DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
In 1972, Dr. Nicholas Ribush arrived at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. After attending the Third Kopan Course, he offered to help Lama Zopa Rinpoche revise Rinpoche’s The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training, which served as the teaching text for the course. Rinpoche accepted the offer, and for several years Nick lived at Kopan, attending the month-long courses, working on revisions to The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun, and editing notes and transcriptions from Rinpoche’s teachings into course commentaries.
After many years of offering service to a variety of FPMT activities, including Wisdom Publications, Nick founded the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, which is responsible for the collection and dissemination of Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings and advice. How to Practice Dharma: Teachings on the Eight Worldly Dharmas is the Archive’s most recent publication and the second in their FPMT Lineage Series. In July 2012, Mandala spoke with Nick, who currently serves as the Archive’s director, about the evolution of the FPMT Lineage Series and how its roots stretch all the way back to The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun.
Mandala: In the publisher’s preface to the new book How to Practice Dharma, you write about how during your first Kopan course in 1972 you encountered Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s textbook The Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun of the Mahayana Thought Training. Can you describe how that first textbook looked and what has happened subsequently to it?
Nick: It was legal size or, in British English, foolscap. The book was tall and skinny with two holes punched and bound with a kind of a shoelace. Then it had a loose cover on it.
It was put together by Massimo Corona and some of the other students from the second course, which happened in March 1972. It was pretty rough and the English was pretty sketchy, but Rinpoche went through it line by line, paragraph by paragraph, section by section; we didn’t get through the whole book during the month of the third course, which was the first one that I attended, but he would read part of it and then give an explanation. I guess you saw the story of how I got to Kopan in Mandala [July-September 2011]. I certainly wasn’t expecting a life-changing experience, but that is what it turned out to be, and somehow at the heart of it was this book. This is what we studied and read every day.
At the end after the course, I remember we had a group photo on top of the hill at Kopan, and after the group photo, I went up to Rinpoche and said, “Rinpoche, thank you for changing my life.” He kind of laughed and held my hand, and we sort of started to walk down the hill holding hands, but I was too shy and I pulled away. It was pathetic.
Subsequently, I went to him and said, “Look, I think this is really a great book, but I think it could be improved.” He said, “Well, yeah. It was put together basically by the students, and I have some ideas. I would like to revise the whole thing. So, if you would like to help me, you can.” Between the third course and the fourth course, my girlfriend at the time, Yeshe Khadro, and I spent several hours for at least six weeks with Rinpoche re-writing the whole thing, basically from cover to cover, and creating a new edition for the fourth course in spring 1973.
After the fourth course, some of us went up to Lawudo for the first time. I had my notes from the third course and the notes from the fourth course of Brian Beresford and myself. During that time at Lawudo, I started putting together these notes as a commentary to the Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun. In the course of doing that, I realized how much of Rinpoche’s teachings we missed by just taking notes, so I determined for the next course, the fifth, to write down (we didn’t have electricity at Kopan at the time or tape recorders) as much of it as I could.
At the fifth course, I sat down right in front of the throne with a big, fat Indian notebook and started writing. For the whole month, I wrote down pretty much everything he said, making up abbreviations as I went along, writing in my best medical student scrawl. The amazing thing afterwards was that Yeshe Khadro could read what I had written, including the abbreviations, so she typed it all up. Then I edited that transcript.
Up to that time we had been printing on a Gestetner duplicating machine, a machine that printed from wax stencils. You take the ribbon out of a typewriter, and you reel a wax stencil into the typewriter, and you type on it. The keys cut the wax. It is quite tedious, and if you make a mistake, you have to paint over it with nail polish and then wait for that to dry and try to line that letter up again, and you hit it again and it cuts through. Where there is a mistake, it comes out blotchy because it doesn’t cut cleanly. These stencils have a kind of strip on top with holes punched in it. The holes clip onto something that holds them at the top of the roller. You ink up the roller, and then you roll this stencil through. The ink goes through where you have cut it with the typewriter keys, and it prints onto the paper. It can be done by hand, or later on, they had electric ones.
After we printed some of these in downtown Kathmandu, I said to Lama Yeshe, “I think that it makes sense that we get our own Gestetner machine.” We could do our own printing instead of paying these Nepalese businesses. He was always into saving money; but he was also not into spending money. Much to my amazement, he agreed. It was quite a lot of money – 15,000 rupees or something – to buy one of these things, but he agreed we could buy it, which really kind of shocked me. At first we kept it down at Sister Max [Mathews]’ house in Kathmandu because she had electricity. Then later on when we got electricity at Kopan, I think in 1974, we brought it up and had our own little printing press at Kopan.
The monks used to write their own stencils. If you didn’t use a typewriter, you could use special sharp stencil cutters like a stylus with a rounded, but fairly pointed tip. So they used to write their own Tibetan texts.
In between courses, I would work with Rinpoche to keep refining the book. For the first few courses, the book kept having material added or changed or modified. We printed a new version before the fourth course, the fifth course, the sixth course, the seventh course, and then in 1975 (the Lamas [Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche] had started traveling in 1974), when I traveled with the Lamas on that world tour. I do remember doing some work with Rinpoche at Chenrezig Institute [in Australia] on some changes he wanted to make to the book, but that was the last time we did any editorial work on it. A new edition was printed for the eighth course at the end of 1975. At that time in 1975, the courses started becoming annual rather than twice a year because the Lamas were traveling. Rinpoche used the book for the next two or three years, and I think in 1978 or 1979, he stopped using it altogether. I was never quite sure why, but he didn’t teach from it anymore. That was the end of the development of the book, actually.
For the Lamas’ teachings in Australia in 1976, it was printed with spiral binding and much better printing. I think this was produced by Ven. Robina Courtin. Robina’s family had a printing company in Melbourne, Commando Printing Services, and they printed this version. Brian Beresford’s and my notes that I edited in Lawudo in 1973 became Meditation Course Notes, Volume I. This was our notes from the third and fourth courses. Then the notes that I took in the fifth course became a 400-page commentary on the Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun.
These are all online now at lamayeshe.com. Our goal is to put up the transcripts of all Rinpoche’s Kopan Course teachings. I think we have over half of them online at the moment. Hopefully, by the end of this year or next year, we will have all 40 course transcripts in their entirety online.
Mandala: What drew you to this work? You didn’t have an editing or publishing background, yet here you are all these years later having done so much of it, first at Kopan, then at Wisdom and now with the Archive.
Most of the people left after the Kopan Course, but Yeshe Khadro and I both felt that we wanted to stay and help the Lamas. They completely changed our lives, and we wanted to help them. We did some different things after the course; we helped organize the Kopan library which was pretty rudimentary. She was a nurse; I was a doctor, so we set up the first clinic at Kopan to treat the young monks, the Westerners, and the local Nepali villagers. But, I don’t know, I think I knew what good writing was, and there was no one else around. I just threw out the idea to Rinpoche, and he immediately jumped on it. So I kind of got into it like that. Rinpoche had a lot to say. So I think it just became natural that we wanted to preserve those teachings and make them available, too.
This is not how I thought my life would turn out. I didn’t leave Australia in the early ’70s on a spiritual quest. I left looking for a good time. I certainly found that along the way, but then I finished up on a path that leads to the best possible time. One way is to say this all happened by accident. But I could also look back at all my years before I left Australia and how my medical career didn’t quite develop as I thought it was going to and I could see Lama Yeshe kind of reeling me in. Not that I really think that he was aware of my existence or that I could at all be useful, but there is a way of looking at it where you could see somehow karmically that was happening. There was some connection from the past, and it was gradually bringing me step by step closer to the Lamas with whom I think there must be past connections. That is how it works. It was actually for me very strong. Lama Yeshe finished up marrying my mother. [Laughs.]
Mandala: Tell us about the relationship between the new book How to Practice Dharma and Publishing the FPMT Lineage. And how are the early Kopan courses connected to the Archive and the FPMT Lineage Series?
Both of the Lamas’ teachings are important, but Rinpoche gave by far the most teachings. Lama Yeshe would drop in now and then at the end of the course. He would come and give a talk on refuge and precepts and give refuge and precepts and sometimes bodhisattva vows, but the vast majority of the teachings were by Rinpoche. To a certain extent, it was useful to bring out these huge commentaries for the students who were there. We would print out a couple of hundred copies, but they weren’t that reader friendly.
I did six or seven Kopan courses in a row until Lama Yeshe sent me to Delhi to start Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, and then I stopped living in Kopan and started living in Delhi. I was at the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth courses, I think.
During my time at Kopan, I saw what would be useful would be to produce a series of topic-based commentaries on the nature of the mind, on the perfect human rebirth, on impermanence and death, on the three lower realms, refuge and karma – the main lam-rim topics that were really the heart of Rinpoche’s teachings. So, this was an idea that has been in my mind for 35-40 years.
Creating books from teachings is so much editorial work. For a person to be able to edit the Lamas’ teachings, you needed to meet basically five criteria: a good understanding of Dharma; a familiarity with the Lamas’ language; the ability to create a coherent manuscript with a beginning, middle and end; the time to do it; and essentially, the ability to do it for nothing or for little money. Who can do all that? Also, what tends to happen in FPMT is that the people who do want to put their life into it full-time already have so much else to do. Editing books takes time; you really need to work full-time at it. Even when we established Wisdom Publications, obviously, a large part of our mission would have been to publish the teachings of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. But somehow, the way the company developed, there was never enough money to pay people to edit the Lamas’ teachings.
The first Wisdom Publications book [Wisdom Energy, published in 1976] was edited by Jon Landaw and Alex Berzin from the Lamas’ 1974 lectures in the United States. That sort of came together as a labor of love. Later, Brian Beresford showed up with Advice from a Spiritual Friend, teachings by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, which were a couple of thought-training commentaries. We did the first print of that in Delhi. Then Lama said we should set up Wisdom in Delhi, and in 1978 Robina came down to work with me on that. I was there trying to start the center. Then Lama Yeshe changed his mind and said, “No, we should do it at Manjushri Institute.” He called together Jon Landaw, Chris Kolb, Robina and some other people who were there studying in the geshe program, including, Thubten Wangmo, Thubten Yeshe, Sangye Khadro, and Connie Miller. So they got involved in editing some teachings, and then they put out Silent Mind, Holy Mind some of Lama’s Christmas lectures, and then they did a couple of books of Kelsang Gyatso, the resident geshe at Manjushri Institute.
Wisdom gradually gravitated more towards London, then the guy who was running it quit, and Lama Yeshe asked me to take over in 1983. We started getting manuscripts like Jeffery Hopkins’ Meditation on Emptiness. And other authors were sending us fairly complete manuscripts, which were much easier to edit and publish. So the Lamas’ teachings were always put on the back burner because these things that were easier and less cost intensive to publish came along. Gradually, Wisdom developed, publishing other people’s teachings and not Lama Yeshe’s and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s. It very rarely happened that the Lamas’ books got done.
In 1995 and ’96, when circumstances came about that I should leave Wisdom and when I wasn’t sure what I would do, Rinpoche said, “Well, take the Archive out of Wisdom, and set it up as a separate FPMT entity and focus on that.” He never said “focus on my teachings.” He always couched it in terms of focusing on Lama Yeshe’s teachings, but obviously it included Rinpoche’s teachings. So we set up the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive as a separate FPMT entity.
In the past, whenever I started something like Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre or when I was looking for funding for Wisdom, or doing different projects like starting Kurukulla Center (after we eventually moved to Boston with Wisdom,) I tended to put out a brochure that explains the project. Starting with IMI [International Mahayana Institute] back in 1974 and trying to get funding for Mount Everest Centre, we’d put out a brochure that explains the project, and people sent us money. So this time, I thought I would do it differently. I put out a little book containing Lama Yeshe’s teachings and sent that around so people could actually get a taste of what the Archive contains. We put out the first edition of Becoming Your Own Therapist. That was so unbelievably, wildly successful, and we got so much feedback saying, “Wow! These are amazing teachings and it is amazing that it is a free book.” That set us on the course of doing free books.
These were just scratching the surface of what the Archive contained. We had this idea that the Archive would create books for Wisdom Publications to publish, but somehow Wisdom was never able to put in enough money, because the amount of money it took to do things would never be recouped by selling the books. It wasn’t really a workable business model from Wisdom’s point of view.
Mandala: How was the Archive finally able to begin publishing a series based on Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings?
In 2007, after about five years of trying to raise enough money to hire editors and publish more of the Lamas’ teachings, I got a letter from Rinpoche saying we weren’t doing things well enough or fast enough – you know, our operations were rusty. So, I came up with this new plan called Publishing the FPMT Lineage, which was a million-dollar-plus plan. What it involved was paying someone to travel with Lama Zopa Rinpoche to record everything he taught because we weren’t getting recordings in a timely fashion from the centers and what we got was often of poor quality – basically untranscribable – and sometimes we didn’t get anything at all. It also included paying transcribers and people to edit. Jen Barlow, our finance manager, and I flew to Portland and presented the plan to FPMT International Office, but they were unable to offer financial support to it.
A month later, I got an email from one of Rinpoche’s Asian students, who I didn’t know even existed, saying that she was looking on the website and saw an older fundraising plan and was wondering how it was coming together – maybe she could help us with that. I said, “Well, that plan didn’t work, but have I got a plan for you!” I sent her the US$1,045,000 plan. She said, “Ok, look, I’ll send you $45,000 right away, and I’ll give you half a million as a matching grant. You raise money to match it, and there is your million dollars. But I won’t wait for you to get the funds. I will give you the half million right away so that you can start immediately, but over five years you have to raise $100,000 a year.” I said, “Ok. I’ll take the money,” which I did, and we’ve been able to raise the money each year to match it.
That immediately allowed us to hire Ven. [Thubten] Kunsang to start traveling with Rinpoche and record him. As for transcribers, we ended up hiring one person, Ven. [Thubten] Munsel, as our chief transcriber. She doesn’t work full-time because to do 40 hours a week is just too hard, but she does a lot. We could probably do with another person, because there is still a huge backlog from the ’80s and ’90s that has not been transcribed. But transcribers are hard to find. We have had so many come and go. They try it; they can’t do it. Either they can’t hear Rinpoche or they get too much lung doing it. There are a lot of obstacles to that job for some reason. But, anyway, a lot is getting transcribed.
In terms of hiring editors, we tried a few people. Then Gordon McDougall, who is a long-time student of the Lamas and had been involved with the Hong Kong center, got involved. When he was in London, he worked with Geshe Tashi Tsering to develop and edit the six books in Geshe Tashi’s Foundation of Buddhist Thought series published by Wisdom.
We also were able to hire Ven. (as she was then) Namdrol [Miranda Adams] part-time. She edited Yangsi Rinpoche’s Lamrim Chenmo commentary called Practicing the Path for Wisdom, and we hired her to start going through all Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s lam-rim teachings and “basketing” them. As you read through a Kopan course transcript, you cut and paste the teaching into a topic basket: perfect human rebirth, refuge, karma, yada, yada, yada. There are so many things that Rinpoche covered from one course to another.
The idea was we would collect everything Rinpoche has ever said on perfect human rebirth into the perfect human rebirth basket and so forth. When everything is chopped up like that and basketed, then you go back, sort out all the teachings and you make a coherent whole on the topic out of it. We decided some years ago that we would use the outline from Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand to organize these teachings as that was probably the main lam-rim text that Rinpoche used to refer to when he was giving his “lam-rim commentaries.” It was that and The Essential Nectar, but mainly that. So we decided to use the outline of Liberation since we had it and since it was quite detailed and quite extensive.
Then Maitripa College started, and Namdrol had to work for that, so she couldn’t do the basketing anymore. Ven. Trisha Donnelly took over; I think she was between her stints as Root Institute director. So between Namdrol and Trisha, we had a lot of the teachings basketed. By the time Gordon came on board, he had a lot of material to work with, and the system was kind of established, so he went through and did the rest. Still we had this idea we needed five editors. But then as Gordon started working on it, it became fairly apparent that, actually, one full-time editor was probably enough.
We were also putting more and more teachings online, so then we started organizing the online teachings a little better. We started Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Online Advice Book. Originally Michelle Bernard was working on that. Then we hired Sandy Smith in Australia, an old student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa from Chenrezig Institute in the ’70s, to be our web editor. Rather than hiring five book editors like we’d planned, we hired a couple of people to be web editors. Gordon, we found, was able to actually manage most of the lam-rim editing. Ven. Ailsa Cameron was still doing editing, too. She did the book Heart of the Path, on the guru devotion teachings, which is, in retrospect, the first book in the FPMT Lineage Series. We also have Ross Moore from Melbourne. He is editing Rinpoche’s emptiness teachings.
Gordon started producing manuscripts, and we didn’t really find anybody else that we needed, but at that point, Wendy Cook stepped down after six years as director of Kurukulla Center, and somehow none of the replacements that Rinpoche checked either could do it or came out. So Rinpoche basically threw my name in the hat and pulled me out, and I had to do that for two years, which was good. I was able to complete the stupa project that Wendy had begun. During those two years, Geshe Tsulga had been diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at the end of 2010.
Because I was so busy running the center, my archive work got quite a bit behind. Gordon kept churning out the manuscripts, so now we have, I think, seven or eight for me to get to because I really need to go through them. Also during this time, Adele Hulse finished writing Lama Yeshe’s biography [Big Love]. We hired Ven. Connie Miller for that. She’s been working on Lama Yeshe’s biography for the last three-and-a-half years. Jon Landaw is helping as a consultant editor on that as well. But Big Love is not coming out of the Publishing the FPMT Lineage project. It’s a separate fund. Additionally, Ven. Sarah Thresher is developing our new Heart Advice Series, based on Rinpoche’s more recent teachings.
We also decided to build up the FPMT photo archive, so we hired David Zinn to do that. David has been working for us for three or four years as a photo editor, or, digital imaging specialist, as we call him. It is important to document FPMT history in photos, but also there will be material for Lama Yeshe’s biography and we are able to use a lot of the photos in the FPMT Lineage Series books.
The first book I thought we should do is Rinpoche’s teachings on the eight worldly dharmas, which is something that I have wanted to do since 1974, when during the Sixth Kopan Course Rinpoche gave his most extensive teaching on the eight worldly dharmas. That is partly the backbone of the new book How to Practice Dharma. Following this, teachings on the perfect human rebirth and impermanence and death have been sponsored. The matching grant for Publishing the FPMT Lineage project pays for the editing, but it doesn’t pay for the printing. We find sponsors to cover the printing costs. How to Practice Dharma was covered by sponsors in Singapore.
Mandala: Oh really, how much does it cost to sponsor the printing of a book?
About $15,000 U.S. dollars.
Mandala: How many books do you have printed when you do a print run and where are they printed.
Usually we print 5,000 copies with a printer in Michigan. And you know, all of our books are available as e-books now.
Mandala: These days, at least in the Western world, I think we have almost come to take for granted access to authentic Dharma teachings, because we can access them day or night online, especially if we are English speakers. It is something to rejoice in. Clearly the Archive, Wisdom and other publishers and technology developments have all made this possible, but sometimes I feel like the stack of unread Dharma books at my home is more than I can read in one lifetime and they just accumulate like anything else. What are your thoughts on the availability and publishing of Dharma materials in 2012? With your 40 years’ experience in this area, can you give us some perspective on how things have changed.
If you stack up all the authentic (and I say authentic because there is a lot of inauthentic stuff out there) English language Dharma books, and you compare them to a stack of Tibetan texts, it would be tiny. We think there is a huge amount of Dharma books, but look at the amount of writing in Tibet. There is the Kangyur and the Tengyur, they themselves contain far more than the English language Dharma books. Then there are thousands and thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of Tibetan texts (texts that were written in Tibet) over a thousand years – Tsongkhapa’s collected works, this lama’s collected works, that lama’s collected works. There will never be in the English language anywhere near what is available in Tibetan. Right there is part of your answer. And, I think you can never have too much Dharma.
There is no one person who has read every Tibetan book, so there will never be an English speaker who has read every English book. I find it useful to have all these books because when I am working on something, I can refer to all these books. We like to footnote our books. We can read more about this topic or that topic, or you can look books up to confirm something that you are not clear about when you are editing.
I think that is very useful, but I certainly know what you mean. I’ve got a huge collection of books. I’ve got every Wisdom book. I’ve got most of the Snow Lion books. I’ve got many Shambhala books, and those are just the Dharma publishers. I’ve got many books by His Holiness, and you know, most of them are unread.
When I first got into it, we were hard-pressed 40 years ago to find an authentic English language Dharma book to be honest. I think these days people are incredibly fortunate to be able to find books that they can relate to and connect with and read.
You can visit the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive online, where you can find teachings and advise from Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, historic photos, information on how you can support the Archive’s work and more.Tags: interview, kopan courses, lama yeshe, lama yeshe wisdom archive, lama zopa rinpoche, nicholas ribush