Beth Patterson, MA, LPC is a licensed psychotherapist and grief counselor in Denver. She is a graduate of the Transpersonal Counseling Psychology masters program at Naropa University. Learn more at Beth's website.

There was a palpable sense of excitement and expectation as we entered the historic Boulder Theater to the violin strains of Kailin Yong, the “fiddler for peace.”  I pondered the notion of peace — how to bring it into our lives and into the world?  This would be a theme for the day-long exploration of what it means to be a “rebel buddha” and the future of Buddhism in the West.

The morning started with a short contemplation led by Mitra Lee Worley, Nalandabodhi Boulder’s resident spiritual friend, aiding us to quiet our minds, be present and open our hearts.  A video montage of the life of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the author of Rebel Buddha:  On the Road to Freedom segued to pictures of Elton John, Bob Dylan and other cultural icons of the West, and the familiar sounds of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as Rinpoche took the stage.

Rinpoche first talked about what it was like growing up as a reincarnate lama, saying “I was like a young avatar-in-training, learning how to jump.” Pop culture references imbued Rinpoche’s talk, melding the ancient teachings of the East with the culture of what he terms the “post-industrial West.”  Rinpoche explained that his initial obedience as the “CMO” (chief monastic officer) or “CSO” (chief slave officer”) of his monastery gave way to teen rebellion, with questions and more questions:  “Why this?  Why that?  Why am I on this journey? What is right for me? What does it mean?  What is it all about?  What is the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in the context of my culture?”  These would be the questions and themes of our day together..

Rinpoche spoke about the life of Siddhartha, the historic Buddha Shakyamuni, describing him as a rebel whose “heart of questioning” led him to go against the status quo of his comfortable life as a prince.  Rinpoche described Siddhartha as someone who failed, continued with confidence and found awakening as a “genuine human being searching for the truth.” He encouraged us to do the same and not be afraid of failings on the path, describing such failures, like those of Siddhartha, as necessary for success. (As a life-long perfectionist, these words were truly heartening for me.)

Rinpoche told us that that this rebellious heart exists in all beings, and that his book, Rebel Buddha, is meant to upset our complacent status quo and enable us to listen to the inner voice of our awakened heart. Ultimately, this is a rebellion against our own negative beliefs and sense of self — truly a plea for taking personal responsibility and not blaming the world for our suffering.  We start our lives in an awakened state, and are conditioned to sleep, believing our dualistic thoughts and cultural norms to be real and solid.  According to Rinpoche, “working with our compassion can help us come back to our original awakened state” and meditation can help us find who we really are.  These teachings have been invaluable in my work as a psychotherapist. Recently I have begun using the teachings of Rebel Buddha with many of my clients.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche continued with some truly revolutionary and mind-blowing questions:  What does it mean to be a Buddhist?  What do you mean when you say you’re a Buddhist?  Was Buddha a Buddhist?  He suggested that such dualistic labeling was not Siddhartha’s intention — he was a free thinker looking for the truth.

A key theme of Rebel Buddha and our day together in Boulder was the importance of adapting Buddhism to the particular culture in which it is being practiced. We continually explored throughout the day the importance of making American or Western Buddhism work, while preserving the original teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni.

I had been thinking about inner peace and world peace as I entered the Boulder Theater that morning, and this theme came back again as Rinpoche’s reminded us that awakening is not a property owned by a few, but is inherent in everyone.He said,”If we can each be more compassionate and understanding, the world will change. World peace will come from our awakened heart.”  We left for lunch with these words in our hearts and minds.

Our first post-lunch activity was a presentation by Mitra Lee Worley, Boulder’s resident spiritual friend, a founder of Naropa Institute and lineage holder of the mudra space awareness teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  The program notes entitled Mitra Lee’s talk “More Dharma, Less Drama” — perhaps because of Lee’s life in theatre ( and a chapter title in Rebel Buddha), but she chose to call it “Puppies, Space and Turnips.”  Lee posited that “Puppy Mind” might be more apt for Westerners than the traditional Eastern term “Monkey Mind” to describe the incessant chatter and wildness of our minds, since the only monkeys we see as Westerners are in cages in the zoo. Lee noted, “There’s something both endearing and infuriating about young puppies — kind of like our minds, right?  Puppies make big messes and are wild with no boundaries, and yet, we love and forgive them.”

I pondered how I use this theme in my psychotherapy work — we need to embrace our minds and limiting thoughts in order to transform them. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and many other teachers have said, we need to befriend our emotions to make them workable.  Lee, in fact, said that our puppy minds can grow up to be very useful — like drug-sniffing dogs – for sniffing out our laziness, negative self-beliefs and other limitations, or like seeing eye dogs, helping us see through the veils of ignorance and confusion.  Lee described space as the aware, rebel buddha aspect of our minds — the opening to all possibilities. In her discussion and the exercise she led, Lee described the importance of “including space in awareness, a sense of where you end and the rest begins.”

I was wondering how in the world turnips could be relevant here.  Lee soon explained that a traditional description of Tibetans is that they’re like turnips, rooted in the earth and embodied, whereas Westerners are like ghosts — all head and no body. Culturally, we Westerners tend to live in our heads and don’t pay much attention to our bodies. Often when I ask therapy clients “where do you feel that in your body?” they look at me in complete bewilderment!  Lee then taught us a beautiful saying: “I am because we are because I am” and led us in a three-minute chorus of the universal seed syllable “AH.”  I was left with a  feeling of inner peace and a real experience — and hope — for the possibility of world peace.

Our day ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion with Lama Palden Drolma, one of the West’s few female lamas and a psychotherapist; Acharya Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen, a professor at Naropa University who was Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s colleague at Nalanda University and is now resident lama and teacher to Nalandabodhi Boulder; Mitra Lee Worley, and Rinpoche. The panel was ably moderated by Dr. Deborah Bowman, founder of the transpersonal counseling psychotherapy program at Naropa University, psychologist, and photographer. Rinpoche was impishly mischievous during Deborah’s introduction of the panelists, leading her to exclaim “I knew I should have kept my eye on you!” The audience roared with laughter.

One of the key questions put to the panelists was how we can fully incorporate the wisdom and compassion teachings of Buddhism in our lives in the 21st Century Post-Industrial West. The pioneer spirit of Americans, the revolution for freedom on which the United States was founded and the importance of the 60s hippie generation who were open to going beyond the status quo were mentioned by all of the panelists as components of the rebel buddha fabric of our culture. We are all pioneers exploring new territory — the territory of mind.

A rich discussion of the concept of “surrender” — in the context of keeping our rebellious hearts alive – then ensued. Lama Tenpa talked about the importance of asking questions and examining our motives in our search for a teacher. In an interesting melding of the spiritual path and psychology, he asked “Are you trying to find a mother or father figure?” Lama Tenpa said it is important to be open to other teachers and teachings and not “surrender” to just one, and concluded that “dedication” is a more apt word than “surrender” — dedication to reaching the goals of awakening. Lama Palden posited that surrender is an opening, not a narrowing, and that good teachers can support us in discovering our natural wisdom and rebel buddha nature.

Mitra Lee likened the relationship of the student and teacher to the collaboration of a performer and director, saying “it takes an element of surrender for something to be born or created — the rebel needs assistance in coming out.”  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche stated that the concept of surrender is often misunderstood, and that surrender means to choose something without a sense of sacrifice in foregoing other things. In keeping with his modern way of looking at things, Rinpoche analogized not surrendering to channel surfing — if we don’t choose a program to watch we won’t learn anything.

The day ended for me as it began, with thoughts of inner peace and world peace, as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche shared his parting aspiration:  “to dissolve the boundaries and territories of all Buddhist traditions and focus on one dharma, which is the Truth.”


  1. avatar John Bass says:

    Thank you sooo much! I really appreciate being able to read about and see pictures from the Boulder event and of course Rinpoche’s and the panel’s teachings there! Great Quotes!

  2. avatar Brian Spielmann says:

    Thanks so much for posting. Especially helpful for those of us that have been traveling over Thanksgiving holiday and had to miss the event in Boulder. Thanks again.

  3. avatar Real Rebel says:

    An excellent, informative recounting of what sound like it was a wonderful day. Hopefully, Seattle will provide the same next week.

  4. avatar Bill says:

    The conference was excellent. Wisdom, compassion and humor – now there’s a recipe!

  5. avatar Kim Dragotta says:

    I like Buddhism and most of concepts in Buddhism make perfect sense to me; dependent origination, the ten worlds, the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path. But lately, I realize that I have a problem with Buddhism.
    While all of these other concepts that I mentioned make a great deal of sense, there is one concept that I have come to realize sounds like nonsense to me. Reincarnation. I mean reincarnation that leads from death to a new life on this plane; I just can’t wrap myself around this one. Granted, I am not a leap of faith kind of guy. There’s just too much room for good salesmanship to lead you into the mire. There are some folks that tend to think that reincarnation is simply a rebirth from one state of being to another; like from one of the ten worlds to another. Ok, whatever.
    Using me as my guide (consistent with the teachings of Shakyamuni), I choose to accept those things in Buddhism that make sense to me and to reject the concept of reincarnation. I do the same thing, really, with any school of thought that I study.
    So I am a Buddhist in the Bible belt, not a “real” Buddhist by any sect’s definitions, or a nameable representative of any fraternal organization or established religion. The formation of any club on the basis of artificial criteria brings some people together and at the same time is divisive. It synthesizes an “us” and so allows for the creation of the “them”.
    Proof of reincarnation is presented to us in the form of testimony only. That’s all we have. We can easily see that there is cause and effect in the world, as in dependent origination. It’s also reasonably obvious that the Ten Worlds do exist. But there is no intuitive or empirical data pointing to the reality of reincarnation. You cannot devise double blind testing to prove reincarnation. We are left only with testimony. But people lie. I am with Greg House on this point. I love my mother, but she claims to have spoken in tongues and I don’t believe her. She wants it to be true. I want reincarnation to be true, but it’s not.
    People invent all sorts of rationalizations from their fears.
    So, I have moved on again. It was disturbing at first when I thought of the possible implications. Now I feel better. I am awakening, albeit in small stages. My time is taken up in bringing home the bacon and tending to my family. I have always felt that beliefs are dynamic and that I am evolving. Not into a new species, but within the potential of what I am. There is no proof, empirical or intuitive, no sensible path of logic which leads us to any conclusion about what happens to us after our physical bodies fail. Nothing. So why dwell on it? That, by the way, is paraphrasing the Buddha.
    I’ll even still argue that I am not an atheist, although I don’t see any reason to believe in a western sort of God. There is obviously an “everything”, at least in a sense. Every thing exists within the “everything”. Makes sense to me. I am open to argument which avows the existence of spirit as well as quantum physics lessons on the nature of matter. In fact, I find sublime wisdom in the philosophies of Buddhism, except for reincarnation.
    If you can provide any evidence, better than word of mouth, to prove, or even to provide for the possibility of reincarnation, I will join your team. Otherwise, the higher wisdom would be not to fall into the quicksand of “us” and “them”. But you won’t find any such evidence. The greater wisdom will always be the “everything”. We are in it always, before our lives, during and after. Laws of cause and effect may be in play, but there is nothing to point to anything other than dynamic change, remixing of physical and spiritual elements, versus the self returning as a former self in any way. Comments always welcome. Peace.

    • avatar Robert Bullock says:

      Kim, don’t sweat the reincarnation stuff… It’s a complicated idea and not necessarily well explained by most teachers or texts. I personally feel like there is something going on here that points towards something like reincarnation, but nothing close to the way it’s commonly thought about.

    • avatar dz says:

      Two quotes come to mind:

      “I don’t think it would be any more unusual for me to show up in another life, than showing up in this one.”
      –Eleanor Roosevelt

      “When asked once by one of his Western students puzzling over Buddhist teachings of egolessness, ‘Well then, if there is no self, what is it that reincarnates?’ the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa laughed and answered without hesitation. ‘Neurosis,’ he replied.”
      –From Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, by Mark Epstein

  6. avatar Tyler Dewar says:

    Thank you for this, Beth. I’ve been very excited to learn how things went it Boulder. It sounds as if they went marvelously!

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by norman steinberg, Rebel Buddha. Rebel Buddha said: Right within pop culture, leaping beyond forms with Dzogchen @Ponlop Rinpoche & friends at the Boulder Theater 11/27 http://bit.ly/htCgAe […]

  8. avatar Lungtagirl says:

    Well done – thanks so much!