“The Buddha Walks into a Bar” is one of those books that I wish were required reading for everyone. The book shows us ways we can apply Buddhist teachings to our daily lives, whether we’re working, partying, having sex, or trying to save the world. Offering guidelines for practicing meditation, living more mindfully and compassionately, and appreciating the present, the book suggests that we aspire to the “level of carefree dignity” exhibited by YouTube’s famous honey badger.
If it doesn’t sound awesome enough already, did I mention that the author of the book, Lodro Rinzler ’05, happens to be the founder of Buddhist House?
Rinzler is a Buddhist practitioner and meditation instructor who practices within the fairly new Shambhala tradition of Buddhism. In his writing and teaching, he explains that we don’t have to be monks or fully disciplined meditators to embrace the teachings of Buddhism—in fact, we don’t even have to identify as Buddhists at all. He has written two books—“The Buddha Walks into A bar,” which came out last year, and “Walk Like a Buddha,” which will go on sale in October—and also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.
I started reading Rinzler’s first book before spring break. A few weeks later, I got the chance to sit down with him and talk about his writing, his background in Buddhism, and his time at Wesleyan.
The title of his first book should make this pretty obvious, but if you’re picturing Rinzler as a monk with robes and a shaved head, forget about it. Wearing his signature bowtie, suspenders, and dark-framed glasses, he has a hip New Yorker look about him. His Twitter bio reads, “Drinks bourbon, rocks on the side. Celebrity crush is Mindy Kaling.”
For Rinzler, living mindfully and having fun are not mutually exclusive. In “The Buddha Walks into a Bar,” he writes, “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.”
I asked him to tell me more.
“In Buddhism, we talk a lot about a middle way between extremes,” Rinzler said. “My extremes had to be between being completely chaste and religious: at times, I was locking myself up in my dorm room in freshman year and doing retreats in there and not talking to anyone, and then days later I would be drinking for four days straight. I needed to find my own middle ground between those extremes, and I went through that process in a very public way, I would say, since I was a relatively well-known Buddhist on campus.”
He added that his experience finding that middle ground shaped the writing of his first book.
“If [people are] going to go out to bars, and they are going to go out and fool around with people, and they are going to make mistakes—that should all be part of the Buddhist path,” he said. “That’s not something other than the Buddhist path—and if we can talk about that in a public way, then that would be great. And that’s how the book was born.”
As for the process of writing his first book, Rinzler recalled that it was difficult to get started.
“I took a stab at it earlier that year, and it just didn’t work,” he said. “I didn’t have a structure in mind, and then a friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you start blogging?’ He came up with this whole idea of a Buddhist advice column. It started on his blog, and then got picked up by The Huffington Post. [It covered] everything from ‘How do I get a meditation practice going?’ to ‘Is it okay to be Buddhist and have tattoos?’ to ‘What’s the Buddhist view on masturbation?’”
Working on this blog with his friend helped Rinzler find his footing in writing about Buddhism.
“It was a great exercise for me in terms of thinking these things through,” he said. “That ended up becoming the basis for a lot of my writing, and then once I started refining that voice, I was able to write the book.”
The book was met with overwhelming success, and a movie might even be in the works. To date, it has sold 40,000 copies. Rinzler went on a promotional tour for the book and found the experience both tiring and rewarding.
“It definitely burnt my body to a crisp, but it sparked good dialogues, and it was a lot of fun,” he said.
Rinzler doesn’t write the column for The Huffington Post anymore, but he still contributes as a blogger. Topics addressed in his old column—advice for incorporating Buddhist teachings into modern life—became the subject matter for his upcoming book, “Walk Like A Buddha.” Rinzler compiled the questions he had received over time and turned them into the 50 questions addressed in the book. Like his first book, “Walk Like a Buddha” is also geared toward a younger crowd.
“That was the crowd that really came out in droves to talk to me about the first book, and those questions are now reflected in the second,” Rinzler said.
During his time at the University, Rinzler started a meditation group that eventually led to the founding of Buddhist House.
“I had always had a Buddhist community growing up, but I didn’t see one [at Wesleyan] that matched my own belief patterns,” he explained. “There was a pretty traditional Tibetan Buddhist group in Middletown, but they did various practices I didn’t do—it was all in Tibetan, things like that. It didn’t feel like I was actually trying to become more present, kind, [or] compassionate as a result of that practice.”
After starting the meditation group, Rinzler saw that people wanted more focused meditation guidance, so he got trained and certified to be a meditation instructor.
“My original purpose wasn’t to teach meditation; it was just to have a community of people that I could meditate with,” he said. “And then because people were interested in learning meditation, I sort of felt pushed to go out and get certified and come back and do that work.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Rinzler majored in Religious Studies. Although he wrote his thesis on Buddhism, he took a variety of other classes, too.
“I was a real mixed bag,” he recalled. “I did a lot of Judaism, I did some Catholicism, other forms of Christianity…I did a lot of evangelism, which was interesting.”
And besides being an active Buddhist on campus, what else was Rinzler involved in?
“Now that I’m officially an alum, it’s even okay for me to say that I was a member of the Mystical Seven when I was on campus,” he divulged.
After graduating, Rinzler ran the Shambhala Meditation Center in Boston for a few years. Now, he lives in New York City and is the Head of Development for Shambhala worldwide. Shambhala Buddhism derives much of its teachings from Tibetan Buddhist tradition: it is a very inclusive practice, welcoming people from all backgrounds and lifestyles.
“Shambhala centers are places where people can come in and be from any background, and they’ll be accepted,” Rinzler explained. “That includes religious orientation. People can be Jewish and still practice meditation. They can be Muslim. It doesn’t matter; so long as they’re interested in learning about meditation as a tool to actually help them in their life, to become more mindful and compassionate, they’re welcomed with open arms.”
Rinzler added that practicing Shambhala does not necessarily make one a Buddhist.
“People can do the entire track within Shambhala and never call themselves Buddhists,” he explained. “That’s totally fine. Similarly, I don’t think anybody should read my book and become a Buddhist.”
Rather than trying to convert people, Rinzler hopes to promote attitudes that will make a difference.
“The big goal for the book was maybe one person would read it, right around your age, and then when they graduate from college, maybe they’ll go and work for something as big as Goldman Sachs—as, like, an entry-level person. But they’ve been meditating, and trying to cultivate these qualities in themselves. Thirty years from now, they could be the CFO of Goldman Sachs—but they’re kind, they’re compassionate, they’re thinking of others…I don’t know if that will ever happen, but we’ll see. But that’s my big goal in writing that book: just one person.”
He read me a quote from his Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche: “We’ve entered a time when spirituality no longer means simply individual liberation, nor would that be possible, given our global connectivity.”
Rinzler elaborated on this interconnectivity.
“We can’t just think about ourselves, and whether we can be good, spiritual beings,” Rinzler explained. “That’s not possible; we’re too interconnected to everything else that’s going on. No matter what we do, we’re affecting other people. So it’s always going to be about, how can we help society? I think that’s what we need to start thinking about if we’re going to call ourselves spiritual people.”