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."
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."
"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.