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We’re meditating all wrong, says ‘Buddha from Brooklyn’

Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who has been teaching meditation for decades. Photo by Paige Gilbert, courtesy of Lama Surya Das
Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who has been teaching meditation for decades. Photo by Paige Gilbert, courtesy of Lama Surya Das

Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who have been teaching meditation for decades. Photo by Paige Gilbert, courtesy of Lama Surya Das

(RNS) Lama Surya Das, the “Buddha from Brooklyn,” is one of the handful of Westerners who have been teaching meditation for decades. And yet, he says we’re doing it wrong.

“So many people seem to be moving narcissistically — conditioned by our culture, doubtless — into self-centered happiness-seeking and quietism, not to mention the use of mindfulness for mere effectiveness,” he said. True meditation, he said, generates wisdom and compassion, which may be very disquieting, at least in the short term.

Born Jeffrey Miller, Surya Das has had a spiritual journey that is remarkable in its breadth. He was given the name “Surya Das” by the Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba, made famous by Ram Dass more than 40 years ago. But Surya Das shifted gears in the early 1970s to Tibetan Buddhism, subsequently completing two three-year silent meditation retreats and becoming one of the first Westerners to be authorized as a Tibetan lama.

At the time, meditation was still considered pretty weird: foreign, exotic, hippie-ish. Now it’s everywhere. Meditation — especially mindfulness, which trains the mind to observe nonjudgmentally and attentively — has gone mainstream. In secular forms, it’s now widespread in health care, education, the corporate world, even the military. Each year, 1 million Americans take up the practice for the first time.  

Surya Das is not entirely happy about that. “Mindful divorce, mindful parenting, mindful TV,” he complained. “Why not mindful sniping, poaching, or mindful waiting to find the opportunity to take advantage of and exploit someone when there’s a chink in their armor?”

Moreover, he said, because of the way meditation is taught, many people think they can’t do it. “’Quiet your mind’ or ‘calm and clear your mind’ are instructions I hear way too much. Some teachers actually encourage people to try to stop thinking, when in fact meditative awareness means being mindful of thoughts and feelings, not simply trying to reduce, alter or white them out and achieve some kind of oblivion.”

What’s missing? In his new book, “Make Me One With Everything” (the answer to a well-worn Buddhist joke: “What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?”), Surya Das argues for a return to the original purpose of Buddhist meditation: not relaxation, but liberation. The goal, he said, is “to genuinely learn how to gain direct access to Oneness, wholeness, completeness, integration with all the parts of themselves and life.”

“All the parts” is a crucial ingredient. In “Make Me One,” he proposes what he calls “co-meditation” — not trying to find a quiet “moment of Zen” apart from the messy, noisy world of work, family and children, but inviting all of the noise into meditation. That is indeed unorthodox in a contemporary context. But it is also part of the ancient Tibetan tradition known as Lojong, which often features elaborate visualizations — not quieting down and following the breath. Indeed, many of the book’s unusual meditation practices — sky-gazing, gardening, meditation for couples, and wild neologisms including Presencing, Convergitation and Momitation — are based on Surya Das’ years of studying and translating esoteric Tibetan teaching tales.

“It’s the same transformative and liberating essence, yet I think it’s pretty new for almost everyone today,” he said. “The anti-intellectual meditators, thought-swatters and imagination-suppressors have long ruled meditation-oriented circles in the West. But authentic meditative practices can enhance and even unleash the creativity and imagination.”

One benefit of these practices is that you don’t have to quiet the mind to do them. “It’s helpful for people who think they can’t meditate because they can’t sit still and think less. That ain’t the point.”

Still, bringing more noise into one’s meditation practice is diametrically opposed to the popular conception of meditation as calming and quieting. Surya Das calls that “the old New Age, self-growth, self-development, self-improvement emphasis — trying to use meditation to get away from it all. We need to erode the Grand Canyon-like gulf we see today between self and other, us and them, inner and outer, and even body and mind, body and soul, heaven and hell, liking and disliking, to realize the great equanimity of what is called in Tibetan Buddhism One Taste, and what others call unity vision, oneness, third-eye vision and the like.”

You may have already noticed that Surya Das speaks in long, often hilarious sentences, filled with puns and jokes. This rhetorical style is of a piece with his conceptual point — that awakening isn’t some calm, blissed-out state but is being at home with every state of mind, including the rapid-fire speech of a born-and-bred New Yorker.

For example, here’s how he summarizes the key teaching of the book, complete with 13 adjectives, 10 nouns and 11 verbs: “Can I say that this book presents, elucidates, rationalizes and instructs, in the extraordinary American-Buddhism’s fresh and newly minted, jargon-free, straight talkin’, practical and flexible, adaptable, personal and integratable, nonsectarian organic ways for a whole new way of meditating, with tips and pointers to find your own way and authentic practice style, thus avoiding many, if not most, of the obstacles and hindrances, doubts and distractions practitioners so often face and stumble upon?”

Sure you can.

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the 2013 report “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights.” Photo courtesy of Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is a columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the 2013 report “Redefining Religious Liberty: The Covert Campaign Against Civil Rights.” Photo courtesy of Jay Michaelson

There’s a refreshing honesty in this iconoclastic approach. Whatever awakening is, surely it has something to do with authenticity. And for some of us, authenticity is fast-talking, free-associating and full of sound and fury.

Or as Surya Das himself put it, “It can become obnoxious, I know, but I’m a folksy, campy, backyard bodhisattva-from-Brooklyn kinda guy, what can I say?”

(Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to The Daily Beast and the author of “Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.”)

 

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  • The Bible says: “8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. 9 The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”

    As we now know, the Bible has heavily borrowed from other religions as there are over 50 authors or more plus editors and compilers involved. This was borrowed from the Buddha.The Buddha taught 500 Years Before Christ. Here is what the Buddha said:

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in…

  • The rest of the Buddha quote”

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

  • Reason needs to start somewhere and Jesus Christ is the only significant religious figure to claim that he is God. It was my falling away from Christianity and the emptiness of other spiritualities that led me back. Nothing was as sharp to my soul as the words of Christ and nothing has led me to greater joy than his communion. And I think Buddah would agree that what Christ did was the greatest good and benefit of all. Now the hard part is accepting and living up to it!! God bless

  • Lama Surya has a.brilliant style of using cluster definitions to point out the fullness of the concept he is teaching at every opportunity. The turning toward co/meditation, compassion and wisdom, and a renewed sense of our inter connectedness rather than purely our self-importance, is a much welcomed return to what Surya Das offers westerners in his approachable teaching style, as an alternative to mindlessly sleepwalking through life or other extremes which focus on the material of what do I get out of this, after the “meditate for increased production” “models of the corporate meditation push in recent years.

  • I don’t think that Jesus or any other Jewish sage needed to borrow from Buddha. We all have the same brain that hasn’t evolved or changed for millions of years. We all come up with the same basic truth in our own ways.

    I sincerely doubt that Buddha would have thought that Jesus did the greatest good by “dying for our sins.” Buddha did not think that he was a God and he would not have thought that Jesus was a God either.

  • “Surya Das argues for a return to the original purpose of Buddhist meditation: not relaxation, but liberation.” Unfortunately, the Buddhists have got it wrong. There is no ultimate purpose to meditation (or even to the life of us as individual persons). Is death the purpose of our life, are you kidding me? What makes both meditation and life in general so hard and so frustrating is the insane belief that there must be a purpose. Drop that idea and you are free.

  • Hi Michael,
    Yes, the experience is the message -and the purpose.
    (Apologies to Marshall McLuhan)

  • Hi Josh,
    “Jesus Christ is the only significant religious figure to claim that he is God.”
    1. Well, that depends on how you define significant (only my guy qualifies).
    2. The man whom the Greeks called Jesus never made such a claim. Others made the claim for him.
    3. Siddhartha the Buddha dismissed all talk of the Gods as “…too speculative.”
    4. Then there is the little problem of a god, or the God.
    5. In short, repeating what you have been told without thinking about it, is neither knowledge, nor wisdom.

  • Christ’s words are beautiful and I meditate on them. If I recall, Christ really didn’t say He was God. He also says that regarding the potential in us, “Ye shall do greater works than these.” Christ and Buddha are not two, in my opinion. They are the same mindset (or lack of mind as in Christ’s “be ye like an infant” which is a deconditioned (the virgin birth) mind. When we get past religion (i.e., the denominational mindset) we become Religious (in its epistemological sense, meaning to bind together or to connect. This is just a way to be in life. Making love, playing with your child, walking barefoot on the lawn or skinny dipping are acts of religion.

  • When you breathe out, you release carbon dioxide. When you breathe in, you take in oxygen (being overly simplistic). Likewise, trees and other plants breateh in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. In the simple act of breathing, you are supporting all of life and all of life supports you. Even in death, you open up a space for others to be born. Thus, like Christ, you are here for everything else. Freedom to me is realizing our Christhood or Buddhahood in that we are here for the sake of everyone else. So, be loving to that bee that just stung you.

  • In the more ancient practices, life was seen as more verb than noun. Taoism, in the Way, has embraced that ancient way of religion or having a sense of wholeness / holiness / hole. Letting go, becoming whole or empty is the state of wholeness. In that state, one embraces all. I agree wholeheartedly, Samuel.

  • I’m not sure that Jesus said he was god. Some interpretations (and people pretty much make up any slant they want on that concatenation of claptrap called the new testament, let alone the old one), posit that Jesus was indicating we are the manifestations of an imminent god. I don’t particularly believe that either, but it is a far more interesting perspective than the typically hierarchical one favored by Churches and others seeking donations and power.

  • “Mindful divorce, mindful parenting, mindful TV,” sounds like Christian this and Christian that: Christian bookstores, medical associations, t-shirts and even breath mints.

    Of course, if something is widespread, it will be commodified because that is the very heart of American culture – nothing is sacred. So, if it starts that way, our greedy little egos are going to get hold of it and desecrate it on a widespread scale because that’s what we do.

  • Hi Burl,
    Yes, Christians are taught that Ancient religions (Paganism) were all evil, bloodthirsty cults. (unlike their religion, which is a blessed tradition that makes occasional mistakes because of men’s inherent unworthiness).
    And, yes, Letting go,…one embraces all. Me, I have tried meditation, and some of the techniques that I have learned are/were useful and insightful, but I have no desire to embrace all. My meditation “enlightenment” occurred one fine Spring Saturday morning while participating in a large Buddhist meditation retreat. A beautiful red bird perched on a limb right outside my window. I decided that I would rather join him that weekend, rather than “eat my spinach” with the group. I never returned, and have never regretted my decision.
    “Them old dreams are only in your head”- Bob Dylan

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