Miller Puts His Twist On Buddhism

April 17, 2009

Author: Mark Lisheron

Source: The Houston Chronicle/The Austin American-Statesman

Wire Service: AP

From where the teacher stands, at dusk on a ridge behind the ranch house, the dry, buckskin-colored bed of the Pedernales River cuts south, disappearing around one of the endless, scrubby, undulating hills.

People are walking paths between other buildings on the ranch, quietly, slowly, deliberately. The burnished Southwestern pastoral scene is disrupted by the bright claret splash of a robe over the left shoulder of the teacher.

This 35-plus-acre ranch a few miles outside of Spicewood is a Dzogchen Center, a retreat for Buddhist reflection, teaching and prayer. Beneath the robe, Lama Surya Das wears a crisply ironed, stylish shirt.

He is a New Yorker spreading the word of an Eastern religion in the West: the idea of a life's journey to enlightenment sold with a little Hollywood. He favors wraparound sunglasses. He often arrives at formal occasions in a business suit.

"The goal is to get my message out, and I'm doing it in a way that fits me," Surya Das said over tea during a one-week advanced retreat last month. "Nothing succeeds like success. But Buddhists don't proselytize. Only go when invited. Only teach when asked."

One can find Surya Das explaining this American version of Buddhism in short videos on YouTube, or matching wits with comedian Stephen Colbert and describing what he does on an old edition of comedian Bill Maher's program "Politically Incorrect." He gives his mother, who eventually forgave him for his drift away from Judaism, credit for dubbing him "The Deli Lama."

He sells books like a celebrity. "Awakening the Buddha Within" spent time on The New York Times best-seller list and has sold more than 400,000 copies. There are an additional dozen, all of them still in print.

There is nothing undignified in this showmanship, as long as it serves its purpose, Surya Das said.

"I am interested in reaching you," Surya Das said. "The Dalai Lama has been successful by being approachable."