Enlightenment, Inc.

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast, by Matt and Stuart, presents “The Big Enlightenment Show!” while I share my strangely congruent impressions on the visit of Dzogchen Ponlop to Halifax this weekend. Yes I was there for his public address on Friday night.

But first, I will treat you to the funny parts of IBP podcast #7.1.

The full show, with all the dense, intellectual parts that make your head hurt is here:

And now, for the moment I’ve been waiting for since 2014—
“Live and In Person: The Appearance of Dzogchen Ponlop in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

Dear Dharma Friend;

Well, I’m so glad that I went to see the great Wizard on Friday night (April 15), because what I actually saw was “the man behind the curtain”, pulling the levers and activating the mythical image that looks like “OZ”. And of course, the whole thing is a sham. The Wizard cannot actually give the seekers what they want (that they don’t already possess). He cannot actually give them brains, courage, heart, or a home. He can only give them symbolic trinkets of those qualities, pastiche tokens of the transcendent gifts they are looking for.

It was incredibly revealing, for the first time, to see Ponlop out of the canned media experience that is YouTube. (The camera was rolling for yet another YT video series.) Behind the camera, I saw him for what he really is: a nice guy with a strange education in Tibetan philosophy, with little relevant context in which to ground Buddhist teachings in the real life experience of people. The whole thing looked like a “show”, a series of canned graphic images taken from a Microsoft product event. He made his usual corporate ad jokes, like how much he liked Coca-Cola, but no he wasn’t paid to advertise for them (one wonders). He began by asking, “What would life be like without emotions? It  would be like Coke without the fizz.” Ok, how about without emotions we would have no empathic connection with anyone, not even ourselves? We would not survive as individuals, as family groups or as a species. But that’s apparently way beyond what Ponlop can take on board. For him, emotion is about “the fizz”, the creative energy that makes life “bubbly”.

Then Ponlop presented, in bold letters on the huge screen behind him, “The Plan.” What’s The Plan? It’s how to deal with strong negative emotions. It comes off sounding like a corporate marketing strategy, like everything else he does. I’m starting to think that Ponlop really is the CEO of his own Tibetan Lama Worldwide Services, Inc. He constantly uses corporate language, corporate multi-media presentations, corporate “strategies that really work.” Like the whole presentation is devised as a motivational speech for a staff retreat in Silicon Valley, which of course is where his headquarters is located: Seattle, WA. Ponlop says that the doesn’t have a culture, but I’m sorry, the fish can’t see the water he is swimming in, and it’s the corporate pseudo-culture of Silicon Valley. This stuff really appeals to the high-tech cadre. Why? Because only people who are more emotionally stunted than he is could sense that what he had to offer was of any use to their emotional development.

It was almost painful to watch. Ponlop may know a lot about Dzogchen philosophy, but on the subject of human emotions, he was clearly out of his league. His presentation on human psychology wouldn’t even cut it in a Psych 101 college survey course. What he taught about human emotions, and how to deal with them, could be found in any of a thousand articles on Buddhist psychology in Popular Dharma magazines.

What’s more, he was presenting to an audience that was mostly practitioners from Shambhala, who have a highly developed sense of the power of emotions and how to work with them skillfully. (Ponlop didn’t seem to recognize that he was presenting to an audience full of Buddhist psychotherapists, who have mastered the science and art of working with human emotions.) Shambhala owes it’s psychic sophistication to the groundbreaking work of Chogyam Trungpa who, forty years ago, pioneered the translation of Buddhist tantric practices into equivalents in western psychology. Trungpa’s unorthodox approach to working with emotional energy was radical and profound, of which Ponlop’s tripe is only a faint echo. Even more so, Pema Chodron took Trungpa’s teachings on working with emotional energy and elevated it to the most sublime spiritual art. Pema’s teaching on working with difficult emotions is richly nuanced and profoundly liberating. One paragraph from Chodron’s many books has more wisdom on the practice of working with emotions than Ponlop could devise in a whole weekend of power-point presentations.

The other thing that comes to mind is how sad the whole thing is, that his followers spend ungodly amounts of money and time chasing this guy around the globe, going on month-long retreats etc. For what? What does this guy really have to offer that they don’t already possess? The truth is that any one of them have as much wisdom and intelligence as he does, or more, to direct their own enlightenment. (See IBP podcast #7.1 above, for a frank and long-overdue discussion on the nature of “enlightenment.”) I honestly think that they chase after Dzogchen Ponlop as a brand, which I have written about before. (See No Logo: the Post-Buddhism Buddhist). They seek to brand themselves as “students of the 7th Dzogchen Ponlop”, so they are very careful to protect and enhance the market value of their brand leader. Personally I think it’s idiotic to fawn over any Tibetan Lama, and I know that certain lamas (Dzongzar Khyentse, for one) have said they hate the whole professional lama biz. (See the film: “The Words of My Perfect Teacher.”2003).

Looking back on Nalandabodhi and DPR—I get him now. He’s really hoping to become the Guru of Silicon Valley. It’s not just a coincidence that he just happens to be located in Seattle. It’s exactly where he wants to be to attract that clientele. I read recently that Zuckerberg/Facebook is into Zen, just like Steve Jobs/Apple. Lots of gurus and lamas are chasing silicon dollars in Seattle. That’s what all the slick presentations and cheeky good humour is about. I saw that on the book tour. It’s a whole performance that Ponlop has cooked up to attract high tech geeks. So good for him. If he keeps at it he’ll get some of those folks onboard and have a nice retirement.

Still, I’m glad I went, because it just showed me that whatever I was looking for in this man, Dzogchen Ponlop, and his organization, Nalandabodhi, I was never going to find it, that I wasn’t missing anything, and there’s no place like home.

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