10 Questions Series: Lama Surya Das

September 1, 2013 by Chris Grosso

Lama Surya Das

NAME: Lama Surya Das

BIO: Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “The Western Lama.” 


Q: Who and or what, do you attribute the person you are today to?


A: You. I’d have the say the person that you perceive today is mostly created by and up to you and that’s an important lesson about life, our projections and so on. That’s a joke but only half a joke. Like most jokes, it’s half joke and half serious. On a more serious note, I have to give credit to my parents for who I am today as well as my Guru and my spiritual teachers. If I wasn’t a humbler-than-you-Buddhist, egoless person, I’d have to say Myself as main influence, as we create ourselves—although through our interconnectedness I cannot take credit for that. (Just jokin’) We are not who we think we are. If we take ourselves too seriously life ain’t much fun. Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching just came to mind. He said, “To know the world and others is knowledge, to know oneself is wisdom.” Good old time wisdom, ancient yet timeless.


Q: What are some of the musical albums or musicians/bands that have impacted your life and in what way?


A: That’s a difficult question because I’m a 60’s guy and I love 60’s music. It’s like they say about the 60’s, if you can remember them, you weren’t really there. According to my old college roommate, I was at Woodstock in my first car, which was a convertible that sunk in the mud to the hubcaps while we were there at the hillside listening and watching the mega-concert. We had to dig it out the following Monday.


As for the albums, the first that come to mind are Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club  and also Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles, also Highway 61 by Bob Dylan. It’s an older album before he was really famous. It was different, and very cool and poetic. I think he’s one of the great poets of our generations. I would put him in the same category as Allen Ginsberg, another Buddhist. Neil Young’s Harvest is a favorite. Blue by Miles Davis turned me on to jazz back then, and made a difference in my aesthetic life.


Q: What is one of the most shocking experiences you’ve ever had?


A: The first great shock was having my umbilical cord separated from my mother and coming into the world. I don’t remember that any better than the 60’s though. Also, when the 19 year old girlfriend of my best high school friend Barry Levine was shot and killed at Kent State in Ohio on May 4th, 1970 by part time soldiers of the Ohio National Guard during a protest against Nixon and Kissinger’s secret bombings of Cambodia and the Vietnam war. That was a huge shock. My 19 year old friend, the beautiful youthful artist Alison Krause from Pittsburgh, was there one day, a freshman on campus, and the next she was gone. Shot by those part time soldiers, although she had no weapons, was a flower child, and it was a peaceful protest. That blew my mind! It turned my head around about fighting for peace. I thought about it a lot that year, my junior year in college I believe. I started to gradually realize that I needed to find inner peace and become peace, embody and work with peace in the world and not just fight for peace…  for fighting for peace in the radical political style of the 60’s as it was a contradiction in terms. That really set me on my spiritual journey. It was a big shock but I hope something good came out of it. That was my first real face to face encounter with the lord of life and death, and a look at death staring us all in the face and contextualizing our life’s meaning and aspirations.


Q: What is one of the most beautiful experiences you’ve ever had?


A: Today. Right now is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. More seriously, a few would be my first real love relationship with a Scots girl in India that went on for a long time when I was younger, starting around 22;  my major enlightenment experience in the Himalayas in the 70’s; and seeing my daughter being born and catching her. She was home birthed and that was beautiful and touching. Also, the opportunity to be in the first Dzogchen three year three month cloistered Tibetan retreat in the West, in 1980-84; that was incredibly blessed and special.


Q: What is one of the most defining moments in your life and why?


A: Again, my friend being shot and killed at Kent State as it sent me on my spiritual path. Also meeting my first Guru Maharaj-ji, Neem Karoli Baba, who gave me the name Surya Das. He’s the guru of Krishna Das, the popular kirtan singer, and Ram Dass, author of Be Here Now and many other books. He was also the guru of Bhagavan Das, Mirabai Bush, and Dan Goleman. He was a very influential  and saintly love-guru who never left India and didn’t seek fame or ashram development. He didn’t have much of a public name, except in India—at least until Ram Dass made him somewhat renowned in the West in the late Sixties with that pioneering Be Here Now bestselling classic. He was a great guru who reflected to me who I really am and what I could be. He treated everyone like coins of gold or seeds of God. He saw the light in everyone and everything, and treated everyone in that sacred manner. That was a great teaching, inspiration, wakeup call and transmission to all of us. I met him in February of 1972 in India. I stayed with him that year and he’s been in my heart ever since. He died the next year. That was a very defining and beautiful experience for me.


My service-oriented social and spiritual activist guru-brother Dr. Larry Brilliant, former head of Seva Foundation as well as the Google Foundation, has said: “Saints are supposed to love God and everybody, and he certainly did. The amazing thing is that when I was with Him not only did he love everyone and treat everyone in a divine manner but I loved everyone too.”  Wow. I experienced that too, and still do. I can’t sing kirtan without feeling Him sitting right I front of me like in the ashram decades ago.


Q: What do you believe are the benefit, if any, vs. the dangers of mind-altering drugs?


A: Well there’s all kinds of drugs. There’s all kinds of illicit drugs and in other countries some drugs are more illicit than in others.  But in the spirit of the question, I’ll jump to the other pole and be very unequivocal. I think the drug use and consciousness movement of the 60’s and 70’s, the use of psychedelics and so on was a great gateway and a great exit from our solid, mind-centered material reality and cultural evolution point to higher ground and a new and far more evolved (although unstable) deeper consciousness. An introductory visitation to the higher path of sacred living and omnipresent innate divinity, transcendent yet immanent;  of wholeness and oneness, far beyond words and concepts,  for many of us who are Dharma teacher today, Hindu, Buddhist and otherwise here in the West.


I do think that some of the downsides are of course the dangers of drug use, legal dangers, prison, incarceration, criminality, violence, addictive dangers, health issues, the danger of tarnishing consciousness by overuse or foolish use, especially by young people. Also with legal drugs, the same could happen. I don’t necessarily say no– I say “never say never”. If you look at my initials, Lama Surya Das…  What can I say.


Famously, our guru Maharaj-ji (Neem Karoli Baba) in the early days of our travelling angels’ time I India took three hits of top-grade Sandoz-la LSD from Ram Dass’s hand, in person, and nothing happened—at least, according to Ram Dass’ perception. That really sent Ram Dass on a trip, wondering if Maharaj-ji’s oceanic loving consciousness was always in such an open and finely tuned state, or what to make of it. One still might well wonder.


Anyway, since you’ve asked me here, today: I haven’t taken drugs in decades. Meditation, chanting, prayer and yoga help me be there – right here– rather than just visiting there and then becoming like a human yo-yo going up and down and missing it and wanting it back again. The awakened life of the spiritual practice-path is far more sane, stable, and real—if I may use that word. Rather than merely getting high, I highly recommend enlightening up and lightening up.


Q: What are some films you’ll never forget seeing for the first time and why?


A: I’m a big fan of the arts, movies and theaters. Over the week I saw both a Lily Tomlin and Garrison Keiller one man show on two different nights here in the Boston area. I also enjoy going to the movies. I’ve even written an essay for The Anthology of Buddhism and Films which was called FilmMeditation and Cinema Samadhi.


The first time I saw an Ian Fleming James Bond film, which I’d avidly read as a boy, was quite exciting. It was Thunderball, Casino Royale or Goldfinger, with Sean Connery, when I was a young teenager– very influential and moving to me, to experience it three dimensionally on screen with my friends in a social way rather than just alone in my bedroom in a paperback version. That was very interesting, and also pricked my creative imagination. Then later, Space Odyssey 2001, which I saw in my first year of college with one of my best friends, that was quite a “trip”.  There’ so many great films and I hate to mention one just because it’s at the top of the great list like Casablanca, or The Graduate, but I think those were probably the first films I ever saw which particularly struck me, especially what you could do with the medium, with cinematography and special effects as well as the combination of script, local and acting. Another that struck me in that same way through its use of social consciousness was Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. I remember thinking: Holy shit, this is a great use of the arts in awakening social consciousness and heightening awareness of a major issue like capital punishment. I highly recommend it. It’s about a convicted murderer in jail and a nun who sort of saves his soul and brings him to an experience of genuine love in his last days. It’s based on a true story, and the nun is Sister Helen Prejean, who is a well known social activist regarding capital punishment and actually did that with the prisoner in the film.


Films aren’t really what they used to be, I think they’re weaker now. I think The Last Picture Show for instance was very impressive to me: young director, young actors, etc. Also, Fellini’s La Strada. Those are all important and influential to me. I like to take notice of what the Spiritual Film Circle selects. I’m not the biggest fan of many recent popular films, but a few worth mentioning – only ‘cause I like them and they come to mind– are The King’s Speech, Juno, Whale Rider, Out of Africa, Good Night and Good Luck, The Big Lebowski, and Dances With Wolves. I often appreciate foreign films, but these days I often get tired of reading subtitles in a dark theater at night and easily fall asleep. Of course now there’s always good ole Netflix!


Q: Does God exist and if so, in what capacity? If not, why not?


A: This is a huge question, an evergreen question, and I have a whole chapter on this in my book called The Big Questions: Finding Your Own Answers to Life’s Essential Mysteries, which I’d recommend for a more in-depth answer and further thoughts. For the purpose here, does God exist? Well it’s impolite to answer a question with a question– but with this kind of question it’s the only way. First I’d say what do you mean by God? Second, I’d say yes. Third, in what capacity, form of way? I’d say God exists as Being, all Being, and not just as a separate being or creator, no… because who created God? Things are not as linear and dualistic as the conceptual mind would like to think, they’re more cyclical and holistic I believe. There seems to be a higher power if we understand that as meaning something beyond our finite individualistic selves. But it’s not a thing, as far as I can tell, so how to conceive and discuss it?  The mystics and poets often seem to do the best job of getting close to expressing what I essentially feel is a mere placeholder—God, Yahweh, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Buddha, The Tao– for something more ultimate and timeless, universal and transrealescent  than our time-bound, black and white quotidian mortal coils. By whatever name, the higher power or deepest power/inner power is still as sweet, and humankind can’t seem to live without it.


As far as “If not, why not?” let me give you the Buddhist answer. Things are more like a system rather than discrete entities: they’re inseparably interconnected and depend on each another. It’s very hard to find a separate entity, separate self, separate creator or God, separate from everything else. Philosophers ask theologians about Who created the Creator, and science also inquires into origins and first causes and the like, which are murky areas susceptible to misunderstanding, dogma and confusion. I think the koan-like relationship of God and Man, as it’s usually posed in western thought, is more like Yin and Yang or light and dark, two ends of the spectrum but the spectrum continues and is actually a circle, a whole, a sphere, and shadow’s are nothing but light. Like heat and cold, there’s no such thing as cold, only heat and the absence of it. So in that sense, I think it’s hard to say there’s a separate God or anything. I appreciate the mystics like Meister Eckhart and their view of a God of oneness or non-duality beyond concepts such as two, oneness or noneness (emptiness).


Q: What do you think your greatest contribution to humanity is?


A: I’d say being myself, being happy and humorous, joyous, while  trying to bring light and love and beauty into this troubled world. More specifically, my mission has long been to help introduce Buddhist meditation and related Dharma practices conducive to awakening and enlightenment to our shores—particularly the sacred non-dual mysticism, teachings and practice of Tibet’s Dzogchen tradition, direct insight realizing the luminous, free and complete nature of our innate Buddha-mind and the Buddha Within, here in the West, in our time and place. Perhaps that’s my contribution.


Q: What does the human experience mean to you?


A: Everything, ‘cause that’s what there is. Facing and being-with-and-as life on its own terms, as it is. A beautiful, gorgeous life—windfall profits, really– and we squander it at our peril, just distracting and intoxicating ourselves while killing time and deadening ourselves to this miraculous, unexpected, mysterious life. That’s not to say it’s all happy and light, for wherever there is light there is shadow, but it’s a beautiful life, a gift, like manna, grace. I think the more we can open our hearts to it and be with it as it is, rather than we’d like it to be, the more flexible we’ll be and the less we’ll get bent out of shape.  Blessed are the awakeful, for they shall see and appreciate things as they are.

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.