02.11.12

Meditation Teacher Lodro Rinzler Rebrands Buddhism to Deal with Drinking and Sex

Attired in jeans and bowties, the atypical guru Lodro Rinzler teaches 20- and 30-something acolytes in New York how to use the religion in everyday life—even in bars and the bedroom.

“No teacher said the best way to create inner change is to be a prick to yourself.”

Lodro Rinzler is seated cross-legged on a cushion, an altar of offerings behind him, a gong to rouse disciples from silent contemplation at his side. Nearby are the standard candles and incense, photos, and artwork honoring forebears and clear bowls of water representing enlightened mind. Despite being surrounded by the tchotchkes of a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice, the 29-year-old Rinzler isn’t your typical guru—he delivers dharma in jeans, a madras bowtie and de rigueur hipster frames. Today is session three of the five-week lunch-hour course, “Meditation in Everyday Life,” at the New York Shambhala Center. The 16 mostly 20- and 30-something students are seated on dark blue cushions, wearing office buttondowns or yoga pants. They have sharp-angled haircuts, leather work satchels, and tattoos.

The tactic that’s earned him an audience outside the practicing Shambhala Buddhist community is that he applies meditation techniques to modern temptations often perfected on college campuses—drinking in bars and one-night-stands. While the benefits of meditation have crept into the scientific mainstream in recent years, Rinzler believes ancient teachings continue to be misunderstood by outsiders who see them as “hippie stuff.” Hence the slick wardrobe of bow ties and fitted jeans. He’s rebranding the practice for a new millennium, starting with himself.

Having sampled like tapas a handful of Buddhist meditation traditions, I am admittedly no expert, but Rinzler’s session is far less lecture and more dialogue than I’ve seen before. The afternoon I’m in his class, he encourages students to share their experiences of “what comes up on the cushion.” He uses the word “gentle” unself-consciously and often. As in: Meditation is an exercise in being gentle to yourself, or, tell your crazy colleague when he’s screaming at you that you’re going to get very, very gentle with him. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of modern, Oprah-fied talk therapy for a tradition that dates back to 563 BC.

In that vein, Rinzler authors a weekly column on Huffington Post and he has a new book, The Buddha Walks Into a Bar: A Guide to Life for a New Generation. The column, What Would Sid Do, offers an “honest look at what meditators face in the modern world,” reminding readers that “before Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) attained enlightenment he was a confused 20-and 30-something looking to learn how to live a spiritual life.”

Rinzler’s strategy is to meet young people where they are—in demanding jobs and fraught relationships and looking to quiet their minds. Not only are most students not Buddhist, but they have never meditated before. He’s in good company here; young teachers like Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, and Noah Levine, former bad boy and author of the memoir Dharma Punx, are reaching searching, urban 20-and-30-somethings skeptical of the god and religious garb of their parents. Not unlike the teachers themselves.

“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,” writes Rinzler of his college days. Rather than adhere inflexibly to traditional Buddhist precepts, which include abstaining from sex and alcohol, Rinzler asks how to engage mindfully in such activities. He says many Buddhists are “wonderful drinkers and lovers,” but that these things take practice. Presence achieved by turning inward can be applied to any action from brushing teeth to taking shots.

Since it was early afternoon, Rinzler gave me a crash-course in “right drinking” over a pot of Chrysanthemum tea. The first step is to know your intention: Is the drinking celebratory or to eliminate sorrow? Next, he says, taste the thing. You’ll drink better, he says, shirking the inferior sauce. As in silent meditation, he recommends observing your mind while consuming the beverage and labeling ideas or feelings that come up. And lastly, he advises knowing your limits, qualifying that he drinks less than he used to. “I try not to get to that point where I would say things that cause harm.”

When it comes to relationships and sex, the occasional hurt can seem impossible to avoid. “There’s a whole range of intentions that go into something like sex with someone,” Rinzler said. Also, rather than preach the Buddha’s precept that adherents “abstain from sexual misconduct,” Rinzler would rather ask, “How can we bring an open heart to the bedroom and promote positive sex?”

He admits that this is tricky business, and that reconciling a Buddhist practice with “going home with someone can be a real process of trial and error.” He tells students one key is to be present with a sexual partner during the act itself—definitely not thinking about deadlines or dishes or somebody else.

This philosophy is a natural extension of the eccentric Shambhala tradition in which Rinzler grew up. Shambhala has a “more wild reputation among American Buddhists,” according to one practitioner, ever since it was imported by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1970. He famously slept around and led mindful sake-drinking workshops that relaxed some, while making others vomit. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche knew his students would drink and have sex, and so does Rinzler, so rather than dissuade, he’s arming them with tools to do it mindfully and supporting their journeys, stumbles and all.

Rinzler is what some in the movement lovingly—and a little jealously--call a “dharma brat”—kids raised Buddhist in the west by white convert parents. Rinzler spent a silent month at a remote monastery where he shaved his head and donned compulsory robes, because he says his folks, who converted from Judaism, thought he might get a great college essay out of it. He has since taken a nonsectarian approach. In the 10 years he’s been teaching, he’s founded a Buddhist residence at an old fraternity house at Wesleyan University, and was the executive director of a center in Boston. He’s been at the Shambala Center since 2008.

Rinzler says many Buddhists are ‘wonderful drinkers and lovers,’ but that these things take practice.

At the end of Rinzler’s class, his teaching assistant and longtime private student, Rob, told me that I had nice eyes. “Like a caramel color,” he said. “Not the usual brown.”

“You already get the sense that this guy is meditating, but he’s also looking for a girl,” said Rinzler after he overheard the exchange. I asked him if he recommended students pick up dates at meditation class.

“At least he’s being genuine,” he said.