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Modern Buddhism: Entwined by Frequent Flyer Miles Not Saffron Robes

August 4, 2008

The Laguna Beach  Independent (CA, USA)
August 1, 2008

Just days after he made a guest appearance on national television on
Comedy Central's "Colbert Report," the same unassuming man showed up
in the office of a friend, Laguna Beach physician Robin Eckert.

The polo shirt-clad guy in the waiting room was not a political
pundit or a Hollywood celebrity but an American Buddhist lama, Lama Surya Das.

For many unfamiliar with its modern practices, Buddhism summons an
image of the Dalai Lama and men in robes. By appearance, Surya Das
looks like a regular guy.

When told that some local Buddhists frequent the dog park, this
reporter gave the knee-jerk response, "Oh really, I haven't seen
any." My interlocutor wondered what I expected to "see."

What Buddhists looks like isn't the only common misperception. Surya
Das says he routinely strives to dispel perceptions that Buddhism is
"foreign" and that it's hard to meditate. "I'm a three-sport jock
from Long Island," said Surya Das, who was born Jeffrey Miller to
Jewish parents. "My message is that if I can do this enlightenment
thing, anyone can."

His Laguna connection comes via Roger Walsh, a professor of
psychiatry at UC Irvine and part of a group of physicians interested
in the healing powers of contemplative practices. He studied
meditation with Surya Das, whom he describes as an "accomplished
meditation teacher." The two men sometimes lecture together.

Through Walsh, Surya Das met Eckert, who also teaches at UC Irvine
and who maintains a Laguna Beach medical practice specializing in
integrative medicine. Eckert diagnosed and cured a sleep disorder
that had been plaguing the American lama. "I'm a big fan of the
Laguna health and healing plan," said Surya Das. "Robin is really a genius."

Surya Das is usually in California about once a month for lectures
and meditation workshops and a stop in Laguna Beach is de rigueur. He
isn't without company.

"A lot of people think Buddhism is like a religion, but it's more a
way of life," said Laguna resident and Buddhist Walt Winfield, who
besides meditating on his own practices Vietnamese Kigong, a form of
moving meditation, every Sunday in Heisler Park for the past 15
years. The house painter and part time overseas tour guide is
unaffiliated with any particular Buddhist group and calls himself an
"Internet Buddhist," finding a lot of good information at the site

There are countless Buddhist sects that seem to share a basic mantra:
they want to be happy, they want others to be happy and they
ultimately strive for world peace. The practice involves meditation
and/or chanting to expand one's capacity to achieve happiness through
an inner transformation, finding one's "inner Buddha."

Laguna Beach resident Jason Wineinger, a cellist, has been practicing
Nichiren Buddhism for 40 years and holds regular meetings in his
North Laguna home. Nichiren Buddhism, which involves chanting, is
sometimes referred to as the people's Buddhism because it stresses
accessibility and deemphasizes clerical authority.

About 17 men and women attended a recent meeting, and their
explanations about why they began following this teaching and stayed
with it were extremely similar. They were searching for happiness and
for a way to have a positive impact on the direction of their lives
in their daily struggles.

Group member Liz Goldner's experience is representative. She said she
was inspired because, "[Buddhists] that I met had a sense of calmness
and compassion that I was unfamiliar with. They had a solid quality
within themselves that I didn't see very often and that I really liked."

Nichiren Buddhism involves regular chanting, which Goldner admits
takes some discipline. But it is worth it. "I have more insight, I'm
more self-reflective, and I have the ability to cope better with
everything that's in my environment," she said.

Surya Das, with 28 or so years of training in Tibetan Buddhism, also
emphasizes equality and insists that despite his training he is "no
different" than anyone else. He believes in Buddhism as a positive
means for people in every walk of life to improve their lives and the
lives of those around them. "We need to lighten up as well as
enlighten up," he said.

After graduating from college in the early 1970s, Surya Das traveled
throughout Europe and the Asia. He became a Buddhist monk and then
trained extensively as a lama before returning to the United States.
In the early '90s, he began lecturing, teaching meditation and giving
motivational talks and hasn't stopped. In 1993 he founded the
Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Mass., where he lives. He's also
published a number of books, including the bestseller "Awakening the
Buddha Within," (Broadway Books, 1997) and his most recent, "Words of
Wisdom" (Koa Books, 2008).

In the meantime, he is seriously considering Laguna as the location
for a second home and possibly retirement. Whether or not this comes
to pass depends, of course, on karma.

For more information about Lama Surya Das, visit www. or
www.dzogchen. org. For more information about Nichiren Buddhism,
visit www.

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