Interview with Lama Surya Das
Dennis Hughes, Share
the most highly trained American Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist
tradition. He is the author of several best-selling books including Awakening the Buddha Within
and Awakening the Buddhist
Heart. His work communicates the wisdom of
Buddhism for the modern-day spiritual seeker.
Lama Surya Das: Yes, I am a lama in a Tibetan Buddhist Order. But although I'm a lineage holder in Tibetan Buddhism, I try to teach Buddhism for the West including non-sectarian but mainly, yes, Tibetan Buddhism.
The Share Guide: What is a lineage holder?
Das: It means that I'm
a trained and authorized representative and transmitter of the
tradition, not just "I like Tibetan Buddhism, and I saw the Dalai
Lama on television once."
Lama Surya Das: Buddhism is an old religion, older than Christianity, so over the centuries and millennia it developed different traditions in different countries and cultures. It's like Catholicism and Protestantism and then the new religions in America such as Mormonism, Baptist, Christian Science, whatever, that came out of Christianity. Buddhism has different schools, sects, lineages--some monastic, some lay, some traditional. Some are more reformed or experimental and it's different in each country. As Buddhism moved from India to Nepal and Tibet, then to China, Japan (where it became Zen), it evolved and changed.
The Share Guide: So some of your rituals and ceremonies may be different but essentially it's the same teaching?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, we use the same tenets and practices and the three enlightenment trainings and ethics trainings. Plus the meditation trainings and wisdom trainings that I've written about in Awakening the Buddha Within and Awakening the Buddhist Heart. Tibetan Buddhism has Tibetan Yoga practices, Dzogchen, massage and things that don't exist in any other part of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism emphasizes chanting and visualization, and energy work and healing work more than other forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes philosophy, and Buddhist logic and mind training.
The Share Guide: Is this the same form or school that the Dalai Lama practices?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, the Dalai Lama is the head lama, the chief…not exactly the pope because we're not that hierarchically structured. In general, he's the head of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Share Guide: And you've done some work directly with him?
Lama Surya Das: Yes, I'm a student of his, as well as every lama's and I've also organized conferences with him with the International Buddhist Teachers Conference.
The Share Guide: Those are the week long conferences in Dharamsala?
Lama Surya Das: In Dharamsala and occasionally in America now as well. We just had one last year at Spirit Rock in Marin County.
The Share Guide: Although you live on the East Coast in Massachussets, you come to teach in Northern California regularly, don't you?
Surya Das: Yes, I have a group or sangha that meets in Mill Valley on Thursday nights.
The Share Guide: Another person I've been studying as well as the Dalai Lama is this being called the Medicine Buddha, who is an ancient healer. I'm not sure if he's a real person or a mythical one. Can you tell me a little about him?
Surya Das: There's actually a new book called In Search of the Medicine Buddha. Unlike the historical Buddha, the Medicine Buddha is more like the historical Buddha taking a visionary form. It's called Sangye Menla in Tibet. He's depicted as being lapis lazuli (blue-like) in color, holding healing herbs in his hand. We consider it Dharma, which heals what ails us on all levels, spiritually as well as physically, emotionally…so that this Tibetan Buddhist medicine actually coming from what we call the Four Medical Tantras taught by the Medicine Buddha, and which forms the foundation of Tibetan Medicine. It's related to the six yogas of Tibet and other practices that includes purification, fasting, special diets, astrology, collected herbal formulas and medicines.
The Share Guide: The reason I mentioned him is that I read recently in Buddhism Today that his teaching included four levels of medicine and the highest or fourth level was Spiritual Medicine. So, I was wondering why it's considered that Spiritual Medicine provides the deepest healing?
Surya Das: It's related to the idea that healing at the soul level heals you for eternity.
The Share Guide: So working on the spiritual level is the most important thing?
Surya Das: Working on the spiritual level brings us more into our eternal home, and gets us in touch with our natural state of inner health and completeness-- beyond birth and death. In other words, you may be very sick, but soul healing will bring you into peace even though you might die of the illness. You can be healed that way…not healed and live forever, because nobody can live forever, but healed spiritually, which transcends birth and death and goes on. We need to realize that we are deathless.
The Share Guide: In this lifetime, we're helping our spiritual growth by focusing on the spiritual, but from what I can tell, the spiritual focus also helps with mental, emotional and physical ailments?
Surya Das: Right, it's a holistic healing.
The Share Guide: I've heard Dr. Larry Dossey talking about how people who have a better attitude are more loving and respond better to physical treatment.
Surya Das: Yes, it's all related, of course. That's the point of spiritual healing-- it's a generally a more holistic approach than the allopathic, cover-it-up kind of healing. Recognizing, for example, that stress and tension, anger and negative emotions and so on contribute to illnesses of various kinds. Love and friendliness and unselfishness also heal on other levels and connect with our inexhaustible souls. Violence and aggression harm ourselves as well as others, so it hurts us in various ways. We need to heal the divisions between ourselves and others. That's why the Buddha said something like "Love and kindness is the greatest medicine." One of the meanings of the ancient word Dharma is "that which heals." (Usually we talk about Buddha Dharma, meaning Buddha's teachings or Buddha's wisdom, but that's one of the etymological meanings.) As far as the Medicine Buddha goes, there's initiations and empowerments you can receive from lamas to extend your longevity and vitality and help you heal--and particularly, to help you practice the Medicine Buddha meditation yourself. So you can actualize and develop your inner healing capacities on yourself and on healing others.
The Share Guide: My office is full of spiritual pictures and statues. A lot of these brass statues are from India--Shiva, Krishna and Medicine Buddha. I have them around my work station to keep me thinking high thoughts even during printing deadlines and so forth.
Surya Das: That's great!
The Share Guide: It feels like they help, so I want to encourage people to think about that...making your office and your home an altar can help you to manage the stresses of the day. I'd like to turn our attention to your latest book, Awakening the Buddhist Heart. Thank you for the answering general Buddhist questions before we got to the new book. In this book you suggest developing spiritual intelligence. How can we cultivate spiritual intelligence and find our spiritual center?
Surya Das: Spiritual intelligence is innate in all of us. It's a matter of how much we develop it--just like we all have muscles, but some are flabby and some are firm from exercise. Spiritual exercise helps us develop our spiritual muscles. We can develop our spiritual intelligence in various ways: by thinking and connecting more to the bigger picture, rather than just living for instant gratification or seeing things as separate and discrete events, without recognizing the bigger patterns and universal laws. We should see these connected to ourselves and others. A lot of this book is about bringing spirituality into our relationships through all of life's connections. We should develop our spiritual intelligence by finding our spiritual center either in ourselves or a religious way, thanking Jesus or Buddha or God or service or yoga or meditation or prayers as the center of our life.
The Share Guide: So this should be our focus point?
Surya Das: Yes, and there's a lot of ways to do this. We need to distinguish the real from the unreal and go more towards the Light and away from Darkness. Then we can start to understand the universal laws of cause and effect and why things happen. Once we understand our karma, we can be masters rather than victims of circumstances and conditions. We can be more grateful for all that's given and not just take it for granted. We need to recognize our precious human existence as a cherished life, and prioritize the now, and respect and cherish life in all forms. And practice non-violence and so on. In a way, we could do a spiritual IQ test and see what our spiritual IQ is--where we are as far as selfish or unselfish, loving or hateful and mean-minded, generous or tight fisted and so on. This is regardless of what "ism" you believe in, or even if you're an atheist or agnostic but have some humanist sensibilities.
The Share Guide: In your books you say that we're blessed with life. But there are a lot of people who don't see life as a blessing. What can you do about this if you're stuck there?
Surya Das: As Buddhists we don't proselytize. We only teach when asked, so people need to be questioning, so we can discuss things. If people are asking, then we can explore and inquire together to see if human life is a blessing or a curse. And maybe we can count our blessings and not just feel resentful, bitter or victimized.
The Share Guide: So if people are stuck and they're not enjoying life, they should ask for help from the spiritual teachers in their community?
Surya Das: Exactly. We have to look at our own belief systems. Does life really suck? Are we just seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full? Buddhism is neither optimistic or pessimistic. We try to be realistic and take things as they are. There's a great freedom in that, and with freedom comes responsibility.
The Share Guide: What are samskaras and how do they affect our spiritual health?
Surya Das: Samskaras mean karmic imprints or deeds or habits that are in our psyche--the stored consciousness like Jung talks about. In other words, the imprints that are in us and push our boundaries, so that we react in a conditioned fashion the same way to certain stimuli. It's like the stimulus/response reaction, which keeps us from being free. When somebody says critical or nasty words about us, we instantly react and get mad rather than having more detachment or equanimity. We need to be able to consider the criticism in terms of how that might be true and helpful or whether it's false--and thus keep our balance, be centered and mindful rather than just reactive. The samskaras are like the buttons that get pushed as we continually are bombarded by stimulus (outer and inner), and not just from others, but also from our own inner emotions and thoughts and memories. As we become more aware through meditation, self-inquiry and mindfulness practice, we start to have more space and more clarity to be able to manage our reactions and to choose more skillfully whether we kick back or not when somebody steps on our toe. That's the child level of reaction, but we do the same thing at the adult level--if people look at us funny or cut us off in traffic, we get road rage.
The Share Guide: When I recently interviewed James Van Praagh, he mentioned something he termed the "physical seed atom," which is this residual element we have that carries our karmic imprints between incarnations. It sounds like your samskaras. . .what you carry over with you into the afterlife and the next life.
Surya Das: Yes, it is like karmic seeds. That's why I say it's stored in the unconscious--it's bigger than any of us. . . Jung calls it the "stored consciousness". If we haven't learned the lessons we need to learn, we come back to learn them again.
The Share Guide: So the samskaras can continue with you from one life to the next?
Surya Das: Yes, negative karma as well as good karma. If we have an intention to serve others, to be a shepherd like the Dalai Lama and the incarnate lamas in Tibet, the physical body can only go so far, 50 or 90 years perhaps, but one can be reborn and carry on that mission. So that's the idea of the reincarnated one. In the case of lamas of Tibet like the Dalai Lama, those karmic seeds ripen in the next life in a positive way, to complete the unfinished mission for the benefit of all.
The Share Guide: So samskaras aren't necessarily a negative trait?
Surya Das: Right, there's good karma and there's bad karma and there's neutral karma. Let's say there's wholesome and unwholesome karmic seeds.
The Share Guide: The Bodhisattva path, can you discuss what it is, how it can heal and give meaning to us?
Surya Das: The Bodhisattva path is the highest spiritual ideal that I've ever encountered. It's predicated on the recognition that we're all one. And the common ground of all beings is that we all want to be happy and well, and have our loved ones be protected and safe and happy and not harmed. We're all joined in that way, therefore we dedicate ourselves to the greater welfare of all, not just for our own selfish, temporary welfare in this short life. When we take the Bodhisattva vow, we make ourselves a spiritual servant, like a saintly or peaceful warrior working for peace, enlightenment and the betterment of all beings. And not just human beings, but all beings of all kinds throughout all lifetimes, in all possible worlds and universes. It's really a saintly, cosmic aspiration of service and dedication to the highest good for all (as opposed to the temporary gratification or the materialism of this life). That's really the basics of Tibetan Buddhism--the Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle or Great Boat. The vehicle intent on universal liberation, not just individual relief or individual enlightenment. It's realizing that as long as any being is suffering or is imprisoned, I too am not completely free. So we pray, "May we all together complete the spiritual path. We vow not to go to Nirvana or complete our spiritual work until all beings get there." So as long as there is any suffering in the world, there is still spiritual work to do. That's the Bodhisattva vow and the Bodhisattva aspiration and that's the heart of the Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism really has three schools and Mahayana is probably the biggest.
The Share Guide: Do all lamas take the Bodhisattva vow?
Surya Das: Yes. It's common in Tibet, China, Japan and other Mahayanist countries. But there are Buddhists everywhere who take it, not just in Mahayana countries.
The Share Guide: I guess we can say that we should open our hearts and our spiritual love for others as lay people even if we're not lamas.
Surya Das: Yes, it's not just an ordination amongst the lamas. I urge my students to take this vow everyday. We take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha--the teaching and the practice of Enlightenment. Also, when we take the Bodhisattva vow we're not just thinking of ourselves selfishly; we totally include all beings in our prayers and practices and in our heart's embrace, so that we dedicate ourselves selflessly in service and altruism and compassion as well as wisdom.
The Share Guide: Where might one find a copy of this Bodhisattva vow in print?
Surya Das: That's a good question. I have a short prayer called the Millennium Prayer at the end of Awakening the Buddhist Heart, before the appendix. That's my version of the bodhisattva vow. You can find it more formerly in Awakening the Buddha Within where I've translated it from the Japanese form which has four lines and says "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transcend them. Dharma teachings are boundless, I vow to master them. The Buddha's way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it." That's the Bodhisattva vow, the four lines from the Japanese Zen Tradition. The best part is you can say it everywhere, even if you're commuting in traffic or you're on a long trip, or you're waiting for a meeting or an elevator, a movie; you can just say it to yourself. It's a good way of integrating spirituality into everyday life, not just waiting until you have time to sit down on your meditation mat and do it in the morning.
The Share Guide: Exactly. The world is your meditation mat. Here's another question for you: How is self-acceptance and self-love related to health and well-being?
Surya Das: That's a good question, especially for Americans today, who have so much self-hatred and low self-esteem and self-harming behavior patterns, conscious and unconscious. I think if you can't love yourself, how can you love and respect others? Self-hatred and negative self-image and low self-esteem and the illusions we have about ourselves really undermine us fulfilling the possibilities of love--of meaningful connections, true communication, heart to heart, mind to mind, mingling with others--that life really offers. I think we have to train ourselves a little bit. We have to learn not just mentally but physically, such as with yoga. And we have to learn emotionally through attitude transformation or therapy or other kinds of spiritual work to see through our self-illusions and our limited self-concepts and find out who we truly are through self-inquiry and introspection. This can help us out a lot. Dream work and dream yoga while we're sleeping (knowing we're dreaming) can help us a lot. This opens subconscious storehouses so we can come to a more full appreciation and understanding and then finally acceptance of ourselves and of others. We're all working to transform and become better people in a better world. Of course, we want to be better people, live a better life and contribute to a better world--but acceptance goes a long way towards helping us to be more clear and more centered while we go about that good work. Otherwise we support the contradictions and hypocrisy like "fighting for peace" which is a contradiction in terms. We need to make peace with ourselves before we can work for peace in the world. I think we need to think globally about these big issues, but begin working locally, with ourselves and each other. There are actually Buddhist practices like loving kindness and compassion meditations that include forgiveness and love and kindness to yourself. They really help us forgive and remember, not forgive and forget--and learn from our experiences. We can become wiser with years of experience and accept and forgive and be more patient and gentle with ourselves. There's a lot of learning we can do in that way, through loving kindness and compassion meditation.
The Share Guide: There are self-esteem issues that many of us have that are left over from youth, and that can undermine our courage to do bigger tasks of service. So it seems that you're saying that until you're happier with yourself, you can't take as deep a breath and jump as high, whether you're just working to be a millionaire for yourself or to serve the world.
Surya Das: That's right, it's at every level. If you're unhappy with yourself then you can put on a smiley face and do good work and all that, but it's kind of like having termites gnawing at the foundation of the house. So there's a huge cost that ties up a lot of our energy, which brings us back to the health question. These issues gnawing at us inside--they are keeping us tense and preventing us from being authentically ourselves, being open and vulnerable and truthful. There's all kinds of games we play based on fear. We're hiding. There's all kinds of persona we project--all kinds of co-dependence and narcissistic syndromes, not to mention heavier things like addiction and pathological behavior.
The Share Guide: It's definitely to be remembered that when you say you're going to serve all beings consciously with the Bodhisattva vow, that includes yourself. Otherwise you're just sort of draining yourself.
Surya Das: That's right, you can become a martyr, like the co-dependent wounded healer.
The Share Guide: In your book you mention an excellent practice called the Day of Right Speech. Now I try and do that all the time. Can you tell our readers about this?
Surya Das: You'll excuse me for quoting Jesus again, but I think he's an important teacher for all of us in the West. Jesus said, "It is not what goes into a man's mouth that defiles him, but what comes out." I think there's a lot of damage we do with our mouths and with our words--with lies and deception, but also with gossip, sniping and slander. We are unconsciously doing all kinds of damage, so practicing Right Speech is one of the steps on the Traditional Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. Right speech, right action, right livelihood, that translates as wise speech, wise action, wise livelihood--it is a part of the ethical and moral training of Buddhism. It's a good thing to concentrate for one day on one step in the Path. Take one day where you really observe your speech--not just your verbal speech but your inner dialogue, your expressions and everything that comes out of you--including your gestures, your looks and glances--and see what you're creating and projecting in the world and its results. This can be very enlightening and enlivening.
The Share Guide: Since you mentioned it, can you touch on the Eightfold Path. You've said three of them: right action, right speech, right livelihood. What are the others?
Surya Das: The Eight Steps are: right view or right understanding, which is seeing things as they are; second is wise intention, being more unselfish with the bigger mind, bigger heart. So much depends on our motivation and intention even before our actions. Third: wise speech; fourth is wise action; fifth is wise livelihood or wise vocation--growing ourselves spiritually and in every way while we grow our business or our profits. The sixth step is wise effort, not just sweating and straining but also knowing how to sustain and balance effort, and knowing how to relax. The seventh is wise concentration or wise attention; and the eighth step is wise mindfulness, wise meditation--being more mindful, conscious, reflective rather than going through life mindlessly, unreflectively, not learning the lessons of life. The Buddha didn't really found a religion. The Buddha pointed the way to Enlightenment, and of course it became a religion. It's more of a practice, like an ethical and psychological philosophy of awakening. If you ask how the Buddha got enlightened or awakened, the Buddha and all Buddhist teachers say by the three trainings: Ethics training, Meditation training and Wisdom training. I've laid this out in Awakening the Buddha Within in the table of contents. So these eight steps are the Eightfold Path taught by the Buddha. It is the common backbone of all Buddhist traditions we have in the world today. Buddhism has only one purpose, and that's enlightenment or Nirvana-- awakening from delusion and realizing a deathless peace. Buddha taught that this is the Path to Peace. Anybody can benefit by these healthy, wholesome, intelligent and wise practices, with or without converting from any other religion. I have rabbis and priests and Catholic nuns who come to my retreats. They want to learn these practices so they can go deeper into their own spiritual life. That's why meditation, self-inquiry, chanting and yoga can be complementary, not contradictory, to their own spiritual quest. So these are very good non-sectarian practices for today. It helps with awakening and illuminating our minds, and also helps to open our heart. It is very important for us today in terms of bringing more wisdom, compassion and love and peace into this world.
The Share Guide: I have always wanted to know more about the Eightfold Path. I think Right Livelihood is the one I heard of in college and that got me off and running. What we have to do is raise ourselves up by our boot straps with these practices and change our lives. Do you want to talk a little about spiritual alchemy?
Surya Das: It helps us love even those we don't like, and helps us transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones like the cliche we hear "turning lemons into lemonade." In other words, even though we can't change the winds of karma we can learn how to sail with them better. So you don't just float away. The spiritual alchemy is like the tantric transformation that Tibetan Buddhism talks about--where we transform the base metal of our animal nature into the gold of spirit which is its true nature. That's why it's not just a transformation but a transmutation. It is transmuting our monkey-like animal nature into the divine nature: realizing that God, Buddha, the Light is in each of us. Each of us can imitate the life of the Buddha and become as loving as they are, as wise as they are. That's the promise of Buddhism, that anybody who becomes enlightened is the Buddha. And millions have done this. That's the Great Transmutation. We can actually find our inner center so we live in our own inner spiritual thoughts. Spirituality goes wherever we go so we're at peace and one with whoever we're with, wherever we are in a noisy, polluted city or in the beautiful, quiet country or anywhere at any speed. Because great peace is beyond the dualism of noise and quiet. Great peace is something we should experience on a more mystical, inner level that remains with us anywhere.
The Share Guide: I have another question. On the book Autobiography of a Yogi there is a picture of Yogananda's face on the cover. Many people say they have been awakened just by the look in his eyes on that cover.
Surya Das: Right. That's an ancient spiritual principle called Darshan--vision of the guru or vision of God--being awakened by a touch or a sight or a connection. But the real darshan is the vision of reality or the vision of God. The guru or the temple is just the gateway, so having the picture on the book is like the gateway that resonates with something in you that can access something transcendent. It is a personal thing. And it's not just with the great Yogananda.
The Share Guide: So it relates to developing a loving look in your eyes. You know sometimes people glance at you and you might have a harsh look without even doing any bad speech. It's sort of like beyond right speech. You can bite your tongue but it's pretty hard to hold back your eyes if you're not in a good space.
Surya Das: That's probably why the main Buddhist archetype of Tibet besides the Buddha is the Buddhist form of Compassion, in Tibetan, Chenrezig. In China she's known as Kuan Yin. In Japan, Kanon. These are all the same, personifying Compassion. The Dalai Lama and my own guru, the Karmapa Lama, are considered incarnations or embodiments of the Buddha of Compassion. Out of compassion Chenrezig's loving eyes are gazing with love over all like the mother keeps the children in sight and guards them that way. It's the Buddhist idea of compassion, not personal desire--rather transcendent divine love, unconditional love, that's the word. This is something in Buddhism that we can develop ourselves by practicing Chenrezig's meditation. Through cultivating loving kindness, forgiveness, joy, rejoicing in the success and pleasures and benefits of others. The Four heartitudes or divine attitudes of heart that Buddhists cultivate: compassion, loving kindness, joy and forgiveness--these four heartitudes activate compassion. Compassion is a verb, as somebody said; it's not just an ideal. It means doing something, being unselfish.
The Share Guide: So the essence of spiritual healing is love.
Surya Das: That's right, and I think we can heal ourselves through love and find completeness in love. And that may not involve another person. It may be between my True Self and I or between me and God, to put it in theistic terms. Of course, we can experience this by being transported by the beauty of nature or a sunset. I think the arts are a great way of awakening the heart today. Service and generosity, giving of ourselves is one of the best ways, one of the high roads to Enlightenment. It always has been. Kabir, the poet saint of India sang "Try to live the Path of Love."
For more information about Lama Surya Das and his upcoming retreats, visit the Dzogchen Center at www.dzogchen.org
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