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Buddha Is As Buddha Does by Lama Surya Das

Buddha Is As Buddha Does

Buddha Is As Buddha Does: The Ten Original Practices For Enlightened Living by Lama Surya Das.  HarperCollins 2008, 264 pages.

I had actually looked forward to reading this book.  Das is a well-known name in Buddhist circles, and his book Awakening the Buddha Within was promoted by Ken Wilber and even became a best seller.  The man apparently also has several (3?) intensive retreats Tibetan-style (living in a shack for 3 years, sleeping upright, the works) so I assumed he must have an abundance of insight to offer.

Maybe he does.  I’ve now read the book, but I’m still not entirely sure.  You see, the first thing that hit me when I started it was that it felt like a self-improvement tract, ala Anthony Robbins.  There is the relentlessly exuberant optimism that pervades much of the more lightweight self-improvement books, and the saccharine prose was freighted with the sort of populist, feel-good catch phrases of American Buddhism that I’ve really become tired of–“we’re all Buddhas” filled with “Buddha-nature” if only we could see into our “inner being” yada yada yada.

The book is about the paramitas (“perfections”) as they are described in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Contrary to the subtitle, though, the practices described here are in no way “original.”  The oldest texts (the Pali) also describe ten perfections, but they are a different ten.  (See Acarya Dhammapala’s little gem of a work A Treatise on the Paramis for more about this.)  The later traditions (Mahayana and Vajrayana) compiled a different set of practices (also ten), but even there the Mahayana initially had only six, and these form the core of the list Das describes.

This kind of loose “scholarship” (if that’s the right word for it) is evident also in his frequent quotes from Buddhist literature and sutras.  He may be quoting the Buddha or some text, but a reference is never offered, and in more than a few instances where he quotes the “Buddha” I know the quote–which is probably his reworded version of it–is not from the Pali but a Mahayana or tantric text.  Someone of Das’ stature ought to know better than to pretend those passages, however edifying, come down to us from the Buddha.

For anyone who read my earlier post “On reading Buddhist books” you will know that the above marks this work out as a “popular” text.  Indeed, Lama Surya Das is a no-holds barred propagator of marketable American Buddhism, i.e. Buddhism as politically correct, feel-good pablum.  One manifestation of this is his relentless ecumenicism.  Stories from any number of traditions are bandied about freely, with the impression that everyone’s religion is equally filled with enlightened masters and sages.  I do not have any problem with ecumenism per se, so long as accuracy and depth are not sacrificed.  But what I’ve noticed about this style of thinking and writing is that it tends to dilute the depth and subtlety of the tradition on hand, in this case Vajrayana Buddhism.   The uniqueness of the tradition is disguised behind the attempt to make it seem that its truths, whatever they may be, are universally known and understood.  Yet I would wager there are many insights the Tibetans have which, for example, the Muslims do not.  (Actually, I can easily think of several.  But I digress…)  However, you will never learn that with a book like this.  Other examples that mark this out as populist fodder are: endless stories that obscure what could be meaningful points, the author’s seeming to be old buddies with every well known lama in the country, the minimal use of appropriate technical terminology (you don’t even learn the Sanskrit for several of the perfections), and the abundant use of feel good jargon.

Das also displays some serious problems of judgment.  For example, Lance Armstrong is repeatedly cited as a hero and bodhisattva.  This, of course, is terribly unfortunate (for Das) because only three years later Armstrong’s reputation totally unraveled under the weight of a doping scandal.  Of course there was no way for Das to know this at the time, but reading it now does nothing for the author’s credibility.  A worse error is citing Muhammad Ali (p. 65) as an exemplar of the first precept (not killing) because Ali refused to go to Vietnam.  This is truly PC run amok–anyone who takes up a livelihood of beating strangers’ faces to a pulp can hardly be considered a practitioner of “non-harming,” the real intent of the first precept.  Finally, offering the Vietnamese monk Quang Duc’s self-immolation (p. 42) as the act of a bodhisattva is highly questionable, as I’ve never come across anything in the entire Pali Canon to indicate the Buddha would espouse dramatic public suicide for the sake of a socio-political cause.

If my review seems relentlessly negative, I am sorry.  I actually felt embarrassed reading the book on the train, and tended to hide the cover from my fellow riders.  But this is not to say it was a complete loss.  Compared to Sylvia Boorstein’s Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake Das is actually profound.  In a number of places he gives quite meaningful and helpful advice (p. 77 is particularly excellent), and offers some very good insights (e.g. on p. 19 where he notes that the first six paramitas are bodhisattva character traits while the last four are active expressions of those traits).  In fact, I am convinced that if Das had a hard nosed editor (perhaps he’d be willing to hire me!) who could cut through the rubbish and lay bare the intelligence and experience he so plainly possesses, this book–and probably every book he ever wrote or will write–would be vastly improved.  I’m not sure if they’d sell as well, though, and that may be the catching point: like so many popular Buddhist authors, he has a foundation to support, and those things need MONEY.

I’m giving this book three stars on Amazon.  There are certainly a lot of people out there who will enjoy and benefit more from it than I have; Das is not writing for curmudgeons like me.

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