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Lama Surya Das – How to Be a Bodhisattva

Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das has a new book, “Buddha is as Buddha Does“, which coincided with his annual stop here in Portland, Oregon, USA for teachings. Around 100 of us had a one day retreat in a church downtown. It was lovely. The link to the pictures is at the bottom of the page.

The topic was on the 10, (notice not 6) Paramitas or Virtues of being a Bodhisattva. Basically, a bodhisattva is commited to not leaving the realm of samsara, suffering, infinite cyclic existence, delusion until all 6 realms – Hell Realm, Hungry Ghost Realm, Animal Realm, Human Realm, Jealous God Realm, God Realm are completely empty of suffering sentient beings. In zen we say, “Sentient Beings are Numberless. I Vow to Save Them All”. That’s the commitment. The Paramitas are the method. That’s the gist of it.

Sound overwhelming? In his cogent, calm and exacting style, Lama Surya Das demystifies, clarifies and solidifies the meaning of these seemingly esoteric teachings. Tysa saw him at the Powell’s City of Books book-signing the night before, and I would have to agree with her evaluation. We were both pleasantly surprised. Why a surprise? Well, I have to admit, when somebody’s doing a book tour, I wonder if they’re Turning of the Wheel of Dharma or the Wheel of the Dharma Industrial Complex. Let’s not pretend: Enlightenment is BIG business. So, like the Tibetan Lamas always say, “check up”.

I’ve been practicing a couple of times per month with the local Lama Surya Das meditation group, who is solely responsible for putting on this event. If you’re read any of my diatribes on Dharma Neurosis, you’ll recall that I periodically have doubts about the so called sanghas here and about. Well I’ll say this: if the students are a reflection of the teacher, then this teacher must be pretty good. Because these people whom I practice with are very delightful, kind and easygoing.

Yes, it’s weird to call a white man, “Lama” and he did look at me funny when I asked him to sign my prayer book instead of a copy of his new release, but all in all, I had a very nice day of teachings, and not a single moment of agitation. Sure, it’s because I’m growing, but really, these are nice people and the teacher is very good. What he does is he explains things with what he calls ‘definition clusters’. Now I’m a big fan of adjectives, I like to use 3 at a time, more if possible. So this appeals to me. He uses Sanskrit, Tibetan and colloquial terminology to hit the ‘undefinable ultimate meaning’ from many angles. This is a good skill, and he does it mostly without notes.

The practices that he had us do were also very nicely structured. We started with a mantra of Guru Rinpoche, repeating it over and over while he led with singing different melodies and rhythms. Ok, a New York sounding Jew doesn’t have the prettiest singing voice, but under it was a very steady pulse. After he got us established on a regular beat and melody, he added his own changes to it that kept us kind of on the edge of the beat and pushing deeper into the vibration of the mantra. This was followed by about 25 minutes of silent meditation, and another short period of recitation. We began each session this way, with the Chenrezig, “OM MANI PADME HUM” and then the Tara, “OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SVAHA” mantras. Dawn-Starr, the lady who makes the event and the study group happen, had her personal Thankgas (Tibetan deity paintings) behind the altar. You can see this in the photo gallery. So as we were reciting, you could look up at the Thankga of the deity whose mantra you were singing. Kind of like a well done TV set, the Thankas, altar cloths, even the teacher’s shirt were finely color coordinated, making for a consistent and flowing presentation.

He gave teachings, mostly from his new book after these meditations. The teachings, he explained from the Outer, Inner and Ultimate meaning levels. He didn’t go too far into the Ultimate, but those who practice know how to meditate on these deeper meanings, which really defy verbal explanations anyways. So this was good, and I enjoyed every minute of it. He offered to answer questions, which is really in a way one of the difficulties I have with traditional Tibetan teachings, namely that they don’t often have a Q&A session. Nobody had a question and he seemed disappointed, so I offered one of my own. Well hey, the mic was right there and I’m never short of something to say.

I asked him how the AA quote, “our very lives as ex problem drinkers depend on our constant thought of others” fits into the Bodhisattva path. He was actually very interested in this, and we had a bit of a discussion, wherein he asked me to repeat the quote so he could write it down and use it in the future. This is right up my alley, and as a matter of fact I’m teaching a class in June called Integrating Buddhism and the Twelve Steps. Click here to register. He asked me to explain how this concept helped me stay sober. Of course, anyone who’s been in the program for a while can tell you, the root of our problem is self-centeredness. It’s a spiritual malady, which centers in the mind, rather than the body. The solution is, as we say in the program, do ‘get out of yourself’. So that was a lot of fun having the discussion and I felt like I connected nicely with Lama Surya.

More next time, as we continue this fascinating journey. Thank you so much for tuning in and please, feel free to make comments or ask questions. Don’t forget I have the 12 Step, Power of Now and Dharma ‘pods’ here on Zaadz for discussion as well.

Photos from the Lama Surya Das retreat:



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