Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lodro Rinzler's "The Buddha Walks into a Bar": Book Review

This follows the Shambhala practices introduced by Chogyam Trungpa to America to the counterculture; Rinzler updates them for today's alt-culture or perhaps mainstream hipsters. The publicity claims this targets "Generation O." While for me strongly reminiscent of Dzogchen Ponlop's "Rebel Buddha" published a year before (see my review), the emphasis on adapting Tibetan Buddhist teachings aimed not at endless prostrations or mantras or deity yoga but a down-to-earth approach--aimed at younger folks who like a drink, have sex, and love their cellphones (nearly?) as much as their similarly frenetic and chattering friends--has its relevance.

Rinzler risks aiming at trying to sound trendy and winding up like the preachers who marketed denim-clad bibles to the Jesus People in the hippie era; that is, packaging tradition for mass appeal. However, Rinzler's audience like that of Jesus or of the Buddha lives in cities more often than in monasteries! Rinzler wants to go into the dive-bars, the cyber-cafes, the cubicle, and to show how Buddhism can calm, can soothe, and can rouse.

He does this by taking venerable teachings and using parables, anecdotes, and everyday tales to make dharma matter. He translates "the four dignities of the Shambhala" empowerment teachings for us, as tiger, lion, garuda (man-bird), and dragon. "Windhorse" teachings, in Shambhala, enrich these practices which sustain a bolder sense of wise fearlessness as a way to make what insights come to one in meditation become self-actualized. These animals are metaphors for not otherworldly "Super Friends" from above but as qualities we desire to embody.

The "three yanas" or vehicles of dharma comprise the structure of this guide, as they do many introductions to Shambhala and Tibetan practice. Yet, the vocabulary's lightly sprinkled (if more than in most of "Rebel Buddha.") Focusing on relationships, careers, and attachments, Rinzler moves happily between pop culture and literary references (more the former than the latter) to draw in one chapter from "Ocean's Eleven," "Hamlet," the Green movement, beer, and hailing a cab from Grand Central Station.

Certain chapters, as on compassion in sexual relationships, zipped by too rapidly. But on accepting a degree of using materialism and dealing with money, as with Trungpa, so with Rinzler: his enthusiasm carries many pages with zest; he pushes a vision, as did his guide Trungpa, that will better the world as well as the individual. Meditations on lovingkindness, death, and basic goodness will be familiar to readers of Trungpa and followers, but they may be fresh and new for those who open "The Buddha Walks into a Bar" who may not have encountered Trungpa or Shambhala concepts before.

There's a winning ethical dimension that Rinzler, all of 28 years old, extends, true to the slangy, conversational, but firmly (if oddly skewed at times) moral mission of Trungpa, and the other teachers he has studied and whom he presents here. Although Rinzler's reading list's surprisingly terse, the book's value lies in putting its advice to work, not in mulling it over for a seminar or keeping it for one's own retreat. This isn't for intellectuals or monks, but for us stuck in the 9-to-5 or 24/7 wired world.

He relies on his own inspiration of Sakyong Mipong, reformulating this lama's teachings for a wider readership. Sometimes I wanted more depth from his student; although this is a galley proof given for review, it appears to be more or less complete in this version. Lodro Rinzler loads on the references designed to make this up-to-date, but the risk of a shorter shelf life when quoting a particular drink mix or rapper or '80s kid's show does loom. (I think of those earnest recastings of the Good News for Flower Power.) For me, a generation older than Rinzler, I fall into the awkward gap between Chogyam Trungpa's Aquarian Age cohort and Rinzler's--maybe I'm closer to the "hardcore zen" of Brad Warner or as an older brother for Noah Levine's "dharma punx" who grew up after the hippies but before the maturing of a perpetually wired audience. I'm glad to see that Buddhism continues to be rethought and reframed every few years.

So, as I'm interested in how Buddhism gets transmitted to the West today, I find Rinzler's urban, artsy-Brooklyn tone appropriate. He tries, as does Trungpa, Warner, and Levine, to remind us that the Buddha may not have been as ascetic as his monastic interpreters intended him to be seen by his followers among the laity. Rinzler touches lightly on this, but his placement of Buddhism in a bar-hopping, night-crawling, texting and frenzied atmosphere makes for a novel and necessary translation of the dharma to a less austere, if no less idealistic-- and maybe not so hedonistic after all--set of "early adapters" in this new century. (Amazon US 12-24-11--see my reviews of all of Warner and nearly all of Levine and many of Trungpa's works on this blog and there...)

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