Lama Surya Das And The Indie Spiritualist- An Interview.

February 5, 2012 by Chris Grosso

Lama Surya Das, one of the foremost American Lamas in the Buddhist tradition, has been an integral part of Buddhism’s surge in popularity in recent years. From his first bestselling book, Awakening the Buddha Within (Broadway Books; 1997) to his newest release The Mind Is Mightier Than the Sword (Doubleday Religion; August, 2009), he has made Buddhism accessible and inspiring to serious practitioners and neophytes alike.

Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications and major media, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Post, Long Island Newsday, Long Island Business Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Free Press, New Age Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, The Oregonian, and has been the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based on his life (“Leonard’s Return”). Surya has appeared on Politically Correct with Bill Maher, and twice on The Colbert Report. ( http://www.surya.org)
The following interview was conducted on 11/18/10.

The Lama Surya Das Interview

TIS: So the name Lama Surya Das means “Servant of the sun” and was given to you by Neem Karoli Baba, who also was very influential in the transition of one time Harvard Professor Richard Alpert into Spiritual Icon Ram Dass. Can you tell me about your experience with Mahraj-ji, and why you think he may have given you that name? (*Note- Maharaj-ji is Neem Karoli Baba’s affectionate moniker, as he was known by his followers.) 

LSD: Well there were other Maharajis, so Neem Karoli Baba was his technical name, like there are a thousand Lamas called Rinpoche. There was the 14 yr old Mahraj-ji and Maharishi, so Neem Karoli Baba is what they called him in India and to be honest, I don’t know why he ever did anything he did. It would be easy to say that everything he did, he did for God and service. Seva-serving God through serving humanity and all beings, but I don’t know why he gave me that name. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Hindi, so we spoke through interpreters. Ram Dass, Krishna Dass, we all spoke through interpreters. There were good interpreters there, educated people in India speak English but Maharaji was the One, the Baba, Holy Man, mendicant, he didn’t speak English. We talked to him and it was hard to know him, he was an ancient holy man and I was a 21 year old seeker. So I never knew what was going on, I mean I don’t really know what’s going on now, my guess work is a little better perhaps.

I always thought he gave me that name because I have a kind of outgoing or sunny disposition. And in those days I was kinda blonde and bearded and had an afro and was bushy like a sun. So I don’t know, he named me Surya Das but who knows. Why’d he name Ram Dass that? And Krishna Das that, instead of vice versa? Is Krishna Das more Krishna like and Ram Dass more Ram-like? Maybe… why not? We grow into our names. But why did my parents named me Jeffrey and my brother Michael? Who knows? It made sense to them at the time and it fits I guess. But he named us after saints, and poets, mystics, bhaktis, devotees of ancient India so Surya Das, was blind to everything but God, the blind poet, 15th century I believe.

I don’t know why he named me that but it’s a nice name and always felt good and stuck and I’m very happy. Unlike some of my other dharma brothers who got names that were very long and obscure, and nobody could remember or pronounce, that they didn’t like. They wanted to give their names back, but it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t transactional. He would name some people and say ‘you’re married’, and then they were married, but you know it wasn’t really transactional. He didn’t ask them if they wanted to be. One of my friends was named ‘Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’ and we all said “WHAT THE HEY!?” “SAY AGAIN?” And Chaitan, Bill Samways (sp?) from Somerville, Massachusetts, he said, “I want a name like Krishna!” But he’s still Chaitanya to this day and a good dear friend who lives in Vermont. But Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a great saint, he was the founders of the Hare Krishnas. He was a medieval Indian devotee also. So Maharji named us after many different Saints and Sages.

 

Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji)

 

TIS: And so how long were you actually with Maharaj-ji?

LSD: A couple of years on and off. It was hard to stay with him because he was a wandering Baba so he wasn’t always there. A few people built Ashrams around him in different places but he would drift through and then one day he would be gone. So in 1972 or 73 I was with him and then I came back to India, on and off, and also my Lamas in Nepal etcetera. Then in 73/74 I was back here for a while to make some money and go to my cousin’s wedding and see my parents. I was heading back to India in August of 1973 and it got a little late and it was September 10th, or 11th, I guess Sept 11th which has become an important date in these locales. It was the full moon in September when He died and we got the call. I was with my girlfriend in NJ at her father’s house getting her an Indian Visa to go back to see Him in India and we got the call to come to Ram Dass’ father’s farm in Franklin, NH. We all gathered there, and then some of us went to India to the funeral the next week. But the interesting thing from just a story telling point of view:

 I left India in Aug. of 1972 and in August of 1973 I was going back to India with Tina and we got the call on September 11th, 1973 that he died. So that previous August, a year ago, I was leaving India with a friend of mine, Vishwanath, Danny Miller, another one who got the name Vishwanath and didn’t want it. He said “can’t you name me like Krishna or Ram or something I can remember, spell, and is nice?” He’s still Vishwanath, he lives in Taos. So he and I were going back to America to visit after being in India for a year or two. And we were young, you know, 21 or something, being in India for a year or two is a long time,  away from our families and all. And we were going back and Maharaj-ji said to me “come back in a year”. And you know, it was me and I was like, “la la la, ok Maharaj-ji whatever you say” so what is a year, you know, a school year, the next calendar year, 14 months, “it doesn’t matter, come back” he said. Thank you, I love you too, I will come back, soon. It was a year later when I was on the way back that he died, so his words gained more portentousness in my memory and in my mind, he told me to come back in August, the next year he died September 11th the next year. So that’s a true story, that’s my story. That’s how it was with Maharaj-ji, I never knew what was going on. He would’ve told me something like that. I didn’t know what was going on until afterwards. I would look back and I would say “oh! that’s what was going on! That’s what he said was going to happen and that happened!” And I wasn’t totally in sync with it, but it didn’t matter because he’s always with me.

In fact I feel like I’ve met him more through the love of our spiritual community, the Satsang, than just from one or two years with him when I was too young to know what I was doing. Mahar-jji used to say ‘wherever the Satsang gets together, I am there’, kind of echoing Jesus’ statement: wherever two or more of you get together in my name, I am there. So Maharaj-ji was a universal part of the spirit in that way. He’s always with me, here. He’s with whoever is with him. Not only just me. The [Gathira?] Guru never dies, the Guru is just the mirror to see that in yourself, the higher self, so that never dies, the person, the old Indian or Tibetan person dies, but the Guru principle, the inner divinity never does. 

I never really wanted to have a Guru, I was more interested in Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and had a psychological background in college, but he had so much love. To be with him, there was nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Nothing he taught, philosophy or meditation, are the things I went to India to look for, or was interested in, but he sort of jumped into my heart and then pulled, he pried it open. He jumped in and he pulled the doors of the bedclothes over him, and I could never leave him out, even though I tried. I kept leaving his Ashram and going elsewhere. When he would disappear, it was easy to leave and go to Buddhist meditation courses and retreats and see my lamas and study Tibetan.

TIS: That reminds me of Ram Dass’ story. How he’d gone over there and was interested in Buddhism, a neat and somewhat rational approach, but then the same thing happened.

LSD: Yeah very intellectual, and very rational.

TIS: Have you ever actually talked to him about that?

LSD: Yeah Ram Dass is a good friend, we’ve been talking since I met him in 1971.

TIS: Right. I’m curious if you’ve ever compared how you were both into Buddhism and then met Marahaj-ji and…

LSD: Well neither of us were “Buddhists” then because it was new to us. We were 60’s people. Psychedelic relics, you know… whatever, right on, radicals and world changers, social peaceniks perhaps, with a Buddhist spiritual veneer. But you know, eventually that does kind of veneer, chemical veneers that you apply, they sink in. For better or for worse, so it’s good to think about what kind of veneer you shellac yourself with. How superficial it may seep into your skin and into your blood stream and totally take over your heart, your brain, everything.

TIS: Right.

LSD: Spiritual joy is devotion, it’s like a virus you know? It’s a benevolent virus, but it spreads. It’s infectious. Ram Dass was like a mentor in those days. I was 21 years old and he was already a bit older. He was a professor, he was the introducer to of  LSD to many people. He published Be Here Now in the late 60’s, bringing eastern thought to the west. Very non-dogmatic and non-sectarian, eclectic, open-minded, eastern thought, meditation, yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Christian Mysticism and so on. Be Here Now, that was a long time ago, you know, and now the power of now is popular and Eckhart Tolle is doing a fine job, he has stood on Ram Dass’ shoulders. Just like Ram Dass sat in the lap of the giants of the past. None of this is new, it’s universal truth and wisdom. It’s in every subject, not just the new age of creation. I think that’s important to remember, especially for the next generations.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Ram Dass

 

TIS: Absolutely agreed. So part of the goal of my site is to show people that spirituality isn’t only accessible to those that are devout followers of popularized or dogmatic religion, and that they can still listen to the music they want or laugh at things that might be deemed inappropriate by certain religious institutions. So with that being said, can you tell me a little bit about yourself, besides just Buddhism, besides just teaching and meditation?

LSD: Well Buddhism, ‘shmoodism’, I didn’t go to India looking for Buddhism. I was looking for truth, or God, or a better way of life or happiness, fulfillment, meaning, purpose. And a way to become peace in the world and not just fight for peace, as we had in the 60’s. And I realize that was becoming a contradiction in terms, especially after my friend Alison Krauss was shot and killed in Kent State in 1970 on campus by the National Guard. So then I started to think more about becoming peace rather than fighting for peace, and the contradiction in terms, and the anger and violence that we were prey to and involved in to some extent in those days. So we’re all living spirit. It’s not about isms and schims or religions. Religions are almost like political institutions, but the heart of it is the spirituality. The religions are the buildings or the institutions, the groups, but inside of that is what moves, is what’s alive, is the beating heart of spirituality, and really, the heart’s blood is the mystical experience. Not airy fairy vague mystical experience, but transformative, intimate experience that really touches your heart with love, and not just sex. But you know the difference between sex and love. And sex can be part of love, but what moves your heart, what’s really intimate, that’s the real spirit. And that’s very personal, it’s also transpersonal. It’s not impersonal, it’s beyond any of us, it’s transcendent of any of us, yet imminent in dwelling, imminent to each of us.

It’s not like we’re all animalistic people trying to become more spiritual. We’re really living spirit, trying to find out how to live embodied in this nitty gritty world, these corporeal forms, in these fleeting bodies in the material world where everything’s changing and we’re not in control. However, we need to participate and manage skillfully, helpfully, and harmoniously, for a better world, family and society to be possible. So everybody’s spiritual by nature I believe, not that they necessarily have to be religious. Everybody wants, or cares about, and has values even if they don’t talk about them all the time explicitly, like some noisy preachers do with their foghorn voices and dogmatic views. Everyone has values, and values their family, values their health, their sanity, their safety and security, and their families, their parents, their children, their pets, their environments, well-being in general.

Everybody has similar values. You travel around the world and everybody is different, but everybody is also the same in those ways. There’s so much difference but there’s so much similarity. Nobody wants to be harmed, or have their children, or their mates, or their relatives, or their families harmed, exploited, bombed, starved, dislocated, or become homeless refugees. So we’re all similar in that way and spiritual life and religion is supposed to be part of the solution not part of the problem. That’s what’s  unfortunately happened today with extreme views of strife and warfare, but that’s all politics really, stemming from greed and fear and selfishness, but Spirit is sanity. Spirit is love, spirit is connection, inclusive, and that’s what I’m interested in, and that’s what moved me. That’s what I got more and more into as I grew up and as I was in college in the 60’s with consciousness raising and other kind of things, gestalt psychology etc. Really, whatever I was seeking and looking into in those days like creative arts, chant, the muse being in touch with the muse for poetry and writing and music. It’s all part of the spirit and if we look particularly at Hinduism and Buddhism, the tantric stream of those traditions totally embraces all aspects of human life and life on this world.

Sex, creativity, music, art, family, love, beauty, and creative imagination are all part of the spiritual path in the tantric traditions. So I think that for today that has a lot to say to us about not dividing ourselves from ourselves. Embracing our environment is a good direction, a very spiritual direction. It’s too Aristotelian to separate man from the animals and man; humans from the environment. That’s the false of Aristotelian logic, which is so much the basis of Christianity, and to some extent, Judaism in the west. Too rational, too logical, too masculine, chauvinistic, male dominated, head over heart, mind over body, heaven different than earth and so on, rather than yin/yang, inter-being, interwoven, inseparably. So I think that today, integration is the name of the game and not separating these things out, and not trying to find the razor’s edge, the narrow path. There’s a lot of lanes in the highway, the trick is not fall into the ditches on either side, like a one sided nihilism, nothing matters life.

On the other side, is a substantial, more materialism, everything is real long to the extent we can see or measure it, and things are as real as I think they. That’s way too materialistic or substantialist, because things are not really what they seem to be. There’s many lanes on the highway of enlightenment, they don’t have to be on the razor’s edge like the yellow line dotted in the middle. Balance is appropriate, not too tight, not too loose, the Middle Way as we call it in Buddhist dharma teachings. So I went to India when I was 20 and somehow had some enlightened experiences, had some enlightened teachers, had some enlightening journeys, some long meditation retreats, lived in yoga ashrams and monasteries. I went through a lot of things my 20’s and 30’s with the greatest spiritual masters in the east at least, hindu, buddhist and otherwise in those days and I’ve continued with them.

 The Dalai Lama is still alive, and my own guru who is still alive in my heart, and mind, and spiritual practice, not just in this world. Maybe they got old and pass on, some of them even said to be reborn, like in the East, the reincarnated Lamas of Tibet and so on, but they’re always with me, and us. I think it’s very important to really find the wheat amidst the chafe and not give into superficialities, to not get caught up the commercialism or the fads, you know, the “over-popularization” of some things that we might see today. That doesn’t mean we have to throw out the Buddha with the bath water, it’s not all bad. There’s plenty going on that’s substantial and transformative, beneficial and authentic. Just because somebody is in the media, it doesn’t mean they’re bad. It may mean they’re the best, and occasionally you know the cream rises to the surface, but not always everything on the surface is cream.

Like the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and Aung San Suu Kyi who just got released from house arrest after 15 years in Burma who’s a Buddhist scholar and leader. This is the cream and we know about them. It’s good, Arch Bishop Tutu of South Africa. Mother Teresa- cream. Exemplars, exemplary models we can learn from and become more like, but we don’t have to imitate them. We can become more authentically ourselves, impeccable and unselfish, and beneficial to many like a wish fulfilling jewel. So I think that’s what’s important, to see how we ourselves can become all that we are and can be. Everybody says they want to change, but it’s not that simple, it’s not that easy. Who’s ready to change and give up? Who’s ready to get out of their rut and leave it behind, not just pour honey or syrup over their heads and over the rut? Who’s ready to change and give up that rut, who’s ready willing and able? Who’s willing to face the unknown- the difficulties, the disappointments, the surprises of the unfamiliar. If you’re going to change, you have to face those things, and who’s able? Who has the skillful means, the knowhow, the perseverance, the help, the fortitude to keep going?

So we have to be ready, willing, and able to really transform ourselves, and each other in the world, not just say it and affirm it, “Oh, I want to change”. Intention is important, but so is action. We learn by doing, not just by thinking. So I feel like beyond Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Judaism, or Christianity we need today to think about a global spirituality. We need to make it very personal and transformative for one self, and each other, together for those who are interested. Contributing to others, not converting others, but for those who are interested, going where invited, speaking when asked, teaching when asked and so on, not proselytizing and missionary-izing. Not shoving the truth down people’s throats, as if we know what’s good for them. But being open when asked, when appropriate, and being very inclusive and open minded. Also not being afraid to stand up for what you believe in while taking into account that you could very well be wrong, or maybe there’s another way to look at it- that things are not what they seem to be, and that everything is subjective.

So it’s hard to be that dogmatic in my view. I always say if we knew everything there was to know about such a thing, we might have very different ideas, like about what’s going on in the middle east. We have so little idea of the history and origins of those various conflicts in the middle east, but we have such strong opinions. If we really understood the origins, and the history, and the whole context of colonialism, and how those states and countries were carved out, arising of the Semitic religions. The three of them from one root, three western religions, we’d have quite a different opinion. This can be applied to anything, the neighbor that you don’t like, or the competitor, or the critic that you don’t understand. If you really knew where they were coming from you might have a much different view, or at least more empathy for where they’re coming from. I found that to be true for myself.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

So I think that religion has to be part of a uniting force, not a divisive force. I like to stress spirituality rather than religion, and spiritual practice rather than dogma and beliefs. Like in Buddhism for example, it’s not so much a religion. Of course, it’s one of the seven major world religions, but it’s more of an ethical, psychological, philosophy of awakening, a way of awakening, or becoming enlightened. And in Buddhism, there is nothing to believe, there’s no dogma you have to subscribe to, there’s no creed you have to subscribe to, there’s everything to find out and discover for yourself. The Buddhist teachings are a path of awakening, of how you can reap, it’s kind of scientific in a funny way. Let me just try this out: Buddha said if you reproduce my experiment, like the Eight fold path or Eight steps to enlightenment, you can replicate in yourself my results. So check it out, and if it works, good, and if it doesn’t, who needs it? So that’s kinda scientific in a way. It’s not based on belief or some preset position.

So I think that’s ok as far as it goes. Of course in Buddhism, and it’s an old religion, older that Christianity or Islam even, there’s a lot of different schools, and a lot of different ways to look at these things. Some people say you have to believe in rebirth and so on, but I don’t think you really have to believe in those things to get enlightened. You don’t even have to be Buddhist to get enlightened. There are Christian priests who’ve practiced Zen and become enlightened, Father Robert Kennedy and others. You don’t have to be Buddhist to get enlightened. So I think it’s very congruent with today’s kind of post-modern mentality. And tolerance, and non-harming, and interconnectedness, and interdependence is so important for us to understand today.

Eastern thought has been talking about that for three or four thousand years, not just in Buddhism. They can bring a lot of wish fulfillment and well-being, physical, mental, and metaphysical health. I particularly like to meditate and do some chanting, and prayer and spiritual studies. I translate text, and the teachings of my teachers. I meditate daily since I first learned it the late 60’s, since my first 10 day Insight Meditation course with Goenkaji in India in 1971. I think that’s changed my life for the better. So that’s why I teach and pass on I just try to share my experience with people. I try to see the Buddha, or the Light, or the Divinity in everyone, everything, that’s kind of my practice, not just closing my eyes and trying to meditate. I try to keep my eyes peeled and see things as they are. That’s reality in Buddhism. That’s wisdom, that’s the first definition, wisdom, clear seeing on the eight fold path, clear seeing. Right view, clear seeing, seeing things as they are, not as they ain’t, seeing things as they are, not as they are with our projection, interpretation, seeing things as they are, not as we would like them to be.

Of course most of us have a good hearted intention, much of the time, to make things better, but first you have to see how it is. Like a doctor has to see the problem to diagnose the problem. That doesn’t mean he just gives up and accepts it complacency. You have to accept the problem as it is, diagnose it, and then you can work on curing it. So acceptance, or seeing it as it is, is a kind of acceptance. Then you have some choices about how you can work with it, otherwise you don’t know what to do, you just fumble around in the dark saying “I wish things would be different” but you keep doing the same things, and getting the same results, and keep wishing it would be different, that’s insanity. So I found that meditation helps clear the mind, and open the heart and change all my relationships and bring me into closer contact with reality, or truth, or God every day, every moment, wherever I am. I look at the window and see it here, I look here inside and see it here, and see it in you, and that opens my heart. I feel like I live in America the “Buddha-ful”, not in George W.’s country, or anybody else’s country.

Try to connect the dots, the Buddhist community, beyond Buddhism, the spiritual community, the living lattice of light, light circles, living that way and being a light bringer, a Bodhisattva in the world, not a force for darkness, and certainly not missionary-izing and proselytizing. And it makes me happy, you know, I mean the bottom line is happiness, it may sound superficial but it goes all the way down to fulfillment and well-being and even deeper, to inner peace and ease and security and trust and arriving. It’s nice to be a seeker, but you have to be a finder one day, that’s the point. Knock and it shall be opened, Jesus said, and then you have to enter, not just knock. Not just see the door open, but enter. The seekers have to become finders, that’s part of the Dzoghen teachings, my lineage. That we’re all Buddha’s by nature, we just have to waken to whom and what we are.

So that’s the meaning of enlightenment or self-realization, to recognize our true divine nature, our Buddha nature, the clear light, the inner light, inherent in all of us and in all beings. Then practice seeing that in everyone and everything. My gurus seemed to see it in me and reflected it in me so I could see it myself. That made all the difference, not just my seeing it in them and worshiping them. The guru’s a mirror to see it in yourself and in all beings. The Guru is a window of the infinite, of the ultimate, so you can go through it and not get stuck in the doorway. People may say, “Oh I have so many Guru’s, and  I hear there’s a new one in New York , let’s go see him or her!” Fine, but how many mirrors do you need to see your own face? You don’t need to be a mirror collector.

So I think the main thing is to have a daily spiritual practice. That’s what spirituality, spiritual transformation, and evolutionary consciousness is about- daily spiritual practice that works for you. Like having your own appropriate life style, your own appropriate diet, your work and sleeping habits, your own appropriate relationship. Whatever’s appropriate for you, as long as it’s not harming others, or yourself. I’m not saying anything goes, but in the ultimate, anything goes. In the relative, we have to take care of causation, cause and effect, what’s helpful and harmful. I’m not saying suicide is the same as saving a life, it’s not. But in the bigger scheme of things, geographical, geological time, how much does it really matter if I live another 30 years or not, especially in the scheme of billions of years and light years? But here, were we live, you would be insane to say it doesn’t matter, and it’s all the same to me if you go out and get hit in traffic and die. That would be insane, and spirituality is sanity if nothing else, wisdom of sanity. When I become clear, everything becomes clearer, not more insane. I mean everything is outrageous, and fun, and magical, and sometimes it becomes bland and rational like arithmetic. I mean it’s much more like physics and I know you’re interested in that, and mystery is part of the spirit. So what’s your next question? What’s on your prayer book there (laughter)?

TIS: Um…

LSD: I like your old fashioned style, with the tape recorder and hand written notes.

TIS: That’s how I do it, very “do it yourself” ethics.

LSD: Yeah, no laptop, no iPad.

TIS: Nope (laughter).So I’ll ask you really quickly, it though it’s not in my “prayer book”, but it was something you just addressed, which I also recently asked Dr. Thurman about it in an interview I conducted with him, which is “seeking and not finding”.

LSD: Everybody calls him Bob, he is a great professor and all, but he’s a regular guy.

TIS: Yeah he was great to interview. A very nice and down to earth guy, it was great.

LSD: Yes, we appreciate him very much . He’s done a lot for the Dharma and the spirit in the west, and he’s done a lot for Tibet and the Dalai Lama, but we also appreciate him for bringing Uma to us.

TIS: Of course (laughter).

LSD: We appreciate him and his wife for that.

TIS: Yes

LSD: And his other 4 darling children.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Uma & Dr Robert Thurman

 

TIS: Right. So I did ask him about seeking and becoming complacent in seeking and forgetting about the finding, but we got off subject so I didn’t really get an answer. But like you said, seeking and not finding, and not to bring up Ram Dass again but he addresses that in his new book, Be Love Now, I’ve been reading and he says it’s a trap, and that’s something I think I can personally relate to.

LSD: I think I have that here (Be Love Now), he sent me a copy.

TIS: Yeah, so somewhere in the beginning of the book he addresses that, and I read it and was like yeah, I’ve heard that before and I think I can relate to it, and I assume other people can too. So once I’ve acknowledge that here I am, I’m on this spiritual path (whether it’s myself or someone else), here I am seeking, I’m comfortable seeking, I’m complacent seeking, waiting to get out of that, because I know it’s not about the seeking but rather about finding. How does one get out of that rut?

LSD: Those are just thoughts, seeking is part of the finding. They say you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it so seeking is part of the finding. You know, you’re stuck in the seeking, but there’s a few problems inherent to some of those ways of thinking. It becomes very rut-like, or home-y, or nostalgic, like some students who never get off campus, they become like permanent graduate students and never get a life and never grow up, living off the fat of the land, the institutions. The entertainment is there, and the young friends that keep coming, and maybe they even become professors, but they’re so campus bound. That’s not everybody, I’m just saying that that could be a trap, and spiritually speaking, it’s so joyful and juicy and delightful and nostalgic to be a seeker and a pilgrim, holding hands with your Satsang and Sangha friends, you’re beloved community on the path, going into the rainbow of enlightenment.

At a certain point you have to go a little deeper, ratchet it up, become an elder, not always be a student. Become a teacher, become an elder. Trust your own wisdom, don’t always be a disciple. I mean I’m a student of dharma and I always will be, but I’m also more accepting of my role as an elder, and a teacher, and a Lama. I have a grandnephew now, some of my sisters are grandmothers, it’s hard to believe, but that’s life! So maybe you could ratchet up your practice, go deeper, not just quantity but quality, be more challenging, try something new or different. Try different practices or different ways of looking into things, and not always doing it the same way as other people, just do it with the mind. And reading, and meditating, and thinking and discussing. There’s also physical practices and energy practices. People have different spiritual personalities, that’s why there’s the eight limbs of yoga. That’s why there’s the different paths, different courses for different horses.

So, a well-rounded, deeply connected authentic spiritual path I think is called for, and then the realizations, and deepening, and maturation, and break-through naturally unfolds, but naturally includes your natural spiritual tropism, like green plants that reach for the light, or being drawn to the light. The spirit, the consciousness has its own spiritual tropism, so you naturally want to progress, evolve or get to the goal. The goal might not be exactly what we think of it now, but it’s not bad to have one, it’s not entirely the carrot before the stupid donkey, it’s not entirely that because it is the light that is reaching for the light. It’s bodhichitta that’s reaching for bodhi, for enlightenment. It’s the lover, that’s reaching for the lover, the beloved. You know, Rumi’s whole relation is longing for God, that’s  his constant discussion with God. He’s in constant communication with God. So we love Rumi, but Rumi is always whining, and singing, and longing for Shams [shah shams i tabriz] his Guru and God and that becomes like- It’s like Ram Dass. Ram Dass is the first one to always be self deprecating, and put himself down for not getting there, but that’s also his Rumi-nature. It’s really his Jewish nature, the Rabbi’s can complain about God in Ram Dass’ own way. How could you do this to your people? And when are you going to send the Messiah? It’s kind of like the great Rabbis of eastern Europe standing on a table shouting at God. What they’re really doing is expressing their fervent devotion and trying to bring holy fire down from the mountain top into this world, and ratchet up the fervor of everybody around them, which is the rabbi’s job, because God is in that fervor.

It’s in Rumi’s longing, that’s his Bhakti. It’s that fervor of the bakhta that is the divine connection. Like Surya Das my namesake. There’s one picture of Surya Das that everybody in India has on posters, it shows this blind, mostly undressed wandering sadhu. He’s old with a white mustache and his eyes closed because he’s blind, looking up with a beatific smile, and he’s clapping his hands and singing to the baby Krishna who was his idol or his icon. It was his ideal of God, and he has his hands raised up and he’s singing. He’s blissed out and he’s blind and he’s singing to God, where is God? Oh God, please bless me. And the baby Krishna’s sitting right under his nose. Right under his upturned face looking up at him, like a baby would, if you see what I’m saying.

That’s Ram Das, and the Jewish rabbi, and that’s the seeker in you too, feeling like you’re still not there. So I call it, in terms of my Zo-Chen teachings, and the Tao, and Zen, and everything that I think about the non-dual dharma, being there, while getting there every step of the way. Every step on the way to heaven is heaven, as St. Catherine of Sienna once said. In Buddhist terms, every step of the way is the great Way. Not waiting to get there, the path is right beneath your feet and there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The rainbow’s a circle when seen from above, not and arc. And it’s all gold, every step of the way, there’s no pot at the end. Don’t be like a dog chasing your tail and never getting there.

So once you start to practice being here, while getting there, then you have more contentment and it’s not just complacency. You have more acceptance, not indifference. And you’re more juiced and energized, not enervated by things like “Oh, I’ll never get there anyway, I’ll just give up” or “life sucks and then you die”. The Buddha’s first truth is that life is suffering, but there’s also the 3rd truth that there’s another life, Nirvana, that here in this world, we could reach, and people forget that. So there’s at least two sides to everything.

TIS: Sure.

LSD: So it’s important to remember that, and seekers need to become finders one day, but also not to be obsessed about the goal. The journey is really the thing, and I feel that if I was going to write my autobiography, or unauthorized autobiography, all the people keep asking me to write about all the Gurus that I knew in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s & 90’s and in Asia etc. The Guru’s that I know now, and all the other spiritual teachers, and my mystical experiences, and the three year retreats, and all these kinds of peak experiences that people think I have or hear about. I would probably write about my companions on the way and the love and camaraderie of all that, including the spiritual teachers and benefactors, but companions on the way, and family, and parents, and having good family. They gave me the security to grow up safe and sound and educated, or whatever I am, and feel secure to travel the world, not just be hoeing the earth to feed myself and my ten kids when I’m 21 years old or whatever.

So the spiritual friends who we spend our life with is really our life. That’s the love, not just the one person, the soul mate that we wish we had, or that we think we have, or that we used to have, it doesn’t matter anymore. Love is not outside, love is found through loving. And that’s every day at every moment, with the spiritual companions on the way, and the way is the whole thing, the journey. My Christian friends are always telling that they think the messiah is near. And I said, I hope so because who can wait, we’re Americans? It’s like, don’t wait for the Messiah to come man, be like a Buddhist Christian, be the ushers and usher in the king right now. Show people to their seats in the kingdom because this is the kingdom. Don’t wait for the messiah to come, and usher people to their seats. What messiah’s gonna do that? The future buddha? The future Buddha is supposed to be in us.

Don’t keep looking up, that’s child-like, childish. Be more child-like in the sense of how children sort of know God before they’re told that God is somewhere else. They express it. I love the story this kindergarten teacher told me. It’s kind of circulated around, and I don’t know who said it first, but they had their bunch of kids drawing, and this one girl was drawing like mad. The teacher asked the girl what she was drawing and the girl replied that she was drawing a picture of God. Well the teacher says to the girl, “no one knows what God looks like” and the girl says, “they will in a couple minutes!” (laughter). That’s the beginner’s mind. That’s the knowledge of God. God like before God, before separation, before “education” or rather mis-education, which is what we now call “education”. So what else do you have for me?

TIS: Hmm, let’s see here.

LSD: I love that, “they will in a moment” or rather, “they will in a couple of minutes!”.

TIS: Yeah, that was great. I work with Children as my full time job and they’re always providing me with wonderful insights into life, even though they don’t know it.

LSD: Yes, it’s like let’s get on with it, this is, this could be it, Nirvana within samsara, heaven on earth now, not after we die. Who can wait? And is there a need to wait?

TIS: Right. So one of your books which I thoroughly enjoyed was the one The Big Questions, and one of the questions you address is something I often contemplate, which I’m sure a lot of other people do as well, which is what is the nature of reality, what is it?

LSD: Well, when I saw that question on your list of possible questions I thought back to when I was choosing, whittling it down to 10 or 15 questions that I would work on in that book, questions that I and other people had. I specifically decided not to have one of the questions: “what is reality”, because it’s so vast and vague and I was thinking more people would have a question like “what is love”, or “is there life after death”, and “what about God” or “how should I live my life” or “what is happiness and how to get it”. But yeah, reality is a big word. It would probably have to be defined, but that’s part of the questions. That’s also why I stress the books subtitle, which is “how to find your own answers to life’s essential mysteries or questions.”

And there are ways to think about these things and look into things like self-inquiry, through checking to see if things are true. I like Byron Katie, the contemporary American spiritual teacher and her work, which she calls “The Work” and is four questions. The first one is “Ask yourself, is really true” meaning whatever you’re thinking, or believing, or someone is telling you, is it true? So that’s a way to check into reality. I don’t want to say reality is like this or not, or everything is unreal, that’s just another concept really. Things are real enough. If you have pain, you can only go so far with saying things are unreal. Byron Katie’s second question is “How do I know this is true?” So you already start to undermine the habitual assumptions and conditions that you’re stuck with or have inherited, so called knowledge, so much of which is often false, or questionable or outdated.

So you get into a different way of thinking and observing for yourself, and clarifying your thoughts and feelings, and intuition, not just your mind. Clarifying your thoughts, feelings, intuition, and your heart. Looking at things and seeing if they are true and real, and if they’re important. Is there a cause and effect? Is Karma involved? Do I have a choice? So reality is a “big mystery” is one way of looking at it. The Buddhist way of looking at it is when we clear our vision, we see things as they are, and that’s reality. So that we’re not hallucinating, or distorting or seeing it through Rosie glasses, like Pollyannaish. So we can see things how they are, but how are they? That’s a living question we have to look into, and not just accept somebody’s version.

Some Hindu teachings say everything is unreal, so you start to go around thinking everything is Maya, illusion. Well that’s fine, but what do you do if you’re sick or your kids are sick? How do you make your choices? It seems real enough that you go in and out of this apartment through the door, not the ceiling, so there are different levels of truth, and reality. In physics, you get down to a level where it’s very hard to say things are like this or that. Like is an electron a wave or a particle? Is energy a wave or a particle? Sometimes it acts like one, and sometimes it acts like the other. So I think with modern physics, or quantum physics, or this kind of very sophisticated, multi-dimensional understanding, it can help us understand the macrocosms and also the microcosm of our own inner world, or mind and spirit. Things are not so fixed, and it’s mostly space anyways.

We have a belief in “my” this, or “my” that, “my” country, or “my” body. Did you create your body? Do you know how long it’s going to live? Are you even doing the breathing? We say “I’m breathing”, well is it your nervous system that’s pumping the blood and doing the breathing? Is it really you doing it? Who’s really doing what around here? So what’s real has a lot of levels that we can look into. I like the self-inquiry kind of questions to get into what’s real. Who am I? What is the identity that’s interpreting things this way, because things can be interpreted differently if we have a different framework, or different interpretation. It would seem like a different reality and different experience, and that that depends a lot on the identity. Is it my little boy identity? Like my inner four or six year old that relates things like “mine” or “yours”, or is it my grown up, adult identity?

So if you look into the who or what that is experiencing in the moment, you can start to see and experience a lot more clearly as you start to clarify yourself, and your object relations. Reality may be like a dream, but I think we still want to make it a good dream for ourselves, those we love, and the entire world, rather than a nightmare. Awakening from the dream may be the ultimate goal, but having a better dream is quite a good, relative goal, rather than just having a worse dream. Being sloppy and not knowing the difference, or just indulging ones bad habits, or going along with the heard into mass hysteria of various kinds, like genocide, addictions, peer pressure, all kinds of things. Hitler had a lot of success through using peer pressure. A lot of thing happen through peer pressure, at the high school and family level, and it’s not all good things as you know.

 When we know ourselves, we attain a certain amount of autonomy within interdependence, not just independence- autonomy within interdependence. We know who we are and have healthy boundaries, but they’re not impermeable, separate boundaries. We recognize independence and interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it “inter-being”. So we have an individual, healthy adult ego, and can take care of ourselves, and of others, but we’re not co-dependent. You can still be unselfish and have a healthy, adult ego. You don’t have to totally get rid of your ego, and that’s very important. So in order to relate to reality, I think you have to grow up and clarify some of these things through intelligent questioning, reflection, and introspection.

To sum up, I think self deception is really the biggest hang up on the spiritual path, which is a truth seeking path, and really self deception and selfishness is the biggest problem in the world. It’s just so hard to see around our own self deceptions, denial, ignorance, illusions, our hard opinions and dogmatic ways of thinking that we’ve inherited, that we didn’t even choose ourselves. “What is reality” is a tricky one. I think I didn’t handle that question in my book.

TIS: Yeah, that’s why I wanted to address it here.

LSD: And then you need to ask what kind of reality are we talking about. Reality according to physics, metaphysics, theology, or Buddhism- which needs no “theo’s”, no creator God to adhere to or to work. Like Buddha’s saying, reality is shunya, which means empty of separate selves, not just empty. It’s a full void, it’s like the Tao, it’s a flow. It’s empty of our concepts about it, it’s beyond thought. Quantum physics probably agrees with that, so there’s a great overlapping segway between them. I think Einstein said around 1910 that if there is any religion that modern science and physics would be congruent with, it’s Buddhism, and it’s partly because of the allowing for not knowing, and mystery, interconnectedness. Things aren’t as separate and discreet as we would like to affirm them as being for our own security.

So do you have any more questions?

TIS: Haha, I could go all day with them, but we’ve covered so much and I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

LSD: Yes, I have a feeling there’s younger people reading this on your website, and I think it’s very important today that we are awakening, and opening our hearts and minds, and being inclusive, and exploratory, and curious, and even have wonderment. Having a fresh attitude about questions like, “what is this”, rather than just taking on what’s passed down, and also questioning our own assumptions is very helpful. Finding out if what we’re thinking is true, and how things may seem different from a different point of view. So much of it is about the framework through which we interpret things. The human version- leaving out all the other creatures, environment, and cosmos.

If we’re talking about spirituality, we have to really think about a global spirituality. I don’t want to say “new” as it sound too New Age, but a timeless, universal spirituality, that’s not just about the different religions. Something that’s really applicable, beneficial, and transformative now, and for future generations, a new kind of spirituality that can exist and benefit alongside the already existing religious traditions. That’s why I think things like meditation and yoga are very much here to stay in this country. Even if Hinduism or Buddhism don’t flourish that much. But there’s 30, 40, 50, 60 million people doing meditation and yoga today according to the recent polls, and that’s a hell of a lot.

I think it’s this kind of living, spiritual practice that helps transform people regardless of their religious or philosophical persuasions. Even atheists and agnostics can benefit from these healthy, sanity oriented, wisdom developing, heart opening, spiritual awakening practices, and that’s what I recommend to people today. Personal practice that is transformative for themselves and all their relations, and making a better world in that way. Concentric circles reaching out like ripples from a stone hitting the pond.

TIS: Beautiful. Thank you.

Visit Lama Surya Das Online Here

Thanks to Chelsea Genzano for her transcription help.

Surya Das combines his extensive background and intensive training in Buddhist practices with his remarkable knowledge of other religions, philosophies, and psychology.

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Chris Grosso is a public speaker, writer, recovering addict, spiritual director, and author of Indie Spiritualist: A No Bullshit Exploration of Spirituality (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) and Everything Mind: What I've Learned About Hard Knocks, Spiritual Awakening and the Mind-Blowing Truth of it All (Sounds True). He writes for ORIGIN Magazine, Huffington Post, and Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, and has spoken and performed at Wanderlust Festival, Yoga Journal Conference, Sedona World Wisdom Days, Kripalu, Celebrate Your Life and more. Chris is passionate about his work with people who are in the process of healing or struggling with addictions of all kinds. He speaks and leads groups in detoxes, yoga studios, rehabs, youth centers, 12-step meetings, hospitals, conferences, and festivals worldwide. He is a member of the advisory board for Drugs over Dinner.
  1. Jane Harter says:

    Bravo! TIS has elicited some marvelous, new gems from Lama Surya Das’ extensive treasure trove. I have always found his stories joyfully refreshing and inspirational. It is particularly interesting to learn more about his relationship with Maharaj’ji, and then the more abstract relationship to the Guru, mirroring our selves, etc. Also the connections LSD makes among the religioius traditions, provides access to understanding, in a way that is very helpful in these confusing times. I will be passing this along to my circle. Like a stone hitting the pond… many thanks!

  2. Chris Grosso says:

    Thanks so much for reading this and leaving your kind comment. It’s much appreciated! Om Shanti.

  3. Thank you for posting about Ram Dass…he is my hero!

    I LOVE the organization that he founded called SEVA. They work with indigenous populations on health projects. They are best known for their work in preventable blindness, and have helped nearly 3 million blind people suffering from cataracts to see again in poor countries around the world. Check them out at http://www.seva.org

    I particularly love their GIFTS OF SERVICE catalog. You can restore eyesight to a blind person in someone’s name as a gift. A wonderful alternative gift! Check out the catalog http://www.seva.org/gifts

    Thanks Ram Dass!!!!

  4. Lenley says:

    Wonderful! I love the emphasis on the light in enlightenment, “the living lattice of light, light circles, living that way and being a light bringer, a Bodhisattva in the world, not a force for darkness…” Not just knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door, but walking in, inhabiting our light (which Marianne Williamson said we are more afraid of than our darkness).
    Surya Das generously calls our confusion devotion, and I think we are like Jacob, insisting on being blessed, wrestling our angels as grace enters through our wounds.
    In the light lattice, Indra’s web, each of us a jewel reflecting all others. Thank you both, and all the rest who brought this interview to light.

  5. Jack says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for posting this great interview. I was wondering – because you did not give any background on when or where or how, or did I miss it? – where was the interview conducted and did you take the pics of the Lama? I love the painting in the background. Also, can you post your experience in reference to interviewing the different teachers. And, how have these experiences changed you and/or are the teachers like you expected or not, etc.

    I like your blog but I think I’d like to see some more personal thoughts from you, your experience, etc., describing your first impression/meeting, your surroundings, etc. This way it will give us a feel of being there w/you! Anyway, it’s just a suggestion.

    For example, something like: “I met Lama X, in his office in up state NY. His office was on the upper westside and one wall was a floor to ceiling bookshelf filled w/books … his assistant brought us tasty green tea and we began a 60 minute interview in front of his favorite Buddhist painting. Enjoy!”

    I’d love to read an intro to how you observe the interviewee and his/her surrounding, it’s really helpful to give us readers some mental imagery to work with and makes it way more personal … I mean how many people get to do what you do … not may of us, so the more you tell us your observations the more we (I) like it because it helps us be there w/you. I like that you also have lots of great pictures to go along w/the different subject matters. Keep up the good work!

    Thanks,

    Jack

    • Chris Grosso says:

      Thanks for the suggestions Jack! Regarding Surya’s interview. It was conducted at his place in Sudbury, MA. The picture of him standing in front of that painting, and the pic of he & I standing in front of that painting are both from our interview.

      I completely hear what you’re saying regarding more personal info on the interviews. The small problem with that has been twofold. One, It’s only I that runs this entire blog, so between scheduling interviews, travel time, transcribing (which is an extremely long process) and many other factors, something seemingly as easy as writing about the personal experience of the interview really adds to the time consumption. In the beginning I was doing that, but unfortunately, with the more interviews I’ve been blessed to do, I’ve had to start cutting corners a bit.

      The second part of the equation is that I’m keeping detailed notes on everything and am toying with putting the interviews and my experiences with them into manuscript form to possibly put out as a small collective book. Again though, maintaining this site, basically completely on my own takes so much time and money, and I still have two jobs I’m responsible for on top of that. My hope is that I’ll find a way to make a little bit of money from this work, however that may come about, but in the meantime, I just have to keep plugging along the best I can, and get the content out there in as timely a fasion as possible.

      Hopefully that helps explain where I’m coming from. Even as I write this, I’m getting ready for work and am running a couple of minutes late…if this site was the only thing I worked on in life, I’m sure it would be much more comprehensive, but at the end of the day, I put the majority of my efforts into the words of the teachers themselves and make sure the message comes through with as much accuracy as possible.

      Thanks again for taking the time to write and I truly appreciate the constructive criticism! I will make a valiant effort in the future wherever possible to include more info. Happy New Year friend.

      – Chris

  6. […] Lama Surya Das (Author- Awakening the Buddha Within) […]

  7. bill romas says:

    Thanks Chris for a wonderful interview with LSD! Your questions
    were right on and Lama Surya is a tremendous storehouse of wisdom.
    Let’s help him usher others to their seats in the kingdom of Here and Now. Show others the door,and enter in together as Buddhas, Christ-like spiritual beings, who we truly are.
    Namaste ~bill

  8. […] THE INDIE SPIRITUALIST INTERVIEWS LAMA SURYA DAS […]

  9. Thanks for the great interview with Surya Das, whom I knew with Neem Karoli Baba and Ram Dass in 1972.
    I’m writing a book about those days now called,”Search for the Guru.” Should be out by late summer 2013.

  10. […] more details about Lama Surya Das visit here […]

  11. […] Lama Surya Das explains that Dzogchen is not just a practice of the mind, but rather an exercise of the Spirit, a dance with the pure and primordial presence that we all have access to. It is the essence of who we are, not just what we become. Don’t bother the mind and it won’t bother you. Open mind, open heart, seeing through and being through. Question and answer topics include immediate versus ultimate enlightenment, relativity, and karma. For more details about Lama Surya Das visit here – http://theindiespiritualist.com/2012/02/05/suryadas/ […]

  12. […] Lama Surya Das explains that Dzogchen is not just a practice of the mind, but rather an exercise of the Spirit, a dance with the pure and primordial presence that we all have access to. It is the essence of who we are, not just what we become. Don’t bother the mind and it won’t bother you. Open mind, open heart, seeing through and being through. Question and answer topics include immediate versus ultimate enlightenment, relativity, and karma. For more details about Lama Surya Das visit here – http://theindiespiritualist.com/2012/02/05/suryadas/ […]

  13. […] Lama Surya Das is one of the most learned and respected Buddhist teachers in the West and he invites you to experience a remarkable integration of traditional and original inter-meditation practices that allow you to see through the illusion of separation. If you have ever felt ‘at one’ with something—your beloved or your child, a forest trail, or a favorite song—then you have experienced inter-meditation. […]

  14. […] Buddhist thought and practice has always emphasized nonviolence, especially protecting and cherishing of all forms of life. This is based on the interwoven interdependence of all things–all of us, and all creatures great and small. Today we celebrate Earth Day, and I ask you: What may inspire, motivate and sustain your feelings of connection and universal responsibility, intentional altruistic actions, and the recognition that we must move from me to we if we are to survive and flourish on this endangered planet? ` I find it by going mindfully outside, interbeing with the beauty and richness of nature, and observing directly the inseparable unity of doing and being in moments of inter-meditation, co-meditating with water, sky, wind and trees; and thru the inseparable unity of contemplation and action, faith and deeds, on the path of awakened living. ` Recognizing our interconnectedness and collective interdependence allows us to appreciate, respect and accept our undeniable responsibility to protect all the flora and fauna of this earth, and all the habitats, oceans and rivers too. Unfortunately, we seem unable to recognize the interdependence of all. ` A sage said: “The light by which we see is the one by which we are seen.” You can see this at many levels, human and divine. We do need genuine change and transformation, each and all of us. And our broken social systems also need transformation. I know now that we can’t just ask what needs changing without sincerely striving to know and transform ourselves. ` The future begins now, starting with one step. It’s time to open our wisdom eye and good heart, and grok this world, clear and open. Considering trends, problems, challenges and opportunities we face, I believe we must ask ourselves and each other: “What can we do to contribute to a better world and planet? What can we do individually and collectively toward alleviating suffering and edifying and awakening the world through our noble-hearted and compassionate, all-inclusive bodhichitta (innate enlightened mind), thru love in action, for the benefit of one and all? ` As a tantric Tibetan song of enlightenment goes: “The whole universe is my body, all beings my heart & mind.” ` With Love and blessings, Lama Surya Das […]