Lama Surya Das, the American founder of the Dzogchen Foundation, a lay practice center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was born Jeffrey Miller in Brooklyn, New York, in 1950. He spent nearly thirty years studying with many of the great spiritual masters of Tibet, including Kalu Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Gyalwa Karmapa, and Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche. A dzogchen lineage holder, Lama Surya Das has twice completed the traditional three-year Vajrayana meditation retreat at Shechen Monastery in Dordogne, France. In addition to leading dzogchen retreats, he is the author of Awakening the Buddha Within and Awakening the Sacred, and has translated into English a selection of Tibetan wisdom tales, published in a collection titled The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane. This interview was conducted at Lama Surya Das’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, by Helen Tworkov.
Is there any distinction between Jeffrey Miller and Surya Das? No. But we all have different roles in life. When I visit my mother on Long Island, I’m Jeffrey Miller. If I’m giving a public talk, I’m Lama Surya Das. In the end, we just become more ourselves. As a Zen teaching goes: “When you become you, then Zen becomes Zen, Buddha becomes Buddha.”
For many Westerners, becoming ourselves relates to personality. Is that how you mean it? Personality changes, of course, but our karma relates to our past. When I was a kid, I was a captain of the baseball team. I was an extrovert then, and even though I lived in a monastery and went on a three-year retreat, I’m still an extrovert. Others were introverted, even in the monastery, and they’re introverted now. Becoming more authentic and genuine is the main point, and is not a mere matter of personality.
What is the particular way that dzogchen practice encourages us to become who we are? Buddhism is really about awakening from the illusion about ourselves and the world, and realizing reality—who we are and what is real and how things are interconnected through karma and causation and so on. In a dzogchen text it says, “From the beginning we are all Buddhas by nature, we only have to realize that fact.” So in dzogchen the whole practice of what we call the view, meditation, and action is about awakening to—not just our momentary personality—“self” with a small s—but our true Buddha nature, our original nature.
Does practice change the personality? Practice can change the personality, yes, and hopefully for the better. That’s the idea of spiritual training, of what we call in Tibetan lojong, attitude-transformation or mind-training. All the practices—ethical training, meditation or mindfulness training, wisdom and love training—are to be a better person, but it is also to realize who we are as we are. That seems like a contradiction. On the one hand, we say everything is perfect and divine as it is and we need to accept that and understand it. That is “the great perfection,” or the view/outlook of dzogchen teachings. On the other hand, in the conventional relative sense, we see a lot of suffering, and cruelty and violence around us, and we strive for a more peaceful, harmonious, better world.
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