Deli Lama brings kosher Buddhism to S.F. seminar

Lama Surya Das is a close associate and sometime bodyguard to the Dalai Lama, but to his mother, he is the "deli lama," still just a kibbitzing Jewish kid from Long Island.

Surya Das, a frequent retreat leader in the Bay Area, has been given several names due to his public visibility and his crossing from Judaism to Buddhism.

In his New York hometown, he is Jeffrey Miller, son of the "mama lama," as his mother deems herself.

To Internet buffs, he is the "Ask a Lama" who fields questions about Buddhism on-line. The Boston Globe dubbed him "lama with the yarmulke."

His Buddhist name, Surya Das, means "servant of the sun," and was bestowed upon him by his first master.

Surya Das, who lives in Concord, Mass., will be a guest lecturer Sunday at the Learning Annex in San Francisco. He will present a three-hour discussion on "How Buddhism Can Improve Your Life."

Many consider the lama, who calls himself Jewish by parentage and Buddhist by training and inclination, the most highly trained American lama, or spiritual leader, in the Tibetan tradition.

In fact, he is respected as a religious teacher by people from many different faiths. Surya Das said he receives calls from rabbis seeking advice on topics ranging from Jewish meditation to how to reach younger populations.

On the subject of Jewish meditation, the lama, who has studied Kabbalah, points out that Buddhist meditation techniques are nonsectarian. All meditation, he said, should "redress imbalances we feel and awaken the divine within ourselves and within life."

As for reaching younger groups: "Write best-sellers and be active on the Internet," he said.

Surya Das is the author of "Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World," a popular book on how to access the practical side of Eastern thought.

His Web site — — receives nearly 20,000 hits a month. Dzogchen is a Buddhist group that he founded. One reason his Internet site is so successful, the lama claims, is because "there is no charge and no bowing."

Though Surya Das said he has not abandoned Judaism, he made a major break from it after finding the suburban Jewish life in the 1960s "stifled any sense of spirituality."

Attending college during the Vietnam War, he developed a sense of urgency to promote peace. However, radical political action collapsed for him when he was tear-gassed while marching in Washington, D.C. and, then, when his best friend's girlfriend was killed at Kent State in 1970.

He boarded a plane to India the next year. "I went to the East and never came back," he said.

Since becoming trained as a lama, Surya Das has returned to America as "a spiritual activist" for Buddhism. He founded a monastery in Woodstock, N.Y. and translated several spiritual books.

His mission, however, is not to be a missionary. "You don't have to convert to practice Buddhism or meditation," he said. "It's more of an ethical and psychological philosophy of awakening."

His teachings seek to nourish the spiritual hunger he finds in the world, including, he said, among many Jews.

Since there are many commonalities between Judaism and Buddhism, according to Surya Das, there are a disproportionate number of Buddhist teachers who are Jewish.

"Because Judaism is a questioning religion, because Jews wander and believe in a formless God — while Buddhism is formless truth — there is a lot of influence for Buddhists" in Judaism, he said.

The lama has led retreats and seminars in Israel. There, he stresses the message that people need to recognize their interconnections and empathize with others.

He believes "each side in the Middle East conflict has an honorable position. They all pray to the same God. They must be able to find some common ground sooner or later."

In the past few years, Surya Das has been working on collecting Chassidic tales from his friend, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. "He had dozens of stories to tell that helped to open my eyes to Judaism," he said.

Carlebach, the lama jokingly related, once said to him, "Surya, the goyim don't need you, we need you!"

Surya Das has spoken at several synagogues and Jewish events. What attracts him to speaking, and people to listen, is his light-hearted approach to wisdom.

"If it is too serious, it becomes a guilt-driven penance," he said. "I try to emphasize the joy of the connection of divine living."

When asked what Jews could do to live more spiritually, the lama advised, "make it very practical. Do a mitzvah every day, see if that changes your life. Then you can get into deeper studies."