Rebel Buddha

Who is more radical than the Buddha, who overthrows all the conventional ways we see ourselves and our world?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
17 November 2010

According to the Buddha, our freedom is never in question. We’re born free. The true nature of the mind is enlightened wisdom and compassion. Our mind is always brilliantly awake and aware. Nevertheless, we’re often plagued by painful thoughts and the emotional unrest that goes with them. We live in states of confusion and fear from which we see no escape. Our problem is that we don’t see who we truly are at the deepest level. We don’t recognize the power of our enlightened nature. We trust the reality we see before our eyes and accept its validity until something comes along—an illness, accident, or disappointment—to disillusion us. Then we might be ready to question our beliefs and start searching for a more meaningful and lasting truth. Once we take that step, we’re starting off on the road to freedom.

On this road, what we free ourselves from is illusion, and what frees us from illusion is the discovery of truth. To make that discovery, we need to enlist the powerful intelligence of our own awake mind and turn it toward our goal of exposing, opposing, and overcoming deception. That is the essence and mission of “rebel buddha”: to free us from the illusions we create by ourselves, about ourselves, and from those that masquerade as reality in our cultural and religious institutions.

The word buddha simply means “awake” or “awakened.” It does not refer to a particular historical person or to a philosophy or religion. It refers to your own mind. You know you have a mind, but what’s it like? It’s awake. I don’t just mean “not asleep.” I mean your mind is really awake, beyond your imagination. Your mind is brilliantly clear, open, spacious, and full of excellent qualities: unconditional love, compassion, and wisdom that sees things as they truly are. In other words, your awakened mind is always a good mind; it’s never dull or confused. It’s never distressed by the doubts, fears, and emotions that so often torture us. Instead, your true mind is a mind of joy, free from all suffering. That is who you really are. That is the true nature of your mind and the mind of everyone. But your mind doesn’t just sit there being perfect, doing nothing. It’s at play all the time, creating your world.

If this is true, then why isn’t your life, and the whole world, perfect? Why aren’t you happy all the time? How could you be laughing one minute and in despair the next? And why would “awakened” people argue, fight, lie, cheat, steal, and go to war? The reason is that, even though the awakened state is the true nature of the mind, most of us don’t see it. Why? Something is in the way. Something is blocking our view of it. Sure, we see bits of it here and there. But the moment we see it, something else pops into our mind—“What time is it? Is it time for lunch? Oh, look, a butterfly!”—and our insight is gone.

Ironically, what blocks your view of your mind’s true nature—your buddha mind—is also your own mind, the part of your mind that is always busy, constantly involved in a steady stream of thoughts, emotions, and concepts. This busy mind is who you think you are. It is easier to see, like the face of the person standing right in front of you. For example, the thought you’re thinking right now is more obvious to you than your awareness of that thought. When you get angry, you pay more attention to what you’re angry about than to the actual source of your anger, where your anger is coming from. In other words, you notice what your mind is doing, but you don’t see the mind itself. You identify yourself with the contents of this busy mind—your thoughts, emotions, ideas—and end up thinking that all of this stuff is “me” and “how I am.”

When you do that, it’s like being asleep and dreaming, and believing that your dream images are true. If, for example, you dream that you’re being chased by a menacing stranger, it’s very scary and real. However, as soon as you wake up, both the stranger and your feelings of terror are simply gone, and you feel great relief. Furthermore, if you had known you were dreaming in the first place, then you wouldn’t have experienced any fear.

In a similar way, in our ordinary life, we’re like dreamers believing that the dream we’re having is real. We think we’re awake, but we’re not. We think that this busy mind of thoughts and emotions is who we truly are. But when we actually wake up, our misunderstanding about who we are—and the suffering that confusion brings—is gone.

A Rebel Within

If we could, we would probably all sink completely into this dream that passes for our waking life, but something keeps rousing us from our sleep. No matter how dazed and confused it gets, our drowsy self is always linked to complete wakefulness. That wakefulness has a sharp and penetrating quality. It’s our own intelligence and clear awareness that have the ability to see through whatever blocks our view of our true self—the true nature of our mind. On the one hand, we’re used to our sleep and content with its dreams; on the other hand, our wakeful self is always shaking us up and turning on the lights, so to speak. This wakeful self, the true mind that is awake, wants out of the confines of sleep, out of illusion-like reality. While we’re locked away in our dream, it sees the potential for freedom. So it provokes, arouses, prods, and instigates until we’re inspired to take action. You could say we are living with a rebel within.

This rebel is the voice of your own awakened mind. It is the sharp, clear intelligence that resists the status quo of your confusion and suffering. What is this rebel buddha like? A troublemaker of heroic proportions. Rebel buddha is the renegade that gets you to switch your allegiance from sleep to the awakened state. This means you have the power to wake up your dreaming self, the impostor that is pretending to be the real you. You have the means to break loose from whatever binds you to suffering and locks you in confusion. You are the champion of your own freedom. Ultimately, the mission of rebel buddha is to instigate a revolution of mind.

Getting to Know Your Mind

All the teachings of the Buddha have one clear message, which is that there is nothing more important than getting to know your own mind. The reason is simple—the source of our every suffering is discovered within this mind. If we’re feeling anxious, that stress and worry are produced by this mind. If we’re overwrought by despair, that misery originates within our mind. On the other hand, if we’re madly in love and walking on air, that joy also arises from our mind. Pleasure and pain, simple and extreme, are experiences of mind. Mind is the experiencer of each moment of our life and all that we perceive, think, and feel. Therefore, the better we know our mind and how it works, the greater the possibility that we can free ourselves from the mental states that weigh us down, invisibly wound us, and destroy our ability to be happy. Knowing our mind not only leads to a happy life; it transforms every trace of confusion and wakes us up completely.

To experience that awakened state is to know freedom in its purest sense. This state of freedom is not dependent on external circumstances. It does not change with the ups and downs of life. It’s the same whether we experience gain or loss, praise or blame, pleasant or unpleasant conditions. In the beginning, we only glimpse this state, but those glimpses become increasingly more familiar and stable. In the end, the state of freedom becomes our home ground.

Two Aspects of the Mind

Buddhism talks about mind in different ways. There is the mind that is confused or asleep, and the mind that is enlightened or awake. Another way to describe the mind is to talk about its relative and ultimate aspects. The relative aspect refers to confused mind; the ultimate aspect is its enlightened nature. Relative mind is our ordinary consciousness, our commonplace dualistic perception of the world. “I” am separate from “you,” and “this” is separate from “that.” There appears to be a fundamental division within all of our experiences. We take for granted that good exists apart from bad, right apart from wrong, and so forth. This way of seeing tends to breed misunderstanding and conflict more often than harmony. The ultimate aspect of mind is simply the true nature of our mind, which is beyond any polarities. It is our fundamental being, our basic, open, and spacious awareness. Imagine a clear blue sky filled with light.

Stuck in the Conceptual World

When we don’t pay attention, the conceptual world takes over our whole being. That’s a pretty sad thing. We can’t even enjoy a beautiful sunny day, watching leaves blowing in the wind. We have to label it all so that we live in a concept of sun, a concept of wind, and a concept of moving leaves. If we could leave it there, it wouldn’t be too bad, but that never happens. Then it’s “Oh yeah, it’s good to be here. It’s beautiful, but it would be better if the sun were shining from another angle.” When we’re walking, we’re not really walking; a concept is walking. When we’re eating, we’re not really eating; a concept is eating. When we’re drinking, we’re not really drinking; a concept is drinking. At some point, our whole world dissolves into concepts.

As the external world is reduced to a conceptual world, we not only lose a wholesome part of our being, we lose all the beautiful things in the natural world: forests, flowers, birds, lakes. Nothing can bring us any genuine experience. Then our emotions come into play, supercharging our thoughts with their energy; we find there are “good” things that bring “good” emotions, and there are “bad” things that bring “bad” emotions. When we live our life like this every day, it becomes very tiresome; we begin to feel a sense of exhaustion and heaviness. We may think that our exhaustion comes from our job or our family, but in many cases, it’s not the job or family itself—it’s our mind. What’s exhausting us is how we relate to our life conceptually and emotionally. We risk becoming so stuck in the realm of concepts that nothing we do feels fresh, inspired, or natural.

Perceptual mind, conceptual mind, and emotional mind are three aspects of relative mind, our mundane consciousness, which we usually experience as a continuous stream. But in reality, perceptions, thoughts, and emotions last only for an instant. They’re impermanent. They come and go so quickly that we’re unaware of the discontinuity within this stream, of the space between each mental event. It’s like watching a thirty-five-millimeter film. We know it’s made up of many single frames, but due to the speed at which it moves, we never notice the end of one frame and the beginning of the next. We never see the imageless space between the frames, just as we never see the space of awareness between one thought and another.

We end up living in a fabricated world made up of these three aspects of relative mind. Layer by layer, we have constructed a solid reality that has become a burden, locked us into a small space, a corner of our being, and locked out much of who we really are. Usually, we think of a prison as something made of walls and prisoners as people locked inside, removed from the world for their crimes. Such inmates have basic routines that get them through the day, but the possibilities for a full experience and enjoyment of life are severely limited.

We are confined in a similar way, locked inside the prison walls of our conceptual world. The Buddha taught that what lies at the bottom of all this is ignorance: the state of not knowing who we truly are, of not recognizing our natural state of freedom and our potential for happiness, fulfillment, and enjoyment of life.

Adapted from Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, by Dzogchen Ponlop. © 2010 by Dzogchen Ponlop. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston. 

photo of Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International, and the author of several books including, most recently, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.