An interview with Lama Surya Das: American Buddhist and Bestselling Author

Lama Surya Das

This week we present an interview with Lama Surya Das (bio at bottom, though well known to most of you). For the interview I solicited questions from friends and colleagues and chose a few to present to Surya Das.  My great thanks to Lama Surya Das for taking the time to answer these questions and to the wonderful Erica Taylor for helping to bring this together, as well as to my friends Nick M, Nick W, Katherin, Emily, Warren, and Margaret for the questions. The first three questions focus on personal life and practice, while the last three focus on Buddhism in America. So, let us begin:

1)  How do I “look for” or see the Buddha in my daily life? I understand Buddhism doesn’t emphasize a guiding relationship with any god figure; however, I enjoy the positive feeling in “seeing god around.” Can I grow that in Buddhist practice?

Buddha said that all beings are endowed with the luminous tathagata-garbha, or innate Buddha nature. We experienced Vajrayana (diamond path) meditators practice seeing the Buddha-nature, the buddhaness, the clear light in everyone and everything. That is what I like to call The Diamond Rule.  Then we can grow closer to “Buddha” every moment, wherever we are, like what theists like to call the constant companion; and Buddha continues to radiate through us, beyond separation or joining. This practice is like an invisible friend with benefits!

“Wherever I go, I meet mySelf,” said a great Zen master of old. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have prayerful devotional  practices such as “Calling the Master from Afar” which help us invoke and invite, exhort and bring closer the object of our respect and devotion, mainly in order to realize our primordial inseparability with him/That and open a world of sacredness before our eyes and our feet as we tread that path of a new awakefulness.

2)  What is the best way to explain sunyata to a person who is curious about Buddhism but who refuses to budge on the idea of an “independent soul”? Is accepting the doctrine of no-self truly a key element for Buddhist practitioners in the West?

Mindfulness is probably the blue jeans of Buddhism in the West, good for any and all occasions, much more useful and effective for most of us than  mere faith or doctrines. Sunyata and anatta—emptiness, and no-separate-independent-self– are the hardest nuts to crack in Buddhist thought. To explain sunyata to the uninitiated and unreceptive seems unnecessary and possibly contraindicated. However, exploring together the universal facts of impermanence and so forth can help loosen some clinging and dogmatism regarding various notions and concepts, including the soul theory. Anyway, it’d take a better man than you or me to clearly distinguish between the doctrine of soul, on one hand, and that of the unchanging and immaculate, unborn and undying Buddha nature or Dharmakaya, on the other hand– though people do try to teach about and explain that.

Let me go further in making waves where there’s no wind:  How different, really—to the layperson, at least– is the theistic creator-God doctrine, from Tibetan Buddhism’s talk about the primordial Buddha, the primordial protector, the all-doer Samantabhadra?   When we meditate and practice loving kindness and self-inquiry, and compassion in action, our hardheadedness and hardheartedness softens and certain distinctions and attachments, doctrinal or otherwise, can become a lot less problematic.

3)  What is the place of dark retreats within the Buddhist tradition? How should one deal with difficult experiences within retreat?

Dark retreats as I know them in Tibetan Buddhism are mainly for practicing the bardo (afterlife) meditation experiences, and involves training in it for days and weeks at a time so as to be better prepared for when the moment of transition occurs. The secret Dzogchen practice of Togal (“leap over”, or “being there”) is also practiced sometime over periods of time in complete darkness. Removing visual along with other outer sense stimuli can help enhance and illuminate the “inner senses” and increase ones capacity for and experience of certain visionary realities. These kind of intensive practices are somewhat advanced and thus best undertaken with skilled guidance, to allow us to better develop and integrate all the experiences which occur along the path of practice.

4)  What is a challenge unique to American Buddhist culture, and how can we use the experience of that challenge to grow stronger in the dharma?

One could mention challenges we face such as speediness and impatience; the habit and expectation of instant gratification; the commodifcation, thinning out and over- simplification of almost everything, and other particularly American character traits. Technology too plays its part, but cannot be turned back.

However, let me speculate that the big one is the great American leveling of everything, conducive to the common denominator and a sort of mere mediocrity rather than the great Golden Mean. ‘Good enough’ can too easily become the near-enemy of true excellence. The de-hierarchization of most if not all things in our society—although still suffering from racism and other forms of class inequality and even warfare, gross and subtle—leads to a disregard and utter disrespect from natural hierarchies of purity and intention, learning, experience, wisdom– and now, even of facts, where post-modern relativism and big money combine to make it impossible for the average person to sort through and sort out the facts, to the point where there are none in play and the loudest voice triumphs. This ignores the ancient American dictum that “All people are created equal, some more equal than others.”

We are drying up soul-wise and dying for spiritual elders and enlightened leaders whom we can trust and rely on to help us through dark times. For example, who has the chops and moxie to help us bring back the ‘higher’  into Higher Education, a wholistic life-wisdom education and emotional intelligence? Who embodies and serves the positive changes and qualities we long to see in the world today?

If these wounds and challenges are to become gifts, we have to be candid and dig deeper into ourselves and together carve out a new way and a new future, that future which begins now.

5)  What do you think of the recent revelations of inappropriate behaviour towards their students by Western-born (as opposed to Tibetan-born) Tibetan Buddhist teachers, specifically Ken McLeod and Michael Roach?

It’s too soon to say, since the facts are not yet complete in these two cases; but I did write something about the general  issue for the Huffington Post in late June of this year, called  “ Spiritual Responsibility and Cult Awareness-<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lama-surya-das/spiritual-responsibility-_b_1597886.html.>

Whatever the relative merits (or demerits) of these particular cases are, or may turn out to be, or the local legalities, social mores, and commonly accepted norms; the complex and troubling problems arising through inappropriate behavior between teachers and students, priests and parishioners, the top dog and the underdog etc. is an old and pernicious one (sexual misconduct, exploitation, misuse of power, pedophilia, incest, rape etc.). This turns out to be more far-ranging and pervasive than originally thought, in most if not all of the religious and other power structure institutions today, and extending to sports coaches, therapy couches, medical offices, old age homes and hospitals, corporate settings and so forth, as the informed public has now been finding out. What we can do to help alleviate this affliction is our task at hand.

6)  Recently, my friend Charles Prebish brought up your 10-fold plan for the American Buddhism of the future. In your  1997 “Awakening the Buddha Within” bestseller, you described the Ten Emerging Trends of American Buddhism:  (1) Dharma without dogma; (2) a lay-oriented sangha; (3) a meditation-based and experiential sangha; (4) gender equality; (5) a nonsectarian tradition; (6) an essentialized and simplified tradition; (7) an egalitarian, democratic, and nonhierarchical tradition; (8) a psychologically astute and rational traditional; (9) an experimental, innovating, inquiry-based tradition; and (10) a socially informed and engaged tradition. Prebish endorsed most of this plan in his 1999 “Luminous Passage” book. How do you think this plan looks today? Are there any changes you’d make, given the last decade?

These ten trends seem even more prominent and developed than before. I suppose neuroscience has come on strong in the past fifteen years, as well as contemplative education and also Internet Dharma, but these are within the purview of the Ten Trends, especially numbers 8 and 9.

7)  And lastly, perhaps the most relevant question for many of our daily lives in the next couple months: Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?
 
My team will definitely win!

 

About Lama Surya Das

Buddha Standard Time

Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “the American Lama”.  He has spent nearly forty years studying Zen, Vipassana, Yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with many of the great old masters of Asia, among them, some of the Dalai Lama’s own teachers. He is an authorized lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order, a leading spokesperson for Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, a translator, poet, meditation master, chant master, and spiritual activist.  Lama Surya Das is the author of the international bestselling Awakening trilogy: Awakening the Buddha Within, Awakening to the Sacred and Awakening the Buddhist Heart, as well as the recently released Buddha Standard Time (HarperCollins), and nine other books. In 1991 he established the Dzogchen Centers and Dzogchen Retreats (www.dzogchen.org) and in 1993, with the Dalai Lama, he founded the Western Buddhist Teachers Network and regularly organizes its International Buddhist Teachers’ Conferences.

Lama Surya Das resides in Concord, Massachusetts.Today, Lama Surya Das teaches and lectures around the world, conducting dozens of meditation retreats and workshops each year.  He is a regular contributor at Beliefnet.com, Tricycle magazine, and The Huffington Post. His blog, Ask The Lama, can be found at http://askthelama.com and his lecture and retreat schedule are listed at www.surya.org. He can also be followed on Facebook (Lama Surya Das) and Twitter (@LamaSuryaDas).

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    Buddhism is a method of cultivating the mind. Since Buddhism affirms that the universe is governed by impersonal laws and not by any creator-god; it has no use for prayer, for the Buddha was a teacher and not a god; and it regards devotion not as a religious obligation but as a means of expressing gratitude to its founder and as a means of self-development. Hence Buddhism is is not a religion at all
    Nature abhors a vacuum, and religious entrepreneurs, taking advantage of the situation, seize the opportunity to spew prophetic nonsense. At least some area of life should be left to the individual where the person is totally free, without anybody else deciding for him, where he can open his wings like an eagle and fly across the sun – no chains, no bondages, no hindrances.
    Honesty is honesty – it cannot be Muslim, it cannot be Christian. Truth is simply truth – it is neither Christian nor Hindu. Love is simply love – it cannot be Eastern and it cannot be Western. Compassion is compassion – it does not belong to any race, to any country, to any climate; it is not dependent on any geography, or any history.
    Meditation is simply so scientific that just as you accept physics without bothering about whether it is Hindu or Muslim, you accept chemistry without ever thinking whether it is Protestant or Catholic. When you go to the doctor, you never bother whether the medicine is Christian or Muslim.
    The inner reality is simply a pure silence: thousands of flowers blossom there but they don’t belong to any organization. They are the reward of your own search, of your own inward-going.
    All the organized religions care basically depriving humanity of religion because they are misdirecting you. They are always directing you outwards — their God is far away in the sky. And when you pray, folding your hands towards the sky, you don’t realize that there is nobody to hear you.
    In fact, the one who is praying, the one who is alive in you, the one who is breathing in you, is the God.
    You have just to discover it.
    It is hidden in the layers of your false personality. Find out, in your innocence, and life becomes a sheer joy, a song without words, a dance, a celebration. And at the very end of your celebration, there is nothing but tears of gratitude. Those tears of gratitude belong to the individual heart, overflowing with gratefulness towards existence.
    Heaven is a “fairy story” for people afraid of the dark. Thoughts of heaven may stave off fears of death and the idea of an afterlife offers some hope in a world where life has been pretty harsh. Religious belief in the afterlife can be a powerful motivator to follow the rules of the religion. If you think of your body as a machine, it’s kind of hard to believe in life after death.Regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. A deity no longer has any place in theories on the creation of the universe in the light of a series of developments in physics.
    We are born and reborn at every moment. Like many other Buddhist teachings, is easily verifiable by reference to our own experience and by science. The cells in the human body die and are replaced thousand times during the course of one’s life. This is part of the process of birth, death and rebirth. If we look at our mind, we find that mental states of worry, happiness etc., change every moment. They die and are replaced by new states. If we look at our body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth. Our lives appear to be unbroken blocks of continuous events, but, when we maintain the straightforward frankness of our own mind as it comes to life each instant, even without effort, even without training, we are beautifully born each instant. We die with each instant, and go on to be born again, instant by instant.
    Buddhism is a way of life based on the training of the mind. Its one ultimate aim is to show the way to complete liberation from suffering by the attainment of the Unconditioned, a state beyond the range of the normal untrained mind. Its immediate aim is to strike at the roots of suffering in everyday life. All human activity is directed, either immediately or remotely, towards the attainment of happiness in some form or other; or, to express the same thing in negative terms, all human activity is directed towards liberation from some kind of unsatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, then, can be regarded as the starting point in human activity, with happiness as its ultimate goal.
    The material world around us, is not based on ‘loose’ particles with empty space between them. There is no empty space, all is filled with energy. We live in one gigantic energy field. This energy field is even bigger then our universe, and probably encompasses all universes. So this means if we move our arms, we ‘push’ aside energy, and this will have effect throughout the whole field, it will not have huge effect, but it is like we in a pool, and we cause ripples and currents when we splash our arms, not just around us, but in the whole pool. The reality around us is based on different levels of worlds, that all are fixed in this field. Our organs are made out of cells, the cells are made out of cytoplasm, the cytoplasm is made out of molecules, the molecules are made out of neutrons, protons, and electrons, neutrons, protons, and electrons are based on quarks and energy waves, these quarks and energy waves are again based on smaller waves and we will end up in a giant pool of energy.

  • TruthbTold

    Hey Justin, It’s too bad you didn’t do you due diligence on Das. There are many who know him as a sociopathic serial womanizer.

    Das is Buddhism’s #1 bad-boy and hypocrite!  He loves to project onto other male teachers while pretending that his house is without stain.  Das’ idea of “spiritual responsibility” is stating on numerous occasions in public forums, “I don’t sleep with my students.” Yet, all the while bedding female students on his yearly retreats. Das was married during these “sacred” affairs, as he calls them.  While on these retreats, he tells his students to abstain from sex, talking, intoxicants, etc. – the typical do as I say not as I do mentality – while he indulges in sexual misconduct.

    It’s a well-known fact that, Das was having sex with females in his sangha while married. One female finally came forward and told her story to Lama Willa Miller (not related to Das). This was beginning of the end for Das and the Dzogchen Foundation, or was it!?  Das used women in his sangha for sex during his marriage and while single. After the third affair (that we know of), Das’ wife was fed up and the marriage ended.  Because Das’ ex-wife was not a practicing Buddhist, he could easily fool around with is female students on retreats. Das uses his fake “Lama” status to bed women, make money, and travel is style.   Das goes from woman to woman, usually moving in to their home and living off of them. Ask anyone who knows Das, how many women he’s lived with and used throughout the years – these are beyond the women he uses for sex while on his closed retreats. Das is a sociopathic serial womanizer.

    On Dec. 2008, the following statement was posted on Das’ Wikipedia. Das had it removed because it’s bad for business. Das is a clever businessman who wants to screw as many women as he can, even as he ages: “Dec 22, 2008 saw the dissolution of the Dzogchen Foundation. This happened after it was revealed that Miller was sexually abusing students. All of its board members resigned in protest and the original Cambridge MA and New York communities have left Das. The Cambridge Community is changing its name, creating a more democratic structure, and reorganizing practice sessions under new leadership. Jeffrey [aka Lama Surya Das] and his wife of years are now in divorce proceedings.”

    Beware of Das he’s a sociopathic serial womanizer.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Dear TruthBTold,

      I have found nothing, across dozens of websites, to confirm your story. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but right now there doesn’t seem to be anything, or anyone, out there to support these claims. I did, however, find comments on other blogs/articles that appear to come from you asserting the same thing. I’m not shy about calling out abusive teachers, but I’m not about to start a witch-hunt based on anonymous comments.

      Wishing you peace and happiness,
      jw

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