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One-on-One with Lama Surya Das

By Lama Marut

Lama Surya Das is a force of nature. Hearing him speak is like listening to a rushing waterfall, or to a wildly creative solo by a great jazz artist. Four decades of spiritual study, practice, and teaching come tumbling out in each riff. He’s modest and down-to-earth – just a regular guy from Brooklyn – but also a very wise, compassionate, and seasoned practitioner. The Dalai Lama calls him “the Western Lama,” and there’s no doubt that he is one of our greatest living masters of Buddhism. I’ve benefited enormously over the years from reading his books and listening to his teachings. It was a great honor for me personally to conduct this interview. Enjoy the ride!


LM: So I’m really happy to be here today with Lama Surya Das, one of the foremost Lamas in the Western world, one of the pioneers of bringing Buddhism to the West, a long time practitioner, forty years in the dharma at least, author of many, many books, many popular books, bestselling books—most recently Buddha Standard Time. So we thought we would start our conversation with Lama Surya Das by asking him about his own experience with long-term retreat. So I think that you did at least one and is it two 3-year retreats? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience there, and especially what you think might be the pitfalls, or potential pitfalls for somebody doing a long-term retreat, and the advantages, the benefits of doing long-term retreat.  

You’re on Lama!  (laughs)

LSD: I’m in my vow of silence.

LM: (laughing) You’ve started another 3-year retreat, right on the air. (laughter)

LSD: Just even hearing it I clicked into my other life. I never left. As the late Dudjom Rinpoche said, “A hermit yogi or practitioner should never leave the warmth of their seat.” But what he’s really talking about is the warmth of samadhi, not just like a warm blanket or a security blanket. What he’s really talking about is never straying from the view and authenticity. Not just being a quietist, but also never straying from the view, meditation in action, or the natural state. So I think that’s a profound thought. Anyway, yes I was fortunate to do two 3-year retreats in France under my root Guru Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and other teachers—Ngulchu Khenpo, Dudjom Rinpoche—were there, and Tulku Pema Wangyal, the retreat master. It was really a wonderful time in my life, from 1980 to 1988—cloistered, silent, monastic, etc. 

And I’m always wondering about how… I’m kind of chewing on the conundrum of how to provide anything near the immersion in this wonderful Mahayana-Vajrayana tradition, or just Buddha Dharma tradition, like I got, and my friends and peers and colleagues got.  How to provide that in any way for my own friends and students today. Of course we do have a retreat centre. We’ve had 100-day retreats five years in a row, and we had some 1- and 2-month retreats, and many retreats throughout the year that are shorter. But how to help people experience that much immersion, so if you’re a cucumber you’ll get pickled. A cucumber has to sit in the sweet vinegar for like six months to get pickled—not just have a dunk. Then you’re still a cucumber. But how to help provide any kind of immersion that the 3-year, 3-month, 3-day traditional—you know, 3-lifetime retreat it seemed like—provides. 

Not to mention how our lineage masters in the past, from Milarepa and Lord Buddha down to today, practiced for years and lifetimes, and totally, sincerely, whole-heartedly, not just for themselves but for universal enlightenment. So how to help facilitate people to ride that great wake—to be pulled along in the wake of those great vehicles, those great ships, those great arcs that the masters of the lineage are. And the 3-year retreat is a wonderful thing. But personally I really feel that today the name of the game is integration, not seclusion and reclusion, except for a very few people. Very few have the monastic vocation. It’s a beautiful vocation monasticism, if you are called. But most people need to integrate dharma into daily life, and retreat and intense practice periods like intense study periods and so on are very helpful. It’s good to go away to get something to bring back and integrate into your daily life. Right? And integration is the name of the game. That’s where the rubber really meets the road, I think, in the spiritual life today, and you know in the daily life at home and at work and so on. So I’m a big advocate of that. 

My students have asked me to lead a 3-year retreat but I always say I’m not ready for it, instead of you’re not ready for it. I just feel like 100-day retreats might be enough, or 3-month retreats, otherwise you disrupt your whole life and it’s very hard to get back into it. I know a lot of people who have done long retreats, or stayed in India or Japan, in monasteries for a long time. They come back, and they don’t know what to do with themselves. People don’t even know how to practice outside of those special environments. That’s a big downside of retreat life. And there are worse downsides we can get into, but generally I think, for people to understand, it’s not about quantity of time but quality of awareness, practice, and intention, and motivation, to open the heart and awaken the mind. Not just to be in a cave for three years and come out untransformed.  That won’t do. That won’t do.

LM: Yes, retreat isn’t a retreat away from the world; it’s a retreat to sort of get ready for the world, isn’t it?

LSD: Yes, it’s a training. It’s like people go to medical school and study their butts off day and night so they can become healers, I mean theoretically. Not so they can be studying day and night for 15 years, unless they’re an academic, scientific type of person. That’s fine. But they’re not meant to be living those grueling 30-, 40-, or 50-hour shifts their whole life. And similarly, it’s very, very important for us, I think, to ratchet up our spiritual intensity and practice for some time. And then we really have something to integrate and iron out into every crack and crevice, nook and cranny of our daily life—alone, with others, at home, at work, and in all the aspects of our life. The physical life of the body, and sex life; and also the emotional life and psychic energy life; and the spiritual life; and the mental and intellectual life--it’s all part of it. There’s no part that’s not part of the mandala of the great perfection. 

LM: Mmm. What would you recommend for preparation for somebody who’s going into a long-term retreat, three years or even less?

LSD: Um. I usually like to talk to people one on one very personally about this you know because everyone’s a little different and is coming from a slightly different place, or small groups of people that have similarities. But in general I think first it’s good to be prepared and think about why you’re doing it. People often ask me about doing it - I mean often means like now and then throughout the year. Maybe 10 people or 20 people ask me each year, you know, one at a time. And I say well where are you going to do it? Who are you going to do it with? Do you have a teacher who’s doing it? You can’t just do it. Like where are you going to do it? Are you going to do it in your bedroom? Are you going to do it in a retreat monastery like I did with my teacher? Or are you just going to take on any teacher who happens to be doing it? I don’t think that’s a great idea because this is, it’s like a marriage. You want to do dating first, a little preparation and a little planning, and not just rush off because you heard about this exotic thing and then find out it’s not for you. So preparation and thought, and also look into motivation and intention. Everything depends on our motivation, like it says in the Mahayana scripture. You know the lojong teachings and so on, the mind-training attitude transmission teachings. Motivation, intention, so important. 

And then also see what kind of 3-year retreat it is. For example 3-year retreats are a traditional Tibetan tradition, but some traditions, some are in Tibetan language, some are in English, some are in French or wherever because they do it in those countries, or German. I don’t know. They’ve been in Denmark; there’s one in Scotland; there’s some in America and Canada. Is it very, very traditional, with many yidam practices every month or two? Or has a Great Master “essentialized” it down, like Situ Rinpoche encouraged the Kagyu retreats to have three yidam practices instead of eight? It’s still a lot, but you know a little less complicated and a little more depth in three practices instead of eight during the year of the inner yoga practices, the yidam practices.

LSD: And then some have Tibetan instruments and other rituals and pujas, and some don’t. So you know some have a lot of the Six Yogas of Naropa, the inner and outer energy yogas, Vajroli, lightening yogas, etc. And some, less emphasis on that. So it depends on what you are looking for, and also what your teacher and you, you know, feel is good, or your teacher encourages you to do, etc. So there are a few thoughts. But then I have more particular thoughts which I give to retreatants all the time since I lead probably 15 or 20 retreats a year, maybe 10 silent week and 100-day retreats, and then some weekend retreats you know, and they’re not even silent, like at Omega Institute, or whatever. Take it one day at a time – and I know I sound like a 12-step guard, but that’s good, it’s a good 12-step, one day at a time. Even Buddhists say one moment at a time, one session at a time. You know, wake every morning as if it’s a new day and start again, ‘cause it is, and even every breath a new breath, ‘cause it is. One moment at a time. That’s not bad advice.

LM: Yup.

LSD: And not to compare yourself to others, or compare this session to the last meditation session, or this day to yesterday. And there are a few other, you know, little pithy instructions I would have about this from my many years of let’s say "retreats".

LM: When you were in retreat did you monitor your own sort of psychology, your own psyche, and were there any warning signs where you needed to like back off or take a day off or you know rest a little bit or anything like that?

LSD: That’s a good question. Um, since we’re alone here, Lama, and what happens on your Awakening website journal stays on the Awakening website journal. In a 3-1/2 year retreat you go up and down; you’ll cycle through everything.  It’s like college.

LM: Haha! It’s like college!

LSD: The length. But there’s no vacations, and there’s no day off, and there’s no Spring Break, and there’s no going home. Of course there’s vajra feasts and other things so…

LM: Fraternity parties as it were.

LSD: Yes, I cycled through different things. You know in the beginning there’s like the honeymoon period. I was well prepared. I’d lived in India in the 70’s and completed the Vajrayana foundation practices, the ngoungdro’s and things like that, and other practices. I had been meditating for a long time, since ’68, and really full-time since ’71. So when I went in 1980 I was sort of prepared, and knew some good Tibetan, you know decent Tibetan, and other things. So the honeymoon period of how great it was and then the great masters are there, and then after awhile you know it’s not the honeymoon anymore. You get down to the marriage and then the shit comes up. ‘Cause you liked being on honeymoon.

LM: Yes, I know.

LSD: It’s a slippery thing that ego, as it starts getting squeezed by the practice.  And this is just one little metaphor. It starts to jump around. I’m a Capricorn. I have like 4 wheels on the ground, but I went up and down. I mean I even had like a psychotic breakdown for, for a couple of hours sitting on my meditation seat in my room in about year 2 or 3. I remember… as I was going down, I remember totally, and you won’t find this in my books. I’m sitting there on my, in my box, on my meditation seat – because we didn’t have beds; you’d sit up at night. Anyway, it was the afternoon session from 3 to 5:30pm. Alone. Then I could see the glue of my cosmos coming unglued. I’ve had a few drugs in my day, in the ’60’s and ’70‘s. I started to observe myself getting a little kind of psychotic and losing it. I reasoned, well all I have to do is sit here and hold onto my mala or say my mantra, or whatever I was doing, and I kind of went into, into mind-no mind, but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t like Buddha-mind.  It was like a little psychotic break which I’d never experienced before, even on psychedelics. So that was a good experience because it didn’t last more than, I don’t know, half-hour, an hour, or two hours. And then at the end of this session I went into the 5:30 one-hour evening prayers, chants, Mahakala puja – and all of it was gone, and it was very interesting. So everything from heaven to hell and in between, enlightenment experiences, and you know not liking the monk next I said before, like college, it’s 3-1/2 years.

LM: (laughing) What did you do? What did you go to refuge for when you were feeling really whacked out and “lungy” – you know the term lung right? The winds are running like crazy, the prana’s weird.

LSD: I don’t get that that much. Maybe what I just said sounds “lungy”, I don’t know; that could be lung. You asked for a psychological explanation, so I said “psychotic.”  Um. Yeah, refuge is a good way of talking and thinking about it. You know go to, take refuge in the triple gem and things like that. Um. I think....I don’t know. I’m a Dzogchen practitioner. I like to take refuge in rigpa and the natural state, and just drop into it, you know, like directly into the presence of God, like Buddha said, and being totally present with and in and as whatever is.

LM:  But what if what is, is like a psychotic episode or derangement?

LSD:  If I get in trouble, I do what Dudjom Rinpoche says – here’s a quote from him – Dudjom, the great Dzogchen master said, “When I’m distracted I chant a 100-syllable mantra.” I like that. When I think of that it cheers me up and it’s very focusing. I think of him and I feel the heart open and chant the 100-syllable mantra or something. Or maybe I do something physical like bow, prostration. Maybe I do something devotional like pray to the Gurus and bring down the blessings, awaken the blessings, tune in, you know, um, return to or appreciate the invisible array, as I call it, the entire lineage tree.

LM: Yeah, remembering your motivation maybe? Bodhichitta?

LSD: No. That sounds good but that’s too mental for me. No, nope. I don’t give a shit about anybody. 

LM: (laughing) All right.  

LSD: But yeah, bodhichitta’s good. I’m just saying, and you know I’ve been saying, everybody has a different way of expressing it. 

LM: Yeah. I want to talk about a couple of other things, including your book, but one last question about long-term retreat. If somebody came to you and said, “Look, you know I work 50 weeks a year. I get two weeks off paid. Why should I go on retreat instead of going to like Hawaii and check into a, you know, a five-star hotel and go swimming?

LSD: Yeah. I didn’t say you should check into a retreat and not go to Hawaii, I didn’t say that.

LM: (laughing)

LSD: Suit yourself. Have you been to Hawaii before? Were you happy there?

LM: (laughing)

LSD: What happened in those, you know, 2 weeks? How many times did you get drunk? Are you a blackout drinker? Or a gambler? Or did you have the time of your life? So, think about it. I’m a Jewish jock from Long Island, and my father’s an accountant, so I like to joke about this kind of thing you know. Look at the profit and loss side of things. What are you going to get out of your 2 weeks in a hotel and what’s the downside? And what might you get out of, I don’t know, 2 weeks in a retreat or in a nice healing yoga ashram, or 2 weeks with an enlightened Guru?

LM: Well you know.

LSD: But there are many ways to go deeper and be immersed in the spirit, not just a meditation retreat.  What about being with an enlightened Guru for 2 weeks? Like a saint or sage or a Dalai Lama-type of person, or whomever your spiritual superhero or master-like person might be. 

LM: Yeah. I think when you talk to a lot of sort of ordinary people – if there are any such people – and you tell them, "One of the best, most relaxing things you can do is to lock yourself up in a cabin for a couple of weeks on end at least. Don’t see anybody. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t turn on the computer. Don’t turn on the cell phone." They look at you like you’re completely crazy, you know? Especially in this day and age, right?

LSD: We are crazy, but you’re the one to tell it like that. That’s the best thing you should do.  I’m more like the guy that says, “Ooh, you know, what do you really feel like doing? You want to go to Hawaii? Good. I love to go to Hawaii, and I sit on the beach and I don’t try to meditate. I let the waves meditate me and they carry, wash everything away.” So I’m introducing a natural meditation, or whatever. I’m not saying, “Close your eyes and don’t enjoy the sun and sit in the basement for your 2 weeks.” And also, we have to remember where people are at and what they’re looking for and relate to, don’t we Lama? You know? Some people are afraid – men, most of us I guess, are afraid of looking at ourselves, and being alone and looking into our darkness, and we don’t realize we might find a beautiful Buddha or Goddess in there. We think we’re just going to find a dark hole, or neuroses, or worse, or our fears or demons, or our addictions, or our recovered negative abusive memories.  But you know, there’s a lot more in there than we think.

LM: Yes.

LSD: And I think that needs to be put out there, very positive dharma, not always talking about the first Noble Truth life is suffering. That’s not the first Noble Truth. The first Noble Truth taught by Buddha is that the unenlightened life is difficult and full of suffering. The third truth is there’s another life, and that’s nirvanic, blissful. 

LM: Yeah, good.

LSD: So it’s not just suffering. That’s a gross exaggeration. It’s kind of like the Protestant ethic has gotten a hold of Buddhism and that’s all it can talk about.

LM: (laughing)

LSD: But the joy of spirit, the joy of awakening together, relational mindfulness – not just mindfulness of breath, that’s just a tool – but how we relate to everything and everyone; and the diamond rule - seeing the light, the Buddha-ness in everyone and everything. That is relaxing. That’s beyond relaxing. Of course, if you talk about retreat and meditation I often say it’s more relaxing to meditate than to sleep, and I’m going to tell you why. Not that I don’t sleep. I love to sleep. But I know a Lama that never sleeps, and I’m not a story teller about these kinds of miracles. You know I have 13 books out. You won’t read too much about miracles in them like some other teachers, but His Holiness the Drukchen Rinpoche Gyalwang Drukpa, he doesn’t sleep. I ask him, “Why? He says, 'Cause it’s more relaxing to meditate. No dreams. No tossing and turning. No waking up and trying to go back to sleep. Just totally relaxed.” 

So he doesn’t do pajamas and bed. His mother in Nepal, a wonderful old Tibetan lady, bought him a double bed. The Lama’s big dog slept in it every night. And meditating, and meditating. And not just meditating. You know, he’d be writing some poetry, walking around enjoying himself, surfing the web, teaching himself HTML and English and everything else.  It’s more relaxing to be here now and fully present and accounted for, not to mention totally aware, than it is to cycle through the four stages of sleep from superficial sleep with all the hypnologic images coming behind your eyelids, to the deeper sleep, and then popping up again, waking up and trying to go back to sleep, and tossing and turning and fighting with your bed partner and all that. 

So it’s very relaxing to meditate, not to mention being in retreat. If you have the training or background, then it’s beautiful to live. It’s a beautiful life to live like Seurat or Thoreau in a cabin by a lake for a week, or a month, or a year. If you have the training background.  

Notice Seurat went home for lunch every day. I’m not joking. He went to his mother’s house for lunch everyday, but we don’t get that part, we just idealize. Like Milarepa, we probably think, I don’t know if he would go home for lunch every day but….And like the Dalai Lama, I know he likes gardening and taking apart watches.

LM: Yeah.

LSD: So that’s his hobby time. We all need to relax. But he meditates every morning and prays from 3 ‘till 7a.m. So even he has a very disciplined or regular committed practice. That’s why I tell people, in daily life, who have jobs or families, “If you take care of the morning, the morning will take care of the rest of the day.”

LM: Aha! Yes, nice.

LSD: So in the morning... I used to do it at night too but now I fall asleep if I do it at night. So I just said “fah” and I watch sports. 

LM: Hahaha, and you watch sports! Maybe this is a good time to morph into the instructions that you’re giving in Buddha Standard Time, which seem to be very much about what you were just talking about. How to sort of drop in during the course of your everyday life into the great spaciousness, the natural perfection. Where you can find some sort of relief from stress. This is amazing that you’re integrating the teachings, these high dzogchen practices, in a very practical, everyday way. Congratulations!

LSD: Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad that you can appreciate that. Because the dzogchen teachings may be high but they’re also very grounded. You know? They’re as high as like the earth.

LM: Hmmm.

LSD: It’s ground; it’s the groundless ground to be in – you know? It’s beyond high or low. It’s everywhere, the truth, the natural state – whatever you want to call it – the oneness if you want to talk about Buddhism. Heaven on earth. So in this book, in this teaching, when I talk about nowness-awareness and the holy now and so on, and living in the present, there’s a lot to say about this. It’s a timeless evergreen subject. 

LM: It is, and it’s wonderful that you’re disseminating that now. Especially to, I think, the spiritual community who may have the idea – many of us have the idea – that we practice our spirituality in our meditation rooms or maybe on retreat once in a while, but then we go back into the world and just live our daily stressed-out lives as if nothing happened. Your instruction is awesome, which is to just stop during the day and…

LSD: Yup, right.

LM: …and get grounded again.

LSD: Thank you. Well that’s really, that’s what I’m talking about in this book and the last few years. Not just about meditation, which people think it means you have to cross your legs and close your eyes and you know cross your fingers and hope to get enlightened…

LM: (laughing)

LSD: But it’s about awareness and the intentional use of present awareness. Attention and intention, and you can do that anywhere.  And not just meditation you know but what I call "presence-ing". How we can presence everywhere. Aware-ing, aware-ful. Aware-ing is like a verb – how we can be mindful at any time. And that’s very important. I call it "moments of mindfulness", and this is not original. Many people call it moments of mindfulness, and to make a sacred pause throughout the day. Anytime you just take a moment to breathe, relax, and smile. How long does that take? Have an instant mini-meditation, an American meditation.

LM: (laughing) Yes.

LSD: Meditate as fast as you can!

LM: (laughing) In a New York minute!

LSD: Exactly. Even a minute is too long. Five seconds is all we got here, to get enlightened. But that’s ok. And let’s think about this. Really, I’m not joking. Many times throughout the day you know you just stop, take a breath break. Breathe, relax, smile, center, focus. It’s like five seconds. The Muslims, God bless their hearts, they stop, theoretically, and they put down their prayer mats, theoretically, and they bow to Mecca five times a day.  Wouldn’t it be good if we Buddhists stopped five times a day and had like a one-minute or five-minute meditation. 

LM: Yes

LSD: Wouldn’t that be good?

LM: Yes. Thich Nhat Hanh has the same kind of policy in Plum Village right? Every 15 minutes the bell goes off and everyone has to get centered. Be here now. 

LSD: Yes, the mindfulness bell. I’ve been to Plum Village. Thich Nhat Hanh’s a wonderful teacher and he’s very modern in some ways and he understands this. So whenever the gong goes off in in the village everybody – and it’s hundreds of people, Vietnamese and Westerners – stops for a moment, including the kids. Just think about that. Even the kids, they make it into a mindfulness bell game. 

LM: Yeah. Awesome.

LSD: Whatever you’re doing you’ve got to stop. And the kids do it. You know, it doesn’t have a whole necessarily philosophical background for them, but it’s a good attention training – to concentrate, to break your impulsive conditioning and just step off the treadmill of conditioning for a moment and take a breath.

LM: Yes.

LSD: And then get back to your work, your play, or whatever. So mindful moments, sacred pauses taking these breaths of awareness throughout the day, definitely perforates the solidity of a claustrophobic day.

LM: Yes, yes.

LSD: It lets the fresh air of innate wakefulness blow through. And then we are more living in the holy now not just in the changing times (past, present, and future), but in the now-ness, the fourth time as we call it in Tibetan, the zhitsa, that bisects vertically the changeless times, the timeless, as Buddha called it. Deathless Nirvana, the timeless time.  

The Christian mystics called it the divine time. They called it the changing times and divine time, the holy now.  Let’s tune into that, wherever we are. Not just when we meditate or on our yoga mat doing corpse pose at the end of a yoga session, which is a nice meditation if we don’t fall asleep. But anytime. Any time or place, it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s not just Buddhist. Christian centering prayer asks for the same kind of attention.  Father Thomas Keating, who’s a modern saint in my view, teaches  Buddhist, Christian centering prayer. Awakening right now in the presence of God. If you read what he’s saying, you listen to his guided meditations, it’s just like this kind of presence-ing Buddhist meditation, of awareness with nothing to do and nowhere to go, no one to go, nothing to ask for, centering prayer, without asking anything, wordless Christian centering prayer. It’s a great way of being, right? I can’t recommend it enough. So I wrote about it from various points of view in this book, Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now. But it’s just basic good Mahamudra and Dzogchen, or like the essence of Zen instruction. You know Zen doesn’t mean sitting meditation, it means just “being.” 

LM: Mmm.

LSD: That’s meditation. So that’s why I’m calling it “presence-ing.” 

LM: One of the really amazing things about this perspective, one of the radical things I think about this perspective, is that it goes against the grain of constructing “isms.” We have our "Buddhism" and our "Hinduisms" and our “ities”, our "Christianity" and all of that. 

LSD: Yup.

LM: Then the tendency is to just cloister them all off from our ordinary secular lives, as if they were some sort of special set-apart sacrality. As if sacrality wasn’t findable everywhere at all times.

LSD: Right, but "isms" come with schisms. That’s the first problem.

LM: Hahaha.

LSD: As soon as you have "isms" you have schisms, you know? It’s like as soon as you have two people or three people you have politics. So it should be no surprise that there’s dharma politics with the groups of millions of people in institutional religions, just like there’s, you know, economic politics and social politics in the world, and business world, and family politics. But I think in this quote "shrinking world", this global economy, this interconnected, increasing interconnected, interdependent world we live in, we really have to recognize that we’re in the same boat. We rise or fall, sink or swim together, and that’s where the natural bodhichitta or compassion in action and altruism and caring for others as much as we care for ourselves would come from.  Recognizing that I can’t be happy if my family is miserable and my neighborhood is on fire and the world and the environment is going, and degenerating. 

So if we care about others and ourselves then compassion naturally flows, flows forth. And I think that’s very important to remember. We have to think about global spirituality and even beyond. Not just religions, maybe not even just spirituality, but like timeless wisdom.  Transformative spirituality.  A  higher form of sanity.  Even like higher education.  We have to put the "higher" back in higher education.  

LM: (laughing) Yes.

LSD: Where do we learn wisdom today? Not in philosophy class I’m afraid. 

LM: Mmm.

LSD: And higher education, which in this country mostly means college, university, and grad school, is pure vocational training today. It’s a shame. 

LM: Mmm.

LSD: So, what about the wisdom of life? How are we going to help the younger generations learn how to live and be happy? Wisdom-for-life training and so on.  I think we could look at all of this from awareness and awareness-mastery, spiritual life skills point of view, not just religion, but spirituality. All the world’s major religions, which are seven or eight at this point, have the same or very similar moral basis and code. And they all have some way to transform the emotions. They have some group or congregational aspect. They have some cosmology or history and origin myths. They have some holy books. They have some practices, whether it’s prayer or meditation, or hymns and sacred music, or whirling dervishes, or yoga, you know. All the religions have something like this. So I think we need to constantly find what the essence is and also what works for each of us. Think globally but act locally beginning with ourselves and each other. You know, like what’s the right way of living and eating and being for you? For me?

LM: Mmm.

LSD: Because if it’s not authentic, it won’t continue. You have to find, kind of shoes and clothes that fit you, not just imitate the Dalai Lama’s clothes, or Mother Theresa’s.

LM: Yeah, maybe the period of Buddhism in the West as this sort of exotic, bell-ringing, mala-wearing kind of a flag hoisting is coming to an end, hopefully.

LSD: We’re not in the bricks and mortar here any more either. Even the great universities are going online for free. So, bricks and mortar are old school. We have a lot of building projects in the last 50 years in this country, and not enough trainings and not enough enlightenment production. We need to have more enlightenment factories, not bricks and mortar and book factories. 

LM: Yeah, and maybe some more attention to stop being so Buddhist and be more humane and human.

LSD: Yes, right.

LM: Yeah.

LSD: Yes, and wiser and kinder.

LM: And wiser, yes.

LSD: Keep our eye on the ball. You know, deal with the existential questions, the questions of existence, not just who’s right and who’s wrong and which party or which religion we belong to. 

LM: Mmm.

LSD: But really face those big questions ourselves, individually and together, and awaken together. Because everyone, I mean, generally speaking, is afraid to die, doesn’t want their loved ones, whether human or their pets or whatever to die. They love their land and their country and their homeland. And then the waters and the trees, we don’t want them to die. So how are we going to be good stewards and guardians of all this miraculous life that we’ve been given? I mean who created this? Not me. Not you. I mean you could say karma if you want but that may not be that different than saying God created it. 

LM: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

LSD: So we’re guardians and stewards, and we get to enjoy this, and we’re also responsible for it. Like when people inherit wealth, if they don’t steward it, it just dissipates and dribbles away. We want to pass the beautiful wealth and abundance of this life and this world onto the next generations. And not just put them in debt, environmentally or financially or ruin the air and the water and so on. What’s going to happen to our children and grandchildren if we don’t wisen up about that? And some people say it’s already too late, you know the “voices of doom” people about the planet, the environment. So one can be concerned about that.

LM: Yeah, sure. Another major kind of problem is how to bring the sort of spiritual awareness of a tradition like Buddhism to people who are not interested in being Buddhists at all, who aren’t interested in being anything at all. There are a growing number of people in the developed world who have no interest in religion whatsoever. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in living a good life and trying to figure out how to.

LSD: Yeah, of course. And they’re as interested in love and truth and honesty. Many of them are ethical people, obviously. A lot of people. Well, I think we’ve had a few small successes – the royal “we” – like in bringing the good dharma, not just Buddhism, into the mainstream. There’s yoga available everywhere, at the YMCA, as well as at the yoga ashrams. There’s meditation available everywhere, for health and healing at hospitals as well as in the meditation centers and monasteries. You know mindfulness stock is way up. Invest in it!

LM: (Laughing)

LSD: It pays off right away!

LM: It’s the buzz word right now, isn’t it? 

LSD: But you know, it’s also good secular Buddhist practice. You don’t need the Buddhism to benefit from mindfulness. I don’t know if you get enlightened, but you definitely get better health and mental health. These are some positive developments. And we could go further, like the new neuroscience, what I call “neurodharma." The intersection of neuroscience and brain training with awareness and bio-feedback, you know from the new MRI’s and all that. And discovering neuroplasticity, how the brain is more malleable than we thought.  With intention and conscious awareness and meditation, let’s say, you can change the brain. Not just the brain, it affects everything. But its mutuality. What’s it called? Neuroplasticity. The brain is more malleable than we thought, like plastic.  So I think these are some great in-roads for today that the non-religious can really enjoy and there’s scientific research to back it up. And as you well know, science is the religion of modern times, so if science says this is good for us it must be good for us. Westerners will sign on.

LM: If somebody with a white lab coat says it, it must be true. 

LSD: Exactly. I mean modern psychology now agrees that these things – yoga, meditation, breathing and energy work, holistic healing and diets – are good for us, so modern psychology is a venerable institution now. It’s almost 200 years old! 

LM: (laughing!) Yeah, ancient.

LSD: Let’s not be naive. I’m just making a case for mainstreaming enlightening values today, with or without the "isms".

LM: Yeah, good. What about the role of technology, Lama Surya Das? We’ve entered into an era unprecedented in world history in the abilities that we have to communicate like we’re doing right now.

LSD: Right.

LM: From rural Australia to Massachusetts.

LSD: Technology is a good tool and a poor master, like so many things. And so we don’t want to fall totally under its power. But it’s very useful in many ways, just like we’re doing now. And people don’t have to travel to hear us give a lecture in person. They can hear it on YouTube or be part of this, or we can have a circle meeting in this way without traveling to a conference. We’re in the "over-information age" as I call it. So we have access to a lot of information. But what are we doing with it? That’s the challenge. Are we able to winnow out that information and go deeper, and gain real knowledge and understanding? And even deeper, go into self-realization, and wisdom, and illumination, and higher consciousness – not just have a lot of information or mental knowledge? I think that technology is a good tool and a poor master, and I’m very interested. I mean I’m not very technical myself, but I use this stuff. It’s like I’ve been driving a car my whole life but I’m not interested in mechanics, you know, in fixing it. But it gets me where I want to go. Or an airplane. That’s marvelous. Or a telephone, the cell phones, you know whatever we’re using. Now I write my books with a laptop instead of a pen on a legal pad.  

So this is all well and good. But technology has been evolving as humanity has evolved for thousands of years.  So it may not be as surprising as it seems to be in the long run. What’s more interesting I think is how it conditions our humanity. Like Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Does our civilization become better with a very short attention span from the hurry up offense of technology, from the tweet, from the instant gratification of Google everything so you don’t have to remember or know anything? It’s very hard for some people, younger people, to develop analytical reasoning and follow a chain of analysis or thought because they just Google and get a quick answer. You know I’m a writer and reader my whole life, so when I Google the dictionary, I often don’t get the best definition. I just get a very, you know first- or second-level definition. So I know the limits of “googling.” And, when I look up on Wikipedia what it says about dzogchen or some subject that I’m purportedly some kind of expert in, it’s not very satisfying to me. You know the limits of “googling” also. But if we’re just satisfied with this instant gratification – very quick and superficial – I call it instant coffee mind; we end up with instant coffee and lose the deeper richness that coffee aficionados will tell you about.

LM: Yes, it could be.

LSD: And that’s a danger of the modern, speedy, instant, interruptive technology – short attention span and so on. And we have real attention issues today. ADHD is well diagnosed. Maybe too over-diagnosed. And we treat it with Ritalin. Why aren’t we treating, giving young kids attention-span exercises, concentration exercises, yoga and martial arts and breathing exercises, and walking meditations and things like that? That would be very helpful to train the concentration and mind muscle, and not just give them chemical interventions.

LM: Yes.

LSD: And that doesn’t mean we have to teach them Buddhism in school. But yoga and the things I mentioned in concentration, attention exercises, could be very, very helpful, especially to kids, but to all of us. So I’m enjoying the technology, but I’m not like it’s biggest fan.

LM: Ha ha ha. Right. It’s a little bit hard to know what to make of it because we’re in the middle of it. But it seems like it’s very possible that this, historically we’ll look back at this as being much more revolutionary than even the industrial revolution in terms of the change of consciousness that having the world wide web and the instant communication it makes possible.

LSD: We might, but we might not. Maybe we’ll look back and say, “Oh, we did everything faster but we didn’t really cure more diseases better”, or, “Oh, but we wiped out one-quarter of the population by bio-chemical warfare with the Ebola anthrax. We blew it.” 

LM: Yeah, who knows? We’ll have to see, right?

LSD: Einstein was very disappointed at the use of his E=mc2 at Hiroshima.  

LM: Yup.

LSD: And he said he wished he could take it back. 

LM: Yep.

LSD: So who knows if that was really scientific progress or not.  I mean atomic energy is a very interesting multi-variant issue. I’m just saying, in the long run who knows? I’m really dedicated to now doing our best at being very conscious and aware, and applying critical reasoning as well as non-conceptual awareness to my life. And passing that onto the younger – I mean everybody’s younger compared to me now – so I want to be the bodhisattva of children and lift everyone up in my maroon robe. And not just ring bells and wave rosaries at them like some old priest and tell them about heaven and hell. No thanks. l'll let somebody else do that.

LM: Can you let us in on what your plans are for the near future? What do you hope to be doing? More of the same? You got different plans? You going to retire some day? What are you going to do?

LSD: Oh I retired a long time ago. 

LM: (laughing)

LSD: A long time ago. But I have plans, you know, like everybody else. I’m going to go to dinner with my sweetie. I have a teaching schedule year round. You could see it on website and other places. I’m writing and thinking about the future of Buddhism and the future of timeless wisdom traditions in our world. I think wisdom, timeless wisdom, is endangered, is an endangered natural resource. We haven’t even named it yet. And we lose it; we overlook it at our peril. It’s an endangered natural resource we need to cultivate. I think about young people more and more. Connecting with young people. That’s one reason why I got a little more active on the web.  Like I said, I’m not very technical so it’s a little hard for me to keep learning new stuff.  I just got my first iPhone a month ago. I finally broke down. I’d been waiting for a long time for Steve Jobs to make a Buddhist iPhone. You know, the no-iPhone. 

LM: (laughing) No I!

LSD: Yeah, no I. But anyway I got the iPhone.  And you know the Twitter, the tweets going. But why don’t we raise tweets to the level of haiku and the level of pithy instruction? Why just tweet about that I’m eating oatmeal now and I can’t decide if I should put maple syrup in it or not?  I mean no one needs to know that.

LM: No, no one, certainly needs to know that kind of stuff. The worldwide web is a tool that we are still kind of learning how to use I think, as a race, as a human race.

LSD: Yes. But these are the modern communication technologies. The priests of old bewailed Gutenberg and his bible and books. They didn’t want the common people to have access to the knowledge.  Democracy and a lot of other things came from that kind of leveling of knowledge. Before only the priests knew how to write and had that knowledge. So we’ve gone through this in several phases. And I think there’s a big leveling out, which is good, but there’s also a big leveling out, which is questionable.  The death of facts. Everybody is an author. Everybody’s a celebrity. Everybody’s on YouTube. The death of expertise. I mean, if I’m an expert or something, then I found out pretty quick how little experts know. But that’s a lot to learn. That’s good. 

LM: That’s right! You know what you don’t know.

LSD: When I look on the web I find out… you know like the Wikipedia principal. It’s quick and dirty. I’m not quick but it’s not very thorough. And the past origins, the present goings on in different contexts, and the future implications are not there.  It’s very black and white. This is sort of like that. There’s no sense of the continuity, the history, the bigger picture, the different viewpoints that can be applied to the same situation. I’m thinking about that. And also if we want to talk about the thing that we love Lama – the dharma and beings and awakening and benefiting all of us together for a better future to be possible, which begins now by thinking a lot about how we have to do this together. It’s no longer the era like the ’60’s or the New Age, and time for self-help. In Buddhism there is no separate self and anyway you can’t be helped. 

LM: (laughing)

LSD: It’s a time for collective awakening and pulling together so we won’t be pulled apart. And I think this is really important and I’m stressing this a lot. I’m talking about it, and I think we need to think about presence-ing and awareness. That’s the higher power in the spiritual world. Awareness, by any other name it’s just as sweet. You know Buddhists have the higher power too. Karma, or awareness of karma, and understanding what causes what. Cause and effect. This awareness is crucial to being a master rather than a victim of life. And I’m not talking about a control freak. Master, self-mastery, rather than victim.

LM: Yeah, I totally agree with you. And I think one of the ways that the awareness has changed in our modern world is that we’re aware of the fact that there are lots of other people in it and that they have lots of other belief systems, lots of other authentic traditions. And it’s a little bit naïve… 

LSD: Yeah, beautiful. 

LM: …and it’s a little bit naive…

LSD: Beautiful references. 

LM: …and anachronistic.

LSD: A lot of similarities, and beautiful differences also.

LM: Yeah, and it’s a little naive and a bit anachronistic maybe to like kind of think that ours is the only one and the only right one and to get all involved in the orthodoxies of the past. Personally I’m kind of excited about the future when it comes to spirituality and religion as long as we don’t lose our nerve and go back to the sort of fundamentalist circling of the wagons around our little club.

LSD: Well, that’s a part of all of us but let’s be careful about that so we have more choice, we don’t just fall into it by mistake, or cultism, follow-the-leader. I try to inculcate leadership in my students and followers, not followership. I’m always looking for people that can outdo me and that can lead. My cult should have graduates, unlike some dangerous cults where nobody can get out alive.

LM: Yeah, that’s so important to be able to graduate. Seekers should be finders eventually, right?

LSD: Right, yes, exactly. And it’s not as far away as we think, not as hard as we think. You know we’re all Buddhas by nature; we only have to awaken to who and what we truly are.

LM: Ah, this is wonderful.

LSD: That’s what it says in the Hevajra tantras, not just something I made up. Kalu Rinpoche, my first Root Guru always used to say this, quoting the Hevajra tantra, the Laughing Diamond Tantra, "we’re all Buddhas" not Buddhists, God forbid. "We're all Buddhas by nature." It’s only temporary obscurations which veil that fact.”

LM: Yes.

LSD: So that’s the point of the direct-access enlightenment, in this lifetime, or even awakening-now teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the high, the non-dual teachings of a lot of Tibetan Buddhism, let’s say Middle Way Buddhism. And it’s a beautiful thing. American Buddhism, probably, we have to think of as American Buddhism. 

LM: Yes.

LSD: And it’s not going to be one uniform homogenous thing any more than America is.

LM: Yeah.

LSD: American Buddhism, which explains some of the differences in emphasis and the differences people have. And that’s fine; that’s life. And also we think too much about America ourselves, you know the American century, as they call it, is over. I think we have to consider China with its burgeoning population, it’s going to be 3 billion soon; and India – you know the dragon and the phoenix and all that. You know how the Portuguese and Spanish and British Empires rose and waned, and the American Empire is waning. What’s it going to be like in 50 or 100 years, and what is the unique selling point or contribution that Buddhism or dharma or we as bodhisattva aspirants, bodhisattvas can make? What is the unique contribution? And keep on and be focused on that, put our energy into that.  Not just all the mythology and iconography and things that are secondary to Buddha’s enlightened intent, which is for everybody to be as enlightened as he is. 

LM: Well maybe, maybe the day is over where we should be sticking cultural labels or national labels in front of Buddhism – American Buddhism, or you know, Tibetan Buddhism – and start thinking about global Buddhism and what that means. Inclusive Buddhism.

LSD: Yeah, right. Or enlightenment, or love. You know we need some words that also the younger people can relate to today. They’re so much into the environment, or the de-occupy movements. I like to say Occupy Buddhism, don’t leave it to the one percent. 

LM: (laughing)

LSD: The Dalai Lama. I mean he’s fine but what about the 99%? Let’s occupy dharma; let’s occupy the spirit. Don’t wait for someone else to do it.

LM: Awesome. I think great place maybe to end right there. Lama Surya Das, I’m so grateful and it’s been a great, great privilege. I’ve been looking forward to this for a time to be able to talk to you. And I’m sure that the readers of Awakening Journal will benefit a great deal from this conversation so thanks again for joining us.

LSD: My pleasure. God bless, Buddha bless. I look forward to seeing you in person.

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.” He has twice completed the traditional three-year meditation cloistered retreat at his teacher’s Tibetan monastery. He is the founder of the retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he conducts long training retreats and Advanced Dzogchen retreats. For more info. on Lama Surya Das, please visit