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‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ is a video essay that I developed and produced this year that deals with non-conventional Buddhist teachers and their significance on the development of American (or Western) Buddhism.

The goal was to make the essay relatively accessible — that is, to keep it fun and not to let it get bogged down in what can become the rather arcane language of Buddhism, being that it can be a rather intellectual pursuit. I say ‘pursuit’ because, at least according to some, Buddhism isn’t really a religion but an approach to life and a method of analyzing and experiencing reality with the goal of Spiritual  Enlightenment. I also wanted, by its structure and visual content, to have the film be meditative and transformative by weaving footage of the subject of the video (see below) with the thoughts of various Buddhist traditions and ideas.

The subject of the essay is Dr. Frederick P. Lenz, a teacher I personally studied with for roughly fifteen years, beginning in 1981. Dr. Lenz died in 1998.

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Dr. Lenz — AKA Rama (his spiritual name) — reflected a vast array of interests and talents, not the least of which was developing software businesses, a pursuit he focused on predominantly during the years leading up to his death. As a result of his business activities, he made both himself and quite a few others very wealthy.  I can say for myself personally, that as a result of Dr. Lenz’s mentorship I was pretty much set up for life in terms of career and my ability to do pretty much whatever I wanted, including travel, invest in and support a variety of interests, and live quite comfortably.

But was being a successful entrepreneur really what Rama was primarily about? I would argue not.

During the first few years I studied with Rama (primarily in California, and before he suggested a lot of us move to the U.S. East Coast) he introduced myself and many others to what can be termed no less than a wonderland of consciousness. During this period, through both the dreams I had while studying with Rama and the meditations we had as a group, he would help literally catapult me (and many others) into ecstatic states of awareness that are hard to describe to those who have not experienced such things.

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It is the deep respect that many of his students (including myself) developed for Dr. Lenz during his early days in California that compelled them to stay with him on his adventures in business when he migrated to the East Coast. Is was this earlier time (in my mind at least) in California that most of his early students remember most fondly and is detailed quite beautifully in Rama’s biography by Liz Lewison titled ‘American Buddhist Rebel.’

But I decided not to focus on this aspect of Rama for ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha.’ Rather, I drew from my experiences with more traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachers that I studied with after Rama died in an attempt to create a framework for understanding how Rama did or did not compare to the traditionalists.

The result of contemplating this forced me to conclude that Rama actually reflected a rather ancient tradition of the Mahasiddhas and Tantra (not to be confused with explicitly sexual Tantra at times popularized today) as described by authors such as Keith Dowman (who is mentioned in the film) and Dr. Paul Ortega.

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As described by Dr. Ortega in his video series on Tantra,  Rama most certainly reflected the ‘path of the householder’ or ‘person of the world’ who engages with the world in their spiritual pursuits rather than retreats from it as a renunciate — with an example source text of this renunciate tradition being the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali.

Ortega will be quick to point out that he is not claiming that renunciates are ‘wrong’ and the householder or worldly spiritual path is ‘right’ — rather, he is making the case that modern teachers (such as Rama) are re-introducing these traditions to the West as an appropriate vehicle for spiritual growth for many modern people.

The reason is simple. The spiritual traditions as described by Dr. Ortega seek to use and build upon the flowering of individual human potential as key and integral to the path. In other words, to discover your talents and bring them to the world becomes part and parcel of your spiritual journey. The renunciate’s path, on the other hand, subsumes the individual into the quest and seeks to suppress the individual ego in an effort to tame it and wield it to a higher purpose. While for both paths the end goal is often the same, the approaches are radically different.

Rama’s methods also neatly fit in with the American ideals of individualism as seen in the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau — two transcendentalist and individualistic American thinkers who Rama very much admired.

People such as Paul Ortega and others of who promote a uniquely American version of  Buddhism (also reflected through teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and others) mark a fundamental shift from the renunciate’s path. They reflect a more ‘worldly’ approach that in fact seeks to secularize much of Buddhist practice and, in the case of Kornfield and Brach, subsume it in what has become known as the mindfulness movement. As it is with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, service to others is often key to the mindfulness path, at least for its leaders.

As far as the video essay ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ — I lay out seven ‘signs’ or qualities that I used to convey the essence of what I term a ‘Rebel Buddha.’

All of these qualities I believe are reflected in the Mahasiddha or Tantric traditions. While I don’t claim to be a scholar, I’m pretty sure many scholars would back me up on this assertion.

So far we’ve submitted the film to several film festivals and it has been accepted (thus far)  primarily at festivals in the East (India, Bhutan, and Russia), where we’ve garnered some recognition and  awards. We have also submitted to several ‘spiritual’ and ‘inspirational’ film festivals in the West. Stay tuned for more!

A road leading to Monument Valley with red truck going at camera, Usa

You can watch the ‘Signs of a Rebel Buddha’ video here.

You can find more information about Rama here.

The video was produced in collaboration with The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker, and playwright. You can find his bio here. Don has studied with numerous spiritual teachers, including Dr. Frederick Lenz, HE Namkha Drimed Rinpoche, HH Chetsang Rinpoche, HH the 14th Dalai Lama, and Dr. Baskaran Pillai.

Images courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Lucy, the latest action sci-fi thriller from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), takes on some fertile new thematic territory even as it builds on past films and ideas taken from neuroscience, the New Age movement, theoretical physics, and Eastern mysticism. I felt compelled to write about Lucy because of my unique background and familiarity with some of the ideas Besson is likely influenced by. I’m pretty sure most other reviewers will not be making quite the same connections that I will set forth here, so you might find what’s laid out below an interesting (if lucyunusual and eclectic) read.

In a statement about Lucy, Besson mentions that the film is primarily influenced by his own film The Professional, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That statement can be found here and seems intended to help market the film. What I’d like to do here is open up the discussion about Lucy to some additional areas the filmmaker (to my knowledge) hasn’t mentioned. Bear in mind we may never know the full extent of what influenced Besson.

First, I think the film’s exploration of the question “what if we used 100% of our brain’s capability?” should be understood in the context of the human potential movement, which itself is an amorphous, multi-faceted phenomena. From the standpoint of  mainstream, Cineplex-targeted film making, this subject rarely gets the air time seen with Lucy. More on that in a bit.

I read one discouraged reviewer, who felt the film might get an opening weekend bump from the fact it stars Scarlett Johansson, was easily marketable from an action-film standpoint, and was directed by a filmmaker of some renown. However, lousy word of mouth, this same reviewer argued, would soon sink the ship. We’ll have to see if he’s right.  I have a little more faith in people and in the potential for Lucy to reach a very wide audience; but then I tend to be an optimist. Notably, The Fifth Element was no favorite of the critics, but went on to cult film status and endless repeats on cable.

One reason I’m an optimist is that Lucy seems similar in ambition to What the Bleep Do We Know – the docu-fiction created by William Arntz – a film that showed that there is a pent-up audience for this kind of material. What The Bleep went on to influence (or be corrected by, depending on your perspective) the TV Series Through the Wormhole Hole with Morgan Freeman, and of course Morgan Freeman ends up playing the college professor Samuel Norman in Lucy, expounding human potential ideas in much the same way that the various scientists did in What the Bleep.

The idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’ (Lucy’s ultimate enlightenment) is a concept that might seem unique to Lucy but in fact traces its roots to quantum physics. My introduction to this idea came through a ground-breaking book titled The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, a work that became well-known during the 1970’s and was one of the first books (that I know of) to link mysticism and physics. That book inspired my film Clouds.

Moreover, the Buddhist philosophy of ‘emptiness’ and the mystical idea of the ‘light body’ are also in line with Lucy’s final enlightenment experience. You can read more about the Buddhist light (or ‘rainbow’) body experience here — the phenomena is also described at length in David Wilcock’s book The Source Field Investigations.

Now the human potential movement can be roughly divided into at least two main camps: the humanists (or one might say spiritual humanists, which I describe in another blog here) and the trans-humanists. Both believe human beings must evolve in order for the planet to survive. The former offers a human-based and/or spiritual resolution to human evolution, the latter a scientific and technological answer.

Besson is certainly laying out the argument in this film that evolution is indeed required for survival: the question will become whose kind of evolution this is. The film, to me, sides mostly with the trans-humanists and thus the corporate and scientific answer to the problem of human evolution. The main reason that corporations in general support a trans-humanist agenda is that it can be commodified, sold, patented and owned. In a nutshell, it is profitable.

The trans-humanists will argue that human evolution must at this point require scientific enhancement and an ‘upgrade’, technologically driven, of the human genome. This ‘upgrade’ (or variations thereof) would again be corporate owned and patented. To many Christians, trans-humanism, secular humanism or any other stripe of humanism is a bad thing because you shouldn’t put mankind before God.

I take somewhat of a wider, more tolerant, view of the humanism(s) and their outlook(s). Traditional humanists (again, some of whom would be more aptly called spiritual humanists) have a rich tradition of self-help and self-improvement, ranging from the practical to the esoteric.  Some of this practical advice springs from the Christian culture itself. We have as examples Dale Carnegie’s classic best-selling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, and the more recent The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. While Johansson’s Lucy obviously never read either of those books, please bear with me.

There is also a long tradition of Indian and Eastern mysticism which uses its own form of ‘upgrade technology’ in the form of esoteric meditation techniques.  I’ll use as an example the Kriya Yoga techniques of Paramahansa Yogananda, as passed down through a lineage of teachers coming out of India and (if you believe) traces its roots back thousands of years. The explicitly stated goal of Kriya Yoga is to accelerate human evolution.

Interestingly, one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If ever there was a proponent of human evolution, it was Jobs.

Similarly, the Tamil Siddha tradition seeks to evolve human consciousness through the practice of certain mantras that, according to the practitioners, create the ‘siddha powers’ that are evident (in some ways) in the character of Lucy. Super human powers are also, of course, very much on display in film via the super hero genre, so that is no great news. Also, themes of scientifically induced enhanced brain capacity have been explored in other films such as Limitless.

What is news is that there may indeed eventually be an actual technological link to enhance human capability that will make the synthetic cocktail ingested accidentally by Lucy a very real (albeit expensive) option for some people — likely the rich who would rather evolve while sun-bathing on a yacht than while sitting in some cave meditating. Genetic screening and therapies are already a reality; rest assured the upgrade cocktail that expands IQ, memory, longevity, virility, etc. is not far behind. (An interesting article regarding genetic modification and extended lifespans can be found here.)

However, as explored in Lucy, another impact of such a cocktail could be an incredibly expanded awareness, tantamount to the mystical goals of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence as laid out by the Tamil Siddhas. Admittedly, one can easily dismiss the whole notion of this brand of human potential as a myth, whether generated by science or yogic methods.

Proponents of yogic mysticism, however, apparently have great faith in their practices, are notably democratic and would like the entirety of humanity to evolve, not just the wealthy who can afford an expensive genetic cocktail and have zero faith in any kind of spirituality. A spirituality that might inspire, among other supposedly bad ideas, wide-spread compassion (generally propagated by mystics) that could discourage our world leader’s penchant for starting a war every five minutes and/or negatively impact one’s stock portfolio.

Yeah, give me Lucy, sexy Lucy, guns a blazing, butt swiveling, making those bad Asians impotent in front of our very eyes – now there’s some marketing potential for you.

That said, Besson slips in some very subtle story telling prowess to assure me with Lucy that he hasn’t bailed out on the love and goodness he was propagating with The Fifth Element. While Lucy comes to a much more clinical enlightenment than did Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element, she does, over the course of the story, stop resorting to violence. Lucy immobilizes her adversaries toward the end – she does not kill them. Ultimately she transcends the enemy. Besson, albeit in a fairly subtle way, reminds us that ultimately evolution = compassion.

At the end of the film, per Professor Norman’s wise suggestion, Lucy decides to pass on whatever knowledge she gained. It was apparently this wisdom she lacked, even with all of her new-found powers. In short, even God (or the Goddess) may need a teacher.

I am reminded of another story that shows us how compassion should go hand in hand with scientifically enhanced human evolution: a 1963 Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger starring David McCallum. A YouTube link to the final few minutes of that poignant episode is here or you can find the entire episode on Hulu here.

This is how the narrator sums up the scientist’s attempt to accelerate human intelligence  in The Sixth Finger — words that could just as well be applied to Lucy:

“An experiment too soon, too swift, and yet, may we not still hope to discover a method by which within one generation the whole human race could be rendered intelligent, beyond hatred or revenge or the desire for power? Is that not after all the ultimate goal of evolution?”

As for Lucy, after initially losing her sense of empathy, her shift back toward compassion is a little less spelled out. So it may be up to me, the humble reviewer, to let you in on it. Even though Luc Besson may believe greed jeopardizes the human race, he has not jumped ship on the altruists! Lucy does eventually evolve toward non-violence. Amen.

Actually I’m sure many of you will get this point from the film itself, but in case not I feel compelled to remind you.

Still, it’s the males in the film – notably the Caucasians and the Asians (a hint at WW III?) – that in the end keep killing each other like rats on a sinking ship. This may be why the Dalai Lama says that the next step in human evolution is up to the women – notably women of the West.

He  is probably right.

Finally, let’s not let the irony of Lucy escape us. Whether through science or yogic mysticism, humans will evolve, and probably in ways unforeseen by the unenlightened, gun for hire scientists and capitalists seeking profit. In other words, nature is not without her trickery. She will eventually get us where we need to be, by whatever means possible.

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Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist. He has edited/authored two anthologies of essays: Your Life Is A Movie and  A World Without War, both available from Del Sol Press.

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