The Dharma Scribe

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."

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