Awakening the Buddha Within

Eight Steps to Enlightenment
Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World
Lama Surya Das
Broadway Books: New York, 1997
414 pp., $26.00 (cloth)

reviews 103 spring 1998
Image: Lama Surya Das. Photo by Steve Boyd.

In Awakening the Buddha Within, Lama Surya Das, a Western Buddhist meditation teacher and Dzogchen lineage holder, weaves many of the fundamental teachings and practices of the Buddha together with his own well-told story. The result is a densely packed feast of a book. This is both the good news and the daunting news: Readers who dip into the book at a leisurely pace should come away feeling satisfied and nourished; those who try to digest it too quickly may end up feeling stuffed and overwhelmed.

Surya Das is one of the first generation of American Buddhist teachers who left the United States around 1970 and wound up searching for enlightenment in the forest and mountaintop monasteries of Asia. Like other members of this group, which includes Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Tsultrim Allione, and Ram Dass, Surya Das spent many years living and studying abroad before bringing the dharma back home.

His own particular journey began as Jeffrey Miller in suburban Long Island. Miller was the classic bar mitzvah boy who wanted to grow up and become a ball player. (His mother, he reports, refers to him as “The Deli Lama.”) But in 1970, everything changed. As a college senior already disillusioned by radical politics and drawn to Zen, he was struck close to the bone when his best friend’s girlfriend was gunned down by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. In one eerie coincidence, one of the other four students killed was named Jeffrey Miller. The future lama realized that the body of the Jeffrey Miller lying dead in a pool of blood could easily have been his. “Kent State helped me realize that more than anything else I wanted find a nonviolent way to contribute to a more harmonious and sane world,” he writes. His search took him across Europe to Kathmandu, where he met Lama Thubten Yeshe, the first of his many revered Tibetan masters. After Lama Yeshe, his teachers were the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, whom he considers his “root” guru, as well as Gyalwa Karmapa, Dudjom Rinpoche, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

In reading Surya Das, one gets a feel for the obstacles faced by spiritual seekers trekking across the then remote reaches of Asia—especially considering how widely available the dharma is in the West a mere thirty years later. Today we need only go as far as the local YMCA to study meditation. But anyone who actually practices Buddhism knows that time spent on the cushion can be just as hard in Manhattan as in Kuala Lumpur. Moreover, as Surya Das explains, “One need not travel to distant lands, seek exotic mystical experiences, master esoteric mantras and treatises, or cultivate extraordinary states of mind in order to experience a radical change of heart and inner transformation. . . . It’s the old adage all over again: You don’t need to see different things; but rather to see things differently.”

Awakening the Buddha Within is a sort of Pandora’s box: The Four Noble Truths lead to the Eightfold Path, which consists of the Three Enlightenment Trainings of wisdom, ethics, and meditation, then on to the Eight Worldly Winds, the Six Perfections, the Five Hindrances, the Three Jewels, and so on. In trying to cover all the bases—including detailed meditation instruction—in a single volume, Awakening the Buddha Within takes on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of feel, like a dish with a few too many ingredients.

Still, despite the tendency to want to tell the reader everything, Surya Das proves to be a winning and down-to-earth guide. For readers unfamiliar with Buddhism or those interested in a lively refresher course, Awakening the Buddha Within offers a solid introduction to the subject. Absorbing the book in small bites will compensate for its unwieldiness. So will the author’s light touch and wide-angle perspective on the transmission of dharma to the west.

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