Profile: Inquiring Mind

They call it “The Mind.” It’s fifty-one pages of teachings, commentary, criticism, storytelling, poetry, art, and miscellany that has been distributed at no charge to readers and practice centers twice yearly since 1984. Inquiring Mind, whose estimated readership now approaches thirty thousand, was the first Buddhist journal in the West to commit to finding material from a broad spectrum of Buddhist teachers. As a result, the list of significant teachers who have appeared in its pages—and who have offered original thinking on the themes that each issue is devoted to—would fill this page. And the whole time it has been produced by the same small band of people operating out of their homes in Berkeley. The Mind boggles.

Inquiring Mind was born on a car ride home from a ski trip in the Sierras in 1983. Joseph Goldstein and Wes Nisker were talking about the fact that people in the Vispassana community seemed interested in having a journal, and Goldstein suggested Nisker start it up. The name “Inquiring Mind occurred to them quite early on, and although they considered many other possibilities, it stuck. Wes quickly concluded he did not want to do it alone, so when his friend Barbara Gates dropped by Harwood House, a communal outpost of vipassana practitioners, after everyone had taken a hot tub together he called across the proverbial crowded room and asked, “Hey, you want to start a Buddhist journal?”

Nisker had started practicing vipassana with S.N. Goenka in Bodhgaya in 1970, on a retreat with Goldstein and a clutch of other future Western dharma teachers. Meanwhile, Gates was developing her skills working on the Bennington College literary magazine with Anne Waldman. Her friend “Johnny Kabat,” who studied with Zen master Seung Sahn, gave her meditation instruction in her communal house near Harvard Square. But her sitting career really began in a course with Goldstein at the Naropa Institute in the summer of 1977. Friends she made there encouraged her to move to Berkeley.

When they launched the journal, Nisker was doing news and commentary for KFOG, the kind of alternative-rock station that played entire albums, and Gates was working as a high school teacher. They pitched ideas to each other on the phone during breaks. Although there were other Buddhist-community newsletters, Gates and Nisker decided they wanted something broader based, so their first issue carried the statement that the publication would be supported by the Vipassana sangha but be independent and not represent “any particular teacher or ideology” and would “consider the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows in all their multiple shapes and forms.”

Gates says, “What really excited us were the creative people who were getting into Buddhism, and they weren’t necessarily Theravadin. We were also drawn to the engaged Buddhists. Arts and politics were pulling us into a wider Buddhist arena.” Nisker says that the Vipassana community felt “less culturally beholden to its Asian roots, so we were open to Western influences and innovation and experimentation. We were committed to publishing the descendents of Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahn Chah, and others, but we could also be a place where all streams of Buddhism could have a voice.

“What an exciting time it was—and is—with all traditions of Buddhism sharing the same soil,” says Nisker. “We were, and still are, sensitive and open to new scientific discoveries, how artists interpret the dharma, how psychology might view the Buddhist approach to the mind.” These interests led to having themes for each issue. “Focusing on a theme gives us an opportunity for interplay among the different pieces, for an unspoken dialogue between them,” says Gates. “We can search for offerings from different perspectives. It has also enabled us to break new ground—in parenting, education, prisons, and so on—and also to shake things up sometimes, such as when we gave play to vipassana practitioners who were interested in Dzogchen. That caused a stir.”

In the midst of all the ground breaking and stirring, Gates and Nisker were also doing the bulk mail drops. “I forget those times,” Nisker says. “I just can’t imagine how we did that.” But they did, and after about three years, they were straining. Fortunately, Alan Novidor, a vipassana practitioner who left a career as a home-electronics sales representative, came on as publisher and brought a business sense to Inquiring Mind. “At the time,” Novidor says, “Wes and Barbara were paying themselves $50 per issue, so I asked them if they wanted this to be a part of their livelihood. When they said yes, I laid out for them how it would be possible. At the time, the schedule was a bit hit or miss, so I pointed out that if people were going to donate, they would expect to see the issue on time. We haven’t missed a deadline since.” Novidor also began to pay close attention to costs. “The publication had started with the IMS mailing list,” he says “but we were sending out duplicates and dead addresses.”

Novidor’s help freed Gates and Nisker to focus on editorial, which allowed them to divide their creative time about equally between creating The Mind and writing dharma-inspired books. They also developed a team of part-time staff and dedicated volunteers. Novidor recalls fondly the pizza parties that accompanied the all-hands-on-deck copy-editing jags in the early years. While the operation is slightly more streamlined today, it is still, in Nisker’s words, “a 25-year fly-by-night operation.” To make it possible to be an independent non-profit and survive on dana, Novidor says, they follow a model similar to public radio: “A few generous readers make it possible for many others to benefit.” They don’t try to energetically expand, which could lead to oversubscription, pushing the ratio of recipients to donors past the point of sustainability. They also don’t aggressively pursue advertising, which forms a very small part of their budget. Instead, Novidor says they keep costs low by printing on newsprint, but together with highly respected designer Margery Cantor they help their printer find ways to print in that medium with the highest-possible production values.

Gates, Nisker, and Novidor actively think about Inquiring Mind’s future. They would like some younger staff to join in the process of “reenvisioning ourselves,” says Novidor. Gates jokes that “we’re kind of old fogeys,” and in typical fashion Nisker finishes her sentence, “…and we need to pass the torch to a new generation.”

In the meantime, they’re still enjoying themselves and are currently compiling a “best of” collection to be published by Wisdom Publications in time for The Mind’s 25th anniversary. Rod Sperry at Wisdom, himself part of the newer generation of dharma practitioners, has read Inquiring Mind “pretty closely since I started working here six years ago. They have so many outstanding contributors, and their name says it all. It’s worth thinking about just how great that phrase is—inquiring mind—and how refreshing.”