Born Brian K. Smith to a second-generation Baptist minister, Lama Marut had a strong interest in spirituality from a very young age, along with a passion for motorcycles, surging, and yoga.

After earning his PhD in comparative religion and becoming an ordained Buddhist monk, he worked as a professor at Columbia University and the University of California Riverside and has published three academic books.

We recently caught up with Lama Marut as he headed out on his 20-city North American tour for his newest book, A Spiritual Renegade's Guide to the Good Life. 

1. Your background is varied—surfer, professor, monk. Can you tell us about the path that led you to where you are today?

Some people have a difficult time believing in rebirth. Not me. I’ve lived several completely different lifetimes even in this one! I’ve been married (several times), had and raised kids, pursued an academic career, become disillusioned and lived the life of surf bum and motorcycle enthusiast, was a distance runner, became a student of Buddhism and began teaching meditation and philosophy, became ordained as a monk, moved to a remote part of Australia, and on it goes. Lots of different incarnations. For the past fourteen years or so I’ve been a spiritual practitioner, largely because it seems to have worked. I, like everyone else, have always just been looking for a way to be happy in life. And while the family and job and hobbies and travel were all fine and rewarding in their own way, they didn’t (and couldn’t) deliver the deep-seated contentment and peace of mind I was looking for. The techniques I learned in my Buddhist training—and these techniques are hardly unique to Buddhism, they are taught by every authentic spiritual tradition—really work, and I’m happy to be able to share them with others.

2. What makes you a renegade and your book a manifesto?

I think a “spiritual renegade” is someone who has had life kick their ass enough to want to explore a real alternative to what’s on offer in our modern, secular world. Someone who is a desperado, who has had the rug pulled out from underneath them enough to know that without some kind of spiritual training we will always just be the victim of whatever new and improved calamity is waiting just around the corner. In this life, we are either in a disaster or between them. And so a spiritual renegade is someone who has wised up a bit, who has dropped the delusion that they are somehow uniquely protected from the suffering that is inevitable for an unprepared person. A spiritual renegade is willing to roll up his or her sleeves and do the hard work of making some inner changes so that they will be able to deal effectively with whatever life throws at them. My book is a “manifesto” in the sense of outlining a radical alternative to both fatalism (perpetually feeling like a victim and without agency) and a toothless spiritual stupor where just positive thinking is proffered as an effective method for making things better. My book is for people who want to take the bull by the horns and do the hard work that will really change their lives and bring about true transformation.

3. Why is consumerism so detrimental to happiness?

Lying at the very heart and soul of consumer capitalism is the imperative that we remain perpetually discontented. We are made to always feel dissatisfied with what we have so that we can be sold new stuff. It’s a total bait and switch game. New products, commodities, and experiences (the iPhone 4S! the new Mercedes! the trip to fabulous Jamaica!) are constantly dangled under our noses, and as soon as we go for the bait the switch occurs: “Oh, the iPhone 4S is so 2012.  You need the iPhone 5-T!” “That Mercedes is obsolete. Buy this BMW!” “Jamaica? You should really go to Fiji!” This is the economy and the worldview under whose domination we live. Consumer capitalism will not bring the happiness it promises because its real agenda is to perpetuate just the opposite. It’s been sixty years or so that we’ve been in the thrall of an ideology that perpetuates unhappiness. Time for a change, y’all!

4. You talk about the difference between pleasure and happiness. Can you explain this?

Pleasure is sensual. Pleasure is about the titillation of one or another of the five senses. “This tastes good!” “I like the looks of that!” “Mmm, what a nice fragrance!” And so on. Happiness, as opposed to pleasure, is not sensual. It’s mental. It’s that deep-rooted feeling of contentment and well-being no matter what is happening. It’s like being ten feet under the ocean. On the surface, all kinds of waves are breaking and crashing, but ten feet under water, it’s all quiet and still.

5. You end each chapter with a couch-potato contemplation. What is this?

Well, I didn’t want to call them “meditations,” because that just intimidates some people. They are just topics to think about, and as I say with the first occurrence of the “Couch Potato Contemplations” (in Chapter One), you can contemplate these things lying on the couch or in your favorite easy chair. But it’s important to think deeply about these things. Being an airhead and never really grappling with the important issues of life is not an effective strategy for obtaining true happiness.


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