Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Words of Wisdom

May 19, 2009

A small Somerville publisher helps the Dalai Lama share his teachings
Tim McNeill was asked to lead Wisdom Publications
in 1988. He accepted the job as a volunteer for
the first five years. Tim McNeill was asked to
lead Wisdom Publications in 1988. He accepted the
job as a volunteer for the first five years. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)
By Johnny Diaz
The Boston Globe
May 17, 2009

SOMERVILLE - Walk inside the offices of Wisdom
Publications in Davis Square and the Dalai Lama's
smiling face greets you in every room. The
Tibetan Buddhist leader's image adorns book
covers, photographs, and posters inside this
nonprofit, which is literally a publishing house:
The offices are in a two-story 1920 mansard-roof Victorian house.

Welcome to the Dalai Lama's primary publisher in
Boston and one of the largest English-language
Buddhist-dedicated literary companies in the
world, selling 200,000 books a year from a
catalog of 300 titles in 34 languages. The Dalai
Lama's books are regular top 10 best-sellers in
the company's collection: In all, Wisdom has
published 14 books with the Dalai Lama, who is
believed to be a manifestation of the Buddha of
compassion and a reincarnation of 13 previous Dalai Lamas.

"He is our biggest celebrity author," said Tim
McNeill, Wisdom's publisher and chief executive
who this month released the Dalai Lama's newest
book, "The Middle Way; Faith Grounded in Reason,"
which was hand-delivered to the spiritual leader
during his recent speaking engagement at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

Although McNeill knows the Dalai Lama and even
had him as a houseguest years ago in Brookline,
the two maintain a long-distance but collegial
professional relationship. McNeill speaks
regularly with the Dalai Lama's principal English
translator, Thupten Jinpa, on literary projects.

"You don't hang out with the Dalai Lama and have
beers," joked McNeill, 58. "He's arguably the
head of state. Is he friendly? Does he recognize
me? Did he say a prayer for me when my mother was
dying (of cancer)? Yes. I consider him a teacher of mine."

McNeill first crossed paths with the Dalai Lama
in 1972 in the city of Dharamsala, India. In his
early 20s, McNeill was traveling through Asia and
Ireland when a fellow traveler suggested he visit
India's community of Tibetan monks. Inspired by
them, McNeill took a course in meditation and
introduction to Buddhism, a family of beliefs
that help people develop wisdom and compassion.

"I found Buddhism to be fascinating as a
philosophy," recalled McNeill, a New York-reared
Catholic. "It's more fulfilling philosophically,
spiritually, intellectually. It was very
empirical, and it appealed to my scientific aspect of mind."

McNeill then volunteered in the Peace Corps in
Afghanistan, pursued a master's degree in public
policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School,
and then took a job working for Michael Dukakis's
presidential campaign. When the campaign failed,
a Tibetan monk recruited McNeill in 1988 to lead
Wisdom Publications, which was then a
London-based struggling publisher that printed
classic Tibetan books including two by the Dalai Lama.

McNeill accepted the job as a volunteer for the
first five years. He stabilized the finances of
the company by managing costs and expanding the
company's breadth of titles. He said he had faith in the company.

"It was an opportunity to do something useful and
meaningful," said McNeill, who in 1989 moved the
company to office space in the Back Bay where he
further expanded Wisdom's catalog of Buddhist literature.

In 1998, the company moved into its own building
in Somerville and continued publishing books with
Buddhist ties. Although none of Wisdom's books
have climbed The New York Times best-sellers
list, several texts have been reprinted. The
books range from scholarly texts such as the
"Library of Tibetan Classics" to titles for
children such as "Moody Cow Meditates." Wisdom's
best-selling book: 2002's "Mindfulness in Plain
English," a nuts-and-bolts guide on how to use
meditation in daily life, is now in its 12th
printing with 150,000 copies sold worldwide.

"As our reputation grew, people started coming to
us," said McNeill, who has dozens of books in his
office, some of which he hasn't read. Among the
company's biggest supporters: actor Richard Gere,
who wrote a forward for one of the Dalai Lama's
books and is one of the company's benefactors.

Unlike most publishing houses, Wisdom is
classified as a nonprofit charitable
organization. As stated in the company's articles
of association, Wisdom can only release literary
works that will advance public awareness of Buddhist religion and philosophy.

Last year, Wisdom had a profit of $85,000, on
revenue of $2 million, down from profit of
$298,500, on revenue of $2.26 million in 2007.
McNeill believes the economy may have hurt sales.

McNeill, whose salary is $96,000 a year, said he
reinvests Wisdom's profits to support titles that
may not sell as well as the Dalai Lama's books,
but that are just as important, including
"Classics of Tibetan Buddhism." The company keeps all its titles on a backlist.

Some scholars and publishers say Wisdom fills an
important niche. Jeff Cox, president of Snow Lion
Publications in Ithaca, N.Y., said Wisdom "has
made a remarkable contribution to Buddhist
literature and helped Americans discover Buddhism
in a way that is pertinent to their lives." Snow
Lion is another Buddhist publisher but it solely
focuses on Tibetan Buddhism, while Wisdom
publishes books about various Buddhist traditions.

"We are doing our part to preserve and
disseminate Tibetan tradition," Cox said.

Leonard van der Kuijp, professor of Tibetan and
Himalayan studies at Harvard University, agrees.
"They publish really important work," he said.
"They have a more scholarly series and they also
have a series that is more directed to the public at large."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank