What if the Buddha were raised on the Internet, global weather changes and YouTube? Might he have a Facebook page and funky sideburns? Might he compose spontaneous songs of realization, then record them for distribution on iTunes? I think yes.
Although Buddhism is still wrapped in Eastern cultures and the hierarchies and norms that characterize them, this wrapping is not itself the teaching, but simply a vehicle for it. What the Buddhists refer to as "dharma" is a truth that goes beyond culture and form. Dharma is alive and flexible, able to take on new shapes without losing any of its potency. It is not fixed or dogmatic -- only rigid thinking makes it seem so.
At the same time, this is tricky ground: Dharma and the cultures that hold it are tangled together. It isn't always easy to tell if we're throwing out an unnecessary bit of cultural baggage or an essential piece of the puzzle. Given this, it's no surprise that many Buddhist teachers are cautious, holding close to inherited forms. Yet in these fast-changing times, it is vital that the teachings remain relevant and accessible to coming generations.
Who better to play with new forms than a 20-something holder of an ancient wisdom lineage from Tibet? Enter Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche: A songwriter (with great sideburns) and writer, who writes intimately about his feelings on his blog and posts late-night status updates to his friends on Facebook (where he lists among his favorites the movie Avatar, The Discovery Channel and chocolate ice cream). He also just happens to be the reincarnation of a great 20th century meditation master who was one of the first to bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West.
Raised on the speed and global interconnection of the internet, while deeply engaged in traditional dharma study and meditation, Kalu (as he prefers to be called) is still shy of his 23rd birthday. He grew up in India amongst the Tibetan refugee community, but has long been interested in the West. This is apparent in his manner: It is rather un-Tibetan to be so publicly open about his inner life, to step out of role and enter into egalitarian friendships with those another teacher might refer to as "disciples." As he put it on a recent blog post,"Remember I am not a god, just wearing Kalu Rinpoche's name and doing my best to make you happy."
The new head of the Shangpa lineage -- which dates back to the enlightenment of two 11th century female yoginis -- he has inherited meditation centers in the West, where his clarity and informal ways of relating are already being welcomed with enthusiasm. With his disarming guilelessness -- he has no trouble pointing out hypocrisy -- Kalu is a breath of fresh air in the face of the rigid formality and pomp that can sometimes characterize spiritual and religious leaders, and he has been inspiring a growing youth movement. You can hear his easy blend of tradition, heart and pop culture in the song he wrote and recorded with a friend in Spain (that's him on back-up vocals). You can also see him in person, as he'll be visiting the Americas on his first teaching tour, beginning in San Francisco on August 13.
As the Dalai Lama and many other great Buddhist masters enter retirement age, the next generation of teachers comes forward to fill some big shoes. Kalu is definitely one to watch.
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