Danny Fisher interviews Lama Surya Das on humor, contemplative education, technology, and the secrets of Tibetan mindfulness.
A dyed-in-the-wool East Coast guy, Lama Surya Das — Tibetan Buddhist teacher; founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, MA; and author of such bestselling books as Awakening the Buddha Within and Buddha Standard Time – will be making the trek way out west next month for a special mini-workshop at InsightLA in Santa Monica, CA. “The Secrets of Tibetan Mindfulness: Remembering to Remember,” to be held March 17, will explore the ways in which innate awareness offers “indispensable aids to boost enlightened living and authenticity, freedom and well-being.” In advance of his visit, Lama Surya Das made time to be interviewed by Danny Fisher about the program, as well as some of the other things he’s been up to…
What can you tell us about your upcoming mini-workshop at InsightLA, “The Secrets of Tibetan Mindfulness”?
Mindful awareness and lucid presence of mind are at the heart of any contemplative practice, especially within the context of Buddhism. Among its many and varied skillful means – tools and techniques for the inner science of transformative awakening and enlightenment – Tibetan Buddhism too has its secrets and tips, based on what lamas call “The Four Close Contemplations” (known in the Theravada tradition as “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness”). My Dzogchen teacher also laid out “Six Kinds of Mindfulness,” based on Nagarjuna’s teaching about this.
In general there are said to be two kinds of mindfulness, according to Buddhist pioneer Joseph Goldstein: directed and undirected. I have gradually developed, over the years of teaching meditation, a new schema of the Six Kinds of Mindfulness for my students to understand and better guide and focus their own integrated moment-to-moment nowness-awareness practice and meditative progress, both on and off the cushion. In ascending order, I have noticed an arc of deepening and sharpening development beginning with the natural mindfulness of interest, which stabilizes attention; and on to intentionally generated or cultivated, effortful mindfulness; then on thru intermittent mindfulness, on to stable mindfulness, global mindfulness, and Dharmakaya (rigpa) cosmic mindfulness.
Your bio now notes that you have “turned [your] efforts toward youth and contemplative education initiatives.” Would you say something more about this decision to focus your efforts. Why have you made young people and contemplative education initiatives your first priorities?
These are not necessarily my first priories, and my mission remains the same as always: teaching and transmitting Buddhist wisdom and practice — and particularly the Dzogchen Dharma lineage tradition — to people today and contributing to global spirituality and a saner, safer and more beautiful and peaceful world. I believe now is the time for awakening together — a collective arising and joining — and not just for self-help and self-growth; the new generations are crucial for this. Moreover, it’s time for those of who are old and savvy enough to aspire to be service oriented leaders and producers — rather than mere consumer — to pass on what wisdom and experience we’ve gathered to those to follow, and co-create with them a better world now as well as stewarding and guarding a better future, include all beings and the entire environment.
On the other hand, I’m increasingly interested in furthering true Higher Education, contemplative education and self-realization, and co-creating a sacred-minded learning community among ourselves here in this country right now. By this kind of genuine Higher Ed, I mean a genuine wisdom-for-integrated-life-education: edifying and instructive, including all the various kinds of intelligences — not just I.Q. — and conducive to producing happy people. This is how we can learn to live harmoniously, flourish, and find happiness and well being together in this ephemeral, gritty and marvelous world.
What would a truly “Higher Education” involve today? What is life wisdom? What is needed and wanted spiritually, on all levels today — outer, inner and subtlest, both individually and collectively? Any wise system of spiritual awakening and self-realization must, I believe, include practical moral and mystical elements, contemplation and action, emotional transformation and attitude refining techniques. Any higher wisdom training must, I believe, include redirecting motivation; mindfully cultivating emotional intelligence; utilizing concentration, attention and present-awareness practices; and living ethically, including altruistic compassion in action through generosity and service. Five boosters to wisdom development, according to transpersonal psychologist and meditation teacher Dr. Roger Walsh, are: being in nature; silence and solitude; spending time with the already “wise”; self-knowledge; reflections on life, death and mortality.
I am wondering if you would say something about humor and teaching Dharma. You’re a funny guy, your emails to me in the past have been clever and made me chuckle. In addition, you’ve been on The Colbert Report twice now. How does humor serve you in your role as a teacher? Conversely, when is it not helpful?
Religion has become way too grim in recent centuries, and philosophy too. I was Serious Das once, as my girlfriend used to call me in the early Seventies, but am much younger and lighter now. “Don’t just gimme that ole time religion…” is what I hear everywhere I go today (except, notably, in the Middle East). Personally, I’d like to help transform the atmosphere of spirituality around here, without limits. Lightening up as well as enlightening up, and making spirit and profound seeking and finding more friendly, accessible and doable. A smile or joke is the shortest distance between two people, as has been said; this is exactly why public speakers and teachers of all kinds often start with a joke or story, rather than with mere “seriousity.” Wavy Gravy said, “Life ain’t much fun when we take ourselves too seriously.” Steve Colbert got it right: Truthiness! I think it’s time to highlight and appreciate the joy of awakening and the buoyancy of the spiritual path and enlightenment project, and express a Positive Buddhism rather than such a sometimes negative-seeming, sufferingful, dukkha-and-anatta emptiness perspective. Any takers?
I’m also wondering if you would say something about the internet and social networking. You’re a blogger, you’re on Twitter, you write for The Huffington Post. Does the internet allow you to teach in ways you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, or is it just simply another way of broadcasting teachings to a wider audience?
Some of both, and more too. The prana is extremely thin in cyberspace, as John Perry-Barlow said in the Nineties, but I find that the Internet is like Indra’s web interconnecting us all, and that even mere virtual contact, distance learning, webinars and social media provides room for opening dharma gates for people to make contact and enter in more deeply, and even for personal face time. I’m not that technical, but these various upaya (skilful means) and innovations, as has occurred throughout history, are definitely unfolding. We shall see how it all sorts and settles out, perhaps in a few hundred years.
You and I did an interview this past summer about the Maha Teachers Council for The Buddhist Channel. This gathering was one of many that have taken place in the past several years. Based on your experiences last year, what steps do you think should come next? What do you think or hope will be discussed at the next such gathering?
There are plenty of interesting and worthwhile things I’d like to hear more discussion about, and which have been coming up over the years among our teacher sangha in the West and East too, such as the good ole koan of “preservation and adaptation/innovation” as well as some new things brought up by younger teachers which have proved meaningful, including diversity and related issues. We often talk about bringing buddhadharma into the mainstream society and providing tools for ordinary people’s daily lives. What are the ways to encompass both the broad and deep dimensions of dharma teaching and practice? Another question I’d like to and hope to hear more about, which came up at Garrison Institute in June: Are we intent upon a Mindful Society, as Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us? Or a more awakened and Enlightened Society, as I like to think? A Peaceful Society, a Green Society, a Compassionate Society, a Classless Egalitarian Society… or what?
Who and what are and can be the sources of our guidance and inspiration, encouragement and edification, blessing and empowerment today, in our secular and egalitarian society? What is the future of Buddhism and of enlightenment in this tumultuous world, and what part shall we play as spiritual activists, leaders, altruists and aspiring bodhisattvas? As stewards and guardians of our world, the environment, and society? How is Buddhism meeting modernity and adapting as well as maintaining its liberating essence?
How to awaken and enlighten up together, opening our hearts and minds while nurturing and nourishing body and soul, energy, spirit, and the collective? What are the key questions and candid public conversations we need to initiate and further facilitate about the nature of genuine spirituality, beyond isms and their schisms—something relevant to and effective for our time, place, and zeitgeist?
In a post-modern world of increasingly exponential change, many of my co-religionists seem still to be struggling mightily — and not always knowingly — with the pressures from both within and without the fold for mere incremental change. In other words, we’re still caught up in fighting the battles of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties — with preservation and adaptation, gender equality and gay issues, democratization and hierarchy, commercialization, hybridization and the global melting pot; the value of new media, social activism and engagement; the relevance of practices including monasticism, initiations and secret teachings, esoteric cosmology and rituals; and significant resistance to adopting modern technology — all matters which history will and has already for the most part decided. Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh says that eighty per cent of everything we think is wrong; I think he’s being quite generous in this assessment!
As I get older I certainly am joined by many in wishing to be there, behind the new teachers, and to continue the genuine study and practice of buddhadharma in our time and place as well as a significant part of Buddhism and enlightenment around the world. Therefore I would like to see more of the Asian-born teachers active in the Western countries woven into these collegial conversations and dialogues, as they were in the Nineties. I’m also interested in trying to help further the general group sentiment among the 80 or so Vajrayanist and so-called Tibetan Buddhists to have some Vajrayana teacher conferences, to discuss various things which aren’t usually included in nor particularly relevant to the entire transectarian teacher collective, including tulkus and lineage, empowerments, samaya, tantra, secret teachings, the six yogas, guru yoga, lineage authorization, dharmapala practice, translation, and so forth. Several of us intend to help organize such gatherings in the near future.
Finally, you write at your website, “We are all Buddhas by nature: we only have to awaken to and what we truly are.” In your view, what’s one simple thing each of us can do every day to move closer to that?
Keep your eyes peeled! Wake up and stay awake, by paying attention moment to moment. This is no small thing. Beware of dullness, haziness, and self-deception. Questioning is very helpful. Awakefulness is the Way. Remember to remember the Diamond Rule: recognize the Buddhaness, the divine, the light in everyone and everything.