Surya Das close-up
Degree: BA ’72, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, in Creative Education (a special major); Favorite teacher: Bruce Jackson; Interests: Sports, poetry, dogs, the environment, social activism; Where to find him Online: www.surya.org or www.dzogchen.org (photo by KC Kratt, MFA ’84)
Lama Surya Das says, “UB lit my lamp.”
This is quite a compliment, given that Surya Das, who graduated from UB as Jeffrey Miller (a self-described “Jewish jock from Long Island”), became the first American, fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist lama and the principal Western leader of a spiritual practice that reframes ancient principles in contemporary Western terms.
“This form of Buddhism is a wisdom practice concerned with spiritual transformation, awaken-ing, growth and ethics,” says Surya Das, who participated in several events during the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to UB—his name means “servant of sun.” “But it is not as doctrinal and ritualistic as Asian Buddhism, nor does it focus on learning the ancient traditions of different Asian belief systems. Like Western culture, it is more eclectic, psychologically astute, democratic and lay-oriented, which is why Americans find it more accessible. I call it ‘melting-pot karma.’”
Now one of the country’s foremost Western Buddhist meditation teacher-scholars and spiritual activists, Surya Das set foot on the path to Buddhism after his close friend Allison Krause and another acquaintance were shot and killed at Kent State in 1970. It was, he says, “very traumatic, a confusing and difficult time for me—for all of us.”
Since graduating, Surya Das has traveled and studied Zen, Vipassana meditation, yoga and Ny-ingmapa, the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism. His many teachers include the Dalai Lama—with whom he retains a close personal relationship—and this led him to found the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with His Holiness in 1993.
“Buddhism changed my life,” he says. “It gave me great happiness, knowledge of my true na-ture and a sense of my place in the world. It does more than help us find inner peace and serenity. It helps us to become peace and active change agents in the world.”
In 1991, Das founded the Dzogchen Center and Foundation in Massachusetts, which now has branches in five states. He is in great demand as a speaker and leader of symposia and retreats, and has written many popular books, including, most recently, Natural Radiance: Awakening to Your Great Perfection (Sounds True, 2005).
You could find Surya Das at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wearing a meditation skirt and prayer shawl. However, true to his Western-lama nature, you are more likely to spot him in jeans and a track jacket, writing his online “Ask the Lama” column on beliefnet.com, or talking to his dog Lily, an activity he once wrote lightly, “is like praying.”
Story by Patricia Donovan