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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.

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