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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Meet New York's 'Deli Lama:' Surya Das

October 13, 2008

Gradually, as Surya Das, 48, tells his story, he loosens up. It
becomes clear that he's really just a nice, burly Jewish guy from
Long Island who happens to be one of the most learned American lamas
(Tibetan monks) in the world.
By JENNIFER TUNG
Huliq News
October 10, 2008

AT first, Lama Surya Das , ne Jeffrey Miller of North Valley Stream,
Long Island, doesn't fit the expected image of America's most highly
trained Tibetan Buddhist monk. He comes across more like a slightly
pompous, media-savvy author.

After being ushered into the Times Square offices of Broadway Books,
which has just published his fourth book, 'Awakening to the Sacred:
Creating a Spiritual Life from Scratch,'' Surya Das - happy being
called just 'Surya'' - glances at his watch, and jumps to answer
questions, as if by rote, before the interviewer finishes asking
them. He refers to his books (including 1997's 'Awakening the Buddha
Within'') as 'bestsellers.'' He suggests different angles for the
photographer. Instead of the traditional maroon robes, he wears a
navy jacket, gray pants, and an Armani tie. He has a head full of
curly, light-brown hair.

He doesn't look remotely like a Tibetan monk, and with good reason.
'I don't want to go around in robes because people will think I am
different,'' he says. 'I'd be flashier and on the news more, but my
message is that anybody can do this.''

Gradually, as Surya Das, 48, tells his story, he loosens up. It
becomes clear that he's really just a nice, burly Jewish guy from
Long Island who happens to be one of the most learned American lamas
(Tibetan monks) in the world.

The lofty title means that he practices Buddhism in his personal life
(meditating, chanting, and doing yoga at his Concord, Mass., home),
lectures and leads meditation workshops all over the country. He also
presides over the Western Buddhist Teachers Network, several
hermitages in the Catskills and the Dzogchen Foundation in Cambridge, Mass.

It's an existence that's a far cry from his ordinary Long Island childhood.

'When I was a kid, I wanted to be a major-league player,'' he says.
'I was a jock in those days.''

Surya Das, then Miller, had a conventional Jewish upbringing. His
grandparents emigrated from Russia and owned a sporting-goods store
in Brooklyn. His parents were accountants, and he was the eldest of
three children (his younger sister is the chief financial officer of
the New York Bar Association; his brother teaches biomedical
engineering at Johns Hopkins University). He was bar mitzvahed at the
Gates of Zion Synagogue, where his mother, Joyce, is still vice
president (his father passed away three years ago). Joyce calls her
oldest son 'the deli lama.''

At Valley Stream Central High School, Miller lettered in basketball,
baseball and soccer, and broke his nose surfing on Long Beach. His
friends included Leslie 'Moony'' Moonves, now president and CEO of
CBS Television. 'We played basketball every day,'' he says.

It wasn't until 1968, during his freshman year of college at
SUNY-Buffalo, that he got his first taste of Buddhism. On a whim, he
traveled to Rochester for a weekend-long meditation retreat hosted by
Philip Kapleau, the author of 'The Three Pillars of Zen'' and 'had a
mini-breakthrough, or something,'' he says. 'But I was a college
freshman, and I went back to dorm life and going crazy. It was the
'60s, so we were into being out of our minds, and into music and the
peace movement.''

He was affected more profoundly two years later, on May 4, 1970, when
his best friend's girlfriend, Alison Krause, was shot and killed at
Kent State while protesting the secret bombings in Cambodia: 'I
realized that fighting for peace and demonstrating for peace were not
the way. I had to become peace and embody peace.''

After graduating from Buffalo with honors in 1971, Miller hit the
road, traveling through Europe, the Middle East and then India, Tibet
and Nepal. He stayed in Asia for the next 20 years.

'I traveled around, spent a year teaching Zen Buddhism at a college
in Japan, and lived in a monastery,'' he says. He was given the name
Surya Das - which means 'servant of the sun.'' He spent 15 years
becoming a monk - 'studying rituals, philosophy, ethics and morals,
and yoga, and spending three and a half years in solitary retreat'' -
and acting as a bodyguard, attendant, translator and sometime adviser
to the Dalai Lama, whom he met in 1972. (He was also celibate for
eight years, but has a girlfriend - 'My little Kathy. She has cats
and I have dogs'' - now. In two of the four sects of Tibetan
Buddhism, monks are allowed to marry.)

While abroad, Surya Das flew back to New York occasionally to attend
weddings, funerals and baby showers, or to celebrate Thanksgiving.
'My parents went crazy when I left,'' he says, laughing. 'They wanted
me to be a doctor or lawyer.''

In 1990, Surya Das returned to the United States with full
authorization to ordain monks and teach Buddhism in America and
Europe. He quickly began writing.

His latest book focuses on finding spirituality in everyday life.
'It's not just about Buddhism,'' he says. 'It's finding spirituality
in the garden, at the beach, or in music and art, with or without a
religious institution.

'Enlightenment is not some grim chore we have to do. It is much more
simple,'' he says. 'It's being wakeful and mindful. It's a
combination of being compassionate and ethical in our actions.''

Surprisingly, Surya Das believes that New York, the stress center of
the universe, lends itself perfectly to his ideas. 'The energy is so
high here,'' he explains. 'It's like good surfing - either you drown
or you have a great ride. If you can be grounded and not get carried
away with competitiveness, workaholicism, unhealthy eating, caffeine
or worse drugs, then you can ride that wave.''

(When asked how he reconciles his Buddhist teachings with his
ever-increasing material income from book sales and lectures, he
says, 'I gave up everything when I went to Tibet. I know what it is
to do without. Money is not evil, being too attached to money is the
problem.'')

On a more practical note, Surya Das suggests showing compassion on a
small scale. 'Bring loving kindness to every contact you make - with
the dry-cleaning person, the bus driver, a dog or a homeless person.
Remember that you can feel like an ant here because the city is so
big, but there is something inside you that is bigger.''

'Buddhism isn't about becoming someone else or putting on a costume.
Anybody can do it,'' he reiterates. 'I went to the same summer camps
as everyone else. I went to college and experimented. I follow
sports, I'm a guy.''

With that, the lama in the tailored Western clothes stands, bows with
his hands clasped and gives his interviewer a big bear hug.
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