I have a dear friend who was once a student of Lama Surya Das. I went to a short retreat with Surya Das at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies many years ago. I quite enjoyed it. I also really enjoyed his first book, “Awakening the Buddha Within.” I have recommended that book to many people, although to be sure I read it a very long time ago, and I do not know what I would think about it today.
In any event, my friend told me that when she started to study with Surya, a woman with whom she became friends told her that she had had an unwanted affair with Surya. She also said that later she found out that he had multiple affairs with students, some of which overlapped, and some of which occurred while he was still married. I did some research on the Internet, and while it was difficult to find, sure enough there are references to his sexual indiscretions on various forums.
Surya Das claims to be “enlightened,” what we now more properly call “awakened.” I heard him describe his moment of awakening at the retreat. However, we know from the Buddhist texts that this cannot be possible. According to the texts, someone who is awakened is “accomplished in the Precepts.” This means that they are incapable of breaking them. Surya apparently had some sort of meditative experience that he interprets as awakening. It may have been jhāna. This is a common error. But he certainly is not awakened.
This type of sexual misconduct is – sadly – so common, and yet the Buddha was very clear about karma and how our actions have consequences. For some reason, in many schools of Buddhism they have this notion that you can do an end run around ethical behavior. The Buddha would never have said such a thing. It would be like trying to ignore the law of gravity. The basis for everything the Buddha taught was generosity and virtue, virtue being most clearly defined as the Five Precepts.
One of my favorite discourses is the “Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” [MN 61]. In the discourse, the Buddha was talking to his son Rahūla, who was only seven years old. When you think of the Buddha as father talking to his little boy, it is quite endearing. He started the discourse by talking about the importance of always speaking the truth. The commentaries tell us that this is because someone had come to the Bamboo Monastery looking for the Buddha, and Rahūla, who was trying to protect his father’s privacy, told the man that the Buddha was not there. So the Buddha started this discourse by telling Rahula how important it is to always speak the truth.
But then the Buddha talked in detail about how to train yourself in proper conduct. I hope you will read the entire discourse. But this passage will give you the flavor of the teaching:
“What do you think, Rahula: What is a mirror for?”
“For reflection, sir.”
“In the same way, Rahula, bodily actions, verbal actions, and mental actions are to be done with repeated reflection.”
“Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I want to do — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Would it be an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful bodily action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then any bodily action of that sort is fit for you to do.”
This is such a common theme in the Buddha’s teaching that every time that I hear one of these sexual misconduct stories, I slowly pound my head on the nearest available hard object. This is not rocket science. Don’t do things that cause harm. And if you do, think about it and try not to do it again. Do not turn it into an exercise in self-judgment. Conversely, try and do things that are beneficial. That’s it. It is not complicated. And if you don’t cultivate ethical behavior, there is no point in meditating or studying the Dharma. You certainly should not be teaching it.