Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: The Buddha Walks into a Lodro Rinzler

 Reading this book elicits two main responses, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the book uses language and concepts likely to appeal to (what I've lately started calling) youngsters, but on the negative side of things, it promotes unskilful modes of behavior such as taking intoxicants and promiscuous sex. It may be that in attempting the former, Lodro Rinzler couldn't avoid the latter - both in his own practice as well as in this book - but it is the view of this reviewer that it is possible to retain the essential elements of Buddhist practice, including the moral precepts, alongside a modern, 'hip' approach to the Dharma, as many others have shown.

But, let's be balanced in our assessment of 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' and start by looking at the positives. Rinzler has an engaging style of prose that captures and retains his reader's interest - at least this reader's! He writes as an informed practitioner of Shambhala Buddhism in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and uses popular cultural icons such as the cartoon heroes of the 1980s TV show Super Friends including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to grab our attention:

"In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, we have our own group of Super Friends. These are four mythical and nonmythical animals that represent different aspects of our training in wisdom and compassion. Individually, they are the tiger, the lion, garuda (part bird, part man), and dragon, and together they are known as the four dignitaries of Shambhala." (p.18)

These four dignitaries forms the structural backbone of the book, giving it both logical progression as well as an interesting Tibetan Buddhist focus for the teachings and practices. In the first part of the book, for example, Rinzler describes the qualities of the Tiger as discernment, gentleness and precision. He then uses the character Danny Ocean from the movie 'Ocean's Eleven' to explore the concept of discernment and the mandala as used in Tibetan Buddhism, pointing out that prior to the events in that film, the character probable would have needed to be pretty discerning in his future plans. Gentleness is dealt with in an original manner, also, which is discussed below. As for precision, he tells us that it is in the level of mindfulness in our everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, housework, clothes, and attending to the needs of the body that we use this quality to our advantage, as well as in more formal meditation settings.

"One way to cut through the busyness of your day is to include what are called the four exhilarations. Making sure we attend to these four aspects of our life give us energy to handle whatever comes our way. They are:
1. Eating
2. Sleeping
3. Meditating
4. Exercising
While these four actions are something of a no-brainer, most of us end up skipping meals or shortchanging our sleep, believing all the while that we can get away with it. It's as if we think our bodies won't notice. We keep saying, 'Tomorrow I'll do these things.' After months of this, we realize we are running out of tomorrows. We need to take care of our body today."

Rinzler's talent for fusing Buddhist teachings with modern American culture is exemplified in the chapter entitled 'Being Gentle With Your Incredible Hulk Syndrome.' What a great title! Returning to a favorite of his - and my - childhood, comic book superheroes, he uses the Incredible Hulk as a way to illustrate how destructive emotions such as anger can be, leading us to examine how we can gently work with them, instead of fighting them, which is not the Buddhist way. As an experienced Buddhist teacher, Rinzler shares both traditional meditative instructions like Shamatha with more innovative practices such the 'Writing Exercise for Working with Emotions' given on pp.38-39. In this exercise, we are taught to meditate and then write about any emotions that arise therein, giving us the opportunity to reflect upon them and develop insight.

Later on in the book (pp.100-102) Rinzler gives an excellent guided loving-kindness meditation, a well known traditional Buddhist practice often familiar as metta mediation. (Metta is the Pali word used by Theravada Buddhists and maitri is the Mahayana Buddhist equivalent from the Sanskrit tongue used by Rinzler.) The author takes the reader through the various stages of this exercise in a typically bright and accessible manner, starting by wishing happiness to oneself and ending by doing the same to all beings. This is a practice that many Buddhists (and those that they come into contact with) benefit from greatly, and Rnzler does a good, succinct, job in describing it.

In another chapter called 'How to Apply Discipline Even When Your Head Gets Cut Off' Rinzler writes about the wise application of discipline in relation to virtue. He advises us that discipline should be accompanied with gentleness rather than aggression, something worth noting. As he remarks, virtue that lacks gentleness can result in a discipline being used as a weapon against others. [It can also be self-destructive, also, and not in the positive, Buddhist sense of ego-transcendence.] He quotes the fourteenth century Tibetan meditation master Ngulchu Thogme to this end, emphasizing that virtue combined with compassion is what's really gonna cut the (Buddhist) mustard, so to speak.

"If someone cuts off your head
Even when you have not done the slightest thing wrong,
Through the power of compassion
To take his misdeeds upon yourself
Is the practice of a bodhisattva."


It is, however, on the point of virtue that this reviewer begins to find fault with 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' When discussing sex in relation to the third of the five basic precepts of Buddhism, he starts to wriggle in his commitment to what the Buddha (is widely accepted to have) taught. This precepts states that the Buddhist undertakes the commitment to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct, which traditionally precludes promiscuous sex. But not for Rinzler. He states that he personally believes one night stands are fine if the motivation is seriously considered. (I wonder if he thinks the same about the other four precepts of avoiding killing, stealing, lying, and getting drunk or drugged. Oh, hang on, he does think getting drunk's okay, as we'll explore in a while!)

According to Rinzler, promiscuous sex is okay if "you are interested in having a one-night stand because you are too busy for a relationship, but you appreciate the other person and want to make a sexual connection with them." (p.81) He distinguishes this from thinking, "I'm drunk, I'm horny. They're hot." (Ibid.) Some might see the former as simply a more polite (or politically-correct) way of stating the latter! Rinzler adds that good conduct sexual might mean being very open with your partner or practicing safe sex. It definitely includes both, surely! Whilst agreeing with him that sexual contact with someone should include being "genuine" and "caring," it seems to this reviewer that it involves a whole lot more if we are really going to be wise and compassionate in our sexual behavior. That's why the Buddha gave us the third of the five precepts and why Buddhists have practiced it for the last two-and-half thousand years! A clue to Rinzler's motivations is revealed at the onset of the book, however, and it's worth quoting from the (wind)horse's mouth:

"Buddhism is often perceived as a moralistic religion. When I was in college, I would tell people that I was a Buddhist, and they would balk at the beer in my hand and the hot girl on my arm. They assumed that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink or have sex. But Buddhism is not some super-religion that is more puritanical than other religious traditions. Just as in other spiritual traditions, there are some Buddhists who chose a life of abstinence and others who do not. In fact, many Western Buddhist practitioners are wonderful drinkers and lovers." (p.25)

Does the latter include yourself, Mr. Rinzler, a self-confessed boozing Buddhist with a taste for "hot babes?" (Wink, wink) To deal with this paragraph briefly, let's start with the assumption that he refers to, that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink (alcohol) or have sex. The former is true (fifth precept) and the latter is true for monks and nuns. Buddhists shouldn't be "puritanical," it's true, but is keeping the five precepts necessarily being "puritanical?" As long as we're applying them in a compassionate way and not betting other people with them so as to appear superior, then they are to be applauded not ridiculed or belittled.

Although not an expert on the subject, a (very) small alarm bell rang when the following lines appeared: "There's a Tibetan word for Incredible Hulk syndrome, which is klesha. Klesha can be best translated as "afflictive emotion." (p.34) Now, klesha is a Sanskrit word (related to the Pali word kilesa), and not a Tibetan one. The Tibetan equivalent - a quick search on Google revealed - is nyon-mongs. Now, although this is a rather pedantic point, perhaps, it does raise the question of whether there are more important inaccuracies regarding Tibetan language or Buddhism in the book, which someone not well versed in such subjects would probably miss. Certainly, as presented below, the author doesn't appear to have a very good understanding of Theravada Buddhism.

Another less than praising appraisal of Rinzler's efforts is his apparent Mahayana snobbery when writing about Theravada (or 'Hinayana,' as he derogatorily insists on calling it) Buddhism. As most of us modern Buddhists know by now, Theravada ('Teaching of the Elders') is both the more widely-used title and the one preferred by Theravada Buddhists themselves for their form of Buddhism. (The latter is also the more accurate, as 'Hinayana' refers to many different kinds of early Buddhism, only one of which survived and later became what we now know as Theravada Buddhism.) And, yet, as every smug Mahayanist will gleefully tell you, their branch of Buddhism is the 'Great Vehicle' whereas the other one is the 'Lesser Vehicle.' Boring - and unenlightened - sectarianism!

"Turning your attention away from only taking care of yourself to taking care of others is the subtle distinction between the Hinayana (narrow vehicle) teachings and the Mahayana (greater vehicle) teachings. The distinction lies between the Hinayana view of being concerned only with our own path to awakening, and the Mahayana view of taking others' happiness as that path." (p.61)

As quoted above, Rinzler repeats the usual rubbish spouted by some Mahayanists that Theravada Buddhists are somehow more selfish than he and his Mahayana pals because they are only concerned with their own individual enlightenment and don't care about others'. Living in Thailand (a predominately Theravada Buddhist country) and knowing many people in the international Forest Sangha movement, I can loudly declare that this is not so! Many, many Theravada Buddhists care about and try to help others to their own awakening, just as many, many Mahayana Buddhists do. It's about time this uninformed sectarian bias was 'put to bed,' Mr. Rinzler. All this is all the more surprising since earlier in the book the author declares that we should avoid such negativity and see that "the Hinayana is a process of getting your act together." (p.19)

So, from this reviewer's perspective - one that straddles both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions in a spirit of modernity - 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' has some questionable attitudes on display, not just to 'Hinayanists,' but also in the area of Buddhist ethics. As suggested at the top of this article, it may be that Lodro Rinzler in his genuine attempts to be hip and up-to-date in his practice and teaching of Buddhism has lost sight of some of the essential ethical elements in Buddhism. However, this may be a reflection of the type of Buddhism he practices, Shambhala Buddhism, which has Tantric elements to it that might be less than stringent in its application of the Buddhist precepts. This latter point is mere speculation, and is most definitely not some kind of sectarian slandering! It may also be the case that as a Mahayana Buddhist, Rinzler feels a sense of superiority over Theravada (or Hinayana, as he calls it) Buddhism. If this is the case, it is to be regretted, as it will appear petty and sectarian to many readers.

In contrast to the above criticisms, Rinzler has managed to do what he sets out to do at the beginning of the book and present Buddhism in way that is likely to appeal to a younger readership. If this work does help to encourage young people to explore Buddhist teachings and practices, then it can be deemed a success, despite the reservations already expressed. Buddhism needs writers like Lodro Rinzler to promote to new generations of suffering beings in need of enlightenment, and to that end at least, this reviewer is wholeheartedly behind him.

The Buddha Walks into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at The Buddha Walks into a Bar


G said...

Lodro Rinzler, the author of 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar...' recently emailed this response to the review, stating that he wanted to post this reply in the comments section, but could not (the settings of the blog were mistakenly set to reject any comments - apologies to anyone else trying to leave comments on 'Buddha Space'!)


I want to thank you for your thoughtful review. I am glad to hear that you think my book may have the potential to reach a large number of youngish people interested in meditation and Buddhism.

I would like to clarify two points. The first is that I do not view "hinayana" as a derogatory term and in fact, in the pages of this book, discuss how it has been used as such and differentiate my usage as something other than that.

The second point of clarification is that you are correct in that I am representing a lineage which does not take the precepts as strictly as other lineages often do. Personally, I have no interest in condemning my audience for engaging in activity that, frankly, they already engage in such as drinking and sex.

The guidance offered within The Buddha Walks into a Bar aims to illustrate ways we can engage that activity, alongside all other activity we are currently pursuing, in a considerate and kind way. If you drink, drink. If you have sex, have sex. This book is about not just trying not to cause harm while you do so, but how those activities might be considered as part of your path.

Thank you again for your thoughtful response. I am always available to dialogue with individuals through my website,

With warm regards,
Lodro Rinzler

G said...

Here's the first part of my reply to Lodro Rinzler's comments above:

Hi Lodro,
Great to hear from you. Not sure why you couldn't comment on the blog as it is set to receive comments from anyone [see remarks above!], not only members of (which you may be already anyway). You're most welcome to email me here, anyhow.

As to your remarks in response to the review of your book, I would say two main things: firstly, well done on 'taking it on the chin" where the less than enthusiastic elements of the review are concerned, and secondly, those comments do only make up half of the review, the rest of which praises your efforts. (Come on, as an experienced Buddhist teacher, do you really expect the universe to continually serve up wonderful responses to you along the lines of 'I love Lodro and everything he writes'?) So, why does your email focus on what you perceive as the negative anti-Lodro stuff in the review? Well, it's the nature of the mind, isn't it? 'Nuff said on that. (My mind works in much the same way!)

In slightly more detail to your email, Lodro, here goes:

Whether or not you see the term "Hinayana" as derogatory or not, many Theravada Buddhists do, and as pointed out in the review, whether you intend offence by using the term is kinda irrelevant - you are! (And it seems very doubtful that as an experienced Buddhist teacher you are unaware of the offence this term often causes. So, why take the risk of causing such hurt? Is that skillful speech, Lodro?) It's like Theravada Buddhists claiming Mahyanists aren't 'real' Buddhists but Hindus in disguise, which would be more "boring - and unenlightened - sectarianism!" More points are made in relation to your usage of this term and your description of "Hinayana" Buddhism in the review, but since you didn't refer to them, I won't either. Perhaps this means you accept the validity of those statements! ;-)

As to your second "point of clarification," the following is true here, also: "Personally, I have no interest in condemning my audience for engaging in activity that, frankly, they already engage in such as drinking and sex." Telling readers how the law of karma works, however, and inspiring them and encouraging them to reflect wisely on these questions of morality is surely preferable to promoting these modes of unskillful behaviour as somehow cool and Buddhistically okay. And, if it's okay to ignore the third and fifth precepts of Buddhism "as part of your path," why not do the same with the other three? Why not steal and lie as part of our Buddhist practice - why not kill? Maybe you do these as well, Lodro - aaahhh! ;-) Promoting skillful modes of practice does not, of course, involve condemning anyone, but it does involve keeping to the teachings of the Buddha.

G said...

Here's the second part to my reply to Lodro Rinzler's comments above:

We're responsible for what we do, especially us teachers, and you are absolutely right, Lodro, that as Buddhists we shouldn't be out to condemn each other - but we can condemn those actions (and words) that the Buddha condemned as harmful to the Path, whilst encouraging our "audience" to improve their selves before letting go of them altogether. Even with this attitude, some readers will no doubt balk at being advised that certain actions of theirs are unskillful, unwise, and not compassionate, but that doesn't mean that we abandon the Buddha's teachings on these issues just so we don't offend anyone's ego...does it?

As written above, half of the review is positive about your book, Lodro, but this writer cannot ignore sectarianism (or what appears to be such) and encouragement to commit unskillful means; perhaps it's best that you focus on those more enthusiastic aspects of the review:

"In contrast to the above criticisms, Rinzler has managed to do what he sets out to do at the beginning of the book and present Buddhism in way that is likely to appeal to a younger readership. If this work does help to encourage young people to explore Buddhist teachings and practices, then it can be deemed a success, despite the reservations already expressed. Buddhism needs writers like Lodro Rinzler to promote to new generations of suffering beings in need of enlightenment, and to that end at least, this reviewer is wholeheartedly behind him."

Otherwise, ignore the review (and it's writer) altogether, and have good fortune in your quest to realize the Unconditioned and help save all suffering beings!

With respect & love (of the platonic kind),

KB said...

I found this blog after reading an article by Rinzler: "Meditation Isn't Enough: A Buddhist Perspective on Suicide". It speaks of his experience in depression being suicidal while writing his 2nd book. With his attitude that you can meditate while ignoring basic virtuous behavior, I can understand why he says "Meditation Isn't Enough". Hopefully he has learnt why that is so from his experience.

G said...

Yes, Buddhism is a complete, balanced path to awakening to our true nature, and meditation forms part of this path, not its entirety. Hopefully, KB, Lodro & all Buddhists can learn the efficacy of the path practiced as a unified whole, and realize the release of nirvana. May all beings be happy.