Earlier this fall, we caught up with Ven. Robina Courtin to learn how Lama Yeshe’s vision for “publications for wisdom culture” ultimately became Wisdom Publications. We were curious about how a couple of Lamas inspired a handful of students and, through globe-trotting beginnings, sparked a mission to spread teachings and inspire readers the world over.
Former editorial director at Wisdom, Robina has also served as editor of Mandala Magazine, and was founding director of Liberation Prison Project. Ordained since the late 1970s, Robina has been ceaselessly devoted to Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. Ven. Robina shares her direct and inspiring teachings all over the world, with upcoming talks scheduled in the United States, France, Puerto Rico, and beyond…
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the roots of Wisdom Publications?
A: In Nepal in the mid-1970s, the Tibetan Lama Thubten Yeshe and his main disciple Lama Zopa Rinpoche began giving teachings to Westerners at their Kopan Monastery in the Kathmandu valley, soon after moving there from Boudhanath, where many Tibetan refugees had gathered. Under the leadership of Australian doctor, Nicholas Ribush, students would transcribe by hand Rinpoche’s intensive one-month lam-rim teachings then type them onto wax stencils and produce copies on a duplicator. These simply-bound foolscap books served as course notes for the Westerners coming in droves to the now-annual courses at Kopan.
Q: When did the lamas and their students become focused on spreading these teachings beyond the monastery?
A: In 1975, Lama Yeshe gave a name to his burgeoning activities: the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. That year, the teachings the lamas gave during their first visit to the United States the previous year were compiled and edited by American Buddhist students Jonathan Landaw and Alexander Berzin. Called Wisdom Energy, the book was produced by a Hawaiian publisher in collaboration with Kopan. The lamas’ attendants would carry suitcases full of them for distribution at the lamas’ courses worldwide, which became an annual event.
Q: How long was it before the next book came out?
A: The next book to come out—and the first to use Wisdom’s original imprint, given by Lama Yeshe, Publications for Wisdom Culture—was Advice from a Spiritual Friend, in 1977, produced in Delhi, India. New Zealand translator Brian Beresford compiled teachings on two lo-jong texts by Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dharghey in Dharamsala, in the mountains twelve hours northeast of Delhi where His Holiness the Dalai Lama was based and where Westerners were also gathering to study Buddhism.
Q: And this is when you got involved?
A: I met Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Australia in 1976 and went to Kopan the year later. Because of my background in printing and publishing, Dr. Nick (now a monk, since 1974), invited me to join the team. Maximizing the capabilities of the Gestetner—or perhaps it was a Roneo: they were the Xerox of the day—I remember turning out, among other things, saddle-stitched prayer books with pretty drawings on heavy-weight covers.
After my ordination in early 1978, I moved to Delhi to work with Nick, whom Lama had appointed to run his teaching center there, Tushita. Together we created a list of titles by the lamas and I spent months researching printers in the Indian capital.
Q: How long did you stay in Delhi?
A: Not long. Later that year Lama Yeshe moved his main activities from Kopan to his center in the north of England, Manjushri Institute, including publishing. Nick stayed in Delhi and I moved to England to continue the publishing work with newly appointed director American Ngawang Chotok. Jon Landaw and fellow-Americans Ven. Thubten Yeshe and Ven. Connie Miller came also, forming the editorial team. We began with a donation of five thousand pounds sterling. We got our board and keep and £5 a week.
Q: Is this when Wisdom began to feel like a legitimate publishing house?
A: It was there, in England, that Wisdom gradually found its identity. During my first months there, late 1978, I commissioned resident Swiss artist Peter Iseli to create Wisdom’s logo. We discussed using a stupa, a classic image for wisdom, and Peter found a Burmese image, which he quickly drew. We loved it. That drawing is the basis of the logo still used today. We acquired an ISBN and researched book printers in the UK.
Q: What were the first titles you published out of the UK?
A: Peter and I worked together on the first title: a Tibetan-style “pecha”—unbound folios—of Jor-cho. The next produced, and the first to use our ISBN, was Silent Mind, Holy Mind, a compilation of Lama Yeshe’s talks to his Western students at Kopan, given annually at Christmas.
Q: What was your role? Did Silent Mind, Holy Mind, your first widely distributed project, go smoothly?
A: I oversaw design and production, but also had a hand in editorial. I remember that the book had only 96pp, so I used 14pt leading for the 10pt font and wide margins. I liked that spacious look, but Lama laughed and said he thought it was a waste of paper! Printing costs were pretty cheap; Silent Mind, a hardback, cost around a dollar each. In those days we multiplied our production costs by five to come up with the cover price.
Five thousand copies were produced, not long before Christmas 1978. We had no distribution networks set up yet, so I took the train to London, five hours south, and hawked the book door-to-door to the book shops. We sold some and were very proud of ourselves.
Q: What were the next steps being taken to ensure that Wisdom would grow as a company?
A: In 1979 I moved production to Hong Kong and, later, to Singapore, where I knew from my experience in Australia that prices were even cheaper and quality was good. During the next four years, we produced not only books but thousands of posters, postcards, and greeting cards of Buddhas and multi-lingual date books, using the art of the Kopan monks, in support of the monastery, all distributed worldwide to the FPMT centers—just fifteen or so total back then.
We also hooked up with Element Books, who started the same year as we did, to distribute our books. Wisdom’s initial concept of Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced titles was created, using a similar design for all book covers with color as an immediate identifier. Penguin was my inspiration.
Q: Were more people becoming interested in the mission of the FPMT and Wisdom Publications?
A: Yes. With the lamas’ annual courses at Kopan attracting hundreds of new students every year, and their annual visits to Europe, Australia, and the United States, interest in Tibetan Buddhism was growing and centers were being set up. It was clear that we needed books in various languages, and students of the lamas at FPMT centers in Europe were starting their own publishing activities as well. We discussed our shared visions and decided we should all use the same logo. Xavi Alongina created Dharma Ediciones in Spain, Sylvia Wetzel started Diamant Verlag in Germany and Lorenzo Vasallo started Chiara Luce in Italy. All three continue to publish today.
Q: Other than the titles by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, what else were you publishing?
A: We began to acquire them slowly. Students in the newly-developed Geshe Programme at Manjushri used the microfiched version of Professor Jeffrey Hopkins’s ground-breaking thesis, Meditation on Emptiness. I was a student in the program and negotiated with Jeffrey to publish it as Wisdom’s first Advanced title. I loved working on that with him.
Q: When did you officially become Wisdom Publications?
A: In 1981 Nick, still in Delhi, was appointed by Lama Yeshe as Wisdom’s editorial director, working alongside director Hugh Clift, who’d taken over from Ngawang Chotak the year before. Hugh changed our name to Wisdom Publications. I remember that Lama had decided that our Western culture wasn’t helpful, so “let’s have wisdom culture!” he said. Lama tacked on this phrase to all his centers’ names. Frankly, I think we Westerners were a bit embarrassed by it!
Q: Tell me a little bit about the magazine you were producing at that time?
A: In 1982 Lama Yeshe joined others in Europe to invite His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Jacie Keeley, Lama’s secretary, told me that Lama wanted a magazine about the work of the FPMT to be offered to the thousands of people likely to attend the teachings in Italy and Spain, where His Holiness would visit FPMT centers. We didn’t have time for that, so instead we produced 10,000 brochures in four languages.
In early 1983, Wisdom moved to London and Nick Ribush took over from Hugh Clift as director. Lama’s requested magazine, which we decided to call Wisdom—“Yeshe” means wisdom—was finally put out later that year: an overview of FPMT’s work, including reports of the European tour of His Holiness and of Lama Yeshe’s moving return to Tibet in the summer of 1982.
The second issue, which came out early 1985, devoted 30 of its 100 pages to Lama Yeshe, who had passed away in California in March 1984. No further issues were produced.
Q: What was your time in London like?
A: Between 1983 and 1987, my last year at Wisdom, there was a flurry of activity. Nick moved us to an elegant office in London’s West End, off Bond Street. Two new series were developed—the East-West series and the Tibet series—and altogether twenty books were published: titles by, among others, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Jon Landaw, Jeffrey Hopkins, Guy Newland, Alexander Bell, John Avedon, Kathleen MacDonald.
Q: Many books from that era have really stood the test of time. Kathleen MacDonald’s How to Meditate is still a Wisdom best seller. Do you remember the production process for that title?
A: It got its title almost by accident! We’d commissioned my friend Ven. Sangye Khadro (Kathleen MacDonald) to write a book for beginners, which I worked closely with her on. I used my Olivetti manual typewriter for everything those days, and I remember going through seven rewrites at least, typing them up freshly every time, including, of course, carbon copies. Just before it went to the printer as Basic Buddhism, some friends and I brainstormed over a meal one evening and came up with How to Meditate. A wise choice, I think.
Q: Do you have any other favorite book projects from that time?
A: I enjoyed working with Michael Richards on his translation of the early 20th century lama Pabongka Rinpoche’s seminal lam-rim commentary, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, a favorite of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s, which was compiled and edited in Tibetan by Rinpoche’s root guru, Trijang Rinpoche. It came out finally in 1991, by which time Wisdom had moved to Boston under the directorship of Tim McNeill, who Lama Zopa had requested to take over in 1988.