By Rev. Jon Turner
On Tuesday, March 16, 1999, at 11:51 AM PST – I purchased my first book on Buddhism. It was during my lunch break as a programmer. I was eating at my desk, surfing about Amazon.com and I found this book by Lama Surya Das, on Tibetan Buddhism. He is also a Modern Buddhist Convert. He grew up as Jeffrey Miller, a Jewish boy from New York. His mother now calls him the Deli Lama.
I am also a Modern Buddhist Convert. Scholars don’t care for this term because all people today are moderns and Buddhists don’t like it much either since there really isn’t a conversion taking place. It is more like recognizing an old friend than overturning one set of beliefs for another. It just happens to be something called Buddhism. It is more that it resonates deeply with something you know to be true in your heart. I think this is why the following passage seemed so familiar to me in my life.
During this painful time, my original life goals seemed more and more misguided and out of touch. I had spent the summer of 1969 working at a Manhattan law firm. Listening to the young Fifth Avenue lawyers complain had convinced me that I was not cut out to be one of the Gray Flannel fifties men, vying for a better berth on the Titanic.
Lama Surya Das used the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as the organizing principles for the book. Rereading the book now, it seems like a good introduction to Buddhism. But twenty years ago, I found it to be a rather harsh wake up call. I had assumed that Buddhism might help me deal with those around me that were causing me problems and frustration but it did not. Instead, he explained that I was the source of my own suffering. I need to look inward for answers and not somewhere outside myself. He explained that in the West we look outside for answers while in the East one looks within.
As Westerners, this isn’t how we have been conditioned to think. We keep looking outside for answers. We look for lovers, friends, parents, authorities, and even children to answer needs they can’t possibly fulfill. We have fantasies about career, romance, friendship, and intimacy. We are so full of fantasies about the past and the future. Often we don’t want to let go of these fantasies because we fear that doing so means giving up on life. But that’s not how it works. In truth, unrealistic expectations tarnish our appreciation of life and weighs down the buoyancy of the present moment.
There also wasn’t much sympathy for my predicament. I found out that my difficulties were quite common and based upon my self-centeredness. This was quite harsh but also surprisingly refreshing. I had never heard this approach before except from my mother. She always said that if it is everyone else but you then it is you. In other words, if you think everyone in the world is wrong but you then it is you who are wrong. This seems somewhat negative but for the first time I understood the problems I was dealing with. I like to think of it as a realistic appraisal of the life I was living.
After reading this book, our family began to attend OCBC. I had thought that perhaps this was the greatest book ever written on Buddhism. It is really quite good but that is only half the story. The other half is that I was at my wits end, I had tried everything I could think of to find peace in my life but nothing else had worked; not money, work, family, playing guitar or running marathons. In Buddhism, this situation is called being ripe to hear the teachings. I was very motivated to hear the Buddha’s teachings and to practice. I was ripe when this book arrived at my front door.
I still think this is an excellent book and so glad I was able to stumble upon a Modern Buddhist Convert to explain Buddhism to me. Lama Surya Das was able to speak in a language that I understood. But being eager and extremely motivated also helped greatly. When one engages the teachings, it must be two-sided. The teacher and the student both must be on the edge of their seat. Both must be leaning in for the Dharma to really resonate. I thank Lama Surya Das every day for his part in this and also all the events in my life that led me to purchase and appreciate this book. Namoamidabutsu.
Rev Jon Turner
Shin Reader Review footnote: The book, Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das is available at online book stores.