A former physician and monk from Australia named Nick Ribush could be the reason you’re reading this story.
You have probably never heard his name, but if you’ve ever picked up a book about Buddhism, Nick Ribush has had an impact on your life.
These days, chains like Barnes & Noble have entire aisles devoted to Buddhism. But back in the 1970s, when this Australian doctor–who now produces and distributes dharma books for free–helped publish the first compilation of his lama’s teachings, the selection in most mainstream bookstores didn’t extend much beyond Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.”
“From my first involvement [in the dharma] I had shown a couple of tendencies,” Ribush recalls of his early days in Nepal. “One is to want to very strongly share those teachings with other people, and the other is the medium of editing.”
Within weeks of his first one-month course with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, the first Tibetans to teach extensively to Western students, Ribush, who is now 59, was hard at work editing the transcripts.
“I told Lama Yeshe that I thought this was a real treasure and my life had changed as a result of these teachings,” Ribush, who now lives outside Boston, recalls. “So I wanted to make it into a textbook for future courses.”
Buddhist teachers talk of planting seeds. That text planted the seed for much of what has blossomed on the shelves of American bookstores a quarter century later. Within two years, Ribush had guided into print a book entitled “Wisdom Energy,” the cornerstone of what would become Wisdom Publications, the pre-eminent publisher of dharma books in the world today.
“Nick was really the prime force behind Wisdom,” says actor Richard Gere, one of the best-known students of Tibetan Buddhism. “In the English language, all the really serious translation work that has been done since [W. Y.] Evans-Wentz [an early 20th-century translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and other texts] has been done at Wisdom.”
But life in London in the early 1980s was a world away from a monastery in Nepal. “You go to a realtor, you go to a bank, they didn’t know what Tibetan Buddhists were. They see someone with a shaved head wearing funny-colored robes, and they think you’re going to shove a book in their hand and demand $5.”
And then there was the fact that life seemed so–normal.
“If I had been stronger, I could have done it. Living a life which was more like the life I led in Australia, I started to think more and more like a lay person,” he says, shaking his head. “It got to a certain point where I wanted a girlfriend.” Eventually, after several years of internal struggle, Ribush decided he had a choice, return to the monastery or return his robes. He chose to be “a good person rather than a bad monk.”
“That was the obvious call,” he says now of his decision to disrobe after more than 12 years. “There was more benefit developing Wisdom publications, which was at a crucial stage.”
Today, Wisdom is a successful publisher, with more than 130 titles on its list. Perhaps more important, it has helped spawn a huge dharma publishing industry that has moved firmly into the mainstream.
“Wisdom is part of the fabric of it all,” says former Mandala magazine editor the Ven. Robina Courtin, an Australian nun. “It was an integral part of bringing Buddhism to the West–and a symptom.”
Ribush, meanwhile, has returned to his dharma roots, publishing the teachings of his beloved lamas. He now runs the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, named for the teacher who died in 1984 and, Tibetans believe, was reincarnated as a Spanish boy now known as Lama Osel. The archive has produced a half-dozen books since it was set up as a separate publishing company in 1996. Most of these are distributed free to anyone interested.
“What that does is keeps everyone’s motivation clean,” observes Gere, who helps fund the project. “To keep that ancient pledge that you can’t buy dharma, you can’t charge for it.”
Ribush was an unlikely candidate for dharma scribe. The son of a “card-carrying atheist,” he grew up reading Bertrand Russell. “In our house, science was supreme, the universe was a series of random events, the human race was a chemical accident, and the object of life was to enjoy yourself as much as possible,” he recalls with a wry smile. “When you died, it was all over.” It was no surprise then that Ribush became a doctor. But even as he spent the next six years training to be a kidney specialist, he found something missing.
“I felt that doctors were a bit like boxers’ handlers: The patients would come reeling into the surgery from the ring of life and you’d patch them up and throw `em back out into the same circumstances that made them sick in the first place,” he says in an Australian accent that remains broad. Fed up, he and a girlfriend set off on a round-the-world trek that eventually led them to a monastery outside Katmandu, where, for lack of something else to do, they signed up for a meditation course.
“That’s where my medical career finished and my Buddhist career began,” says Ribush. But his first encounter with the lama with whom he would take his vows of refuge was less than auspicious. Dr. Nick, as he was known at the monastery, was summoned to treat Lama Yeshe, who had an infected wound. But when Ribush tried to administer an injection, he failed to tighten the syringe.
“The needle was stuck in Lama Yeshe’s holy buttock and I’d sprayed penicillin all over the wall. He just turned and smiled and said, ‘Maybe you should come back and try again tomorrow.'” Within a year, he was kneeling at the feet of the Dalai Lama at Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, being ordained as a monk, as his girlfriend was taking her vows as a nun. “His Holiness laughed, looked at us, and said, ‘Well, I hope it lasts.'”
In 1983, after traveling the world as the lamas’ attendant, establishing a center in New Delhi, heading the growing organization of Western monks and nuns studying with Lamas Yeshe and Zopa, and serving as Wisdom’s editorial director, Ribush was asked by his teachers to move to London and head up the financially faltering publishing company.
“Lama Yeshe would simply give a task to Nick–start Wisdom Books, set up a center in Delhi–without any backup, no facilities, no contacts, no money, and he would get it done,” says Salim Lee, a board member of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), which publishes Mandala magazine. “It was incredible. Within the FPMT, he’s legendary.”
To save the publishing operation, Ribush and his small team set up Wisdom’s own direct-mail operation, to cut out the middlemen, and expanded the house’s list far beyond the teachings of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. “We realized it would be very easy to slot in other Buddhist books and become the major source of English-language Buddhist books,” he says. “His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] encouraged us to publish and distribute all Buddhist traditions. His Holiness’ words were, ‘It shows the whole picture.’ That set our philosophy.”
The archive depends on contributions for its survival, bringing to the West the Eastern tradition of sponsoring books for free distribution. And though he no longer wears the robes, it is a faith in the principle of dana –offerings that support the monks–that has sustained Ribush throughout his career in Buddhism.
“I believe that if you give yourself to the dharma, the dharma will look after you” says Ribush, who Courtin calls “the caretaker of the Lama’s teachings.” Today, supporters provide everything from the home he shares with his new wife, archive co-director Wendy Cook, to the money that puts the food on their table.
“You don’t get rich, you don’t set money away for old age, but who knows if you are going to reach old age, anyway,” he says applying Buddhist practicality. “You’re certainly going to reach the next life, so better to prepare for that than possible old age.” Much to his delight, Ribush’s “card-carrying atheist” mother was one of those who took that injunction to heart, becoming a Buddhist in her later years–one of thousands of Australians who have followed his example.
Back when he took refuge, Ribush was given a Tibetan name he shares with his root lama, Zopa, which means “patience.” At the time, he thought the choice auspicious. Now, remembering the decision to take off his robes, he’s not so sure. “Unfortunately, I must have disappointed him dreadfully, not living up to his name,” he says softly, “but one does what one can.”