October 18, 2016

Why we need Others to become Enlightened.

Row of Buddhas

** With the The American Lama column, we are proud and delighted to offer bestselling author and Dzogchen meditation teacher Lama Surya Das as our spiritual elder and Lama-In-Residence at Elephant Journal.

Here’s your opportunity to ask the Dudeha from Long Island, New York—whom the Dalai Lama affectionately calls “The American Lama”—whatever questions you may have about spirituality, the purpose of life, your own spiritual path or sexuality.

After studying with Tibetan Buddhist masters in India and Nepal for 25 years, Lama Surya Das has been instrumental in bridging the spiritual gap between the East and West by helping to bring meditation and mindfulness to America. He is the author of the 1997 bestseller “Awakening the Buddha Within” and over a dozen other books, has been a guest on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect and the Colbert Report, and is an active spokesperson for Buddhism in the West.

A Lama is here to serve, to help, edify and awaken. Use him, enjoy him. He cares. Onward and inward. Email him your questions. 

What does spirituality mean when external things are stripped away: no holy robes, no pews or meditation cushions, no songs to sing or candles to light, no offerings to burn and no mantras to recite, no how-to books and New Age jargon?

What does spirituality mean in 2016? What does it mean at this very moment? What is the essence of it all, the heart of the matter? That’s what my column on elephant journal is all about.

One of my smart and heartful young friends tells me over the last 15 years he’s explored Zen meditation, Christianity, Hindu chanting, crystals, numerology, sound, nothingness and atheism. Through many different doorways, he’s learned that “spirituality,” if it means anything at all, is only the willingness to open the door and cross the threshold. The rest happens almost by itself. Spirituality is our curiosity, our seeking relief for what ails us, our desire to both find ourselves and to connect with others. It’s an often winding, yet unending path toward wellness, home, fulfillment, self-knowledge, love, bliss and peace.

Spirituality isn’t necessarily what we think it is. Love, God, spirit, truth, reality—these are big words, ideals, absolutes. Most of these words simply act as placeholders for what we have intuited, but haven’t fully seen. Keep that in mind. I’m going to do my best to set the record straight.

Spirituality means being alive. The path is right beneath one’s feet, right now. Don’t overlook it. This is the secret to being there while getting there, every single step of the way. There is no need to wait for a heavenly afterlife or pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but recognizing and appreciating every step as a rainbow. All the Buddhas are within you, as grand Tibetan master Tai Situ Rinpoche told us recently in New York.

“We are all Buddhas by nature; we only have to recognize who we are, recognize what we are and can be.” ~ Tibetan Dzogchen saying

The meaning and purpose of all spiritual paths, regardless of their practical differences, is to awaken us to our own nature and then to embody and exude it—it’s that simple.

The word religion comes from the ancient Latin roots (religio) meaning to bring together, to unite, connect. Yet religions too often separate, and deliver us many of the problems inherent to separateness in this interconnected and interdependent world.

Organized religions seem to have all but overshadowed the Buddha, or divine, within each of us—the incandescent, living wisdom of transformative spirituality and its most effective practices—overlaying it with all kinds of extraneous add-ons until it becomes intimidating, grim, not to mention political, hollow and exclusive. However, the radiance of meaningful spirituality is at the heart of it—not just the institution, group or doctrines and dogma. Spirituality is universal, inclusive, and totally open to personal questioning and exploration, experimentation and interpretation. Spirituality is not owned by any person or institution—it is always available to all. It’s an infinite journey, yet begins right beneath one’s feet.

“Nirvana in my own back yard,” as an enlightened one sings.

This sacred view offers us another way of seeing things, a deeper opening into something greater than any of us, yet within us all. By whatever name, spirituality is still as sweet. I love it. Spiritual living is a wise and skillful, compassionate, nonviolent, sane and splendid way to peace. This way of life is all-inclusive, is Buddha mind, our innate spiritual heart and genuine nature. Human nature is Buddha nature.

Buddhism stresses self-reliance and “working out one’s own salvation with diligence,” since everything of this world is fleeting and impermanent, unreliable, unsatisfying in the end.

Yet the Dalai Lama says: “We need others to become enlightened. Because we need to develop empathic compassion and caring as well as discerning wisdom.”

His Holiness encouraged me to further develop my mission outside the monasteries, ashrams and retreat centers, and take spirituality to the streets and campuses, to offer a truly higher education—wisdom for life education and attitude transformation. I do this through teaching, writing, translating, mentoring and spiritual activism. The American Lama column on elephant journal is a joyous expansion of this for the interconnected web.

Ask me your questions. I can help guide you in finding your own answers to life’s essential questions, mysteries and uncertainties. In fact, I have a whole book about that very subject, called The Big Questions. Check it out if you like. Or just email me.

Onward and inward. Our innate living spirit is not static but ecstatic energy flow. Joyous Dharma, buoyant spirit of meditation and love in action. Drink it up. Help yourself.


Author: Lama Surya Das

Image: Pixoto

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock


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