John Negru [Karma Yönten Gyatso] is the founder of Sumeru Books, the publishing company which has released four of my books. He has an interesting background story which includes a fifty year Dharma practice with a variety of teachers in different traditions, extensive community service, pilgrimages, and even three days in 1980 at Bodhgaya with the Dalai Lama. But he doubts that there is much value in retelling it.
“People ask me, ‘What’s your story?’ And I tell them that my story is irrelevant. Nobody else is going to be able to replicate the lived experience that I had, the meetings with teachers that I had when I had them in the cultural milieu that I found myself. So if I’m telling you that story, Rick, I’m just telling you an interesting bedtime story.”
The point is that it is interesting, and one significant element is the way in which he became involved with and later disaffiliated from two Buddhist communities in Canada he now describes as “flawed.” There were many such groups during the Buddhist boom of the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80, and many participants – several of whom had dedicated years to their practice – fell away in discouragement. John, however, concentrates on what was positive about the experience: “We had the marvelous opportunity to meet many authentic, accomplished Buddhist teachers who allowed us to glimpse real practice and a real life devoted to the Dharma. And so in that sense I’m very grateful, but there’s a lot of sadness and dukkha associated with that time.”
Over the course of his career, he practiced with both Zen and Tibetan communities and came to feel that “there was value in every lineage. I was happy to support every lineage but not commit to any one lineage.” One of the ways in which he provided support was by becoming a publisher.
“My goal is to support the Dharma in any way that I can. I’m not going to be a highly enlightened teacher. I’m not going to run a profoundly transformative Dharma center. But I can help people do those things, and I’m happy to serve in that way. In order to make it a realistic thing, I’ve chosen to make Sumeru a company. I’m proud to say that the company has been in the black since its beginnings in 2009 (although nobody is getting rich doing this), and I have been able to donate thousands of dollars to various Buddhist organizations from royalties from the sales of the books I’ve published. And so I think that’s kind of like a trifecta. You know? You get the Dharma out there, you validate the work of all these different traditions and help them financially, and you give an opportunity to people such as yourself to engage in a deeper form of practice.”
He is particularly focused on “Engaged Buddhism,” the way in which Buddhist practice leads to social action and environmental concern.
“Buddhism is about recognizing reality and acting skillfully within it. It’s about recognizing interdependence, karma, non-self. All of these different concepts and the practices of training that enhance those concepts – that state of mind – are based on understanding reality as opposed to our delusions about what reality is, which is driven by our desires and our hatreds and our preferences and so on. Like it says in the Hsin Hsin Ming, ‘The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. But make the smallest distinction, and Heaven and Earth are set instantly apart.’ So here we are – 2021 – in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a global climate crisis, mass extinctions. You look at the nine planetary boundaries that we have crossed or that we are on the threshold of, and the only one that we have been able to pull back from has been the ozone hole. So this is our reality. So any looking away from our reality – focusing on our personal psychological development – really isn’t showing awareness.
“Ron Purser is an ordained Korean Buddhist monk who is also a Systems Management professor at San Francisco State University. He wrote a book called McMindfulness, and he was on CBC Tapestry a day or two ago saying that the original version – the Buddhist version – of mindfulness also contained a discernment component which has been jettisoned along the way. So when you have discernment, when you look at the current situation in the world, you say, ‘Well, okay, this is what’s happening.’ As the Dalai Lama says, ‘I am a servant of seven billion people.’ So if you’re going to take that position of being a Bodhisattva, and you look at this situation with discernment, how could you not act? How can you say, ‘Well, I am going to rarefy my samatha practice’ or ‘I’m going to dig deeper in the four jhanas’ without being in the world that we live in? Right? It just doesn’t make sense to me that you could separate those things. That’s where I’m coming from.”
Which brings us back to his work as a publisher.
“I’ve been involved in environmental activities since the early 1970s. It isn’t just a vague, ‘Hey, let’s get on the climate crisis wagon.’ Publishing books from an Engaged Buddhist perspective and doing environmental community development projects with different sanghas is something much more evolved and specific that I can do. Same with chaplaincy and social justice activism.
“We need to re-conceptualize the performative aspects of what it means to be a Buddhist community leader within the larger context of the modern world. The Buddhism of the Future cannot stay bound to old ways of practice and remain relevant to our children and the generations to follow.”
Zen Conversations: 162-64