Pönlop Rinpoche—time for a change

January 3, 2011 by     Print This Post Print This Post

Commentary by Barbara Blouin

I just read Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche’s new book, Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, published by Shambhala Publications. When I read this short passage from the final chapter, I thought it could prompt some interesting discussion here.

The pioneers of Western Buddhism had to overcome certain barriers in order to make sense of this “new” tradition and practice it. They were not only meeting a foreign culture, they were also meeting alien concepts like selflessness and emptiness that made little sense to the Western mind. But they said yes to meditation and working with ego.

Now, roughly fifty years later, it’s time for a change. We’re stuck at a certain level of our spiritual development. What at first woke us up now barely stirs us from our thoughts. What supported our inquiry into who we are now blocks our realization of that. Now we have to ask ourselves how to break through again. This time we’re challenged to break through our attachment to all that brought us to this point—the spiritual cultures that we so respect and emulate that they’ve become another trap for us.


171 Responses to “Pönlop Rinpoche—time for a change”

  1. Michael Sullivan on February 5th, 2011 10:19 am

    Brad – interesting posts.

    From the dzogchen point of view the real problem always has been “fixing” – whether it is “fixing” our perceived poverty (as in “if I get that new car, house, spouse etc. then life will be great”) or “fixing” our state of mind – all that manipulating, constructing palaces in our mind etc. That is why there is that whole list of negations of the usual sadhana-style “must-haves” in the Kunjed Gyalpo text.

  2. brad on February 5th, 2011 4:54 pm

    Hi Rita, thanks. All I can say is keep doing what you do. As a fledgling anthropologist I take quite seriously my honor bound revulsion of all things psychological, particularly the language. And so I say, yuck to unhelpful psych lexicons. Please don’t take it personally, it’s my professional obligation.

    Rhythms have qualities but I don’t think rhythm is a quality. Time is written into our bodies at such a fundamental level we don’t readily see it, it’s that “fish won’t be the first to discover water” thing. Vipissana is an fantastic tool for gaining aperceptions of time as well as rhythms.

    Off the cushion this can relate to Mark S.’s bullshit detectors, (mentioned sometime ago in a different post,) but less diagnostically, and perhaps more practically, it’s about how to get things done without aggression.

    I suspect a good lot of what folks describe as CTR’s “prescience” was in fact an awareness of ridiculously high levels of detail in time and the perceivable rhythms expressed by, um, “beings” in time-space. Not to slight CTR, there was probably some practical magic in there too. But there was a line he wouldn’t cross speaking in public; I don’t know how forthcoming he was with close students but I do recall a recorded conversation when he shut Burroughs down over astral body travel. And why not? That’s crazy talk, astral projection!

    Anyway, our interactions with one another take place in great part in an “embedded” level of function. The only tool we have to observe ourselves is our body. If what we want to observe is culture we have to keep in mind homo sapiens are dependent upon culture. Utterly. We literally cannot function, we cannot exist, without meaning. We are meaning makers, it’s how we’ve been shaped by natural and sexual selection, we can’t get out of it, it’s what we are.

    The conversation doesn’t have to get reductivist. Reductivism is actually quite medieval, but instead of possessing a soul (and having to think about all that theologically) we are instead this chimerical consciousness thing trapped in a biological automaton that eventually betrays us by collapsing into a heap of worn out goop and bones. Forget that! The point is not that we’re “controlled” by chemical signals coursing through our limbic system, the point is we ARE chemical signals coursing through our limbic system.


  3. brad on February 5th, 2011 5:41 pm

    We affect ourselves and others every single moment. If you’re reading this I’m affecting change in you, but maybe I should say I’m affecting the arising complexes of meaning in what you are conscious of at this time. CTR’s talks operate in this kind of “meaning theater.” This is the place where he’d toss grenades like his notion of self-deception, his demands to unmask, his wildly funny critiques of his own cultural edifice, his description of Dorje Trollo as “trampling ecumenical dignitaries” comes to mind, and lots of great stuff; his observations in Myth of Freedom and the bardo teachings and others are actually not that far from Lacan, if you want to get psychological.

    I recall him saying somewhere, Path is the Goal?, that the talks were never where the learning happened, they were rather where everyone “regrouped”. His insights, as everyone here knows, are just fantastic, incredibly clarifying. But some of the use of language might be embedded in the time, the 70’s, and we’ve mistaken psychological insight for something more important than it is. I’d go a step farther than DPR and suggest our own “edifice” of psychological focus can be abandoned as well as Tibetan enculturation.

    IIRC the 17thKarmapa said as much about the Tibetan edifice at monlam this year as DPR is suggesting, something like “If the Buddha was looking at anything while he was sitting under the bodhi tree it was another tree, but in any case he was certainly not looking at a statue of himself.”

    I think it’s simpler than we make out. Not that it’s easy. Lately I always consider Suzuki Roshi’s advice to always start over, everytime you sit, start over again. That is, sometimes, a horrifying idea. Another piece of advice of his comes to my mind often, when he was talking about mindfulness of body practice he said “The whole world is already doing zazen this way.”

    I find myself wanting to actively be less confident in language like “dropping the ego,” all the psych-turned ego bashing language, not because it’s wounding or whatever (I took the names of the Three Poisons personally at first, but I got over it,) but because of the paucity of language that turns the mind toward fully resting in time/space.

    I appreciate Dr. Ray’s recent tac in this direction but I appreciate less his rhetorical emphasis on love. I get the feeling, when listening to the love-heavy talks,

  4. brad on February 5th, 2011 5:54 pm

    that he’s trying to talk me into something but of what I’m never quite sure. I doubt it’s idiosyncratic on his part but I lose him along the way.

    I can’t and won’t speak for Shambhala practice. From anecdotes I understand it becomes a somewhat complex form as the practice leads towards it’s completion. I would hope folks here will talk about it, as much as they’re able.

    How does it effect your awareness of time and space? Directly, describe it, not so much *how* it’s supposed to, but what are your impressions of how it rewrites your body? If you please! I’m very curious.

  5. Divine Lake on February 5th, 2011 9:47 pm

    “How does it effect your awareness of time and space? Directly, describe it, not so much *how* it’s supposed to, but what are your impressions of how it rewrites your body? If you please! I’m very curious.”

    I am animal/body and mind is body’s flower. Chi kung and tai chi practice tune my body to earth energy and present moment. The flower is.

  6. edward on February 7th, 2011 8:13 pm

    Pönlop Rinpoche writes:
    Now, roughly fifty years later, it’s time for a change. We’re stuck at a certain level of our spiritual development. What at first woke us up now barely stirs us from our thoughts.

    I just read this quote, and I honestly have no idea what he is talking about. Weren’t people like Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche pioneers of Western Buddhism?

    “What at first woke us up now barely stirs us from our thoughts.” What is he referring to here? Is he saying that basic sitting practice doesn’t work anymore? It still kicks my butt every time I do it.

    Also, who said anything about emulating other cultures? Did Suzuki Roshi or Trungpa Rinpoche urge their students to emulate other cultures? My own teacher said we could learn from other cultures, but mere outer imitation was not something he recommended. He actually said we had to honor our own roots, something written about here: http://botstudent.org/2010/12/18/honoring-ones-roots-ecstasy-chogyam-trungpa/ I hope people don’t mind if a quotation from CTR was borrowed here.

    I think CTR had his students learn original Sanskrit terms rather than purely use Tibetan words for things. I don’t see a problem with that.

    Just as the allegedly barbaric Tibetans had to learn to incorporate Buddhist wisdom into their own cultural mindset years ago–if they wanted to make it their own–what is keeping Americans and other westerners from doing the same?

  7. James Elliott on February 8th, 2011 3:00 am

    Yeah, Edward, ditto.

    I don’t really know who his audience is with he 50 year statement. Anyone who read the book?? Buddhism did have footholds in America before then, Trungpa Rinpoche’s activity was less than 50 years ago, and anyone who started 50 years ago… is doing what now? Is he talking to the culture itself as if that were an audience? A little odd.

    Lots to say about culture and Buddhism. Buddhism is ‘like’ a culture in that it takes time and swimming around in it in order to understand it. But it is not a culture in terms of social organization and usurping the one you exist in. Trungpa Rinpoche’s introduction of dharma was demonstrably not about making us all fit the “Tibetan Buddhist culture”. He cut through and made every effort to stop his students from being fascinated with any kind of exotic otherness, that has nothing to do with genuinely waking up.So again, not sure what’s meant.

    And by the way, Trungpa Rinpoche taught us the sanskrit and Tibetan terms, with the meaning of each syllable and what it meant broken down to its etymology, not to slowly seep another culture into us, but rather to teach the etymology of the words: their history from sanskrit to Tibetan and then the translations into English. He was showing how relevant wisdom comes down through generations, perhaps carried by but in in spite of cultural differences, and how he derived the translations he used.

    In the inspiration that a rose by any other name is still…

  8. Andrew Safer on February 12th, 2011 1:36 pm

    Since there was so much discussion about this on this thread, His Holiness Karmapa was cleared of charges.


  9. Madeline Schreiber on February 12th, 2011 1:45 pm

    His Holiness the Karmapa Cleared by Himachal Pradesh Government, February 11, 2011

    This afternoon, the Himachal Pradesh chief secretary Rajwant Sandhu told reporters that, “there is no involvement of the Karmapa. We have reasons to believe that some donations came for the monastery and the Karmapa has nothing to do with that. Monastery functionaries were managing the affairs.”

    The chief secretary was also quoted as saying; “The Karmapa is a religious head and has followers across the world. We respect their religious activities. We don’t interfere in any religious affairs. We have full respect for their religious activities and are in no way intending curbing them in any form or manner as also we are aware of the fact that the Karmapa is not involved in any monetary activities or shady benami land deals.”

    The Karmapa Office of Administration is grateful to the Indian authorities for investigating the case thoroughly and bringing the truth to the forefront. This fully confirms the confidence His Holiness the Karmapa has himself expressed from the very beginning in the Indian judicial system. We are glad the investigation has put to rest the unfounded rumors that had been circulating. We are very thankful for all the support that has come pouring in from all over India, across the Himalayas and all corners of the world.


    Karma Topden
    Former Indian Ambassador to Mongolia,
    Former Member of Parliament
    Adviser to Karmapa Office of Administration

    Deki Chungyalpa
    Adviser to Karmapa Office of Administration
    (91) 8894 502 910

  10. Chris on February 12th, 2011 2:00 pm

    You all might want to check news from sources other than Buddhist blogs.


    That was wishful thinking , his being cleared.

  11. John on February 12th, 2011 4:53 pm

    Why must followers of Tibetan Buddhism believe that their spiritual leaders can not SIN.

    Is the Pope human and can he get caught up in all kinds of illegal money affairs? Yes, he is only human.

    We in the east and west MUST grow up to this fact.

    If any of you think that these men in maroon robes are pure and holy you are only letting yourself be fooled.

    I have seen too many of my western bothers and sisters bowing and lowering their heads and eyes in the presents of the red robed sangha.

    Do you bow to Catholic priests and not look the priest in his eyes. No !!!

    Grow up people. The Karmapa in his last life was a master in obtaining real estate and money.

    Many have out grown the Catholic Church and their “Holy Men” who can do no wrong.

    It’s time for Buddhists to do the same and follow the “Dharma” first and the red robed sangha a distant second.

  12. Tsering on February 12th, 2011 10:00 pm

    “men in maroon robes are pure and holy ”
    “Grow up people. The Karmapa in his last life was a master in obtaining real
    estate and money.”

    The rinpoches i know personally ,(quite a few ), receive donations and indeed fundraise! And what do they do?___ Support nunneries, monasteries, schools,and orphanages. ie. they do GOOD shit! ,help many, and alleviate suffering in all its guises.

    So what’s the problem? Really! You don’t have to “follow” anybody!
    Basically, Dharma is for developing awareness.

    May the Karmapa and all beings be wealthy and may the real rinpoches continue to help lift all beings not only out of pain but also onto the path of liberation

  13. rita ashworth on February 13th, 2011 6:02 am

    Dear James

    Yes there is Ponlops notion of breakthrough and maybe breakthrough in terms of CTRs students re-evaluating where they are at now with the teachings.

    Yes many people are having conversations of how should we take what we have in to the world –on Facebook been looking at how some Zen students are doing that –they are forming their own sanghas now, Lew Richmond is doing that, -also others are creating institutes to foster how to work with groups, so thats interesting –so that kind of breakthrough in a different manner is happening in a pratical sense.

    Re a greater breakthrough I think something is happening in a cultural sense because mindfulness practice is entering the mainstream so there seems yet again to be a greater interest in the meditation process. Could this be a hint of what Ponlop turns breakthrough or is he being too grandiose in feeling that Buddhism/Shambhala-whatever you want to call it will effect culture?

    Of course up to the Reformation European society was intertwined with religious concepts, but secularism took sway gradually after this. So societies have moved to secular grounds although many politicians have been influenced by religion in ‘doing’ politics.

    So I just wonder at the present time although not going back to the religious model in our society if indeed the shambhala teachings can lay some ground in society by emphasising more the notion of fearlessness/sacredness. I still feel that Shambhala Art has an incredible place to play in actually making ‘felt’ that notion of sacredness-indeed if you look at English literature/drama it is incredibly difficult to separate the two from how we actually are in the world, as the language itself structures our society. I think this is why I have become so interested in theatre now and why Midal might be placing so much emphasis on poetry/philosophy –yes whatever you think of the man –he is doing some interesting work.

    And for myself I am trying to explore the shambhala teachings from a much deeper angle than I did before. So it would be interesting to hear about any books that people can recommend in terms of the Bon tradition because I would like to read about what they have said about Shambhala.
    Yes Robin Kornman mentioned Bon in his talks on Shambhala –so it would be interesting to hear peoples thoughts on how this discipline meshed with Tibetan

  14. rita ashworth on February 13th, 2011 6:05 am

    society. I have also read though I dont know if its true for sure that the Rime movement had some Bon adherents attached to it so that would be interesting to know about if it did.

    Re anthropology dont know too much about this discipline more informed by sociological and psychological analysis of society. Re ‘dropping ones ego’ yes still feel it is a useful phrase think it also links into the religious notion of epiphany which you also do find in literature.

    Great news about Egypt……such a fearless people.


    Rita Ashworth

  15. Alison on February 13th, 2011 12:06 pm

    From ‘ The New York Times’ 2/8/11:

    “We will be making changes,” said Deki Chungyalpa, a spokeswoman for the Karmapa. “Like hiring a professional accountant who is not a monk.”

    21st Century ? We’ll see I guess.

    Full article:
    ‘Tibetan Lama Faces Scrutiny and Suspicion in India’

  16. Jake on February 14th, 2011 6:22 am

    Happy Valentine’s day!

  17. Ellen Pearlman on February 15th, 2011 4:55 am

    Barbara, or whoever is administrating this thread, could you please credit the artist whose illustration you used at the top. His name is Gonkar Gyatso and he is a friend of mine. I think it is the correct thing to do.

  18. Jim Hartz on February 15th, 2011 7:44 am

    What’s so surprising about the Umpteenth Karmapa and bundles of shrink-wrapped cash stashed in the coffers of his monastery? Nothing more than a continuation of Old Tibet, isn’t it: the reproduction of a gold throne center/mud hut fringe social arrangement, “mandala” as they (and now we) piously refer to it? This dovetails nicely with the Sakyong kissing up to Goldman Sachs, clearly. If pork were to disappear from the universe, these people would vanish, leaving piles of silk and brocade–including their “immortal souls,” or whatever it is they think “reincarnates.” Rather than these perpetual fund raisers and ever-so-“deep” retreats, not to mention lovey-dovey blessing ceremonies where we’re all so fortunately included, why not produce something useful? How about Scorpion Seal Lip Balm for those up-and-coming Shambhala Buddhist sycophants eager to kiss Goldman Sachs and, by extension, Sakyong butt? As Cynthia Kneen, almost hypnotically, in the context of boundless centerless space (also, the SMC dining tent during the 2009 Scorpion Seal Assembly following yet another celebration-turned-fund-raiser at the heart–THE heart–of the retreat) said: “A den of thieves.”

  19. James Elliott on February 17th, 2011 3:12 am

    I don’t know the details of the Karmapa’s finances at all, certainly not enough to make a call about corruption. But it seems obvious to me that money is not in and of itself a sign of corruption. Any more than being involved in one’s culture means one is ‘stuck’ in some way.

    How is the money used? Does it help people in some way? Is it only being horded to support a reputation? Are they paying for prostitutes and chauffeured Limos or for essential infrastructure and transporation to programs at which thousands will be inspired to enter the path? Is it being invested in the future in order to better disseminate dharma and train people etc and so on. That money is there and that tax people and politicians are trying to find fault – in order to get some – is virtually meaningless.

    Generally I’m not getting a good picture of the monastic system in Tibet as an enlightened example governance. According to Trungpa Rinpoche it became too entrenched and forgot its purpose. But too I’ve heard from people not involved in the mainstream lineages in Tibet of elitism that is so far from the Buddhist path I learned I don’t know what to think about it, only that I know I wouldn’t be on board.

    Nevertheless, I attended events presided over by the last Karmapa, and trust there was something powerful going on around the man, and I don’t mean politically or financially powerful. And I am sure that in spite of the corruption which seems to me at this point inevitable in any social organization, that Buddhist lineages have ‘produced’ for lack of a better word, some of the most profound spiritual teachers you will find anywhere in the world.

    Ideology is problematic because it forces people to frame everything in terms of whether people are for or against.

    In the inspiration that there are other quite healthy possibilities.

  20. brad on February 17th, 2011 8:52 pm

    From reports (less voluble than the ones in the Indian press) the monies are cash donations in foreign currencies that the Karmapa’s trust has long ago, and one would assume repeatedly, requested permission to deposit. They have been accumulating since 2002, if I recall correctly. Not much of a haul over 10 years time.

    Tibetans taking refugee status in India are forbidden by Indian law to deposit foreign currency in Indian banks, as well as they are forbidden from buying real estate/land.

    Keeping cash in a chest in Gyuto doesn’t strike me as anything more than “old school.”

    It all sounds more like an attempt at a shakedown by a bigoted and somewhat paranoid provence governor; Arizona and its denizens are hardly unique in this regard.

  21. rita ashworth on February 18th, 2011 4:42 pm

    Dear All

    Re the Karmapa 16 –this utube video from Gendun Rinpoche outlines Karmapa 16’s engagement with the West.


    Gendun Rinpoche also states in the second part that after another 3 to 4
    Karmapas that the Karmapa shall manifest in other ways and not be called the Karmapa…..so this is really interesting.

    Remember seeing Gendun Rinpoche in Manchester in about 1977 –can not remember what he spoke of but have a clear picture in my mind of him sitting in the room.

    Posted this comment because it shows how the Karmapa acts in the world …..it also might be relevant to how Ponlop is teaching because he was/is a close student of the Karmapa 16, – so it kind of gives the flavour of how things were done in the 70s/80s which could point also to what is happening now a little

    Best Rita Ashworth