“Awakening the Buddha Within” (an interview with Lama Surya Das)
Science of Mind Magazine
by David Goldberg
February, 2013 (reprinted with permission)
As a seventeen-year-old right out of high school, I had the chance to travel around the world with the international musical group “Up with People.” The finale of our two hour show was “Moon Rider,” a song based on the thoughts of astronaut Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17and the last man to walk on the moon, as he looked back at the Earth. One of the lines from that song is “I see the world without any borders; without any fighting; without any fear.” That refrain came to me as I was engaged in conversation with Lama Surya Das.
Lama Surya is a big man with big energy and even bigger ideas. He radiates positive energy and a sense of purpose. His name, translated from Sanskrit and Hindi, means “Servant of the Sun,” and he embodies it as he brings light to so many on the planet. He is a spiritual activist, poet, and author of many books on Buddhism as well as a teacher and spokesperson for Buddhism in the West. Lama Surya recognizes that all beings everywhere are interconnected, and he sees his work as helping everyone be the best they can be. To accomplish that, Lama Surya has long been involved in interfaith dialogue and charitable relief projects.
I first met Lama Surya after a two-day conference in Boulder, Colorado, entitled “Buddhist Geeks.” Lama Surya was born in 1950 and was Jewish “on my parents’ side of the family,” he said with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek. This was the first hint of his wit, humor, and lightheartedness. Growing up, he didn’t identify closely with Judaism. The death of a close friend was the impetus that launched the twenty-year-old formerly known as Jeffrey Miller onto his path exploring the spiritual sciences and contemplative disciplines.
“While I was in college, a dear friend of mine, Allison Crouse, was one of the four people killed at Kent State in May 1970,” he reflected. “She was nineteen and in her freshman year in college. That tragedy was a wake-up call for me.
“The concept of ‘fighting for peace’ was dichotomous and never made sense to me. I knew then that my journey would be one of ‘becoming peace,’ as Gandhi said. On a national scale, I saw politics and politicians aligning with self-interests. Concurrently, I quickly became disillusioned with organized religion and started to think about and explore alternatives with renewed interest. I wanted to be a peacemaker. I looked into Jesus’ message as well as those of other humanists, leaders, and inspiring people throughout history who seemed to have their heads on their shoulders. That is when I was introduced to Buddhism. I now know that I am Buddhist by inclination, choice, training, and, perhaps, by previous lives.”
The Path of Peace and Understanding
This realization led the Lama to India and Nepal in the early ’70s where he went “to find God and inner peace.” He studied with spiritual teachers of various traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, as well as “with a lot of other sages without ‘isms’ attached,” he added with a smile. He taught Zen Buddhism and poetry at the college level in Japan. His faith walk included two three-and-a-half year retreats. He was ordained a lama in the non-sectarian Rimé movement of Tibetan Buddhism. In the Buddhism of Tibet, a lama is a monk or priest. The leader of the lamas is the Dalai Lama, a position currently held by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who was born in 1935 and enthroned at the age of six. He has been living in exile in Northern India since 1959. The focus of the Rimé movement is intended to recognize and appreciate the differences between the various Buddhist traditions while also establishing a dialogue that can create common ground. The goal is not to blend the traditions together, but rather to honor the similarities and provide choices and options for spiritual seekers. As a result of that inclusive and expansive education, “I feel the non-sectarian, Universalist approach of Oneness at my core,” Lama Surya confirmed.
That broad-based background informs the Lama’s interest in and continuous support of interfaith dialogue. “Non-sectarianism has always been an important part of who I am as a student and a teacher,” he said. “I’m the Forrest Gump of the spiritual world,” he added. “Because of our teaching and my work with His Holiness, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with world leaders like Gorbachev and Mitterrand. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton studied with His Holiness and me to learn about Dzogchen.” Dzogchen is the highest and most definitive path to enlightenment and translates to the “Great Perfection” or “Total Completeness.”
One of the basic tenets of the Rimé tradition is the recognition that all beings are on similar paths ascending the great mountain. “The Dalai Lama is always stressing non-sectarianism, and all of his teachers stressed it as well. From a personal perspective, I am an American from New York who is the child of immigrants. It’s hard for me to take too seriously anyone’s one way of preaching to the exclusion of all others. I have a lot of friends who are rabbis, priests, nuns, psychologists, atheists, agnostics, scientists, and people from all walks of life,” Lama Surya explained. “We all know of Unitarian Universalist-Hindus, Jewish-Buddhists, and Zen-Catholics, all of whom I fully support. Who am I to tell another what path is best for them? Ours is to keep our eye on the ball by trying to understand the vital essence of what is. I continue to be a student and a teacher, as we all are for each other. We develop wisdom, love, and compassion by awakening the light within.
“Before I ever started my formal training, it was innately a part of who I am to look for the good in all of the spiritual teachings,” Lama added. I suggested that Ernest Holmes’s path was similar in that his life’s work was looking for the golden thread in all of the world’s faith traditions. “I’m familiar with the writings of Ernest Holmes, and we are kindred spirits,” Lama Surya offered. “Buddhism came to be in this world about 2,600 years ago and Science of Mind came to be in the middle of the last century. Both of our religions have changed over the years, which help them to be relevant and impactful for those on the path. As well, both Dr. Holmes and I have been accused of cafeteria-style spirituality and for cherry-picking the best parts of all of many spiritual traditions, and I continue to see great benefit in that. The truth is that none of the traditions that have been carried forward are available to us in their original form or meaning. All words and texts are a translation. The kernel of Truth in all of the writings to which we have access remains the same. What we need is less greed and more sharing on so many fronts.”
Finding the Inner Light
Two of the Lama’s key messages in his speaking and writing are awakening the Buddha within and compassionate action. Lama Surya wrote Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World in 1998 and Buddha Is as Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices for Enlightened Living in 2007. From the Lama’s perspective, in order to awaken the Buddha within, one must start with focusing on contentment and acceptance and being present in one’s own life. “We need to be here while we are getting there,” Lama Surya noted. “As St. Catherine of Siena said, ‘Every step on the way to heaven is heaven.’ Why didn’t I hear this growing up? Heaven on earth is something from which we can never stray.” He calls this practice “Nowness Awareness.”
Are you happy and grateful for what you have and for where you are? Do you accept and know that you are exactly where you are supposed to be on your life path? “Every step of the way is the way,” he added. “If we’re not here now, we won’t be there then.”
Another important aspect is one’s daily spiritual practice, whether meditation, prayer, journaling, walking, yoga, or any number of other activities. “Whatever you do, do it with your full attention and in recognition of your absolute connection to and with Spirit,” he offered. As Socrates taught centuries ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Lama Surya suggests that we also need to recognize that we can’t do this alone. Who is your God Squad? Upon whom do you rely for support and inspiration? Who is your spiritual mentor or guru? Do you reach out for help and support only when you’re in crisis mode?
He recommends that the next step is to “grok” what has come in, a term first offered in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, meaning to understand something thoroughly and intuitively. Another important part of the process is to recognize that we’re never alone. On the physical plane, no one can do it alone today. From the Lama’s perspective, now is not the time for “Renaissance geniuses” because there is just too much to know. “It takes a community, and we need to pull together or we’ll be pulled apart,” he declared. “There are too many global problems to deal with on a global level—environment, atmosphere, proliferation, pandemics, and terrorism, among many others. One person in one lifetime is simply not enough.”
On a metaphysical level, God— however defined or labeled— is always present. It can be no other way. The higher power that neither is born nor dies is timeless. It was previous to our birth and will survive after our death.
“Getting enlightened before helping others gets us stuck,” he said. “We need to connect with our own Divinity as well as with our own ideas and thoughts. We then get to apply it to our lives. We can’t be just inward looking— too much introspection also puts us out of balance.” Or in language that is familiar to Religious Scientists, “Treat and move your feet.” As Dr. Holmes reminds us, the energy and action behind the thought is equally important.
Lama Surya affirms that our work is to maintain the vital heart of truth and to continue to see the essence of inner light in everyone and everything. When we do this, it leads to love, compassion, connectedness, and caring, and it moves us away from violence, exploitation, hatred, and jealousy.
Lama Surya hosted the Dalai Lama on one of His Holiness’s visits to the United States, and the two men had a conversation about altruism and compassionate action. The Dalai Lama lovingly refers to Lama Surya as “the American Lama.”
“The Dalai Lama said to me, ‘American Lama, prayer and meditation is needed, but is not enough. We need to take compassionate action.’ For me, this means carrying meditation into action, relational mindfulness, empathic communication, and better listening,” Lama Surya contended. “It is about integrating spiritual practice into everyday life—not just being a Saturday Jew or Sunday Christian as I grew up with in my childhood. What about the other six and a half days a week?”
The Lama emphasizes that it is also important not to fantasize about the good old days, which, upon closer reflection, had their share of personal and global challenges. He also declares that ours isn’t a solitary journey. “Balance and integration are the names of the game,” he affirmed. “Our goal should be relational mindfulness in every aspect of life. Honoring our spiritual intelligence means more focus on wisdom and less focus on information.”
Lama Surya believes that as those on a spiritual path, we are all trying to create the best possible life for ourselves and those around us—whether in the same community or on the other side of the world. One of the ways we attempt to do that is by bridging Eastern and Western traditions.
“My message is that by awakening the Buddha within, we see the light that is always there. And when we see it in ourselves, then it is easier to see in others. That is what makes a better world possible.
When I asked if there was anything that we didn’t cover, the Lama said that he felt that while our work is extraordinarily important, it is also important that we have a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. “My friends call me the Jolly Lama. I’ll take it!”