Rebels Without A Cause, Buddhas Without A Pause

James Dean, The Rebel King

You were the lowdown rebel if there ever was
Even if you had no cause

– The Eagles

Some months ago, I began to notice references online for “Rebel Buddha”. I went to the web site by the same name and learned that it was a book, a web site, a tour, and maybe more. Something about it bothered me and it mainly had to do with how I felt was getting a sales pitch. It didn’t resonate and I went to other things.

I had pretty much forgotten all about it, until yesterday I received an email from a publicist promoting the Rebel Buddha book, offering a review copy.  The first thing I did was go to the web site, not for the book but for the company the publicist works for, where I learned that they develop web sites for authors, books and publishers, and do online promotion on their behalf. I seemed to recall that the author of Rebel Buddha was a Tibetan monk, and it made me wonder why a guy like that would need a publicity machine. So now I looked into it a bit deeper.

I don’t know why this bothered me, about the author having a publicist. I might be bothered less (or not at all) were the author a lay dharma teacher or someone on that order. Why should being a monk make a difference? Not to mention that I was making an assumption: perhaps the publisher hired the agency.

The author in question is Dzogchen Ponlop, who according to Wikipedia, is “one of the highest tülkus in the Nyingma lineage and an accomplished Karma Kagyu lineage holder.” Other than that, I know next to nothing about him, but I have seen his name around.

I ran across a page on Shambala Sun’s web site promoting the Rebel Buddha book and it posed the question, “Do you relate to the idea of the Rebel Buddha?” Not really. I relate to rebels. All my heroes were rebels. And I relate to Buddhas. But Rebel Buddhas, I don’t know . . .

I have some experience in marketing and I understand how words can trigger certain feelings, and images in our minds. Rebel is a word that suggest being against something. What are Buddhas rebelling against? Sufferings? Delusions?  For me, Rebel and Buddha does not seem a good fit.

The Soka Gakkai has “Human Revolution.” They’re selling something, too. But revolution has a more positive, even construction connotation. For instance, an artist might “revolutionize” an art form without directly opposing anything. Human Revolution refers to the inner struggle to win over oneself. In this sense, we are all revolutionaries, and yet, being a “rebel” suggests something else, something outwardly directed.

Johnny Yuma was a rebel. [A reference for old folks.] James Dean was a rebel without a cause. Rednecks from the deep south are often rebels. The Buddha? Not so much. It’s a different sort of rebellion.

It reminds me of Chogyam Trungpa and his “crazy wisdom” which only rationalized and encouraged a lot of bad behavior. Westerners, particularly Americans, don’t need their sense of individuality stroked any more than it is, at least in relation to Buddhism. The problem is that we can’t lay it down long enough to really absorb the teachings. Usually we are too busy filtering dharma through our own prejudices and preconceived notions. That’s my opinion, at any rate. I don’t feel Rebel Buddha sends the right message.

Checking out the site yesterday, the first thing I noticed were all the Tweets: “Congrats Rebel Buddha on the big release today!” read one by a rather high-profile Buddhist blogger. Yesterday was the official release of the book. Most of the other tweets were Rebel Buddha book giveaways and discounts. Apparently they had been counting down the clock. At 11pm it read 0 min 0 hours 0 days. The Buzz page promotes the book with offers of 20 percent discounts. The Create page is where you can make your very own Rebel Buddha poem!  There’s also Rebel Wake Up (which is either beer or a health drink and, I assume, a joke), the Rebel Buddha bloggers and the Rebel Buddha Tour panelists (who are virtually the same people, and some are well-known), and yes, the Rebel Buddha Tour itself (heavy guitar music here), and blog posts like: Rebel Buddha is here! The rebellion starts now!

So what is Rebel Buddha? It appears to be more than a book, more than a tour. It has some big names lending support, participating, and endorsing. Is it an attitude? A new form of Buddhism? Just another take on Buddhism? And do we need any of that stuff?

Haven’t we enough forms, brands and takes on Buddhism already? Why is there a need to keep creating new ones? Engaged Buddhism. True Buddhism. Humanistic Buddhism. Hardcore Zen. Dharma Punkz. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. When anyone asks me what kind of Buddhist I am, I answer back that I am just a Buddhist. I don’t feel the need to belong to a sect or indentify myself with any particular form of Buddhism. I am just a Buddhist.

I think that frame of mind is more of the wave of the future if we really want to promote dharma as opposed to promoting some new and improved version. It was Alfred, the heavy set janitor in Miracle on 34th Street, who said it best when he commented to Kris Kringle, “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.”

Again, I don’t know Dzogchen Ponlop and he may be the greatest most sincere teacher in the world. I guess I just don’t get the point, particularly with the marketing blitz. If it were a bit more subtle, that might be something else, but this seems a little over the top to me. What am I missing? Am I just projecting my own sensibilities onto this? Prejudging? After all, I have not read the book or listened to the teacher teach.

Tickets prices for the tour are extremely reasonable from what I can tell. $25. So I am not suggesting that anyone is getting rich, or even out to make money. I also don’t mean to suggest that there are ulterior motives involved or anything untoward. At the same time, no one launches a marketing campaign of this magnitude without a reason, without some goal in mind. Or do they? Is this the new reality for disseminating dharma, using the media, social networking – is this Engaged Publicity, or Humanistic PR? Am I behind the times?

And who are they? It is just Dzogchen Ponlop? Or is it Dzogchen Ponlop and Tricycle and Shambala Sun, all three, a cabal? Maybe, a conspiracy. Perhaps there is a master plan being hatched here.

Obviously I have more questions than answers. If the Rebel Buddha web site had an About page it might help. I’ve looked elsewhere and can’t find that summing up that I think I need. In the meantime, there are just some aspects of the whole thing that seem, well, unseemly, that come across as crass and that other “c” word, the one Alfred used.

I suppose I will email the publicist and decline the offer of a book. I hate to turn down a freebie, but I am too far behind in my reading already. I may ask what her agency’s rates are, as I may need them later on down the road. I am writing a couple of books. Not about Buddhism though.

But, some day I may write my great tome on Buddhism. I need to think of something revolutionary first. A new take on the old dharma. And come up with a catchy name for my new form of Buddhism. All the good ones have been taken. I like simplicity, so maybe I will just call it Buddha Buddha or Buddhism Buddhism, because really that’s all it is. And of course, I’ll have a line of beer – featuring me!

He’s a rebel and he’ll never be any good.
He’s a rebel cuz he never, never does what he should.
And just because he doesn’t do, what everybody else does.
That’s no reason why I can give him all my love.

– The Chrystals

Love me, I’m a rebel at heart.


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