Lama Surya Das says that the Buddha represents “the fullest actualized potential of human beings.” My six-year-old daughter’s response: “This is wrong!”

In an essay at the Huffington Post today, Buddhist author Lama Surya Das characterizes in this way what the meditating stone Buddha in your spring garden symbolizes:

The Buddha is actually an archetype representing enlightenment, an icon symbolizing inner wisdom, a pointer towards the possibility of a level of spiritual awakening embodying the fullest actualized potential of human beings.

Hmm. The fullest actualized potential of human beings. Really? What are we to make of this reification—indeed, this apotheosis—of the Buddha’s chosen way of being in the world as the “fullest” one to which humans can reasonably strive?

I mean, seriously.

What. A. Drag.

If I’m going to look to stone symbols for inspiration, over the Buddha I’ll take the Enlightenment inspired Statue of Liberty at Ellis Island, or America’s own stone sphinx, Abraham Lincoln, serenely resting in Washington D.C. after noble labors. They have pointed the world toward greater happiness than the sexless, complicit with power, and resigned sitting Buddha has ever done.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect the Buddha. I’ve meditated in my life, and understand the value of yoga and Vipasana meditation. And my wife and I have a Buddha in our garden. There’s a time and place in life for the Buddha’s vantage. But frankly, when it comes right down to it, the Buddha’s philosophy, when held up as humanity’s highest ideal, represents the abandonment of the human adventure of family and civilizational striving, and replaces it with Stoic resignation and withdrawal. The Buddha, in short, is a rather indolent cuss: serene as the blue sky—and as empty. Like the blue sky, the Buddha lets the clouds, rain, sun, and wind pass by him with exquisite equanimity of soul, and without a wink of alarm—or clinging pleasure. But passivity is not the only good state of being, let alone the best, that human flesh can be heir to. For other role models give me Sisyphus, Jesus on the cross, Lady Macbeth, Don Quixote, Thomas Jefferson, Emily Dickinson, Charles Darwin, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, Ferris Bueller, or Barack Obama. Anyone, in other words, with blood, emotion, will, ambition, and, most importantly, thought  passionately coursing through them. While I am alive and still have hope for the future, I will put first before my mind some image of Harold Bloom’s “heroic vitalist,” not the flat affected Buddha.

Timing, afterall, is everything. Buddha is autumn and we are in April. Literally. This is spring.

A few months back I told my six-year-old daughter the story of Buddha, and what he had done, and why he had done it (to end suffering), and my daughter, awakened with Blakean light energy, wisely yelped, “This is wrong! That’s like having a birthday party without cupcakes!”

I think that she’s right (and wiser than the self-proclaimed followers of Buddha, like Lama Surya Das). Now is not the season of decline and death, but a time to shake out your legs, oh indolent sitting ones. This is not the time for the hiding turtle, turned in upon itself in silence. Open your eyes and desire something.

Below is my wise daughter as counterpoint to Lama Surya Das and our patio Buddha:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Lama Surya Das says that the Buddha represents “the fullest actualized potential of human beings.” My six-year-old daughter’s response: “This is wrong!”

  1. santitafarella says:

    Thank you. Maybe I’ll add my other daughter to the Buddha post later in the day.


  2. santitafarella says:


    I removed your post in this thread. You make ugly accusations toward Das but offer no links in support.


  3. Roger Salyer says:

    I think you are missing part of the point, the Buddha may be complicit with power, but your inspirations are power. Buddha is being (though really a non-being in theory). If your inspirations are any indication, you are force. He is exposition. You are imposition.

    If you believe that the world is happier for the Enlightenment, you are sadly mistaken–at least in terms of how to define the words, “happy” or “world.” You’ve introduced the world on how to want. That’s all.

    Not that one should not be inspired by action. Quite the contrary. Our Lord, St. Paul, St. Dominic, St. Joan of Arc, Charles the Martyr, Jonathan Boucher, John Wilkes Booth, J.A. Primo de Rivera, everyone in Ayn Rand’s books except for Howard Roark and her “gulchers,” Michael Collins, even George Wallace. These men exhibited true nobility at times, some more than others. Standing in the doorway. Standing off a mob. Executing evil men. Giving their lives for the good. That is, these men asserted and excluded. They defined, rather than infined, and stood.

    Sacrifice is the greatest act of being. And of course, surviving the defeat can be the sacrifice. One that will bring triumph in the end. Open your eyes, and want for nothing.

    • Elise says:

      Nice post. I like a lot of those same thinkers, but you missed a bit of the point of sitting meditation. The point is not to bliss out and have no emotions, but rather to watch your mind as it works in order to more completely understand existence. It is in fact quite a passionate and scientific practice. Check out western thinkers like M. M. Ponty and Martin Heidegger to get a better idea of Buddhist phenomenology.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        Your critique is fair in some ways, but not entirely honest in others. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

        I don’t think I’m entirely constructing a straw man. Buddhists do tend to encourage one to “not take life so seriously”—to not get lost in the passing drama of appearances. By contrast, the Western persona is a complete losing of oneself in identity—getting caught in the drama of one’s life, identifying with it and one’s persona and self-construction—not achieving ironic distance from it (even on the zafu for just an hour). It’s a path of suffering that one embraces. And, of course, it’s too intense (which is why so many Westerners take up meditation and yoga to decouple a bit).

        Unlike Oedipus, the Buddha would not pluck out his eyes on learning that he killed his father and married his mother. He’d just go, “Ah, so.”

        Phenomenologically, Nietzsche and Buddha are pretty close in their conclusions—and, by extension, this would include Heidegger, who started as a Nietzschean.

        But, unlike Buddha and the post-WWII Heidegger, Nietzsche would say, “Be a force of nature! Don’t go with the flow! In the emptiness of existence—on its blank canvas—create!” For Nietzsche, suffering is not a problem to be cooled down by detachment—it’s the arena where creation and struggle forges something valuable and new. That’s a real difference between West and East that shouldn’t be glossed over.

        —Santi : )

  4. Longtooth says:

    Well yes, but lately the “East” seems to be handing us our lunch in the market place. Has the Buddha rolled or just gone into extenction? 🙂 Anyway, to say that supreme panaceas are in short supply would probably, I believe, be an understatement.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Urbanites in the East and the West have, perhaps unconsciously, taken on the sensibilities of the pagan imagistic West. Islam alone remains freaked by self-exaltation, idol, and image.

      We’re all Catholics now. Strike a pose with the Madonna:

      —Santi : )

  5. I came across your post and enjoyed your viewpoint. After spending a couple of retreats with Surya Das, I think he would tell you that the point is not to go without cake on your birthday, but to be AWAKE and PRESENT to really enjoy the cake when you have it. Then we will not be full of regret and attachment when it is gone.. When the cake is gone, let it go as if it were a passing cloud in the sky. Everything changes and everything ends. May you be happy no matter what path you choose.

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