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His Jewish mother calls him the Deli Lama
Newsday.com[Thursday, August 12, 2004 09:10]
But author and teacher Jeffrey Miller, more properly known as Lama Surya Das, is one of the West's most prominent translators of Tibetan Buddism


Jeffrey Miller, Lama Surya Das, sits in his meditation room.
(Photo by Pat Greenhouse)
Jeffrey Miller, Lama Surya Das, sits in his meditation room. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse)
A mensch-in-the-making, his great aunt had pronounced on the day of his bar mitzvah.

It wasn't just his flawless Hebrew. Or that he looked so all-American in his midnight blue suit from Barneys with his sandy- blond curls combed flat beneath his yarmulke.

What had mesmerized his aunt was Jeffrey Miller's magnetism as he greeted all the relatives who had trooped out from the city to the Temple Gates of Zion Synagogue in Valley Stream that morning in January 1964. "'Such a wonderful boy. He spoke to me for 25 minutes. Those blue eyes just sparkle at you when he's talking,'" his mother, Joyce Miller, recalls her saying. God willing, she added, he'd grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer and bring his parents naches - Yiddish for joy.

The aunt hit certain things on the head: The Brooklyn- born Miller was bright and charismatic. But not in her wildest dreams could she, or anyone else in the family, have imagined his transformation from bar mitzvah boy to Buddhist lama - from Jeffrey Miller, the kid who couldn't sit still in Hebrew school, to Surya Das, the bestselling author, teacher and translator of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

"That was a complete shock, to tell you the truth," his mother said, chatting on the telephone from the Maple Point Assisted Living Center in Rockville Centre. "Did he have a love of people? Yes. A love of knowledge? Yes. But was he a spiritually leaning child? No, I wouldn't say so."

The story of how a nice Jewish boy from a striving Valley Stream family hitchhiked to the Himalayas and found his calling as a Buddhist lama - the Deli Lama, as his mother calls him - is in many ways a classic saga of spiritual awakening.

Looking back, Das says, it all makes sense. But in 1964, even he could not have anticipated all the zigzags ahead: how, after graduating in Valley Stream Central's Class of 1968, a straight-A student who played varsity sports, he would dance in the mud at Woodstock and be teargassed at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon. How he would be shaken to his very core when his best friend's girlfriend, Allison Krause, was shot to death at a May 1970 anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio. And how a hunger for something truer and more enduring would become almost a fever when he learned that another student killed that day was a boy named Jeffrey Miller from Long Island.

"It could have been me. If I were to believe my ringing phone, it was me, " he said.

Changing course

Friends say the tragedy galvanized him. "That was a lightning bolt that propelled Jeff in another direction," said his college roommate and lifelong friend David Schneider, now a psychologist in California. "He was thirsting for something, and the urgency of that reached a new level with Allison's death. The path that had been laid out by our parents, that you go to school to get a good job and try to make money, and then get married and get a house on Long Island ... this severed the connection for Jeff."

And so it came to be that the 20-year-old honor student left behind his beloved orange Mercury Comet convertible and took off for Europe with a backpack and a poetry journal in search of the truth. He found his way to a monastery near Bodh Gaya, India, the very place where the Buddha had become enlightened under a fig tree 2,500 years earlier. Beginning there, he learned Tibetan, studied with some of the greatest living Buddhist teachers, including the Dalai Lama, and received the name, "Surya Das," meaning "servant of the sun."

"People often ask, 'Are you enlightened?' And I say, 'enlightened enough for now,'" said Das, now 53, taking a break from a meditation retreat he was giving in a former Capuchin monastery on the Hudson River. "I found what I was looking for. I'm grateful. I'm surprised."

Yet Das is not your typical guru. He looks like an aging football player in a polo shirt and khaki pants, and speaks with an accent as unmistakably Long Island as a Levittown Cape. The whole time he is talking, one knee bobs up and down with kinetic energy.

"He defies the stereotype of the serene, spiritual teacher," said Sharon Salzberg, co- founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass., who met him in a monastery in India in 1973. "There's this story about him being such a rambunctious kid that the teacher made him sit under his desk. He's still got this boundless energy. And he found a path that worked for him: He shows people that you don't have to make yourself into another person. You can just refine your own tendencies. So if you have this really big energy, it can be used in the service of other people."

Certainly, Das has poured his energy into his work as "a dharma farmer," as he likes to put it, "planting seeds of enlightenment." He has written six books, including the bestselling "Awakening the Buddha Within," founded the Cambridge, Mass.-based Dzogchen Foundation to transmit Buddhist teachings to the West; opened a retreat center outside Austin, Texas; and maintains a heavy schedule of lectures and retreats around the world.

Celebrity status

This being America, he is also something of a celebrity: His life story as a varsity athlete from the 'burbs who became a Buddhist lama was a plot line for an episode of the TV sitcom "Dharma and Greg." Fans dial up his "Ask the Lama" column on the Internet and listen to his chants on CDs. Meanwhile, Das' irrepressible one-liners - as in "I'm Jewish on my parents' side," or "The only thing I liked about Hebrew school was the chanting. And that's come back" - have attracted an eclectic group of followers.

"I'm a big frog in a little puddle," he said when asked about his fame, sounding a little taken aback. "I don't pretend I'm the be-all and end-all. I only teach what I know and what I practice. What I try to convey to people is that if I can do it, you can do it."

The message he brings to a largely American audience is that you don't have to go to Nepal and live without electricity and running water, as he did, to "wake up" and find enlightenment. "You can do it here. In English. With loudspeakers and notebooks and chairs for the infirm."

A modern teacher

Despite his own years sitting in monasteries in India, he is committed to a completely modern idiom as a teacher in the West. He tells beginners "to breathe, relax and smile. That could be the beginning of an instant, one-minute, modern meditation practice - a moment of mindfulness." More advanced students learn meditation and chanting techniques, and even join him on pilgrimages to India.

"He's committed his life to Buddhist practice and to being a teacher, but he is also an American and a Westerner," said his friend, Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp., who grew up a few miles away, in Freeport. "And from the bottom of his heart, he understands there's a need to bring Buddhism to America in a way that adapts it to the West. His style of teaching - which is open and inclusive and straightforward and respectful to everyone - is a great exemplar of that.

"But he's also a regular person to the bottom of his soul," Kapor said. "We used to watch the Patriots on Sunday afternoons and hang out at the nearest equivalent of a diner. The Long Island guy is a big piece of who he is."

Das didn't always embrace that part of himself. Like the fictional Candide, who had to travel round the world before he could find happiness tending his own garden, he took the long route home - wending his way through India, Nepal, Tibet Japan and France for the better part of 20 years. He recounts how he used to shave his head and wear maroon robes until he was leaving a monastery in France, and another lama suggested, "Surya, you could afford to be more authentic." He said he's favored polo shirts ever since.

These days, though, he meditates and studies every day, he makes no bones about his devotion to "Monday Night Football" or to popular movies. And, oh yes, to sports. He still loves softball and shooting hoops.

"When he plays basketball, he's no Buddhist," said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a friend and neighbor on Martha's Vineyard. "Then, it's all Brooklyn. Elbows high. Revenge. None of this nice guy Surya stuff."

Off the court, though, "he is the sweetest, nicest person in the world. He is never anything other than himself."

Dershowitz, a defender of all things Jewish, said that neither man tries to proselytize the other. He admits that "a little part of me - and the part I'm not proud of" wishes Das were a rabbi instead of a lama. "But it's only a small part," he said, adding, "I have, on repeated occasions, given him sources in Judaism which I think are compatible with his views. I'll tell him after reading one of his books, 'You know, the [Rabbi] Baal Shem Tov said something very much like that.'"

Das has faced more pointed criticism from some traditionalist Tibetan Buddhists for promoting the idea of such things women as teachers. When he was younger, he said, the barbs stung. "Now, I see that different things work for different people. And I know who I am, what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. The Buddha taught the middle way. So it doesn't all have to be as it was. And it doesn't all have to be change, either."

Certainly, his Western sensibility has sparked connections with those who might otherwise have been unreceptive. One of his students, Jose R. Lopez, a photojournalist, tells how after returning from covering the war in Bosnia and "seeing a lot of death ... people killed in front of me," he was feeling a great deal of despair.

By happenstance, Lopez picked up one of Das' books and "I felt a heart connection, almost like he was speaking to me. I think the reason it appealed to me is because it was written in no-nonsense Western terms."

A 'regular guy'

Lopez sought Das out as a teacher. "He wasn't anything that I expected. He's big. He looks like he was probably a football player in his time. And he's a regular guy. But the more I watched him, the more I sat with him, and the more I studied with him, the more I came to understand that he's the real thing."

After participating in a weeklong retreat, Lopez described how he gave Das bunches of wildflowers inserted into the small shell casings that he had picked up off the ground in Bosnia. "It was my way of saying, 'You've helped me out of this burden and this pain.'"

Das says he has wrestled with plenty of his own demons. He relates how a former girlfriend used to call him "Serious Das" because he was "a spiritual drone" whose life was "Buddhism, Buddhism, Buddhism."

Today, he eschews the extreme, trying to find nirvana in everyday life and the people he meets along the way. He has come to see that some of his best teachers "wore housecoats, had plastic on the furniture and wouldn't let you sit in the living room," as his friend Schneider likes to say. And after years of living as a monk, he married in 2001 (lamas are not required to be celibate, and no, she is not a Buddhist). Together, he and his wife have a house in Cambridge, a dog, a cat, and an 8-year-old neighbor next door with whom he plays ball most days. He says, "I'm a lot younger now."

He is also more devoted to his roles as son, brother, uncle and husband. When his niece, Alison, became engaged last fall, for instance, he left a luncheon with the Dalai Lama in New York so that he could say a toast at the engagement party hosted by her fiance's parents in Long Beach. "And they're all asking me about how the Dalai Lama is. 'And what, he didn't want to come?' It's all part of the fun. No contradiction."

No contradiction either, he insists, between his Jewish background and his Buddhist practice. "I'm definitely Jewish on my parents' side, as I always say to be funny," he said. "But not to take away from it. My mother's Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed as a young Jewish man. That is still a part of who I am."

He talks about the affinities between Judaism and Buddhism - both emphasize questioning, intellectual skepticism, debate and dialogue, and have minimal amounts of dogma. And both share an ironic sense of humor and a rich oral tradition.

Still, it took a long time for his Jewish parents to see it that way.

Loved by his mom

"To be perfectly honest," his mother said on the telephone, "if I could say, 'my son the rabbi,' I'd be 100 percent happy. Now, I could say I'm 99.5 percent happy. But I'm not complaining. He's happy - that's the most important thing. He knows he's Jewish. And he's doing wonderful work, not teaching religion so much as teaching love of morals, love of life, love of God, how to find inner peace. So what's wrong with that?"

Her husband, Harold, came around to that same conclusion before he died.

Das talks with some emotion about how, in his last years, his father "said he was proud of me because I had become a learned spiritual person, a teacher, a writer and a mensch.

"And he had always wanted me to be a mensch. You know that's the highest thing for a Jew."
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  Readers' Comments »
Surya Das (LKP)
About Suruya Das (Petri Laukkanen)
well he is somethin (Meryl)
Again crossing the border, buffoons (real tenzin)
Surya and Tibetan Buddhism (Tsangyang Gelek)
Surya and Tibetan Buddhism (Tsangyang Gelek)
Re:His Jewish mother.... (Tenchi)
Emaho, such a wonderful article! (Cynthia White Rutter)
this Surya Das (choe)
Sun Das! (Tenzin2)
Lamas and the like (tenzin)
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