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.


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.


The Marketing of Zen

I was tempted to call this post “The Zen of the Zen of Zen.” Several times now, I’ve poked some fun at how people will use the word “Zen” to market almost anything, from marketing itself to tea and online shopping carts, like some of the products on the right. Without a doubt, it trivializes a great spiritual tradition. But that’s capitalism for you. We can trivialize, and sell, anything. Religion especially. By the way, do have your Copper Magnetic Therapy Jesus Bracelet yet?

I’m certainly not the first to notice, or lament, this unfortunate phenomenon. Some years ago John McRae, a well-known Buddhist scholar, in his book Seeing Through Zen, had this to say about it:

It seems that virtually anyone can claim authoritative understanding of Zen, or at least be comfortable in using the word Zen in works totally unrelated to the tradition . . . we may recognize that, in contrast to the usage within East Asian Buddhism, the word Zen has a very different and much more limited range of meaning in contemporary world popular culture.

The popular usage implies that Zen is simply an attitude of undistracted concentration that can be applied to any human endeavor. If you get fully involved in the task at hand, become one with it, and allow yourself to flow according to its natural rhythms, then your performance of that task will improve accordingly . . . I have seen the word Zen used to described home electronics projects and lines of cosmetic products, in which the word is used in the sense of bare-bones simplicity and ease of use; of course, the latter may also include some “oriental” aesthetics sense for all I know.

Now we understand that “Zen” means “meditation.” Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word “Ch’an”, based on the Indian “dhyana” which comes from another Indian word “jhana” which in turn is from the verb “jhayati” meaning “to think closely (upon an object)” [from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter N. Gregory].

But the Zen of Zen lies mainly in the eye of the beholder, since it does mean different things to different people. In general, Zen refers to a sect of Buddhism and “zazen” refers to the approach to meditation they use. In addition to that, there are a whole range of other associations.

While the overuse of the word “Zen” in marketing is pretty dreadful, I suppose there is a positive angle. “Zen” has become such a commonplace word that, hopefully, the strangeness has been taken out of it. There are many people who think that anything to do with Buddhism is very strange indeed. Some of them are convinced that Buddhists are devil-worshipping heretics who are aiding in the destruction of the world. So, anything that helps to deflate that perception must be a good thing.


Zen quotes are real big, too. Almost anything paradoxical or abstruse qualifies as a “Zen quote.” Here are a few actual Zen quotes about Zen:

When other sects speak well of Zen, the first thing that they praise is its poverty.


Life, according to Zen, ought to be lived as a bird flies through the air, or as a fish swims in the water.

D.T. Suzuki

Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest.

Shunryu Suzuki

The essence of Zen is awakening. That is why one does not talk about Zen, one experiences it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: How do you feel about the Westernization of Zen Buddhism?

A: It’ll take a few centuries. At the moment, there are many wonderful intentions all mixed in, but there are some needed corrections. The first needed correction is not to call it Zen Buddhism, but to call it Buddhism, and to say the Zen practice within Buddhism, because that’s what it really is. Zen is just a practice within the marvelous ocean of Buddhist philosophy and practices that is so rich and so sophisticated. From there, we have things which we can give to Buddhism. We already have begun to give much more power to women. We’ve begun to make it a lay practice, a family practice, rather than a purely monastic practice. And we’ve moved towards engagement and action in terms of social issues, in a way that historical Buddhism did not do so much, although to give them credit, there is social activism in contemporary Japanese Buddhism, too, particularly on nuclear power and nuclear war issues. Buddhists are the leaders in the peace movement in Japan, and have been ever since World War II. But the truly non-dualist, non-discriminating, openhearted, playful style of Buddhism will take a while.

Gary Snyder (in conversation with John Suiter)

The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Robert M. Pirsig