Awakening the Buddha Within

by Lama Surya Das

An Interview

Inner Directions Journal:In your book, Awakening the Buddha Within, you write about growing up Jewish in a typical suburban Long Island, New York home. After graduating college you literally left America the next day—to search for answers—not knowing where you would end up.
Lama Surya Das: That’s true.

IDJ: You wound up in Katmandu with Lama Thubten Yeshe. It struck me that what initially drew you to Buddhism was the beautiful personality and innate happiness of Lama Yeshe, and perhaps the other Lamas.
LSD: Yes, and not just the Lamas, but many of the Tibetans and other Buddhist practitioners.

IDJ: So it was the personal guidance and connection that molded you rather than the theoretical study of Buddhist texts.
LSD: Yes, definitely. It was not the philosophy but the life, the vitality, and joy of the Lamas and the nuns. Even among the Tibetan laypeople and Buddhists in other countries. Very joyful. In the moment, here and now.

IDJ: Could you speak about how the Lamas’ guidance affected you personally, how they influenced you, what they did for you? What special value did these relationships hold?
LSD: Well, they made it very real and embodied the teachings rather than just looking upon Buddhism as a philosophy or belief. At some point you wonder, “Does this really work, can anybody get there? Can someone be like Jesus today?” But they really did “embody” the philosophy and showed a way we can embody  it, too. Whether through kindness, compassion, or just being there for each person—equally, without partiality—they completely gave of themselves in a generous manner. It was very inspiring and unlike any previous experience I had of being with teachers, rabbis, or priests. This was mystical, experiential. They really “walked the walk.”

IDJ: Did this experience give you confidence that “self-realization” is truly possible?
LSD: It really gave me that confidence. Their embodiment of the teachings did not just change my mind or beliefs, but there was a movement or transmission from their body and energy to mine. I think this is crucial, though I don’t like to overemphasize the necessity of a spiritual teacher as much as some Tibetan teachers do. Not everyone can find a spiritual teacher. I’d rather emphasize the fact that you can find peace, happiness, and nirvana in your own backyard. And that’s what they taught me.

IDJ: So they taught by example.
LSD: Yes, they taught by everything they did. It was worth going all the way to Nepal just to see how Lama Yeshe laughed, how he tied his shoes, how he took care of the younger Lamas under his care. That was not something I could have realized from books.

IDJ: While reading Awakening the Buddha Within, it struck me that unlike other Buddhist schools, Dzogchen can’t really be called a “school,” because it does not seem to have a particular point of view.
LSD: Supposedly. It is actually a lineage, a tradition of transmission and personal realization—rather than a school or order of Tibetan Buddhism. We also have to note that there is a certain viewpoint represented.

IDJ: Would you say that Dzogchen is inherently a view of reality based on profound understanding of the nature of mind?
LSD: Yes.

IDJ: Can you explain the essential aspects of Dzogchen and why it has been referred to as the most secret teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha?
LSD: Well, that’s a good question. I like to quote the Buddhist pioneer Trungpa Rinpoche. He said, “It’s the kind of truth that is self-secret,” with a hyphenated “self-secret.” It’s only secret until you see it, then it’s evident everywhere. It’s not “kept” secret. Who would want to keep it back? Growing children may need to be older before they can understand something for themselves. It may be too soon for them to learn, appreciate, or see. It’s not that we want to hide things from them; they just need to grow more. In Tibetan, the word “secret” can also mean esoteric, mystical, or relating to the “inner,” or to the innermost, the innate spiritual nature of beings.

IDJ: Would you say it becomes available when one is ready?
LSD: Yes, when ready. And that doesn’t mean when you’ve paid enough dues at the door. Ready refers to maturation, internally. It is just like with personal, intimate relationships—you know when to make a commitment—when you are ready.

Many Lamas say Dzogchen is a teaching for our times. It is a teaching of naked truth or nondualistic awareness practice and does not depend on externals, on language studies, on mantras, initiations, visualizations or iconography. It is very direct and anyone can practice it. I think it is a teaching for today—the seal of secrecy has been opened and it’s being taught everywhere—the Dalai Lama teaches it and many Lamas in the different schools do so.

IDJ: Would you say it is direct because it goes right to the root cause?
LSD: Yes. That’s why it is called the “Short Path.” Sometimes it’s called the highest or the ultimate path, but not as a judgment against other ways. Instead of circling around with prayers and rituals you can completely realize reality right now, either this very moment or at least in this very life. So Dzogchen goes right at it. It is the luminous heart of dharma, the core of all sutras, the core of the Mantrayana; it’s the core of the Bodhicitta, the unselfish awakened heart-mind of the Bodhisattva. Dzogchen embodies the heart essence or innate oneness of truth and love, within our own hearts and minds.

IDJ: To come to the “immediacy” of Dzogchen, with its emphasis on Awareness, does one have to first finish with progressive ways of practice?
LSD: If we practice and really take it to heart, it’s not something we have to wait to benefit from in the future. Dzogchen is right here and now. It’s the Natural Great Completeness, or Perfection, our natural home. It’s the Buddha within us, within each other, within our relations, within nature. It’s right now. It’s now, or never as always!

Spiritual life and awakening are a mystery, not unlike love. Awakening happens when it happens and all we can do is put ourselves in the right way, trust, and practice. A master once commented on this, saying, “Spiritual practice doesn’t guarantee enlightenment. Enlightenment is like an accident, but its practice makes you more accident prone.”

IDJ: That’s wonderful (laughing).
LSD: Though we “practice” in Dzogchen, we don’t say “practice makes perfect,” but rather “practice is perfect.” Just do it and enjoy it. It’s not a chore. Find your natural meditation, your natural moments of wholeness and oneness and peace, and the great perfection in your own life—not somebody else’s. It is about authenticity.

IDJ: Dzogchen has been referred to as the union of emptiness and clarity. Since it is not “goal-oriented effort,” it probably leads to reflection on the essential nature of pure mind. How does this differ from traditional Buddhist meditation practices, especially those that emphasize gradual steps toward purification of mind?
LSD: Purification is not really the teaching of Dzogchen. Dzogchen is about the perfect nature of everything “just as it is.” It’s like the light, or the luminous heart or core within everything, just as it is. Remember, shadows are also part of the light; we don’t have to purify shadows. Dzogchen stresses the realization of the present moment. Seeing the divine nature within ourselves and within each other is the practice of Dzogchen.

The gradual teachings suggest we purify ourselves, gain wisdom, insight, compassion, selflessness, and gradually (through ten stages) become Bodhisattvas and ultimately Buddha, fully awakened. The Dzogchen tantras state that “We are all Buddhas by nature. It is only momentary obscurations which veil that fact.” Therefore, realization or enlightenment means recognizing who and what we really are, not trying to fabricate or build or make Buddhas. The great perfection of Dzogchen includes imperfection, for that is what gives each of us our character and moment-to-moment uniqueness, our own special Buddhaness. For we are more Buddha-like than we think.

IDJ: This reminds me of a question you asked Lama Yeshe when you were just twenty years old. It was about the benefit of helping others. He replied, “How can you help others if you can’t help yourself? Liberate yourself and then you liberate the world.” This is of course wonderful advice. How do you reconcile this statement with what is commonly referred to as “Engaged Buddhism”?
LSD: Well, that’s a good question, Matthew. I think Engaged Buddhism is a wonderful new development—like a new wing or a movement among Buddhists East and West—started by Thich Nhat Hahn and others. It’s not just something invented here in California. It’s an expression of the Mahayana Bodhisattva vow, so it’s not new or outlandish. One of the chief misunderstandings of Buddhism and the Dharma, and mysticism, is that it is solely reclusive and insular. Actually, mysticism is connected to both the inside and the outside. We think globally in our attitude, prayers, and openheartedness, while we act locally—starting with ourselves, our mates, family and children, colleagues and neighbors—because that is where we are, that is what is at hand. I think Engaged Buddhism is an important development because the world is so much smaller today.

I don’t think Engaged Buddhism should give any of us an excuse to be “enraged Buddhists.” You know, fighting for peace; kicking ass for peace. This is just an excuse to vent our anger. I subscribe to Engaged Buddhism with the caveat that it be balanced by a very heartfelt, soulful practice of lovingkindness, and compassion and forgiveness.

IDJ: There is a lot of expression in Buddhist dharma about the development of compassion. In one sense we can honestly ask, “who am I” to have compassion for another? Is not compassion an attitude of the heart that is manifest only through direct experience of our connectedness with one another?
LSD: Yes. One of the meanings of compassion is a direct connection of feeling what others feel. That’s why compassion is one of the Paramitas, one of the transcendental virtues. It’s not a small thing. Pity is dualistic and makes us feel one is better than the other. Compassion is more connected to a sense of equality. As we practice inwardly developing wisdom, discernment, integrity, and compassion—it automatically spills over outwardly as connectedness, empathy, lovingkindness, unselfishness, and so on.

IDJ: When you were studying with Kalu Rinpoche, he asked you what type of practice you were doing and you replied something like, “Watching the breath.” Rinpoche then asked you, “The breath? What are you going to do when your breathing stops?” That was a remarkable teaching.
LSD: That was a mind-breaker.

IDJ: That is how it hit me. What did you do to change your approach to the practice you were doing?
LSD: This (statement) woke me up; startled me—I realized I wasn’t just talking to an ordinary old man, that he was really a transcendent being. This is an example of the blessings of the master, of having a karmic connection with a truly authentic spiritual teacher. It can provoke you in a manner that reading or learning stories might not. This spurred me on to go deeper into meditation; not just trying to quiet my mind, which was a kind of beginners’ meditation, but to begin to understand the nature of mind and the nature of thought to free and liberate my mind, not just calm it down.

IDJ: I enjoyed the comment you included in the book indicating that if you wanted a quiet mind, there were plenty of pharmaceutical companies waiting to help you out.
LSD: Right (laughing).

IDJ: You also wrote, “Through honest self-inquiry and no-holds-barred meditative introspection over a sustained period, one can take apart and deconstruct the hut the ego has built, thus entering the mansion of authentic being.” Isn’t this truly the essential purpose of meditation practice? When we see through the constructs we’ve created, that which we truly are remains.
LSD:  That’s right. When the bubble in the ocean bursts, there is just the sea. But let’s not forget that even before the bubble bursts it is still part of the sea, so there is no problem. We don’t have to get rid of our ego, throw away our family, drop our bodies, and try to get on the comet Hale-Bopp. Even when the ego-bubble is still there, it is not necessarily a problem. Once we glimpse the sea, once we have this kind of initiatory awakening or a little enlightenment experience, there is a breakthrough, a recognition.

Of course the ego-bubble again forms out of habit through conceptuality and self-clinging, and we come back to “ourselves,” though with a little different perspective. The bubble is transparent; it’s not a problem. I can be Jeffrey Miller the American male, who likes sports, friends and women. No problem; that’s part of the Great Perfection, not contradictory to it.

IDJ: It seems one of the special values of Dzogchen is that it can help give you that glimpse rather quickly, so you will have greater confidence and better understanding.
LSD: Yes, that’s the point. Confidence and conviction are the watchwords of Dzogchen, not belief. Buddhism doesn’t really teach belief; it teaches you a way to recognize what you really are, or at least have a glimpse of it. The practice is used to mature and stabilize it, so there is more confidence and conviction. This is very important. In the beginning there is intellectual understanding, then that deepens through experience. Finally, you gain a sort of realization that ultimately leads toward full liberation or enlightenment.

IDJ: Does Dzogchen rely on any kind of gradual purification of mind?
LSD: Dzogchen does not really deal with mind; it’s beyond the mind. It’s about primordial being, pure awareness. When you see beyond yourself, then reality—your true nature—remains. That’s the practice of Dzogchen. So it’s not about purifying the mind, it’s about realizing Pure Mind—mind with a capital M, as the Zen teachers would call it; Big Mind as Suzuki Roshi would call it. Not the small, finite ego-mind, but the heart-mind or spiritual nature.

IDJ: Is there any relationship to how one conducts oneself in the world?
LSD: Padmasambhava, who brought these teachings to Tibet in the eighth century, said, “My view is higher than, or as vast as, the sky, but my actions regarding cause and effect (meaning ethics here in the world) are as meticulous as finely sifted flour.”

IDJ: There are many different meditations described throughout your book. At one point you write, “Simply turn the mind back on itself.” Is this not enough? Why so many associated meditations if one goes to the root?
LSD: It is enough if one can go to the root, but it’s a steep path. Not everybody can practice like that all the time. Therefore, there are many secondary supportive practices to help bring us back to the root. All practices must bring us back to the luminous heart of the dharma, the true nature of things and of ourselves.

IDJ: Since mind takes on different characteristics at different times, these alternative practices provide options for those times.
LSD: Yes. We realize that Being is not lost by doing, so we do the best we can—knowing it’s not really changing our true Being. Nothing can affect our fundamental nature or primordial being.

IDJ: You had the good fortune of closely associating with most of the great enlightened Tibetan Lamas who lived during our times. What would you say to a seeker who is attracted to Dzogchen but does not have the same opportunity for association you had?
LSD:  Well, that is why I don’t stress the teacher all that much. Of course you can go and seek a teacher in the East or West, but I now try to relate more to the inner teacher. The inner Guru is truth, is primordial being, Rigpa, Buddha nature. We can relate to that, I believe, if we’re truly honest with ourselves. Then, we begin to get the teachings from our own innate wisdom.

I have an “Ask the Lama” column on the Internet, and people write in with questions. I often answer them “Ask the Lama,” and they reply, “What do you mean?” What I mean is “Ask the inner Lama. If you’re honest with yourself, you will know.” Who knows better than you do what job, what vocation, what’s calling you? Listen, and you’ll know your calling; you’ll hear it. So I think we can go quite far with spiritual practice without a spiritual teacher. Buddha himself did not stress the teacher. He said, “When I am gone, when the teacher, the Buddha is gone, rely on the teachings, the dharma, rely on other practitioners, the Sangha.” I think this is very important because Buddhism is a do-it-yourself practice. However, an elder or mentor can inspire us and help a lot. An enlightened Vajra Master or Guru knows where our ego’s vital flaw is. With a few skillful taps (or what we call in Dzogchen and Mahamudra the pith instructions) they can—with a few words or a gesture—like a jewel-cutter, tap on the jewel of our being and open its perfect configuration. Of course, the student has to be ready, has to be connected. There are of course many masters and many students, but if they are not connected, nothing happens.

IDJ: Padmasambhava brought these teachings to Tibet from India. There seems to be a distinct relationship between Dzogchen and Advaita.
LSD: Yes. Many of these teachings were practiced by the Siddhas of India who were both Hindu and Buddhist. There wasn’t such a distinction in those days. I think that Advaita and nondual Buddhism (Mahamudra and Dzogchen) really come from shared roots. Shankaracharya, the patriarch of Advaita, was accused of being a hidden Buddhist because his views were so close to that of the Buddhist masters of his time. The Heart Sutra says, “No wisdom and no attainment, no suffering and no cause of suffering.” That’s very Dzogchen-oriented, not developmental or gradual. Advaita and Dzogchen agree there.

Buddhism is always a balance between the absolute and the conventional levels. Everything is perfect as it is, yet still we play our part as Bodhisattvas to have a better world, to serve and contribute, to have a more  peaceful way of being, etc. I think this is very important. If we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we will know. When you have the eye of wisdom open you see it everywhere, in all mystical traditions and religious teachings.

Lama Surya Das is founder of the Dzogchen Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a highly regarded American Lama in the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition. Surya Das studied with Kalu Rinpoche, Khyentse Rinpoche, and Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche. He holds retreats around the world, which focus on the nondual teachings of Dzogchenthe way of the “Natural Great Perfection.” He is the author of several books, notably the bestselling Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment, Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World and The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales From Tibet.