idea of a lama who had mastered the nuts and bolts of social marketing techniques.

    I haven’t read the book, but I thumbed through it while I was at the event, and heard Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche give a Dharma talk on the theme of the book as well as the ensuing panel discussion. It’s unfair of me to comment on the book without having read it, but it looked like a good enough book about Buddhism for a Westerner who was coming to the Dharma for the first time (although I have to admit it didn’t hold enough interest for me to want to buy it.)

    I think Ponlop himself is more interesting for who he is than for what he has to say — a genuine lineage holder who deeply understands the traditional Tibetan tradition but is also very much at home in Western culture. (I don’t know any other reincarnated Tibetan lamas who watch Dexter on TV.) He seems accomplished, pleasant, personable, and well intentioned. I think he has integrity. I also think he makes a positive contribution to the dialogue between Vajrayana and the West.

    I don’t think there is anything intrinsically harmful in media campaigns per se. If what you are marketing is real, beneficial, useful, and true, and if you are not distorting anything in the way you promote it, what is wrong with it? I haven’t heard Ponlop say he can get you enlightened in three weeks or your money back. He hasn’t said his approach is superior to anyone else’s. He isn’t marketing Zen Brand Shampoo. There’s nothing in the advertising that seems harmful. You may not like the “Rebel Buddha” conceit (it doesn’t do anything for me either!) but it seems to come out of Ponlop’s own authentic experience and identity as a rebel and doesn’t seem to be merely an attempt to come up with a catchy phrase to appeal to Westerners.

    Marketing is a form of energy (like money or power) that can be used for good or ill, and right intention and skillful means can be part of it. The real question is what are you marketing, is your campaign conducted with integrity, and is it helpful or harmful to those who hear the message. If it passes these tests, you might as well do it well.

    1. Thanks, Seth, for your great comment. As I mentioned in my previous post about Rebel Buddha, I’m sure that Ponlop is a great guy, and now that I know he is a Dexter fan, I’m sure of it. (Alas, only two more episodes left for this season.) I don’t know a lot about him or his history, haven’t read the book or listened to any of his talks, so I am basically riffing on my first impressions of the Rebel Buddha “thing.” I’m not quite sure what it is so I call it a thing. It seems to be more than just the book going on but I’m not sure what exactly.

      Perhaps it is nothing more than just marketing. But I definitely see aspects of Zen Brand Shampoo in this campaign. Maybe it’s just too cute for my taste. Maybe I just don’t like to see Buddha-dharma presented this way. Well, I had better get used to it, I guess. This is only the beginning. In the future, everyone will be Sarah Palin for 15 minutes.

      As for whether it is harmful or not, it is rather ironic for me to say this (being a guy who has always fancied himself to be a rebel) but, as I said in the previous post, I am not sure “Rebel Buddha” is such a great message for Westerners, Americans in particular. When it comes to dharma, everyone wants to be an iconoclast and an individualist and while on one hand that’s great, on the other hand, based on my experience, it can be a real stumbling block if not properly channeled. I think people will seize on the rebel part and become confused about the Buddha part.

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