Book Review: 'Blue Sky Buddha'
“Blue Sky Buddha” is a biography of Frederick Lenz, also known as Rama. He can be credited as one of the figures who made Buddhism cool to Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, a legacy observed in the proliferation of yoga studios, vegetarian and vegan enthusiasts and other cultural trends today.
What are the pros and cons of this biography? What can you learn from this book even if you are not following an Eastern religion?
Points in Favor of the Book “Blue Skies Buddha”
The book is an interesting look into the mix of East and West, Buddhism and Hinduism versus Judeo-Christian culture. The book provides a look into the often indescribable experiences of enlightenment, oneness with a higher power and other concepts that have been abandoned by much of liberal secular society except vaguely referenced in love songs and poetry.
When one faces chaos and tragedy in life, there are two choices – to take the pain and direct it outward as hate and rage, direct it inward as depression (anger at one’s self) or turn it outward and into compassion. You see in this biography how Lenz took his difficult childhood and did exactly this, responding to the positive personal empowerment of Buddhism instead of the becoming a severely lapsed Catholic or angry atheist as many in his circumstances would have done. Sitting in a religious hotbed of California certainly enabled this transformation, perhaps in the way Mormonism sprung up in upstate New York in the 1800s. Believers would say he was drawn to the encounters that made him who he became.
Why do monks and nuns often feel a mandate to not marry? Why is sex prohibited by many faiths to all of their students? The book contains Lenz’s own view on why marriage for him couldn’t work, limited his ability to do what he was called to do, and why he forbade sexual relations among his students even when he didn’t mandate total celibacy for them as most Eastern faiths did.
What brings people into new religious movements? What emotions does time with a guru evoke? This book gives you many such personal stories. Before one calls a follower a crazy cult member for immersing in such a movement, one should understand the emotional connection the person feels with the religious leader that they want to experience and aren’t feeling through society’s “approved” channels. Many who want spirituality and connection to the divine, the raw emotions that inspire religions in the first place, are unable to feel it when the rituals replace the raw emotion. To paraphrase C.S. Friedman’s book “In Conquest Born”, “either a man’s culture fulfills his needs for this (connection) or he will be seduced by first contact with a culture that does.” Lenz brought Buddhist spirituality to the American culture when major religious groups seemed focused on ritual or social functions and almost never on touching the essence of the divine. This is why many flocked to him and why Buddhism remains a strong cultural current in the United States today.
Reading this book will give you a good introduction to Buddhist and Hindu terminology and their application to meditation and life. Lenz’s signature creation is the Vajrayana Tantric Buddhism, a mix of Tibetan Buddhism and American ethos.
Why are women on average more likely to attend church or temple every week but few become spiritual leaders? This book addresses the spiritual reasons why, and many of them are true regardless of one’s faith. One of the reasons Lenz was so popular was that he struck a chord in the culture with women who wanted not just validation of equality but empowerment. Those who want to learn those teachings get a good overview here.
You see Lenz’s own development from emotionally based Buddhism to Zen, which is almost emotionally detached. If Buddhism has change as a focal point, Lenz managed to engage in it without losing his core principles. Little things like announcements that one should adopt a dog to learn unconditional love were incidental.
What happens when a Buddhist teacher founds a software company? This book contains that story.
Strikes against “Blue Skies Buddha”
The author of the biography is a serious devotee, reciting the stories of the master levitating and other incredible events. And this is after stating near the start of the book they meditated only and did not use drugs. This is in line with Hinduism and Buddhist miracles, and Lenz did study with a Hindu yogi after spending time learning about Buddhism. This could be akin to Christian ministers working various miracles per the Old and New Testament. Take it in with an open mind or handful of salt, your decision.
However, there is something enlightening on the similar descriptions of what people think they see when they sense someone is reaching a point of enlightenment or grace. To what degree this is due to our collective unconscious or universal cultural tropes, I do not know.
This biography addresses the history of the man who wrote “Snowboarding to Nirvana”. That book came out after “Surfing the Himalayas” and was dictated shortly before his death. It contains some passages from that book but is not redundant for those who’ve read the earlier works.
Lenz’s Buddhism does not demand disengagement from the world but transcendence and then interaction with it. It is parallel to the old Zen saying “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, pour water, after Enlightenment, chop wood, pour water.” It is your perspective and understanding that change, not necessarily major facets of life though you now feel free to do so.
This book is available in both print and Kindle versions.
Frederick Lenz had a band called Nirvana later renamed Zazen. The songs are a hybrid of Enya without the vocals and elevator music, soothing without being somnolent, perfect for meditation which is the point of them. I’ve heard several hours of these works, and they are decent music to study by or read by, helping filter out distractions without the attraction of a TV in the background. Before he died, the group released 31 albums.
What does the resume of someone who believes they remember past lives look like? The book contains a copy of Lenz’s real resume going back several centuries.
As a narrated personal history of the rise of American Buddhism in the 1960s through the 1980s through the eyes of many people, it is a good book. If you want to understand the intense relationships and views of those in master-student relationships and the perception of miracles that accompany such, this is an inside look into that world. The trials and tribulations of a man who kept evolving to try to bring Buddhism to the United States and variety of business ventures is simply another dimension of that.
I give the book “Blue Sky Buddha” four stars.