Lama Surya Das Transcript

Lama Surya Das Interview

Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer, and my guest today is Lama Surya Das, who is an actual Buddhist. I’ve had far too few of those considering the name on this show. So it’s great to have you on.

Lama Surya Das: Thank you.

Rick: Yeah, Lama Surya Das is…

Lama Surya Das: Maybe you don’t need more Buddhists on the show, but more gas.

Rick: True.

Lama Surya Das: Everything’s going. I’m good for that. Gassy.

Rick: Got a bit of that myself sometimes, especially if I’m eating a lot of dried fruit.

Lama Surya Das: I’m thinking more like hot air, you know.

Rick: Well, that end, I see.

Lama Surya Das: Talk to teachers about plenty of that kind of gas.

Rick: People say in Australia that gas implies… they call it petrol, you know, so gas implies some digestive disturbance or something.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, well, we have that too. No shortage. Actual gas, we call it.

Rick: Let me read you a little bio here. Lama Surya Das is referred to affectionately by the Dalai Lama as the American Lama. He spent over 40 years studying with the great spiritual masters of Asia. He’s an authorized lama in the Tibetan Buddhist order and the founder of the Dzogchen Center. Surya Das is the author of the international bestseller Awakening the Buddha Within, Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, and 12 other books, including his latest release, Buddha Standard Time, Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now. His blog, Ask the Lama, can be found at

Lama Surya Das: .org.

Rick: Oh, it says .com on this thing.

Lama Surya Das: .org.

Rick: to see his lecture. I’ll be linking to all this stuff from my website. is your site. And I listened to, I don’t know, six or seven hours’ worth of your talks over the past week, mostly about cross-country skiing. And I really got the sense that you, well, first of all, I feel inclined, you’re one of these people to whom I feel like saying “congratulations on a life well lived,” even though it’s far from over, hopefully. But you’ve really given it your all.

Lama Surya Das: I feel happy and grateful. Thank you.

Rick: And same to you. I understand you’ve been meditating and following your teachers and gurus since, I don’t know, if I say when, everybody will know how old we are.

Lama Surya Das: No, I’m 68.

Rick: 68, yeah.

Lama Surya Das: That’s pretty good.

Rick: I kind of got into it when I was, well, I kind of, first of all, got into drugs a bit, as many of us did, and partly through the inspiration of your friend Ram Dass, who was Richard Alpert at the time.

Lama Surya Das: Yes, that was the ’60s. That was the ’60s, the consciousness expansion.

Rick: Yep. Did a bit of that for a year and then realized that was going to kill me, and so I learned to meditate in ’68. And you, I was kind of reminded of Forrest Gump when I heard of your life, because, not in the sense that you’re dumb or anything.

Lama Surya Das: I know what you’re saying. Whatever was happening, you were there by accident, not by smarts.

Rick: I mean, here you were, Jeffrey Miller, growing up on Long Island, studying Judaism, a little bored with that. And then you ended up at Woodstock, and I suspect you probably inhaled. Then, next thing I hear, you’re in India with Neem Karoli Baba and the Das brothers, so to speak.

Lama Surya Das: You gave me my name.

Rick: Yeah, Surya Das, Ram Das, Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, all those guys. And then you end up, like, I’m sure I’m skipping a lot, but you end up in Tibet and studying in monasteries and doing three-year intensives and actually learning Tibetan. So you’ve really, you know, taken this stuff seriously.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, my girlfriend in the ’70s used to nickname me Serious Das, but I’m much younger now.

Rick: Yeah, sounds like Dylan.

Lama Surya Das: If we take ourselves too seriously, life ain’t much fun, so I learned. And, you know, there’s a lot of joy and buoyance and lightness in the path, in the spirit. So it’s coming. It’s coming, yes.

Rick: Yeah, I think we get more and more natural as time goes on.

Lama Surya Das: I should hope so.

Rick: I hope so. Less pretentious and less kind of stuffy. I mean, look at, you know, look at the Dalai Lama. Look at the new Pope. I mean, these guys are just sort of so natural. That’s what people love about them.

Lama Surya Das: Very inspiring, both of them.

Rick: Yeah. And others, you know, I mean, so it’s…

Lama Surya Das: No, there’s no shortage of inspiring models in the world. People say, you know, “Where are the gurus today?” You know, but some of us say, “Where are the avid seekers today?” Of course, there’s both. And anyway, it’s not majority rule in the spiritual world, as you know, Rick. You know, to save one’s soul is to save the world, as it says in the Jewish wisdom book, the Talmud, and it’s Buddhist bodhisattva thinking is similar. As Buddha said, “When I was awakened, all were awakened, even the rocks and the trees.”

Rick: I like that.

Lama Surya Das: So that’s a little hard to understand rationally, but I could retranslate that loosely and say “when I’m clearer, everything is clearer.” That’s understandable. So I think it’s very important, you know, what they call today the power of one, not to emphasize the self or the ego but the power of one. If I can do it, if the Dalai Lama or the Pope or Jesus, Buddha, anybody can do it, you can do it. Anybody can do it.

Rick: Yeah. And one of the things I was listening to, you said that millions of people have gotten enlightened. And I wondered whether you meant throughout history or contemporaneously or what?

Lama Surya Das: In generally throughout history, you know. I haven’t taken a poll yet contemporaneously, as you said.

Rick: Is that the right word? I think so.

Lama Surya Das: It doesn’t matter. Who’s counting? I have a poetic license here. You should use it. Just to say it’s not just one only begotten son of God. There’s the Christos, the light, the divine, the Christ principle, the Christos in everyone and everything. Not just only one begotten son. And then what about the daughters, etc.? There’s not just one Buddha. There are infinite numbers of Buddhas, as you can find in the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. This isn’t just me wailing in the wind here being, you know, gassy. So there have been millions enlightened. But of course, also, you know, what enlightenment is, how enlightened, who knows? I’m not here, you know, I’m not trying to weigh the spirit with a postal scale. But just to say it’s not, that it’s closer than we think. You know, we may feel far from it. We may feel far from God, the path, Dharma. We may feel far from enlightenment. Let’s say, let’s use the American word God. It’s just a placeholder anyway for the highest, which is, so few can really understand and penetrate. We may feel far from God. But I assure you. God’s never far from us, not far at all.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: In fact, you know, this is not original, but it’s a good saying. People say, “God hides in the last place that most of us will look. Inside. Inside ourselves.”

Rick: Yeah. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi said something similar, said “God may be omnipotent but there’s one thing he can’t do, can’t take himself out of your heart.”

Lama Surya Das: I never heard that. Thank you.

Rick: That’s a nice one.

Lama Surya Das: That’s good. You know, that’s one Forrest Gump-like scene that they must have cut out of my life movie. I never met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. But I was at his ashram in Rishikesh.

Rick: There you go.

Lama Surya Das: He was in America at the time, but I was there in 71, you know, when I was visiting those Rishikesh in those places and doing yoga and living in ashrams. So I was at his ashram with the Beatles, et cetera., when met him. But I’ve never really done TM. You know, a lot of friends do it. Of course, it’s very popular and important.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: Western Dharma, Western spirituality.

Rick: Well, I’m sure that you’re doing just fine, nonetheless.

Lama Surya Das: Right. I’m like a spiritual slut. I’ve done it with them all, spiritually-speaking.

Rick: Yeah, right. Well, we’re talking about enlightenment here. Let’s, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing and that people understand what we mean by the word. Because it’s one of those words that, you know, gets thrown around. And if we don’t define it, then we might be saying one thing and a thousand different things are being heard.

Lama Surya Das: I’m sorry I even brought it up. Now we’re stuck. We have to talk about it.

Rick: That’s OK. I mean, we should talk about it. That’s ultimately what this game is supposed to be all about. So what is it in your understanding?

Lama Surya Das: Well, rather than give you tried-out traditional Buddhist or Tibetan Buddhist definition, I’m going to use, I’m using it like a placeholder for the ultimate, you know. Even the word achievement is not the right word. The ultimate actualization of what we are and can be. You know, it’s a placeholder, like the word God, as I mentioned before, for something the rational mind can’t, can scarcely grok or grasp, comprehend. So, of course, in Buddhism, enlightenment means “Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi.” Full, complete, unexcelled, irreversible enlightenment. Not just having an epiphany, a peak experience, a satori or breakthrough to reality, but actually living there. So that’s, you know, supposedly, I wasn’t there, if I don’t remember. Buddha got enlightened like that under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, miles outside Banaras in northern India twenty six hundred years ago. He’s the icon or archetype embodying enlightenment, full enlightenment. Not that nobody else got it ever. I’m just saying. So that’s full, supreme, unexcelled enlightenment in English, you know. In theistic traditions, we might call it God Realization. Ramana Maharshi might call it Self-Realization. You know, it’s the ultimate “spiritual achievement.” But how to ask the ineffable? You can’t really express these things. It’s not an achievement. It’s not like getting from here to there, from here to heaven. It’s like getting from here to truly and completely here. One hundred percent here. Two hundred percent here. How do we do that? And that’s more about being as well as doing, balancing the doing and the achieving, and the getting there with the being. Being there while getting there. Being there while getting there. Being there while getting there. Every single step of the way. Every step of the way to heaven is heaven, as a saint said. I think it was St. Catherine of Siena, a Christian mystic. It’s a great reminder.

Rick: Maharishi used to say “The goal is all along the path.”

Lama Surya Das: That’s right. Every step of the way to heaven is heaven, as St. Catherine said. That’s a great reminder for us people practicing mindfulness or here and now-ness or presence or authenticity and aliveness. Not to think enlightenment is shinier on the other side of the world or in heaven after we die. Heaven is on earth. There’s nirvana, enlightenment, within samsara, delusion, as the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures say. But it still remains for us to confirm that rumor, even though it says in the scriptures. We have to confirm it for ourselves. Otherwise, it ain’t much good. It’s like reading menus. Doesn’t alleviate hunger. We have to eat.

Rick: Yeah. And, but it seems to me, I mean, for instance, I was interviewing Joseph Goldstein a few, a month ago or something, and he alluded to Mahayana Buddhism as outlining four stages of awakening, four primary stages. And we didn’t really have a chance to get into what those were. Maybe you can tell us about them. But to my understanding, enlightenment should be, I mean, even though you can’t really convey any experience in words, a taste of an orange, you can write a thousand words about it, but you’re not going to convey it anywhere near like, you know, the vividness of actually eating one. But nonetheless, there should be certain characteristics of enlightenment, which can be discussed and described.

Lama Surya Das: Much discussed.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: Millennia.

Rick: Right. For instance,

Lama Surya Das: Much discussed and written down and also authoritatively, not just random, like Joseph was saying, and Joseph’s a great authority among, you know, Western teachers. He’s a real pioneer. “Western Buddhi-ism,” as we call it, since he was Jewish on his parents’ side, like me, but Buddhist training and choice. Joseph was alluding to, and he’s, you know, very knowledgeable about this, but this is not any secret. I mean, that there are different kinds of Buddhism and there are different schemes of the path, just like there are different roadmaps. There are different projections of the world. The makita projection of the globe is one. But there are other ways of looking at the globe. There are different ways of looking at the world. In the old original root Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, there’s the four stages leading to liberation, enlightenment. I could detail them more. In Mahayana Buddhism, which came a little later, later development and more including lay people and more pantheon of archetypes, goddess-like and god-like archetypes, iconography, and so on. Mahayana Buddhism, including Zen, there’s the 10 stages of the path leading to full enlightened Buddhahood. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, so-called Tibetan Buddhism, Diamond Path, Tantric Buddhism, there’s the four stages of the cosmic awareness holder, full enlightenment. So, these are different stages on the path and each is characterized by different, let’s call them, enlightened qualities. Transcendental virtues, not just ordinary virtues, divine-like virtues. So, in this first four steps of the path and the first step, you have to experience nirvana. That’s called stream entry. When you touch for however long, a timeless moment or minutes or hours even, the stream of nirvana, it’s called stream entry, sotāpanna. And that uproots some of the basic obscurations like dualism, but not greed. So, in the second or third dips in the river of nirvana, this is just the metaphor. It’s a deeper dunk. You know, it’s like the first dip is like, this is a ridiculous but wonderful, let’s say, New York Jewish analogy. It’s like if you have a cucumber and you want to pickle it, you can dunk it in vinegar. It doesn’t become pickled in one dunk or in one half hour. But it has to sit in it longer and to pickle it. But once it’s pickled, they can’t go back to “cucumberhood,” to be funny. So, similarly, with this scheme of the four steps leading to enlightenment in the original Buddhism— stream entry, once returner to this world, rebirth non-returner, and then arhat, liberated saint, enlightenment. So, that’s one scheme. And at each step, you gain more enlightened powers and qualities, psychic powers, enlightened powers or qualities like egolessness, selflessness, unselfishness, like uprooting greed and lust and so on, like uprooting the illusion of duality and so forth. So, that’s the path of purification according to, let’s say, Joseph’s original school, the old school, original school, Theravada Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, there’s the 10 steps, bhumi steps, stages, leading to full enlightenment. And each stage, you uproot some of these kaleshas or obscurations, covering the inner light, if you want to call it that. Or some call it leaks. You plug or you dry up some of these leaks, like we’re leaking lust and we’re leaking distracted energy and we’re leaking here and there. And so, that your spirit is more intact. It’s just another metaphor. But you burn off the obscurations covering the innate Buddha within, the Buddha nature, innate Buddha-ness, Tathagatagarbha. The Buddha nature within, that we’re each Buddhas by nature, we only have to recognize and realize who and what we are. So, in the Mahayana scheme, it’s more emphasizing that and our Buddha nature and burning off the dross, the obscurations, like the clouds covering the innate sun of Buddha-ness, of wholeness and completeness, our uncorruptible, timeless, beginningless and endless, unborn Buddha nature, dharmakaya. So, it says we’re all Buddhas by nature, we only have to recognize or realize that fact, that’s the meaning of enlightenment experience. And then when we really stabilize that, mature that, realize that unshakably, irreversibly. We get to attend the 11th stage of Buddhahood. So, there’s different kinds of enlightenment in each level, not just remove some of the obscurations, defilements, negativities, whatever you want to call them, veils, some call it. But comes with it many powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal monks like in the Superman song. Like the power to heal, I’m not just talking about power-tripping or megalomania. The power to heal, the power to read minds, know what others need and how to help them, the power of magnetizing, bring things together, whatever is needed to fulfill the needs and wishes and aspirations of all the beings. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the power to restore the earth, the globe, environment, the health and balance, wouldn’t that be nice? So, there are psychic powers. There are other spiritual powers and so on. And at each level, they say, I mean, this is Buddhist doctrine, at the first level of the Bodhisattva is the awakening spiritual warrior on the path of Buddhahood. You can manifest like 10 beings, at the second level, you can manifest like Dalai Lama is on. He doesn’t talk about himself. This is not like an army or Catholic Church where you know what rank everybody is, internally. You can’t judge that. But he has a lot more power than the average monk or the average person. Power to help, power to inspire, power of purity, you know, so on. So maybe he’s at the second, third, fourth or eighth level. I don’t know. So he can manifest like 1,000 or 10,000 ordinary people. So it’s not just mysterious psychic powers that one may or may not believe in, but very practical powers like leadership power, like the power, the ability, the talent to inspire others, empower others, and so forth. It’s very relational, all of this. So yes, as you said, enlightenment should have some characteristics or qualities, and it’s a path where you develop them, you cultivate them, which is an important part of Buddhism, not praying to some creator or source for blessings and powers. And I’m talking about power so much it sounds strange. You know, not praying for enlightenment, but not praying to become a better person, although we do, but cultivating being a better person. Like Buddha is as Buddha does, which is one of my book titles about this subject of how to be a bodhisattva in life, a spiritual altruist activist, bodhisattva.

Rick: The reason I find it an interesting topic, the idea of defining enlightenment carefully and precisely and all the stuff you were just saying about all the different levels and stages is that, you know, obviously these days in the West, spirituality is all the rage. There are a lot of people who are…

Lama Surya Das: I wish.

Rick: Well, you know, at least among…

Lama Surya Das: But I know what you’re saying.

Rick: Among our circles anyway. There are a lot of people who are, you know, sincerely and enthusiastically dedicated to or interested in spirituality. There are a lot of people who are having awakenings. I mean, I get emails from people all the time who, many of whom hadn’t even done any spiritual practice. And just out of the blue, one day, “boom,” something big happened and they don’t know quite what to make of it. And then there’s a Tibetan saying, which I often quote, which you may have heard, which is, “Don’t mistake understanding for realization. Don’t mistake realization for liberation.” And I think that in a way, the understanding of the full range of spiritual possibilities in our Western culture is in a fairly fledgling state. And this creates a lot of confusion of people having some little awakening and thinking it’s final, setting themselves up as the supreme such and such, you know, on the basis of some preliminary thing. It results in, you know, people putting people up on pedestals and just all kinds of… And kind of short-changing themselves, really, in a way, by assuming that just gaining some intuitive understanding and mistaking that for the final attainment is… they’re short-changing themselves. So I think that the more we can infuse a clear understanding of the full range of possibilities and, you know, the various stages that one traverses going through that range, the more valuable it will be for our spiritual engagement in the West.

Lama Surya Das: Well, that’s what we’re working on, isn’t it?

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: A more, you know, profound, meaningful, transformative spiritual engagement.

Rick: And obviously a culture like Buddhism, which has been around for 2600 years, has worked this out to a great degree. I mean, the Eskimos have 30 names for snow, you know, and the Buddhists, having been at this game for so long, have really kind of nuanced it to a great degree.

Lama Surya Das: Yes, we have a hundred words for mind or consciousness or spirit or inner light and things like that. But, you know, I detailed some of those things before in a semi scholarly way, because you asked me about the four stages that Joseph Goldstein was talking about. So that’s the path of purification and the path of enlightenment in gradual terms. But to cut through all that, like Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, which I greatly recommend to everybody, it’s not a Buddhist text, it’s maybe the wisest book ever written. And I like Stephen Mitchell’s translation for my students. The Tao Te Ching says the way that can be weighed is not the true way. You know, the name that can be named, meaning of the ultimate, is not the true ultimate. And that’s why some religions, and I’ll give a nod here to Islam, they’re good at that. But, you know, also Judaism says there shouldn’t be any image of God or of the one because any image is not the real image. It’s a human, you know, fabrication. There shouldn’t be any name. Of course, there’s a thousand names of God, but they’re all just placeholders. Nicknames, I would say, if you’re Jewish, you might know that theoretically, we’re not supposed to write the word God out because you can’t really say the name. So you use a hyphen, GWD, if you’re writing like a little report in Hebrew school, GWD, and in Hebrew. So in Hebrew, we call him Hashem, the name. It doesn’t, you know, so you don’t say the name of God, Yahweh. Oops.

Rick: Uh oh.

Lama Surya Das: That’s me. So it’s impossible to express it in words or for the rational mind to comprehend it, but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been talked about, discussed, and experienced. So as you were saying, there’s a difference between, this is a spectrum of development of wisdom and realization, information and learning and understanding and knowledge and experience and insight, and even further insight, self-realization, you know, mind realization, liberation, and enlightenment. So wisdom is over here, and information, which, you know, we live in the over-information age, but I don’t know how much good it does us on the spiritual side. You know, a lot of information, so a lot of understanding or a lot of knowledge, but not that much insight, self-knowledge, and wisdom. So the spiritual path to move, you know, again, to cultivate wisdom and develop wisdom, we can develop it. It’s like our muscles. We all have it within, but they’re not all firm. They’re not all very healthy. Some are very flabby from disuse. So cultivating that and just mentally, experientially, you know, both sides of our brain to talk modern, the intuitive as well as the rational sides of our brain, the masculine, feminine energies. Very important to include the body and soul, the heart and mind. So I think that’s important to remember. And, you know, if we’re in a theistic tradition, to really bring God into our lives or become closer to God or Goddess and to realize it not just in ourselves, but in each other and all and everything, to see the world that way as like an altar and everyone and everything is the gods and goddesses on it. A luminous perception of oneness, what we call in Tibetan the natural great perfections, Dzogchen, everything perfect and complete as it is, even though we can still use a little tweaking. You know, we’re still working to become better people and work for a better world. And yet there’s a deep acceptance or equanimity or centeredness amidst it all. Taking in the big picture, you know, developing gradually through time on the gradual path of enlightenment, as well as in the fourth time, the holy now, divine time that bisects every moment of horizontal linear time, timeless time, the fourth moment being totally here now, divine time, not just the changing times in every moment. So it’s not so that’s called sudden enlightenment. And in Buddhism, at least there’s been a 1,500 year-old debate about whether, you know, Buddhism, not Buddhism, enlightenment is sudden or gradual. And I think it’s sort of “both and.” Well, wasn’t that some gradual cultivation, sudden realization that is not contradictory, complimentary.

Rick: Yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s some Buddhist fellow, you probably know his name, contemporary who said enlightenment may be an accident but spiritual practice makes you accident prone.

Lama Surya Das: Yes. Yeah. Robert Aitken Roshi, Zen master, very wise saying. And so in Tibetan Buddhism, we say, you know, similarly, and because, because we don’t live in the world of oneness and non-duality, we live in the world of, you know, we’re animals and we’re human beings and we have rational minds. We live in a world of duality although that is actually the oneness itself. But you know, the one is in the many and so forth. But in the world of duality, there’s cause and effect and karma, and is helpful and harmful acts and so on. So even in the great perfection, you know, that’s the view from above. But the view from below is climbing up the mountain, you know, through ethical practices and mind training, and good deeds and help altruism developing loving kindness and compassion and everything. All the spiritual virtues common to pretty much all the spiritual sacred traditions in the world. So balancing that swooping down from above, we call it in Tibetan Buddhism, swooping down from above with the big picture, the view, oneness, equality, great emptiness. We call it in Buddhism, while climbing up the spiritual mountain or path from below through relative practices, ethical morality, good deeds, and so on, trying to get a better rebirth, as they say in Hinduism. Trying to ascend the ladder of enlightenment, as they might say in Buddhism, you know, climbing up the path from below, according to our relative capacities and aspirations. So swooping while climbing, not just swooping. Like skiing straight down the mountain and having a crash landing, and not just climbing and losing sight of the whole forest, because we’re lost in the trees. And fighting over whether with the other religion is whether you should go left or right. It might look like you’re going in different directions, but all ascending the same mountain with the same goal. So you know, generally speaking, not theologically, even the Dalai Lama says, “let’s not argue about the difference between heaven and nirvana. Let’s just recognize the very similar, same goal. For now, leave the those new theological nuances and differences for the theologians to work out.” So I think of like swooping while climbing, like being there while getting there, like seeing the one in the many. Seeing our Buddhist practice is seeing the Buddha, or the Buddha, the Buddha nature, the perfection, the beauty in all and everything. Not just the people you love and like your kids and your mother and your mate and your dog, cats, dog, all beings, not just human beings. This is a challenge. And this is where Buddhism maybe has a little bigger purview than Christianity. I don’t know. This is my, you know, my I’m rooting for my team here. You know, all beings, the Buddha nature in all beings, all beings endowed with the spirit, not just human beings. That’s why we don’t kill animals and so on, or even become vegetarian, not just human beings have this inner light. I don’t want to say so, it’s not a Buddhist word. But inner light, the spirit.

Rick: Well, if the, if this inner light or spirit or pure self, or whatever we want to call it is the ultimate reality, if it’s the ground state of the universe, then obviously it’s probably from one perspective. It could be said to be all that exists, actually. But if we want to sort of concede to duality, then at least it’s, it’s got to be at the core of everything.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, it’s all pervasive,

Rick: All beings, all rocks for that.

Lama Surya Das: Everything. Buddhist teaching nothingness is not nihilism. It’s not it’s not a thing. You know, these things are not a thing, but also it’s everything.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: So if we can hold that at the same time, then we have a bigger mind, you know, the book, excuse me, both and the electrons are both waves and particles. You know, they’ve been arguing for years, whether it’s wave or particle, but they’re both and neither, because it’s hard to print it down. Just like we’re neither one nor separate. We’re not entirely one, but we’re not entirely separate.

Rick: It’s the certain paradox.

Lama Surya Das: It’s paradoxical.

Rick: That’s why, the Certs commercial paradox. Remember the Certs commercial? Certs is a candy. No, Certs is a breath mint.

Lama Surya Das: Yes.

Rick: Certs is two mints in one.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah. Get back to the two in one. The duality in the unity, unity and duality works both ways. The God in I don’t want to say man. That’s all my God in in us,

Rick: People

Lama Surya Das: All beings and all beings in God. If you want to use those words, it’s very, it’s like finger painting, is kind of imprecise. But what it does is, this finger painting, these songs and poems and scriptures and all of this, is very imprecise once it’s translated and watered down into language and rational thought. Which is, you know, the intellect is an excellent servant tool, but a poor master. The problem is with too much under its thrall. So that’s why silence or other irrational kind of like art are beautiful. It’s like spirit alive at work outside of religion, outside of organization, outside of politics and churches. You know, the church is a political institution. Every church, every religion. That’s that like the building. But the living spirit inside the building or the church of the people, the living spirit is what’s important, not the building or the group. The group is important. Community is important. But the real church, you know, is the living spirit. And inside the living spirit, the heart of it, the heart’s blood is like the mystical experience or the experience. The isn’t the author. In the beginning was the logos. You know, that’s what it says. It doesn’t say was the word was logos. And what is logos mean? The law, reality, is it the truth, is hard to translate. Not in the beginning was the word like it’s like home. In the beginning was the home. But what is home? It’s just cosmic vibration, primordial impulse or something, primordial vibration or energy undifferentiated. Even his own. It’s already like become differentiated.

Rick: Getting back to the swooping and climbing for a minute. What I have seen is that there are definitely people who are swoopers and others who are climbers and who haven’t quite integrated the two. In other words, there are people who take, I think, a largely intuitive or intellectual view of the ultimate reality and go on to say things like, well, you know, since there is no person, there can be no valid practices because practices are only going to reinforce the notion of a practice, of a person. And therefore, you really can’t do anything. And, you know, and they go on and on like that.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, that’s OK. But this is what I have to say that, you know, and then why are they talking about this?

Rick: Yeah. Why are they giving seminars?

Lama Surya Das: Well, it’s their practice, their way.

Rick: Well, a lot of them, they would probably.

Lama Surya Das: The way is also a way. The formless is one more form.

Rick: Yeah, I’m sure you’ve run into this.

Lama Surya Das: I like Buddhism’s middle way. I’m not saying Buddhism. Middle way of balance. Not too much nihilism. Nothing is it. Not too much material realism. Everything is what it seems to be. The middle way and as many lanes in the middle way, not just the razor’s edge down the middle, as many lanes. Let’s just try to stay out of ditches of on one side, nihilism on the other side, sort of materialism or realism. Everything is just what it seems to be because things are not what they seem to be. But as it says in the Buddhist scripture, things are not what they seem to be, nor are they otherwise.

Rick: Yeah. I’m going to be interviewing a physicist next.

Lama Surya Das: It is.

Rick: I’m going to be interviewing a physicist next week. And, you know, a physicist would tell you that ultimately, you know, if you analyze a bus, there is no bus there. You know, it’s just sort of kind of unmanifest probabilities or something, you know, in the vacuum state. But you try stepping in front of one. You have to kind of respect the laws of nature at every level of creation.

Lama Surya Das: So that’s why, like swooping and climbing, or being there while getting there, is an example of just the general doctrine of two levels of truth or reality, like absolute and relative or conventional. Like in old language, God and man, you know, there’s heaven and earth, but they’re not that separate. They’re intermingled, I think, is the way to look at it. So in the absolute, nothing matters. We’re all going to die. You know, the planets are going to go back to the sun and the sun is just a tiny dot. And the Milky Way, which is just a tiny dot in the universe. Let’s not forget that perspective. So how much does it matter if I have a bad hair day or a bad hair life? In the scheme of billions of beings life, just on this tiny dot of a globe. And yet, does it not matter a lot whether you kick or kiss your child when you send them out the door to school in the morning? Of course it does. And it would be insane to think otherwise. So balancing the absolute picture, what we call shunyata, badly translated as emptiness or voidness, kind of subjectivity, with the relative truth of karmic formations and cause and effect. That one thing leads to another and different parts and, you know, the nucleus is different than the atom, the protons and the neutrons to go to your physics level. And there are parts that comprise the atom and the atoms comprise the molecule and the molecules, you know, the elements and the elements comprise whether it’s buses, cars. Like you said, step inside in front of a bus, see what happens. And a bus is different than a motorcycle and a motorcycle is different than an orange. That’s the world we live in, of duality. As soon as there’s two, there’s two billion myriads. But in the oneness, there’s no differentiation. It’s not necessarily better. It’s just vanilla. There’s many other flavors.

Rick: There’s a Sanskrit saying, “Anor aniyan mahato mahiyan,” which means greater than the greatest, smaller than the smallest. And I think they should add everything in between. Like you were just painting this picture of the galaxies. And recently NASA said they think that it might be about 40 billion planets that potentially are habitable in our galaxy alone.

Lama Surya Das: In our galaxy, our little galaxy alone.

Rick: Yeah, of course, there are billions of galaxies. But anyway, that’s the cosmic picture. But then, you know, as you say, you don’t kick your child.

Lama Surya Das: There’s a difference between virtue and vice. Let’s bring it down to that level. Kiss or kick. You choose.

Rick: And we were trying to define enlightenment earlier. I would say that one definition would be having established the, I don’t know if ability is the right word, but the capacity to incorporate within one’s range of experience the cosmic vastness and the minutiae at the same time. Every little iota of experience in our human life. And having those two so perfectly integrated or balanced that one does not usurp the other, but they all kind of harmoniously support one another.

Lama Surya Das: So that’s what we call the middle way or way of balance and integration. Integration is very important. And Ken Wilber has a life work about this called Integral Theory. And his 20 books are a wonderful contribution to our modern thought. But I think to be practical, the question is always how do we bring it down to our life? How do we live in a more enlightened way and even bigger, create, you know, contribute to a more enlightened society, family, world?

Rick: So how do we? What do you advocate?

Lama Surya Das: I advocate very simple day-to-day practices, cultivations.

Rick: Which you teach.

Lama Surya Das: Well, teaching is one of them, perhaps.

Rick: I mean, you teach such practices for people.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, I teach meditation and chanting and prayer and yoga, Tibetan yoga, self-inquiry. And also I encourage questioning and shaking the tree, you know, not just believing what you hear. And openness, always trying to cultivate or maintain, you know, these are just words, an open mind and upbeat attitude, a positive attitude, even to the dark side, what we don’t like. You know, love is big. Unconditional love is huge. That’s what we’re cultivating, much bigger than the polarities over here of like and dislike, much smaller. Love and like and dislike. So very practically living a sane, mindful, unselfish life. If I use boring words, you know, ethical, moral life. Yeah, I’m just saying, you know, people like you said, spirituality is hot today. I don’t think ethics is, but these are timeless, evergreen subjects. Very important. You try to give your children, you try to help your children grow up and have character and be menschs. You know, real decent people, not the opposite.

Rick: Well, you know, I mean, maybe ethics should be hotter because, I mean, there have been so many instances in spiritual circles where there has been a lack of it. And people have gotten in trouble and done all kinds of crazy stuff.

Lama Surya Das: People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. But yes, that’s what, you know, so if you ask what I do or what I, you know, believe in or advocate, is your word, then having a spiritual life, first of all, you have to say that. Because a lot of people say, you know, you know, I don’t go to church, synagogue, whatever. I don’t believe, you know, we live in the postmodern era. So, you know, people are too smart for their own good or something. And so mental and losing touch with the heart and the love. So I think, you know, finding a real way of life that what Native Americans call hozo, harmony and beauty, not just outer beauty, but inner beauty and character and beautiful, harmonious, loving, meaningful, authentic relations. So in Buddhism, we have, you know, Buddhism, we don’t pray to God for these things. We cultivate, we practice them, cultivate, bhavana is the key word, cultivate. We cultivate mindfulness, being open and aware in my moment here now, {dog barks in background} like dogs are good at doing. Dogs may have other weaknesses.

Rick: I think that she’s thinking of breakfast.

Lama Surya Das: You know, that’s one reason we love little children and pets. They’re so in the moment. Of course, we have to become again like little children, not stay in a state of arrested development. We have to become more childlike, not childish.

Rick: Right.

Lama Surya Das: So there’s a certain discrimination to be made. So mindful living and ethical living and generous loving and, you know, compassion and action and so on and mindful relations. Also beautiful and not just mind, heartful, soulful relationships also is a big part of it. So that’s what I advocate. Some people say that violence and loving kindness and action is very, very important. I want to mention in our violent times.

Rick: Some people say that you can only act from your level of consciousness, that that’s that, you know, you can’t necessarily be ethical if you have a level of consciousness that just that doesn’t sort of spontaneously express ethical qualities. And so that the real, the horse versus the cart, is raising the level of consciousness.

Lama Surya Das: Absolutely.

Rick: And then the cart, namely ethical behavior will follow.

Lama Surya Das: Absolutely. Yes, that’s, that’s what I said about spiritual life. I advocate cultivating and having a spiritual life, which anybody can do. You know, people joke and say, oh, my wife has the spiritual gene, but I don’t. You know, it’s not a matter of a gene. So I have a spiritual life. And it doesn’t have to be a spiritual religious life. It could be a secular, ethical and impeccable life. You know, I don’t know who would be a good example of that.

Rick: Nelson Mandela.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah. Nelson Mandela is not a religious leader, but he’s very, you know, wonderful.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: Without defects.

Rick: Right. But he taught by his example of forgiveness and had an influence on the whole country. But he could have gone the other way.

Lama Surya Das: Yes. You know, there are secular saints also. So inside and outside the religious traditions, there’s still humanism and human values and other great virtues. So I think it’s important to be open to that. And, of course, education is the key is the silver bullet. And so you have to get, get, you know, bring these things into the home. To our own example, not just the words, because the kids learn from what we do and you said what we be, not just what we say. Right? They get they learn and they, they model what we be. And that’s about consciousness. That’s what the inner not what we say and what we do. And at the home and then in education, we need to bring the wisdom. back into education, not to mention higher education. Where’s the higher and higher education today? It’s just like me, a vocational training. So I think ethics and, you know, attention and concentration exercises could be helpful. I’ve not even mentioned bringing religion into the classroom because that’s a hot topic. But in this country of ADHD, children and Ritalin, old prescriptions, concentration and attention exercises, non-competitive sports like martial arts, and yoga and things could be so helpful for kids in their body and mind, heart and soul. Attention span, concentration, focus, all of these things. And then later leading to self-inquiry and self-knowledge and spiritual realization. So that’s the kind of thing I’m writing and thinking about these days, beyond my 15 books on Buddhism and on meditation and Eastern thought.

Rick: There are some good programs like that. I mean, you’ve probably seen that movie Doing Time. Doing Vipassana, teaching Vipassana in the prisons. And I know there’s a lot of programs like that in the US. And the David Lynch Foundation is teaching TM in prisons and schools in the inner cities.

Lama Surya Das: So mindfulness, mindfulness without the Buddhism necessarily component. Mindfulness and awareness, practice, meditation in every hospital, Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness in schools. And, you know, this is all good. And so I think we try to bring this into the mainstream by making it very secular. And today it has to have data attached to it for people to believe it’s so scientific. There’s a lot of good new neuroscience techniques and studies about the benefits, especially the health benefits of these things. Mental and physical health is a huge new Dharma door, a gate for Western society, that these practices and values are coming in through.

Rick: Well, it’s interesting, you know, because you mentioned the Ritalin and all the kids with ADHD and stuff like that. It’s almost like the way we’ve been doing things has gotten to the point where it’s proven to be so deficient, so inadequate. And to the point, so that in itself has made people open to other possibilities and open to things which might have seemed too out there, too unconventional a few decades ago. And so this stuff that you’re mentioning, it’s seeping into the culture rather quickly, as far as I can see.

Lama Surya Das: It definitely is. And it’s being well-studied and researched. And it’s much less threatening than it was some time ago, you know, when people were worried and had to kick the loonies off campus or out of the Hare Krishna dancers and chanters out of the airports. And, you know, mindfulness and the new Neuro-Dharmas, as I call it, neuroscience about neuroplasticity and how intention and consciousness can change your mood and your happiness quotient and things like that. This is all very much acceptable now today. And this is a good direction. But it’s not without its downside. You know, it can be a bit reductionistic because there’s not a lot of enlightenment or sacred values in it, but there’s good mental and physical health values in it, humanistic values. And so I’m all for it as long as the rest doesn’t get lost. You know, like modern Judaism, Christianity in this country has become so watered down that we’ve lost the mysticism, although the mysticism is still there, no doubt, underground. So with the Eastern thought traditions that are newish in this country in the last hundred years, I’d like to just keep an eye on not being overly reductionistic and scientistic and also keep alive the mystical or hard to measure elements and the goal and purpose, which is total transformation, God realization, self-realization, so-called enlightenment, Buddhahood, enlightenment. By any other name, it’s still a sweet. Better to become a Buddha than a mere Buddhist. That’s what I always say.

Rick: Yeah, well, that’s certainly been my motivation or orientation all these years. But, you know, one thing kind of leads to the next. And if you want to come into a school system and offer complete enlightenment and Buddhahood, you’re probably not going to get too far. But if you start with, let’s say, a yoga class in the local Y. People do that for a while. And then they think, “well, what more is there to this?” And then kind of they start getting motivated to look a little deeper.

Lama Surya Das: We’re chanting and breathing as concentration exercises or walking meditation. You know, even without the word meditation, just walking on a line on the tennis court or on the rug or on the beach is a great concentration practice for kids. And can be done in a group as well as individually. It’s very easy and there’s no beliefs or theology attached to it. It’s really important to be bringing these things into our child-rearing and education. But also to circle back to what you’re saying, into our own lives, not just what we do but our state of consciousness, who we are and what we be. That’s crucial. So it comes back to practicing or walking our talk, practicing what we preach. So since you asked what I advocate, I’ll take another cut at this at the same pie, really. I teach besides the three trainings of Buddhism, ethical character development, meditation and concentration and wisdom and self-knowledge, the three trainings, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. I teach a non-Buddhist or sort of not just Buddhist, six building blocks of enlightenment or six building blocks of a personal spiritual life. First, having a daily-ish spiritual practice like meditation or yoga or prayer or something daily-ish personal individual where we can do it. Not just go on Sunday once a week. Daily-ish personal spiritual practice like we meditate every morning and night or some things like that. And second, some form of study or learning. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re doing. Some learning to do it and do better. So study and practice or theory and experience goes together, experiential learning, theoretical. So study and practice. And if you’re not a book person, study could mean opening the book of nature, introspection, studying your relationships and things. And third, some form of working on yourself like therapy or men and women’s groups or journaling, creative work, some form of inner growth work. So these first triad of the six building blocks of a spiritual life is more alone-ish, daily spiritual practice, study or theoretical background and inner growth work and inquiry. And the next triad of the six is more with others-ish. Fourth, group or community practice. It takes a village. It’s hard to do it alone. Maybe you have kids, jobs, in-laws, and so on and take care of your old elders in your mother-in-law apartment. So it’s hard to do alone practice. But group practice, family, community, volunteering. And fifth, teacher practice, having some elder or teacher or advisor, spiritual mentor can be very, very helpful. And sixth, service, giving back, very important. So these are ‘with others practices,” group or community practice, teacher, working with elders and those who are a little further along on the path practice. And the last one, last but not least, seva. Service to God through serving humans, seva. Serving the highest or serving the lowest, seva. Volunteering, generosity, compassion and action, good parenting, being an informed citizen who votes, participating. So all of this. So three alone-ish and three with others-ish. Six building blocks of a spiritual life, like a nonsectarian enlightenment program for the postmodern era. And don’t be overwhelmed, listeners. If you do any one of them or two of them, it’ll definitely change your life. Everybody doesn’t need to have a teacher guru. Everybody doesn’t need or want to belong to a group. Everyone isn’t a studier. But just look at the idea. It’s a kind of balanced, well-rounded program. So pick up what you can. And the good news is, my friends, we’re already doing it. Some of us are doing parts of it or all of it already. This is not very foreign. So rejoice and fortify those parts of your life.

Rick: And sometimes it’s different things at different stages. A person will go through a stage where they’re doing a whole lot of seva, for instance, and another, maybe a different stage where they’re reading a lot of books. And then they feel, “I can’t read another book. I’m going to go out and do this.” So not all necessarily simultaneous.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, when you’re young and single, you can study a lot or do solitary things or go on retreats and pilgrimages by yourself. As I said, when you’re older, maybe you have kids and in-laws and up-laws and down-laws and a neighborhood to take care of. So it’s hard to do alone. But you do the group practices. And any one of these can take you all the way, by the way. That’s the secret of the eight-limbed yoga. Not just physical yoga, but service yoga and devotional yoga and philosophy yoga and mantra yoga and meditation yoga and all of these yogas. Any one of them can take you all the way. Devotion service can take you all the way. That was the path of Mother Teresa. She wasn’t an intellectual. Theoretic, I guess, study can take you all the way. I don’t know who to quote on that. But there are some philosophers like I don’t know who are very rational, like Krishnamurti maybe or I don’t know, St. Thomas Aquinas. It seems like study took them all the way.

Rick: It kind of depends on how you’re wired. I mean, different strokes for different folks. Some people are intellectual. Some people are devotional, emotional. Some people are real simple. I mean, Shankara’s main disciple was named Trotika. And there was a story where Shankara had four main disciples and the other three were sitting with Shankara waiting for the discourse to begin. And they were the big intellectuals. And Trotika was down by the river washing the clothes. And the other three were saying, “Why are we waiting for this guy? He doesn’t understand the discourses anyway.” And then at a certain point, they heard this beautiful melody coming from the river, getting closer and closer, this unknown new way of devotional singing. And it turned out it was Trotika. And through his devotion and his service, he had spontaneously attained enlightenment. And he was the one who became the principal of the four Shankaracharyas. He established the seat in Jyotirmath.

Lama Surya Das: I didn’t know that story. That’s marvelous.

Rick: Yeah, he was just this simple guy who was only good for washing clothes.

Lama Surya Das: We have Buddha stories like that, too. Buddha had a disciple who couldn’t memorize and learn anything. So Buddha gave him the job of sweeping the mud off the sandals and everything, you know. And his brother, this dumb monk’s brother, the monk’s name was Chandaka. Chandaka the dumb monk, let’s call him for simplicity’s sake. His brother was a very learned pundit. But this guy couldn’t memorize anything. So he got enlightened by sweeping. He said the mantra, the Buddha taught him this mantra, “Sweeping the dirt, purifying the mind. Sweeping the dirt, purifying the mind.” And somehow that mantra purified his obscurations. And he got enlightened just like his brother who was more of a thinker, philosopher.

Rick: And I’ll bet you that when he did get enlightened, then he had all that sort of refinement of intellect and wisdom and all that other stuff that, you know, would ordinarily be associated with having studied a lot.

Lama Surya Das: I don’t know if it all comes together like that. But it doesn’t have to. Because, you know, like a poet. Let’s name names. I love to name names. It’s very abstract. Everybody knows Krishna Das today, my dear brother from Long Island, Jeff Kagel, you know. Krishna Das, the great chanter. What’s the point of telling him he should study philosophy? He’s got his practice and his guru. So it doesn’t mean that when he realizes God through bhakti, devotion and oneness and all that, that he’ll be a great philosopher. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is that everything is it.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: It doesn’t have to be diverse or complicated, you know, “complexified.” Everybody doesn’t have to be a Renaissance spirit like Ramakrishna, who had a vision of every saint of every religion somehow.

Rick: Well, you pull any one leg of the table and the whole table comes along, all the other legs of the table itself. So, you know, now I know you have to go someplace today and you may be getting a little nervous about time. Just let me know when you get to that point where you feel like, oh, we’ve got to wrap this up, because I think I have a few more interesting things we can talk about. But if you’re getting short on time, please let me know. I don’t want to.

Lama Surya Das: Why don’t you ask me, since now you’ve talked to me for a while, Rick, and you know me. Why don’t you ask me something that you think would be particularly interesting for us or for people that, you know, to ask me, not all of your guests kind of thing. I don’t know what to say. I mean, like I’d like to chant something at the end to take us out of just the mental, the absurd realm. But the end is not yet.

Rick: The end is near. Well, I could ask you what… L. It’s not over till the fat lama sings.

Rick: I could ask you what they asked Bill Clinton- boxers or briefs. But I don’t know if that would be too relevant.

Lama Surya Das: Both. Both and nothing.

Rick: They asked other things of Bill Clinton, too, if I remember.

Lama Surya Das: Answer those questions.

Rick: Well, one thing that I find interesting, maybe this takes us back into the sort of theoretical, but I kind of find it interesting that I don’t know a heck of a lot about Buddhism, but I always hear that, well, Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with God and doesn’t even maybe believe that there is a God or something. And yeah, I bet you if you got right down to it, put Jesus and Buddha and, you know, some of the great Hindu leaders and Muhammad and so on in the same room, there wouldn’t be a heck of a lot of disagreement, if any, among them. So I sort of think that maybe it’s a matter of what we mean by God, or maybe it’s a matter of relevancy. Maybe Buddha just felt like don’t sort of spend your time thinking about things that aren’t immediately germane to your realization.

Lama Surya Das: That’s Buddha’s point to the people he was talking to. He was Hindu like Jesus was Jewish, grew up Jewish. Buddha was a Hindu, and so for him there was no point talking more about God and the gods. That was all around. So he didn’t find what he was looking for that way. He found it by meditating and by realizing, I don’t know, the ultimate which he chose to call enlightenment rather than Shiva or Vishnu or Brahma or all those things that he was brought up in and studied and very familiar with. So when people asked him about God, he said, “That’s not part of the path of enlightenment that I teach.” That’s all. But they didn’t ask him about God. God is a Western word, to go back to my very relevant point in the beginning. The word God, as we’re using, is a placeholder. They asked him about Brahma. So he said, “Brahma is not part of the enlightenment I teach.” It doesn’t mean there’s no higher power. He said, “Brahma is not part of the enlightenment I teach.” This notion of God separate from us or the creator God is not part of the enlightenment I teach. The enlightenment I teach is possible through these three trainings, this eightfold path, developing total wisdom and compassion and so on. That’s something we can do with cultivating what’s in us. That’s like the whole message. So he didn’t say there was no God. Buddhism is not atheistic, as some ignorant people would say. It’s agnostic. Buddha did not take that position. He didn’t take a position on God because he didn’t need to. And all around him was the many gods of Hinduism of the time.

Rick: So it’s like you’re in an algebra class and you’re supposed to be studying algebra. You raise your hand and say, “Tell me about trigonometry.” And the professor is just going to say, “Sorry, this is an algebra class.” So basically that’s what Buddha was saying. This is not part of the enlightenment I teach. Here’s the way I’m presenting it. Is that what you’re saying?

Lama Surya Das: Yes, except I would not use that analogy. So I think, people, don’t pass that on exactly by listeners. Because mathematics, algebra, trigonometry is kind of a hierarchy.

Rick: Sequential thing.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah. Let’s use this analogy. Does psychoanalysis believe in God? I’ll just do what we’re talking about. No. Psychoanalysis is a certain kind of science. Some people, medical or mental health science. Some people believe in God. They may be Jewish or whatever they are. And some are atheists. But psychoanalysis itself is not a religion or a theistic tradition. It doesn’t believe in God, but it’s not atheistic. It doesn’t say there’s no God. Does medicine believe in God? Some doctors do, but medicine doesn’t need God and it doesn’t say there’s no God. But Buddha’s enlightenment, and therefore the Buddhism that came from him, he didn’t really start it. You know, Buddha wasn’t particularly Buddhist but Buddha was an enlightened teacher. People started Buddhism based on his teachings. It doesn’t really deal with God in that sense. But then you have to find what does it mean by God. So it doesn’t really believe in or use the idea of a creator God or a three-part God like in Hinduism- creator, sustainer, transformer, destroyer God, or a God separate from our self. God or goddess separate from ourselves, or some ultimate being. You know, our notion of being kind of anthropomorphized like a person with a white beard or a buxom goddess, I don’t know. Hinduism has a different idea of the ultimate. But when people say, “Then how is it a religion?” You say, “Well, you know, religion doesn’t have to be defined by having a god. Taoism doesn’t have a god in it.” You know, these are religions. So there are monks, there are rituals. It’s one of the seven great world religions, but it’s not atheistic. It’s a non-theistic, not atheistic. It doesn’t deal with God. But it doesn’t deny God. It’s not atheistic, and it doesn’t preclude being like a Jewish Buddhist, like some rabbis are practicing Buddhist meditation or a Catholic Buddhist. There are even Catholic priests in good standing with the church who are Zen Buddhist masters. Some of my friends, they’re around. They’re well-known. This is not, you know, unknown, just like they’re, I don’t know, Jewish or Catholic or whatever, probably Hindu yoga teachers. You don’t have to be Hindu to be a yoga teacher. But you can be. In India, they were, but here, who knows? You could be a Jewish yoga teacher. You could be a psychoanalyst yoga teacher. You could be a scientist yoga teacher. So it’s a non-theistic path of awakening. Why use the word religion? It’s a path of enlightenment, and that’s the whole thing in a nutshell about God. Interestingly, one of the fundamental–not fundamentalist–one of the original and good, best Buddhist journals, The Inquiring Mind, which is sent out free from the Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg nexus of insight meditation. The Inquiring Mind, you can Google it, just did a whole issue called The God Issue where they asked different Buddhist teachers, and not Buddhists, about this. The God Issue. Discussing these things, whether God is necessary or not necessary. Some people took a more fundamental stance, like there’s no room for God in Buddhism. And some people took a more, I don’t know, interfaith stance.

Rick: Well, the reason I raise the question is that when I–we started out this interview talking about what enlightenment is, and to my understanding, enlightenment with a big E would be the complete fathoming and incorporation of reality in and as it is. Just the complete experiential appreciation of the full range of creation of reality, from unmanifest through all the realms of manifestation and incorporating that within one’s human experience to the extent that’s humanly possible. And as I grow in my own experience over time, I just find myself appreciating more and more and marveling more and more at the vast intelligence that seems to permeate every particle of creation, every cell. I mean, even look at your hand. It’s such an amazing–

Lama Surya Das: It’s amazing.

Rick: –contraption, you know? And if you look at a cell in detail, it’s like as complex as a huge modern city. And we only understand a little tiny fraction of it. So on every level you look, if you’re looking, there is this unfathomable intelligence, and that to me is God. And I feel that there are scriptural and historical precedents for this. That one can come to appreciate and experience that intelligence much more richly and intimately than I do, certainly, that it can really– And that’s why you have these great bhaktas like Mirabai and Anandamayi Ma and so on who are just drunk with the love–

Lama Surya Das: Surya Das, for God’s sake.

Rick: Yeah. And so anyway, when Buddhism doesn’t address that, and I admit—

Lama Surya Das: No, Buddhism addresses that.

Rick: Okay.

Lama Surya Das: Yeah, Buddhism would call that Buddha mind.

Rick: Okay.

Lama Surya Das: So realizing that is enlightenment. You can call that God or God’s mind or God’s heart or God’s eye. Ralph Waldo Emerson called it “transparent eyeball.” That was his big mystical experience that he said everything he taught and wrote came out of that- his experience of himself as God’s transparent eyeball.

Rick: So if you really understand what Buddhism means by Buddha mind, then it’s not some flat, plain, vanilla thing. It’s something really rich and profound.

Lama Surya Das: And it’s not empty.

Rick: Right.

Lama Surya Das: It’s shunyata. It’s not a thing, but it’s a luminous void. It’s cosmic consciousness. Your definition of God sounds like cosmic consciousness to put it in, quote, “one word.”

Rick: Okay.

Lama Surya Das: And that’s not a bad one. That’s good. That’s fine. And that’s like enlightenment. That’s not the Buddhist definition, but that’s close to the point. It’s just it’s not the Buddhist–cosmic is not a Buddhist word exactly. But we would say like total enlightenment. That’s what cosmic means, like total or complete. So I think that’s a very good definition, and I like that. But since we’re talking about definition of enlightenment again, let me give you the traditional Tibetan definition, which is succinct and a little boring, but it’s to the point. It has two parts. Sangye means Buddha or Buddhahood or enlightened in Tibet. “Sang” means purified. So it means purified of all the negative or the obscurations or whatever has to go, whatever’s extra, whatever’s false. And “ye” means blossomed, so fully developed, evolved, actualized of all the positive, of all the potential, of all that it can be.

Rick: And one kind of leads to the next, doesn’t it?

Lama Surya Das: I mean, the more you remove the obscurations, the more the potential blossoms. Yeah, well, like the more you thin the clouds, the more the sun shines. It’s always there. So the more the inner light shines out, if you want to look at it that way. So in Buddhism, perhaps, there’s no higher power in the traditional sense. But there’s the inner power. But then that sounds like there’s a difference between inner and outer. So it’s really not the inner power either, but it’s the deeper power or the ultimate power. And here I am talking about power again. So maybe I am a megalomaniac.

Rick: A power trip.

Lama Surya Das: God forbid. So you ask me if I– What I always say is my final statement about God and Buddhism is thank God for Buddhism. I love it. It’s good for me. That’s why I think it’s the only way for me. It’s the only way for me. It’s definitely the best way for me.

Rick: Yeah. So you asked me if I might want to ask you a more personal question. At least I think that’s what you’re asking. So, you know, here’s one. You’ve been on this trip for over four decades. What is your moment-to-moment experience of life like compared to what it– What is it like? And what is it like compared to what it might have been like had you just continued as Jeffrey Miller on Long Island and lived an ordinary life? I mean, what is it like to experience through your eyes, through your heart right now and throughout the day?

Lama Surya Das: It’s great. It’s good. I love this, what we’re doing right now. This is what I do. Not always on Skype with an interviewer, but this is what I do- the Dharma.

Rick: But not only what you’re doing, what I’m getting at is your state of consciousness.

Lama Surya Das: That’s what I be. That’s what I am. So it’s great. It’s wonderful.

Rick: So is there some sort of abiding bliss or abiding awareness or, you know–

Lama Surya Das: Those are just ideas. I don’t know. How would I–the fish doesn’t know the sea. He or she just cruises around with his mouth open, making bubbles and gas.

Rick: Silence, let’s say. Most people have a very busy mind, and that’s more or less all they’re aware of is their busy mind and their perceptions. But someone who has some spiritual maturity, sure, their mind is thinking thoughts and they’re engaged in action. But there’s a whole deeper dimension to their experience, to their life, that may not be so evident to outside observers.

Lama Surya Das: Everybody has that deeper dimension but everybody’s not that aware of it in themselves or in others or in every particle of life. So it’s not like you see different things, although you might have visions or other things, travel the world, see odd things, great things, whatever. But you see things differently.

Rick: Yeah, so what I’m trying to do is put you on the spot and say–

Lama Surya Das: Why don’t you ask the question you’re really dying to ask that you would never ask because it’s not very sophisticated. “Are you enlightened?”

Rick: Well, yeah, I’m trying to beat around the bush.

Lama Surya Das: Come on, ask.

Rick: All right, tell me.

Lama Surya Das: Ask me that in public now and then.

Rick: Okay, are you enlightened?

Lama Surya Das: I’m enlightened enough.

Rick: Enough for what? Enough for primetime?

Lama Surya Das: Enough for now. Enough for me. Enough for now. I’m doing everything I can about it, and I’m satisfied with that to the extent that I can be now. And it’s a process. It’s an infinite journey. And it’s not about me, as you were saying. So there’s no one to get enlightened, but that’s part of enlightenment. So you live out your personhood in this relative world as Joyce and Miller’s son, Jeffrey. But that’s just part of me. It’s like I’m part animal like Hanuman and part God like Ram. That’s why Hanuman is a god because he gives his animal nature in service of the divine. So when Hanuman remembers who he is, he is God. When he forgets who he is, he serves God.

Rick: Nice answer. That’s kind of more or less the way I would answer it, somewhat ambivalently and as a work in progress.

Lama Surya Das: The rest of my life is like so I said it’s good, it’s happy enough. It’s not just about happy. It’s fulfilling. I love what I’m doing. I love the people I’m being with. I love you and what we’re doing together. What’s better to do than chat Dharma with an old Dharma friend, even though we just met this way? What’s better?

Rick: And what if you got put in jail for some reason and you couldn’t do what you were doing anymore? You just had to sit in a jail cell with pretty much nothing to do.

Lama Surya Das: No, they can imprison my body, but they can’t imprison my heart and mind. So I can still do what I’m doing.

Rick: Yeah, so you don’t feel like that would diminish your fulfillment.

Lama Surya Das: I can pray. You know, there have been people who have been in jail like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jesus and Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo. They were freedom fighters trying to free India from the British rule, and they were in jail in the black hole of Calcutta. And, you know, they said, “You can imprison my body, but you can’t imprison my mind.”

Rick: Yeah. St. John of the Cross, he was stuck in a little closet for 14 years. Couldn’t stand up, couldn’t sit down, this tiny little horrible thing.

Lama Surya Das: Was that his dark night of the soul?

Rick: Yeah. Yeah, it was an unbelievably miserable situation, but he, you know, I guess maintained the light of God through all that.

Lama Surya Das: Well, wherever the light is brightest, the shadows are darkest, as you know. So although I sound like Pollyanna about how beautiful life is, there’s a lot of shit. You know, I was just in India in the dark side, and dark side in our own psyche too, mind you. I was just in India last month on one of my pilgrimages to see my old friends in monasteries and go to Bodh Gaya and another place in Nepal and this and that. And I visited what they call the world’s biggest slum, Dharavi in Bombay, where there’s 10 or 12 million people slum dwell. It’s where the “Slum Dog Millionaire” was shot. And the slum people there hate that movie. Because it’s so romanticized about it and also shows it worsened his– But it’s the world’s worst slum, but there’s life there. There’s parents loving children. There’s children going to school. Let me tell you something positive about it. It’s the place in India where Muslims and Hindus get together and live in harmony the best because they have to in that slum, millions of each.

Rick: Interesting.

Lama Surya Das: It’s awesome.

Rick: Yeah.

Lama Surya Das: Fantastic. And also, it’s not that everything is lotus blossoms and sunlight, you know, but just because it’s raining doesn’t mean it’s a bad day. Maybe it’s a good day for the farmers.

Rick: Beautiful. Well, I’m feeling a little nervous because I know you have to–

Lama Surya Das: Thank you.

Rick: You have to make a trip.

Lama Surya Das: Let me chant something.

Rick: Yeah, please.

Lama Surya Das: Since you asked what I advocate, I advocate a spiritual life and finding your own spiritual life, whatever that is, whether you do your own or you follow in something that’s there.

Rick: And you know what? Before you start chanting, let me make my usual concluding remarks now so that we can just end this with the chanting and not have me start talking again.

Lama Surya Das: We’ll go out singing.

Rick: Yeah. So you’ve been listening to an interview on Buddha at the Gas Pump, which the implication of that title, by the way, if it’s not obvious, is that in this day and age there are people awakening in very ordinary people and ordinary circumstances. And so don’t consider it to be something that’s far-fetched and out of reach. This is part of an ongoing series. There are over 200 of them now. You’ll find them all archived at, B-A-T-G-A-P. There is both an alphabetical and a chronological listing of them there. You’ll also find a chat group area for each interview and a link to that from the page of each interview. So Lama Surya Das will have his own page, and on that a link to his website and his books and so on, and also to the chat group area of BatGap for this interview. There is a link to an audio podcast. Many people like to just listen to the audio. There’s a “Donate” button, which I appreciate people clicking. There’s a place for people to sign up to be notified by email of each new interview. So that’s about it. Thanks for listening or watching, and we’re going to conclude with some chanting.

Lama Surya Das: Thank you. It’s been beautiful, Rick. Thank you for your beautiful good works. I like your title, “Buddha at the Gas Pump,” because I’m a fan of Buddha, but also in one of my books I think was “Awakening the Buddha Within.” But it might be — no, it’s probably “Buddha is as Buddha does, how to be a Bodhisattva, a warrior.” I talk about Exxon-Ken and Woodstock, who used to take care of everybody’s cars and not send bills to the poor people in Woodstock. But he was kind of a redneck and, you know, Archy Bunker shouting, kind of beer drinking, kind of rough guy but with a heart of gold. He was like the Bodhisattva at the gas pump in Woodstock in the ’60s and ’70s. He would give snow tires to the welfare mothers and stuff like that and not charge them because they needed snow tires to drive their kids around in the winter in snowy Catskill Mountains.

Rick: Beautiful. Kind of reminds me of Forrest Gump again.

Lama Surya Das: He said, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

Rick: Yeah, that’s the most important thing.

Lama Surya Das: [Chanting in Native language] May the lamp of enlightenment be ignited where it has not yet arisen and where it has arisen may it be fanned into flame. Blaze up and illumine all beings, the hearts and minds, bodies and souls of all beings throughout the universe, that we may all together completely fulfill the spiritual journey. An homage to the Buddha, the Buddha-ness in your seat. Don’t overlook it.

Rick: Thank you.

Lama Surya Das: Thank you.

Rick: Have a safe trip.

Lama Surya Das: Thanks. Stay in tush.

Rick: I will.

Lama Surya Das: Bye-bye, Rick.

Rick: Bye.