Director, Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages
Founder and Senior Teacher, Center for Creative Inquiry
Senior editor, Dharma Publishing, Mangalam Press
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Stanford University. Not sure what to do with my life as my college years drew to a close, I chose to go to Yale Law School. The summer before, I had read an article in the New York Times compare Yale Law School and Harvard Law School. As I remember it, the Dean of Harvard Law School had been appointed to a government panel to investigate the claims of civil rights activists; the Dean of Yale School had marched with the activists and been arrested. I knew then where I wanted to go. Not that I was an activist myself, or even inclined in that direction, but I had the sense that it was not enough to go along with the status quo. Something more fundamental had to shift. Yale proved a good choice. It was a stimulating intellectual environment, and I felt I came to a certain maturity there, even if I did not exactly follow the path for which I thought I was preparing.
After law school, I settled in Berkeley. I taught for a year at the law school there, then spent close to three years practicing law at a large San Francisco law firm. But events conspired to lead me to rethink that career path, and in 1974 I stopped practicing law.
When I went to law school, I had a naïve fantasy that I could use my intelligence and training to make a real difference in the world, without really having to roll up my sleeves and get to work. But I did not know how. There was something I needed to understand: not just new knowledge, but a new way of knowing. It was this sense of needing to know more, or needing to know in a new way, that led me to the teachings of Buddha, the Dharma. Reading widely (there were some drug experiences that helped point the way), I was led to Buddhism, and I started visiting some local Zen centers. In 1973, I came across the community centered around the Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku, the founder of the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center and the Nyingma Institute, known to his students as Rinpoche. Within days of leaving my law firm, I had started taking classes at the Nyingma Institute, some with Rinpoche and some with other teachers on the faculty.
My introduction to Buddhism, then, was largely through the life of the mind. I was not devotional by nature, or even spiritual. I also did not take easily to meditation, but something about it spoke to me. My law school professors often told us they were teaching us to “think like a lawyer,” and in time (years later) I came to see this as a revolutionary idea. For if you can learn one new way of thinking, you can learn others—the mind is more open, richer with possibilities, than we imagine. Meditation seemed to offer a new and better way to access those possibilities.
The courses I was taking in Buddhist philosophy led me to audit courses at the University of California at Berkeley, a ten-minute walk from my home and from the Institute. One was the late Bert Dreyfus’ famous course on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. It’s an opaque text, but with Dreyfus’ guidance, I found it deeply rewarding. My quick takeaway: our understanding of what is real is based on a highly limited and even distorted way of seeing, but another way is possible, one that does not insist on the separation between subject and object.
In 1975, my wife and I spent four months traveling in India, where I took my first long retreat. I returned with the intention of entering a PhD program in political theory at the university, not ready to give up on the knowledge traditions of the West, for which I had trained and with which I had reconnected and truly admired. But I wanted to continue my Dharma education as well. I did not want to lose that sense of connection to what was most profoundly true in my own being. For the next year and a half, while continuing my graduate studies, I kept taking classes, workshops, and intensive programs at the Institute.
In 1977, I took what proved to be the last of the summer Human Development Training Programs that Rinpoche offered at the Institute starting in 1973. By the end of the six-week program, something had shifted: I was in touch with a part of myself that I had not known existed and could not name. On the last day of the program, getting ready to leave, I taped to the glass pane of the Institute entryway a quote from the German poet Hölderlin: “Reluctantly, that which dwells near its origin departs.”
By the summer of 1979 I had made my choice between a Western academic career and a commitment to the Buddhist and Nyingma path. I was already teaching a bit at the Institute and had written a few articles for Gesar Magazine, produced by the Nyingma Centers. I had also met Leslie Bradburn, my life partner, whose commitment to the Dharma would be an indispensable support for my own practice for the next 35 years. At the start of the new decade, I began working full-time within the Nyingma community—as a writer, teacher, lawyer, researcher, and administrator—and have done so ever since.
My studies at the Institute did not focus only on Buddhism. Late in 1977, Rinpoche published Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality (TSK). This was a remarkable book, an original contribution to understanding what it means to inhabit the world, completely independent of Buddhist teachings. It asked readers to question the basics of their experience. If our lives unfold as a temporal dynamic, what does that mean for our belief in our own fixed and stable identity? If space is an allowing medium rather than the empty gap between us and the objects we encounter and care about, what does that say about how we place ourselves in the world? If knowledge is something more than what the knower knows, can the truths we have learned to accept without questioning give way?
For more than a year, I studied the TSK Vision intensively, and it became my gateway into a realm of new possibilities. Rinpoche published five more books on TSK, and I served as their primary editor. Since Rinpoche dictated his books, working on the texts gave me a spectacular opportunity to grapple with what he was saying and take it deeper into my own life. By the late 1980s, I had begun teaching TSK regularly, in retreats, classes, and online, as well as courses and retreats based in Buddhism and meditation. I continue to do so today.
In 2000, hoping to build a bridge between the TSK Vision and Western thought, I founded the Center for Creative Inquiry (CCI), and over the next dozen years or so I began to reach out to thinkers in various fields—consciousness studies, organizational change, contemplative studies—through conferences and workshops, and by writing academic articles across several disciplines. I also returned to some of the concerns that had led me to take up studies in political theory, approaching them from a TSK perspective.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to become director of a new center, the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages. This put me solidly back in touch with the academic world, and I worked with some truly wonderful scholars. At the same time, I was organizing experientially-focused academic conferences through CCI on first-person methodologies in the study of consciousness—another opportunity to engage serious thinkers on topics I found important.
In about 2015, I started exploring connections between the TSK Vision and the burgeoning secular mindfulness movement, whose roots are in the Buddhist tradition. Apart from its therapeutic benefits, the great (and often underappreciated) value of mindfulness is that it helps people discover how to explore their inner experience. I saw the TSK Vision as taking that exploration deeper, questioning fundamental assumptions about the structures and dynamics that we all enact in our lives. With this in mind, I began developing an approach to mindfulness grounded in the TSK vision, which I called Full Presence Mindfulness (FPM). That work continues today, and I hope to be able to transmit it effectively to younger generations.
In my many years of study and teaching, I have come to see clearly that knowledge capable of bringing about real transformation—a new way of seeing the world—depends less on conceptual insights than on experiential inquiry. At the same time, it would be a mistake to turn away from concepts and from the kinds of knowledge and inquiry that this culture has developed. My hope is that in sharing my own work and ideas, as well as the insights of the traditions in which I have been trained, I can contribute to building a bridge between the problems that beset our age and news ways of knowing that can address and transform them.