Buddha Is as Buddha Does:
The Ten Original Practices for Enlightened Living
Lama Surya Das
New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007
288 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)
Believe it or not, there was once a time, not that many years ago, when books on Buddhism were hard to find. You could scour your local bookstore for hours without turning up anything, and if you did find some lonely title by D. T. Suzuki or Alan Watts, it might well have been tucked away on some vaguely embarrassing shelf labeled “Occult,” along with the treatises on alien abduction and telekinesis.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the tide turned, but I remember fifteen years ago asking a Zen master in San Francisco if he had considered collecting his lectures into a book. He dismissed the idea, saying, “Everyone is writing books.” Yet if there was already a glut of Buddha books then, there is a veritable deluge today. And you’re much less likely to find the Buddhist tomes sequestered in that musty Occult corner than proudly displayed in the brightly lit realm of Self-Help.
The newest offering by prolific author and renowned teacher Lama Surya Das is an interesting case in point. In some respects, it seems to embody the superficial narcissism of so much Buddhist publishing, opening with the exhortation that if “you follow [these] guidelines, you will enter into an extraordinary life of greater joy, energy, clarity, peace, and wisdom than you ever thought possible.” It claims to transcend mere Buddhism, explaining that it “doesn’t matter whether you now consider yourself a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, pantheist, atheist, agnostic, or devotee of any other spirituality, religion, or philosophy.” Surya Das counts in the category of human bodhisattvas everyone from the biblical Moses and Jesus to modern figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Schweitzer, all the way up to the inexplicable Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey and a friendly garage mechanic in upstate New York known as Exxon Ken.
To be sure, Lama Surya Das understands the paradox of his mission. He knows that “many of us come to Buddhism in the first place as a means of self-improvement, and our initial focus tends to be on things we can do all by ourselves, and seemingly all for ourselves.” While parts of the book seem to play into this self-help mentality, his focus is elsewhere. Through the ten paramitas or “transformational practices,” Surya Das wants us all to become bodhisattvas, to live a life of “truth and integrity” free from “the petty and recurrently painful narrowness of more selfish goals.” He explains the apparent contradiction between his occasional feel-good rhetoric and bodhisattva selflessness by quoting the Dalai Lama’s teaching on “intelligent selfishness,” explaining that “helping others toward fulfillment is the best way to achieve it ourselves.”
The book is organized into ten chapters – one for each of the Mahayana paramitas – and each ends with solid, down-to-earth exercises: “Breathe and visualize in harmony” to cultivate generosity, “keep . . . a journal of your daily thoughts, feelings, words and behaviors” to develop ethical self-discipline, follow the “Six Steps to Anger Management” to practice patient forbearance, and so forth. In between these practical passages, the tone is chatty and informal, meandering along more like a dinner conversation than a teaching text. We hear the story of Julia Butterfly Hill, the environmental activist who lived in a redwood tree for two years, of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, and the boxer Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in Vietnam. His store of personal and historical anecdotes, literary allusions, and Buddhist references is both inexhaustible and, by the end, somewhat exhausting.
Did this book need to be written? Thich Nhat Hanh – whom Lama Surya Das mentions admiringly – has written several strong works on compassion and our inherent interconnection, as have other modern teachers. And while Lama Surya Das’s accounts of his own Buddhist training are truly inspiring, his efforts at popularization in this book at times fall flat. Yes, pop culture icons like Oprah and Bono have done some good with their fame and fortunes, but are they the ideals the Buddha would have us aspire to? Surely there are more relevant examples of people who actually use Buddhist practice to guide their moral lives.
For decades, the hugely influential Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was known to most of the world through one slim volume of less than two hundred pages. Now there are three books of his lectures, plus an illustrated calendar. Is this progress? With Buddha Is As Buddha Does, Lama Surya Das himself is up to eight books; Thich Nhat Hanh has written well past fifty. Does this make the true dharma more accessible to all of us, or even harder to find? There are kernels of wisdom in this book, along with many entertaining asides, but the basic principles have been outlined dozens of times before. It certainly won’t hurt anybody to read the book, and devoted fans will likely find much to enjoy, but it isn’t difficult to find more focused introductions to Buddhism and the bodhisattva ideal.
Oh, and that Zen master who scoffed at writing books a decade and a half ago? He’s now published two
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