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Ep.12 ~ Krishna Das chats with Lama Surya Das
Krishna Das chats with Lama Surya Das, one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, and a long-time friend. In this interview, the conversation between KD and Lama Surya Das touches on the subjects of spiritual practice, retreat, death, mindfulness, compassion and more.
At 55:20, KD and Lama Surya Das chant the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Pedmé Hung” together.
“You know, one time, Maharajji said, ‘I hold the keys to the mind,’ … and then He teased us and said, ‘I can turn your minds against me.’ ‘No Baba, don’t do that.’ And He’d laugh, you know? So I said to Siddhi Ma, I said, “Ma, Maharajji says He holds the keys to the mind, which means to me that I am exactly where He wants me to be at all times, otherwise I’d be somewhere else, mentally, I mean like, spiritually, internally. My experience would be different. So, I’m where He wants me to be. So where does personal effort come in? Is it all grace? Or is it personal effort’” She says, ‘It’s all grace, but you have to act like it isn’t.’”– Krishna Das
SURYA DAS: Talking, shouting at Krishna Das… Badmash… Aap Jao
KRISHNA DAS: SurDas. I’m going to call you Surdas from now on.
SURYA DAS: Ok.
KRISHNA DAS: That was Maharajji’s name for you, wasn’t it? Surdas. That’s amazing. Because you’re a poet, you’re a poet and He knew it.
Nina: Maharajji called him Surdas?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, but nobody knew who Surdas was. So Surdas came out. We didn’t know Surdas at the time.
Nina: We should call him Surdas.
SURYA DAS: Surdas, the blind poet devotee of Baby Krishna.
KRISHNA DAS: Baby Krishna, yeah. And you know, they say, the devotion to Baby Krishna is the most complete because there’s no, it’s completely pure with a baby, you know?
SURYA DAS: There’s no interpersonal…
KRISHNA DAS: There’s no interpersonal, there’s no anything. There’s no story line. It’s just that love. And Surdas, who was blind, used to see the Leela’s and just describe them.
SURYA DAS: I have a poster of Him, you know, it’s a famous poster.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: And Baby Krishna’s like, in front of Him, looking up at Him.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, just like that, amazing. So, just to start it off, my question is this, you know, you did many many years of intense practice and one of the practices in the Ngondro and the preliminary practices is the 100,000 repetitions of the Mani Mantra, and you did that, right?
SURYA DAS: Well, there’s more than that. Hundreds of thousands of different mantras.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: The purification mantra and the guru yoga mantras and other things.
KRISHNA DAS: All of it in that practice while you were doing it?
SURYA DAS: In Ngondro. The Foundation practices of Vajrayana Buddhism.
KRISHNA DAS: I’m interested, personally, I’ve never done that kind of personal intense mantra practice. I mean, so I mean, I’ve done a lot, but not that kind of formal…
SURYA DAS: Then half your life is wasted, as they say…
KRISHNA DAS: Yes that’s true. Very nice. I’ve already wasted more than half my life. I’m hoping to waste this next half.
SURYA DAS: No, but you often talk about taking the name, and the name of a God, and repeating the names, and what kind of practice that is. And you know, whether you use words like japa or yoga or mantra yoga or what we call mantrayana and other things, but you do the Name, so if you were counting, you’d probably, you know, you’d do 100 thousands of Ram Nam or Hare Krishna. Especially Ram Nam, you do a lot. Hundreds of thousands of… there’s really no need to count, that’s just a way of… you can do Ngondro, these foundation practices, by number, which is easy, like saying 21 Hail Marys and then you’re done, or you can do by time, like a one-month retreat or a three-month retreat and then you move on to the next practice that you do by time. Or you can do it by the third thing, which is the hardest, so we avoid that, is you do it by getting the signs of accomplishment.
KRISHNA DAS: Oh, right.
SURYA DAS: So numbers is better. You can finish those and move on. No signs. No dreams. Go back to square one. Start again.
KRISHNA DAS: I don’t know if you want to answer this but it’s more of a personal question, but you can answer it in a general way if you like
SURYA DAS: No but since we’re alone here, what happens here, stays here in our podcast. But to answer you very intimately…
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, but you know what I’m thinking is, what were you experiencing on the very relative level as you were doing these intense mantra practices and other practices, as you were going through this transformation? Let me put it this way, did you feel, was it a transformational practice for you?
SURYA DAS: Yeah sure. You know, practices go up and down like your life journey.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: So you have your ups and downs and good days and bad days or concentrated days or distracted days or sick days and you know, but over time, from doing long retreats or just year by year daily practice, you get sort of, in the best case, better at it or skilled at it or you learn the craft and then comes the art and the freedom and the creativity. You know, you master the skill, you progress on the path, these words are used.
It’s hard to define. But so, it’s definitely transformative, and it’s also, you know, first is purification mantras and things like that and then there’s concentration mantras and then there’s loving kindness and compassion, forgiveness mantras, including self-compassion and self-love as well as others, and then there’s wisdom mantras and there’s like power or self-empowering, empowering yourself mantras and then there’s cutting through obstacle mantras and then there’s long mantras, like 100 syllable mantra, purification, a Vajrasattva thousand syllable mantra, which really we call Dharani in Sanskrit. Like the Hanuman Chalisa’s almost a long mantra.
KRISHNA DAS: Well it is, Maharajji said it was.
SURYA DAS: It’s a poem of 40 verses with four lines in each or whatever. 40 Praise the Lord Hanuman, right? So that would be a Dharani in Buddhism, like that it would have, you know, a thousand-line mantra.
KRISHNA DAS: Dharani, yeah.
SURYA DAS: And with stanzas perhaps. It would be a Dharani because it goes around and around. That’s what “Dharani” means. So, the mantra goes around and around like your breath goes around and around, like your mind goes around and around, so being present, you get more being where you are, rather than spinning around in the big wheel of samsara like a chicken without a head going around the rounds of rebirth, or your mind imagining many things, you get more and more just, around here and around here and more centered. Like centering a pot on a spinning wheel when you’re building a pot in a pottery shed.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: And the more it spins and the more you center it, the better, it’s beautiful, it rises, otherwise the mud flies all over the walls. So, you can also turn the mantra around in your heart in a visualization, which is common to Hindu and Buddhist Yogis and Tantra from the ancient Siddhas of India. So the outer visualization is one thing, but the outer mantra with your breath and your sound and your tongue and your vocal chords is the outer mantra, but the inner mantra is visualizing the mantra in your heart chakra or whatever chakra you’re working on. Like on the six pedaled lotus of your heart would have one of the six syllables, “Om Mani Pedmé Hung” of compassion on them and by spinning it in your mind, it concentrates you and it sheds light and bliss and permeates and radiates outward and you breathe it out to all beings and you absorb it in to your heart and then you’re doing sort of simultaneous pulsing, not just sequentially breathing out and in but pulsing like from the heart, like subtle energy, prana, and the mantras turning and light and bliss and then even on a deeper level, the secret mantra is the natural flow of awareness.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: You could call it going around and around but not going in circles. Khyentse Rinpoche called it the wheel of luminosity that turns day and night. That’s like your innate mantra or sacred sound. Or inner sound without auditory vibrations but awareness at its subtlest levels like light moves and has vibrations, not sound, but light. So it’s not like getting lost or circling around in samsara. It is the wheel of luminosity that turns day and night. It’s just the constant flow of awareness or the great Dao. So then that’s, you get to a stage beyond practice, where you don’t, there’s some stories of great Lama Siddhas, where after doing billions of mantras and counting them and all the practice, they throw their mala on the altar, even in the forest, and they leave the community and just walk about. It’s become one with their nature. Because the wheel of luminosity is turning day and night, so they don’t have to go to church on Sunday because every day is the holy day.
KRISHNA DAS: Every day is Sunday.
SURYA DAS: And the sun is the wheel of luminosity, it turns day and night. It never sets. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called it the great Eastern Sun. It’s in many of his books and poems which means, the sun of awareness that’s always rising, not that it comes up in the morning and sets at night. Even while we’re asleep you can be awake in lucid dreaming, so awareness is there. Even though you might not be conscious, you might be semi-conscious or unconscious but you could lucid dream and know you’re dreaming and still be asleep. So this luminosity turns day and night. So that’s like the innermost, an innermost level of mantra. Maybe even more deep than that, you could say just oneness is the ultimate mantra. Like “Om.” Which is a mantra but isn’t. It’s really a seed syllable. It’s a seed and in its potential has all sounds and mantras.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: So the mantra “Om,” is like an example of like, a seed syllable. A seed is fertile if it’s put in the hot, sort of blind, unknowing but fertile earth.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: And then anything can spring from it. So, I felt it was very transformative and also, in tantra, sometimes you spin the mantra right or left, clockwise around your heart center if you’re doing male deity yoga, sometimes you spin it counterclockwise if you’re doing female deity yoga, like Tara or Vajra Yogini or these kind of female Buddhas and, this is about feminine and masculine energy, not just masculine and female, not just male and female gender.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: Gender, male or female, but energy, masculine and feminine, like yin and yang, so sometimes we’re practicing visualizing ourself as a Dakini and praying to the guru, guru Rinpoche, or the higher power, for blessings and then merging like as lovers, so as a guy, doing that, seemed a little fabricated to me at first, over the years. But then by spinning the mantra the other way, it was almost like going against the current, sitting near my meditation seat, I felt like there was resistance, like I’m used to going the other way, clockwise, but imagining the visualized mantra in your heart chakra petals spinning counterclockwise, I felt like my feminine-ness of being and embracing and receiving, rather than my masculine-ness of driving, erect, or creating a tower of enlightenment, I got into the womb of being. So you think it’s fabricated but when you actually find out as you get to the substratum, where things are taking form and being created by, let’s say your mind, how you interpret it, by your subjectivity, so you start to see how you can recondition and decondition that by visualizing the energy moving the other way and then it starts moving the other way, so it opened up my right side of my brain that is a more feminine energy, intuitive, being, rather than the left side, rational side. So, these mantras and you know, chakras and channels go together and it’s a combined body and soul, heart and mind energy and psyche kind of a practice. Like, just even chanting. It’s a heart and soul, healing, harmonizing, deepening and concentrating practice.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: So that was like a little transformation.
KRISHNA DAS: For sure.
SURYA DAS: That I could even see while I was in retreat, not afterwards. Opening my feminine energy or receptivity or vulnerability and not just being an alpha achieving male, finding a new goal now called enlightenment to drive towards instead of to go lying on the football field or on a rocket ship, climbing a mountain, you know, these kind of alpha achieving activities. There’s a purification part, too, where you really chant your brains out and get the cobwebs out of your head and out of your lungs and forget yourself and experience your true being, like your higher self. Like in the kirtan, by chanting for an hour, I felt like everybody was pretty much interbeing and forgot our own narrative or story or who was next to us or what we sounded like.
And that’s transformative.
KRISHNA DAS: So, let’s, let me ask you know. So you have this base, this solid, not solid but this deep foundation of practice.
SURYA DAS: Stable is the word we use.
KRISHNA DAS: Stable practice for many many years and then you were in retreat for many many years in a row and then you came out of retreat. How, how did that, how did, what was your experience of that, what stayed with you, in a sense, as you became engaged with the outer world in a much more intense way?
SURYA DAS: Well, it was gradual. First it was a bit like culture shock, like the first time I came back from India in I don’t know, my first India trip in 1972 or 3 and I landed in Kennedy in New York and I don’t know, I might have even been with you, maybe my parents picked us up and took you to Long Island and me to their house in Long Island and it was such a culture shock. I mean, India is very noisy and chaotic and has buses and trains and planes, you know all that, but it was such a culture shock. There’s a lot of things it didn’t have in the 70s, like telephones, televisions, hygiene and other things. So there was a big culture shock. And coming out of retreat was like that, too. It was like coming back into another world.
In the Tibetan tradition, the Lama training is a cloistered three year three month three day retreat, so our first one that I did with some dharma friends under some great Lamas, Khyentse Rinpoche and Dudjom Rinpoche, etcetera and Nyoshol Khenpo Rinpoche, then it took three years and eight months. Not three months and and three months. Because we were waiting for Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to come back from Nepal, where he lived, to teach the final teachings and open the gates. So, it was three months, eight months, what’s the difference? At that time you’re already dead. When I went to three year retreat, I really sold everything, I mean my car, my guitar, you know?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, like when I went to India.
SURYA DAS: And I didn’t really see the end of three and a half years, like, what am I going to do later? It was like dying, you know? Like when you go to college, you don’t really think about what you’re going to do afterwards. Even if you think you’re going to be a doctor, you know, you’re such a kid, you don’t really think about, in four years I’m going to go somewhere else and I don’t know, it just seems so long to a kid, four years. So, I came out of the retreat and we did it ritually, in a sacred way, slowly, then went back in, then the next day we came out, and people were more integrated, and so some of their friends and family and a few people threw up when they first rode in a car and smelled gasoline. Because for three and a half years, we had not been with cars. We were in the woods, in a cloistered retreat center with a courtyard out in the middle. And I realized I hadn’t worn shoes in three years. I was wearing slippers or flip flops or barefoot for three and a half years. I hadn’t touched money. So, culture shock when you come out of retreat and like, even at this level. You’ll laugh. I didn’t have, in the retreat, I didn’t use a wallet, money or keys, or the things you carry around in your pockets or your shoulderbags these days, or briefcases, so we were wearing monks and nuns robes in the three and a half years, we had shaved heads. So life was very simple and every day was the same, the schedule. And we had pens and paper and stuff. There were no computers at that time, personal computers. And I remember, within two or three days, I had a hard time figuring out where I, how do I keep track of all this stuff? Car keys? Wallet? And you know, mala, like, do I even have three pockets? And I’m going to go out for a few hours. How do I keep… it’s like when you first start driving your car, how do I move my feet and my hands and look in the rearview mirror and out the front window at the same time? It seems like a hundred operations to do. But once you learn to drive, you just do it all the time and then you do other things too, right? Like drink your cappuchino.
KRISHNA DAS: Listen to Krishna Das.
SURYA DAS: Surf the radio, looking for Krishna Das’s kirtan and things like that. So it was kind of like that, it was a culture shock, like coming back from India, and especially, I couldn’t get used to, I had been gone basically eight or ten years in that retreat center with a little visit to the parents in the middle. A lot of things had changed. Like, I never saw a video store, then all of a sudden there were all these video stores full of videos. Before it was a book store, now it’s a video store. We didn’t have videos in the 1960s. There were reel to reel movies. And cars, they didn’t have roll up window things. I couldn’t find the thing to roll down the window. Because it was all recessed in like a button. Automatic. Just multiply that by a little of everything. There were fax machines. I said, “Ok, see you can fax this like, letter, or this translation text? Ok. But what if I draw something? Can you fax that? How does the picture go that I’m drawing now, you know?” But just multiply.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, boy.
SURYA DAS: So it was a bit of a culture shock. But like everything else, you get used to it. I remember when I first came back from India, I couldn’t get used to the fact that people would say, I think I was in Woodstock New York trying to start a Tibetan monastery there, it’s now Karmapa’s monastery. People would say, the regular bus to and from New York comes every morning up and goes every morning down and also at night or something at a certain time, let’s say eight AM. And I said, “Really?” And they said, “Yeah, if you’re there at eight AM, you get on the bus and there’s no stops to New York City.” And I said, “Well, it’s really cold out. What if they don’t come for an hour.” Because I’d been in India. And they said, “The bus comes every day within a minute.” Otherwise all the other stops and things, the trains, would be screwed up. I just couldn’t conceive of it because I’d been away from it. But those are little things and after awhile you just, you know, now you look online on your handheld, yourself, you find the whole plane schedule, and you punch a few buttons and you get a ticket and you count on it being there and the money gets exchanged through paypal. But in those days, things were a little more tangible. So, it took awhile to get used to that after being in a retreat and cloistered for a long time. But you can get used to anything. And people do. As you know. And you can train for it, the hard things, or you can train emotionally to be prepared for difficult things, you know, like dealing with loss and grief or death, whatever you have to do you can train your body. I heard people were even training their eyes now so they don’t have to wear glasses and so on, with different visual and neuroscience techniques, low-tech, not implants. So training and practice, we call it practice. And then it gets easier.
KRISHNA DAS: So when you were on retreat, your practice, there was a certain quality to your days and to your practice.
SURYA DAS: well there’s a whole schedule of hour and two hour sessions.
KRISHNA DAS: You were, like, inside of that whole thing, but once you come, when you take that out into the world, how did that change for you? How did that interface go?
SURYA DAS: Well, that’s the challenge.
KRISHNA DAS: The actual practice time.
SURYA DAS: At first it seems, like hard to go to a retreat, but if you’re into it, if it’s the right thing for you then you kind of don’t want to leave. It’s like, what else do I want to do? Do I really want to go back to working to make a living to buy clothes and have transportation to come to work every day? And you know, like you would treat, everybody looked the same, there was no big deal about the hair and the clothes. That was like, a relief that nobody told me about, to expect.
KRISHNA DAS: I know, that’s how I felt in India.
SURYA DAS: You know, like in India, everybody’s covered up and you don’t even look. So it made it easier and simpler and less judgement and less grasping and partiality. And more welcoming whatever comes and letting it go.
KRISHNA DAS: and also on retreat, theoretically, you’re not there to follow your projections and grab on to them with other people. You’re there to observe and let go.
SURYA DAS: But that’s where you find out, because you build a cloister, or you go into retreat even by yourself, you know somebody follows you in there, which is the main culprit in the whole scenario which is your ego and your conditioning. It’s like, who brought this can of worms? Oh, it’s my can.
KRISHNA DAS: It’s me.
SURYA DAS: These are familiar worms. I’m anxious here, too. Or greedy. Or lazy. So, again, reconditioning, doing practices to make better habits or loosen that and awaken your mind and open your heart and be more embodied and different kinds of practices with body, like bows and yoga and speech, you know, walking meditation and with speech, mantra and chanting and devotional chanting and other kinds and breathing exercises, that’s part of speech and throat chakra, and then with mind, heart, mind, with meditation and light and radiating and reabsorbing and loving kindness and compassion and awareness and cutting through, seeing through. So you go through the progress of the nine vehicles of Tibetan Buddhist practice.
KRISHNA DAS: It must be wonderful to, and I’m sure it is, to have, to be in that kind of retreat where you’re getting those teachings and you’re getting, there’s a path laid out for you which you can, you know, move into.
SURYA DAS: You could surrender to and then you know, the bell rings, like Pavlov’s dogs, you salivate. So when the gong rings, you meditate and then when the gong rings, you get up and go to the dining room, which was silent. And sometimes people read to us, like Christian monks, while we’re eating, otherwise we’re just silent, because it’s a silent retreat and we each had our own monk’s cell or room. But yeah, some of the people were my friends, you know, it’s friendly and I mean, the real battlefield is men’s souls, women’s souls, as Dostoevsky said, so you have your own room, you know, it’s like, there’s no one to fight with about the side of the bed or the clicker, what we’re gonna watch, but the real battlefield is the inner battlefield of the soul, so that’s, you have to, you know, if you feel called to work on, so that’s what you work on and you get to know yourself better and you start to find out things like, whether you let go or hold on, things pass, so you can relax your grip a little bit. You can’t hold on to anything forever. Everything’s impermanent. So, even the three years and eight months went by and then I was out again. A pedestrian pounding the streets. So I went and did another three year retreat. That was my solution to how to practice after a three and a half year retreat. A recidivist.
KRISHNA DAS: And then I heard you started a third one.
SURYA DAS: Yeah we started a third one, then his holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of our Dzogchen lineage and Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, died there in Dordogne. So, we got involved with taking care of Him and his body relic and the prayers and pujas, as Lamas did, and after a year, took His body to be interred in a stupa in a memorial monument, the stupa built for this purpose in Nepal at his monastery there.
KRISHNA DAS: Dudjom Rinpoche left his body in France? I didn’t know that.
SURYA DAS: Yeah and he sat up for a few days in meditation and we saw in that state which is rare.
KRISHNA DAS: Wow.
SURYA DAS: It was like a rainbow. I mean, I could see him, but it was more like transparent.
KRISHNA DAS: So you had a lot of time with him? You spent a lot of time with him. Wonderful.
SURYA DAS: But for most people, the question is, not just how do you come out of a retreat, but like, you have your yoga class or your meditation class or your Sunday prayer or bible study. Whatever. Your formal practice. Or in, like in the best case, every morning or evening, you have some formal spiritual exercise or practice that you do and then when you get up off the cushion or there chair or the yoga mat, then what? How do you carry this and integrate into daily life? Where there are other people and there is talking and there is competition and there is arguing and maybe you have a job to do, maybe there’s disturbance in the field that you’re in, in the family or in the workplace or in the city or in the continent and in the world. So that’s where practice really helps. What’s your quote? Integrated or internalized in your quote, inner life, you might lose your concentration but the insights or the experience, the wisdom side remains as you go out into life so it helps be more patient and accepting of what happens, you know, at the office and you don’t suffer so much from thinking, thinking way too much, “It should be the way I think it should be” when you realize, “Oh guess what, I’m not in control of the world and I’m not God and being a control freak is not in my higher self interest or any of my family’s or friend’s either, self interest.” So you more flow with things and dance with life instead of being so hard headed and hard nosed and you come from the heart as well as use your head and keep your feet on the ground and your head in heaven or in the air, as they say. Not up your butt.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: And not hide out in spiritual practice like avoidance behavior.
KRISHNA DAS: What you said, that was a beautiful line, where you said, “You might lose your concentration, but the wisdom or the insights you got, they still kind of unravel the knots that you come across.” That was very beautiful, because people, I think a lot of people make the mistake of trying to hold onto that momentary experience of concentration or calmness of the mind and they think if they’re not experiencing that they’ve lost it. But it’s not, it’s more, it’s more of a flow.
SURYA DAS: Flow and dancing with life and different gears is a good metaphor. And in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, songs and texts, it says something like, in meditation, we emphasize, meaning like in formal sitting, doesn’t have to be sitting, but in formal meditation, lets say sitting, we emphasize the empty or intangible ungraspable nature of things, letting things come and go just in the field of awareness. So that’s like, the emptiness or the subjective side and then in life, in post meditation, we emphasize karma and cause and effect. So that we have our hands on the steering wheel and we have some choice with attention and intention. So, in meditation, seeing through things, in post meditation, see how things work so you react differently to red and green if it’s a light system. In meditation if you see red, yellow or green, you don’t react differently, because you’re seeing through it as mere imagination, but in post meditation, you know, there’s a driving karma, you react differently based on karma, cause and effect, in the relative world.
KRISHNA DAS: Situational awareness.
SURYA DAS: Situational. And you try to cultivate positive qualities while in the meditation you might be more, just letting everything go, not praying for peace in the world. That would be more like, for others, or after meditation or at the end of your meditation. So balancing being and meditation with doing in the world and carrying that awareness with you but not being so concentrated when you are multitasking at work, for example, and you have to multitask. Even to drive a car you have to multitask. Even to drive a car you have to multitask. You say, I’m not doing anything but driving but you’re doing multitasking when you’re driving. So in that way you balance heaven and earth or the absolute and the relative by seeing through things but also being able to see what they are and how it works, the karma, cause and effect. What goes around, comes around. You should make new habits, you get new results. If you have unhealthy habits, guess what, you become unhealthy. There’s no one to blame. And that’s the basic principle, I think, of Eastern thought or Buddhism at least. There’s no one to blame except the selfish egotistic clinging or ignorance. Like Buddha said, “No one can make me angry. I have the seeds of anger in myself and I react that way.” Like they can push your buttons but that doesn’t mean you have to be wired to the response of anger, or fight or flight
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. You can be wired for compassion.
SURYA DAS: They can push your buttons and you can laugh like you’re being tickled. I know this is idealistic, but that’s the idea. It’s not what happens to us, but what we make of it that makes all the difference.
KRISHNA DAS: Exactly.
SURYA DAS: That’s a very important principle of self mastery and freedom.
KRISHNA DAS: And it’s the time that we put in in practice, you could say, that carries over into the way react and live in our lives.
SURYA DAS: Right.
KRISHNA DAS: How we inhabit our lives. It’s not like, it’s not like you push a button in practice and then everything changes in life, but it’s the time that you spend in practice that gradually changes the quality of your life. How you live in it.
SURYA DAS: The way I feel it is like, if I meditate in the morning, as I do, then it informs the rest of the day.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: And then whenever I see water I naturally meditate. Or the sky. Or nature. Or a child. Or you know, it just becomes more integrated into everything. So it’s like natural awakefulness rather than trying to meditate.
KRISHNA DAS: Right.
SURYA DAS: Sit cross legged on your desk at work. No. Not. But be aware when they anger rises when you’re driving your car and somebody cuts you off so you naturally practice mindful anger management. You think before you react. You’re mindful of the anger coming up and you don’t…
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, that would be good.
SURYA DAS: Honk, flip the bird and jam your foot on the accelerator and ram him. So anger is just an energy but it can devolve into violence, so how we respond makes a big difference. That’s where mindful awareness can free us. Or just being grateful, you know, if you’re in a theistic tradition, like mystics have always said, you say thank you for everything, not pick and choose. Like, you know better than God what should be coming.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: Gratitude is the heart of prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast says.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: And I love that. We could all be a little more grateful, especially in the first world and America, you know, is our subject, generally, we take so much for granted and we worry and complain about such little things where in half of the world or a third of the world goes to bed hungry at night and the other third has unbelievable infant mortality rates or oppression or inequality of various kinds and we’re complaining if Trader Joe’s doesn’t always have the same stuff every week and we have to go across the street to Whole Foods because they always have the same stuff every week. That’s like a real first world problem. My therapist friends call it, some of them have real intense practices with people who have, you know, big pathological problems. But some of them, they, especially as they get older, some of them, they want to take it easier, they have practices of the easy people like, they call them the “worried well.”
KRISHNA DAS: The worried well.
SURYA DAS: The worried well who come to therapy to tell them about their problems. Like they don’t want to be a doctor anymore because the HMO’s are making them crazy with billing. They’re going to go to music school or law school at age 50. That’s a first world problem. The worried well.
KRISHNA DAS: First world problem. Yeah.
SURYA DAS: So I’ve been saying thank you a lot. Especially since I just lost my wife and I’m realizing also how much I have and, you know, she doesn’t feel gone. And I think practice and my spiritual path and Gurus blessings over the decades have made a big difference about how that sits with me and how taking care of her for a year or two while she was succumbing to lung cancer, and to going to the hospital or hospice sits with me and how it made us feel closer and closer in the spirit and death pares away a lot, most everything, what matters or the most basic things which is like, who you spend your time with and how not what’s in the bank or your reputation or what you have parked in the parking lot but how we are together.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: So that’s been very interesting about day by day and hour by hour and minute by minute, for me, without making plans while she’s been deteriorating and getting treatments which sometimes seem worse than the disease and going through all that, it’s heartbreaking. And I wish I could have helped her more and eased her path more but I also have to accept that that’s a balance. You do all you can and you let go and whatever happens, happens. You do the best you can, thoroughly and you have to let go and whatever happens, happens.
KRISHNA DAS: I think recognizing the effect we might have had on other people is above our pay grade. We just do the best we can and…
SURYA DAS: And there are other factors…
KRISHNA DAS: We just do the best we can. You can’t worry about it. You never know the effect that one person has on another person, what it means to them from the inside, we can only see it from the outside.
SURYA DAS: Also, especially if we’re in the helping professions or have a bodhi sattva vow or you try to be an altruistic compassionate, you know, person, seva, karma yoga, social conscience, it’s easy to fall into a feeling of indispensability, like, they really need me and I can’t, I don’t have time to take care of myself, you know how many health care people and service oriented people burn out and are weak on self care. It’s all about other care. So it gets out of balance. So nobody’s indispensable and, you know, I’m glad that I could be there with Debby, and I’d planned to be there when she died and I was, so for that I’m very grateful. But if I hadn’t been, not the end of the world. She would have died and I would have been there in an hour or two or three and no one’s indispensable.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, I mean, rather than saying no one’s indispensable, you could say we’re all interchangeable. It’s like, it’s either you or somebody else will be there.
SURYA DAS: Well, I’m Jeff and you’re Jeff, so
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, right, we’re indispensable. And unchangeable.
SURYA DAS: Non-refundable.
KRISHNA DAS: Non-refundable. Yeah.
SURYA DAS: We have a lifetime guarantee.
KRISHNA DAS: Lifetime warranty. You can return us at any time. For a full refund.
SURYA DAS: But I think God every day for the non-theistic Buddha Dharma. And really just for the Dharma. Otherwise, I’d probably be dead with my 60’s habits.
KRISHNA DAS: Well even with the little practice that I’ve done, you know, I told you this yesterday, but when I hurt my knee in India very badly, I could barely walk and I was sitting in front of Maharajji and I was just thinking, “What is this?” “Why did this happen? What could this be? What kind of bad karmas?” You know, my mind is spinning out. So, He reached over and He grabbed the bible out of this girl’s, Girija’s jhola, shoulder bag. He grabbed it and He opened it up and He pointed to this, “read this” this is in Hindi, because He supposedly didn’t speak or read English, right? “Open this up. Read this.” So, I opened it up and I read it out and it was from Saint John, Saint Paul, Corinthians, and it said, “In order to save me from this egoism about the abundance of revelations that have been given to me, it was given to me a thorn in the side. And I asked the Lord three times to take it from me and the Lord said, ‘My grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in your helplessness, in your weakness.’” So, that’s…
SURYA DAS: That’s profound.
KRISHNA DAS: This is what Maharajji said, the message He gave me was that, in the surrender to the higher power or the deeper place within us, that’s where that power is, it manifests itself in our surrender, in our recognition of, “it’s not about me”. What can I do? I just do the best I can to stay in the right place in my heart. Whatever happens, happens. It’s not my story. It’s not my responsibility. I do the best I can but that, the strength of the grace is made manifest in our surrender, in our understanding. There’s very little we can really do except to remember God. Except to live in that place as best we can.
SURYA DAS: This whole discussion and question that many of us have, about how to balance surrender with intention, how to balance surrender with intention, for example, or effort, and what’s right effort or balanced effort…
KRISHNA DAS: I once said to Siddhi Ma, you know, one time, Maharajji said, He said, ‘I hold the keys to the mind,’ He said, and then He teased us and said, ‘I can turn your minds against me.’ “No Baba, don’t do that.” And He’d laugh, you know? So, I said to Siddhi Ma, I said, “Ma, Maharajji says He holds the keys to the mind, which means to me that I am exactly where He wants me to be at all times, otherwise I’d be somewhere else, mentally, I mean like, spiritually, internally. My experience would be different. So, I’m where He wants me to be. So where does personal effort come in? Is it all grace? Or is it personal effort?” She says, “It’s all grace, but you have to act like it isn’t.” Which is very interesting, you know?
SURYA DAS: Don’t take it entirely seriously. That’s beautiful. It’s all grace but you have to act like it isn’t and do what seems to be needed.
KRISHNA DAS: But that doesn’t mean that you’re required to have angst, anxiety or aggressiveness or all those things about the outcome. You just act like, if you’re in the rain and you want to drink, you cup your hands. It’s not about anxiety or worry. It’s simply that you do the best you can. You do what you do as fully as you can. But like Krishna says in the Gita, “You do what you do, but you offer the fruits of your actions to me.” In other words, we do the best you can with Debby, but ultimately, it’s up to Him what her experience is. You may never know what her experience was but still you were a part of that as best you could have been.
SURYA DAS: No, it’s easy to say I may never know. But since we’re alone here and I know what I say here will stay here, I am finding out by getting messages from Debby after she’s gone, and you know me, Krishna Das, I rarely, if ever, unlike some teachers, tell miracle stories or, right? I’m more like, tell jokes, than miracle stories. But anyway, two days after Debby passed, I got a text from her from her phone.
KRISHNA DAS: Wow.
SURYA DAS: I was in her room. Our room. And lying in bed, pretending to hold her. I keep the candle on, on her altar, for the 49 Bardo rituals of our tradition. So, I was lying there and my phone beeped with the little signal for a text, so I ignored it. Then it beeped again and it beeped again, so finally I said, maybe something is going on so I’ll check. And it was a message from Debby, and it said, “We will soon again be togeth…” and it didn’t finish the word and there was no period.
KRISHNA DAS: Wow.
SURYA DAS: That’s the message I got two and a half days later. There’s an explanation, but I mean, just take that and, I was in our bed, lying the way we were when she died and holding her in my mind, and I get this message on my cellphone. So, being a hyper-rational guy, I figured there must be an explanation, it’s like, how did this just come out? And I called my niece, “Julia, where’s Debby’s cellphone?” And Julia says, “I have it. I just sent the message, Aunt Debby left it, she must have forgot to send it.” It was sitting, it was the last text she sent the night before. You know… so she didn’t even finish the sentence, so I don’t know if she fell asleep our what. I love you, we’ll soon again be togeth… so two and a half days later, I get this… I could show it to you on my phone with the date and all, from Debby’s phone. So that’s kind of something. You don’t usually get a message from the beyond even with an explanation like that. So, then being, I don’t know, somehow, I’m like Forest Gump of the dharma, I was always there, by luck where things are happening. So, it happens that Debby’s sister in law is a Mongolian Buddhist immigrant who grew up in New Jersey.
KRISHNA DAS: Oh wow.
SURYA DAS: You know, like there are Tibetan immigrants from the Chinese invasion of Tibet? There are Mongolian Buddhists who are Tibetan Buddhists. Mongolian Buddhist immigrants in America also and a lot of them live in New Jersey. The Dalai Lama always goes there, Southern New Jersey. Washington, New Jersey. There’s Lama’s there, a lot of them are in the construction trade. There’s probably 500 Mongolian Buddhists there. So, Debby’s sister in law is this niece’s mother, that I was telling you about. So, she’s half Mongolian. So, they’re Buddhist. They’re more Buddhist than us. You know, like, the mother wears a gold prayer wheel around her neck that her grandmother gave her 60 or 70 years ago.
KRISHNA DAS: Oh wow.
SURYA DAS: I have like a one Rupee mala on my wrist. That’s my Buddhism. So anyway, so a couple days after Debby’s gone, I go over to my brother in law’s house to watch the Super Bowl because life must go on.
KRISHNA DAS: Life must go on. The super bowl must go on.
SURYA DAS: So we go to the Super Bowl with my buddies and you know, watch every year, and we’re in the basement in the man cave and there’s a few wives and kids, you know, grown, and my sister in law, this Mongolian Buddhist from New Jersey, pulls me aside and into the living room for a moment, so it’s like, what’s wrong or what’s happening or what does she have to tell me? What she wants something from Debby’s house? And she says, “Surya, I saw Debby.” So I said, “Oh.” And she says, “Yes, she had long beautiful blonde hair.” You know, Debby lost a lot of her hair in chemo and then she made her pink or blue. “She has long beautiful blonde hair and she’s happy and she was very well and pretty and she’s really well.” So, then I felt like I had to say something, so I said, “Where is she? Where did you see her?” Also, I wanted to hear her say, like, “I saw her in a dream. I saw her in a vision. I don’t know I saw her in heaven or the next life. Or I’m just making you up. My bad. Ha ha.” Which she’d do. So, she said, “Oh, no, just, Debby’s moving on” and she said, “It seemed kind of natural to me that the first thing Debby would do when she got to her new place would be, get a new hair-do.” So, in her world, it’s all mixed together, you know? Like, Debby would definitely do that if we moved to a new, you know, coast. So, in my sister in law’s mind, that’s the way it was working and like, archetypally, she’s having an experience of Debby’s in a good place and looking good and has redone her hair and is happy. So, we were happy.
KRISHNA DAS: Fantastic.
SURYA DAS: I don’t know. We can interpret it any way we want. I’m just telling you what happened. So, she’s telling me this. She also famously told Debby, 20 or 30 years ago, when Debby’s mother died, Rose of Long Island, of cancer, this same sister in law who was 20 or 30 years younger, after a few days, again, Buddhist, Tibetan Buddhist, you know, from Mongolia, it’s a little different than us meditator Buddhist, convert Buddhist, whatever we are, convert yogis. This sister in law called Debby. Debby was not into Buddhism, she did MBSR, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and meditated with me sometimes, but she’s not an Asiaphile like us, and she’s a crass person and manager of charities and things, business. This Mongolian sister in law called Debby and said, “Debby, I had a dream about your mother” and Debby was like, what do you say? And Lishma, it’s a Mongolian name, Lish says, “She was reborn as a spider,” and she says it like excitedly. And here’s Jewish Debby from Long Island, you know, thinking, you know, “what the heck? Why’s she telling me this? This doesn’t sound go.” And Lish says, “No it’s good it’s good because she’s already gone through the Bardo and is not like hanging around like a ghost and spiders are very short lived and then she’ll be reborn again in a better way. And Debby’s like listening. “Oh well, thank you very much for the news. See you soon.” So… one thing I’ve learned is that everything is subjective. That’s one of the meanings of the great Buddhist doctrines of emptiness. Things are not what they seem to be. Nor are they otherwise. You can’t say what it is with absolute assertion. You can say whatever you want, tentatively. But it’s not just a dream, it’s not even that. You know, that’s too reifying. It’s really a mystery and wonderment, I think is the appropriate response or the moment to moment awareness of like, wonder and freshness and what, inquiry or openness is an appropriate response. Not remembering all the things I studied or heard or read or, you know, so that brings it down to the joy of now and kind of the joy of meditation or like a buoyant spiritual outlook or something, regardless of what I’m doing, including taking care of my deteriorating wife who I love so much and is so wonderful and generous and helpful to everybody. Or trying to do something in the world in these really fractured and, you know, contentious times and everybody seems so divided. Trying to awaken together or even just help a little bit somewhere and mentor the young kids who resist the selfish narcissistic politics wherever you can. And there’s joy in that. Then whatever happens, happens.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: Thich Naht Hanh is probably dying now. I think he’s on the cover of time magazine, I heard, somewhere, for being the father of mindfulness in the west. A Vietnamese master, Thich Naht Hanh is on his last legs, you know, he’s very old. He was peace marching against the Vietnam war in Vietnam in the 70s and 60s and he’s still doing it. So that’s a Bodhi Sattva life. You don’t give up just because there’s no peace yet. He was Vietnamese and he, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King around that time. And he’s still peace marching, 60 years later, so I think that’s what, I think that’s our calling is, be peacemakers and lights in the world, not a blight on the landscape and I think that’s about awakening together and not just self-development, self-help and selfishness, as you know.
KRISHNA DAS: Beautiful.
SURYA DAS: So, our guru, Neem Karoli Maharaj always used to say, you know, what did you say? “Feed them. Love then and serve them”
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. Love everyone. Serve everyone. Remember God.
SURYA DAS: So, love and serve.
KRISHNA DAS: Love serve remember.
SURYA DAS: Not just, try to calm your mind and relax and get your, you know, blood pressure down. That’s like, daily mental floss, but there’s more to life than that. A little mental hygiene in the morning is good but there’s another 23 hours to consider.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
SURYA DAS: Relational mindfulness and loving kindness in action, not just in the abstract. You know, prayer and action.
KRISHNA DAS: Absolutely.
SURYA DAS: So that’s what we call the Bodhi Sattva way. Or the way of the altruistic peaceful warrior. The Bodhi Sattva.
KRISHNA DAS: Wonderful.
SURYA DAS: The Buddhas to be. And seeing the Buddha and the light in everyone and everything, even one’s self. It ain’t easy sometimes.
KRISHNA DAS: Beautiful. Thank you so much. It’s wonderful sitting with you.
SURYA DAS: You’re welcome, KRISHNA DAS, my beloved brother.
KRISHNA DAS: Ram Ram.
Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “the American Lama”. He has spent over forty-five years studying Zen, Vipassana, Yoga, and is an authorized lama in Tibetan Buddhist order. He has studied with many of the great old masters of Asia, among them, some of the Dalai Lama’s own teachers. He is also a leading spokesperson for Buddhism and contemporary spirituality, a translator, poet, meditation master, chant master, and spiritual activist. Lama Surya Das is the author of the international bestselling book Awakening the Buddha Within. In 1991 he established the Dzogchen Foundation and today teaches and lectures around the world, conducting dozens of meditation retreats and workshops. Find out about is blog posts, podcasts, published books, and social media channels on his website surya.org.
Suggestions for your practice: Harmonium Tutorials
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Dear K.D. , Sangha
This is the best truth and teaching I have had from K.D. I love how he begins with the fact that Maharaji holds keys to his mind and his Grace leads him and yet he acts like and pretends he is in charge. Did I get this right? Anyway Someone in me really smiled at this.
Erin of the Rainbow Isles
I loved KD’s comment. I smiled, too.
I loved this podcast because it was a simply 2 old friends talking to each other about what really matters.
Thank you so much.
I loved KD’s comment. I smiled, too.
LED had recently lost his partner in this podcast but he can smile like that. I guess I can, too, then.