Cheat Mode Nirvana: Western Buddhism and “The Rebel Buddha”

Disturbing news on the New Age Obscurantist front: an organization called Rebel Buddha left a flyer in my mailbox. It looks like this:

The Rebel Buddha is also a book by Dzogchen Ponlop. Reprinted here is the book description from Amazon:

There’s a rebel within you. It’s the part of you that already knows how to break free of fear and unhappiness. This rebel is the voice of your own awakened mind. It’s your rebel buddha—the sharp, clear intelligence that resists the status quo. It wakes you up from the sleepy acceptance of your day-to-day reality and shows you the power of your enlightened nature. It’s the vibrant, insightful energy that compels you to seek the truth.

Dzogchen Ponlop guides you through the inner revolution that comes from unleashing your rebel buddha. He explains how, by training your mind and understanding your true nature, you can free yourself from needless suffering. He presents a thorough introduction to the essence of the Buddha’s teachings and argues that, if we are to bring these teachings fully into our personal experience, we must go beyond the cultural trappings of traditional Asian Buddhism. “We all want to find some meaningful truth about who we are,” he says, “but we can only find it guided by our own wisdom—by our own rebel buddha within.”

The idiocy of such a book should be obvious, but let us take a closer look at a few of the particulars of the book description. First of all, the emphasis on “truth” is suspicious, especially as it is directly contrasted with “resisting the status quo.” Apparently, the “Rebel Buddha within” will help us to seek after truth while resisting the status quo; however, “the truth” is not defined as either an object of experience or an object of knowledge. Truth, then, is embedded in the status quo; it is not something that resists it. What, then, is this truth that the “Rebel Buddha” promises? It is described as “the part of us that knows how to break free of fear and unhappiness,” an “awakened mind,” and it is “vibrant and insightful.”

Even more ridiculous than this promise of truth is the doctrine of “understanding your true nature.” We are clearly in deep New Age Obscurantist territory here. Furthermore, the “discovery of our true nature” will “free us from needless suffering,” which, I believe, deeply contradicts Buddhist spirituality. As far as I understand it, the point of Buddhism is to realize that suffering is an effect of desire—it is not necessarily to put an end to suffering. Indeed, how could one go about discovering the truth that “desire causes suffering” without suffering just a little bit?

Western Buddhism isn’t even false consciousness. The “Rebel Buddha” is simulation in the purest sense: more true than the truth, more false than falsehood itself. No wonder all these hipster yuppies can support Tibet, a thoroughly undemocratic nation if ever there was one. The New Age Obscurantist belief and faith in democracy is actually the secret desire for “spiritual aristocracy” (as practiced in Tibet). Indeed, enthusiasm for democracy in general masks this passion to be ruled, the passion to be saved—the passions of the Obscurantist masses:

It is not death they desire,
but the dear pleasure
of being saved

(And, let us not forget, the role that Zen Buddhist propaganda played in fascist Japan, justifying nearly all the atrocities of Japanese soldiers in Asia …)

Western Buddhism is part and parcel of cultural capitalism, yet it is not a form of “capitalism with Asian values,” as is practiced in nations like China. The faithful of Western Buddhism instead are thoroughly democratic, consumerist beings that have replaced the idea of “Christian salvation,” with Buddhism’s “promise of enlightenment.”

The political aspects of Western Buddhism aside, Western Buddhists do not read Buddhism incorrectly; indeed, their readings of Buddhism come from authoritative Eastern masters. Proof that they occupy the discourse of the university could not be more forthcoming. What is incorrect about Western Buddhism is its rationalization of the Beautiful Soul syndrome within late capitalist societies. The Western Buddhist easily renounces the world’s suffering in pursuit of his own “enlightened” mode of consumerism (being green, buying fair trade products, etc.).

The “Rebel Buddha” is a sign of a failed revolution. What might have once been a site of actual resistance (actual engagement with Buddhist spirituality, asceticism opposed to rampant, excessive consumerism, etc.), the field for a real event in spiritual life, is now reduced to a marketing tool without any consciousness (class, spiritual, or otherwise).

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