Profile: Snow Lion Publications

During the Dalai Lama’s first visits to America—in 1979, 1980, and 1981—he presented carefully planned and recorded talks that would become the basis of a book. To the surprise of the publishing world, the Dalai Lama and his translator Jeffrey Hopkins decided to give the project to Snow Lion Publications, an untried start-up struggling to get off the ground. The book, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight—reissued this year in a 25th anniversary edition—became the spark that ignited the small press and helped it to become the leading publisher specializing exclusively in Tibetan materials, with over 200 titles, most of which are still in print.

Sidney Piburn and Jeff Cox, the two friends responsible for building the publishing company from the ground up, are clearly bemused by the alignment of fortuitous circumstances that gave birth to Snow Lion. If a young Piburn had not become ill while trekking in Nepal in 1975, he might not have developed such a strong determination to see the Dalai Lama. If a woman in a restaurant in Dharamsala had not pointed out that the Dalai Lama’s secretary was sitting at a nearby table, Piburn would not have pestered the secretary for days until he squeezed Piburn into the Dalai Lama’s audience with some Ladakhi monks. If His Holiness had not called Piburn back as he was leaving—and generously taken three hours to answer every question from Piburn’s long list—Snow Lion might never have been born.

At that first meeting, Piburn, who had studied art and art history and knew little about the Dalai Lama, Tibetans, or Buddhism, was struck with how lively and engaged the Dalai Lama was. “I thought he might just be a figurehead, a job holder, but I encountered a real person who was thoroughly warm and attentive.” His Holiness took a liking to and interest in Piburn. On Piburn’s next visit in 1978, he was readily granted an audience, during which he matter-of-factly invited the Dalai Lama to visit his fledgling dharma center in Ithaca, New York. His Holiness matter-of-factly replied, “Yes, sure.”

As a result of His Holiness’s four-day visit, Piburn’s friends Gabriel and Patricia Aiello started kicking around the notion of publishing dharma books, particularly from the Tibetan tradition, and asked him to solicit the Dalai Lama’s advice. His Holiness agreed to meet with Piburn and the Aiellos at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto during his 1980 tour.

At the meeting, His Holiness was anything but vague. He provided Snow Lion with a mission statement that stands to this day. “He told us to be unbiased and nonsectarian,” Piburn says, “and to publish from all the traditions of Tibet, and for three main audiences: those who didn’t know about Buddhism but were interested in a better life; existing Buddhist practitioners; and Buddhist scholars.” When they asked about what specific types of books to publish, he provided a short list: “translations of classic texts and monastic textbooks; commentaries by eminent lamas past and present; and works by Western practitioners and scholars who can bridge the cultures.”

Having never published a book, Piburn was overwhelmed, so he asked what they might publish to get started. “His Holiness turned to Jeffrey Hopkins and they spoke briefly,” Piburn recalls, “and then he told us we could publish the teachings from his tours. Just like that. We had our first book.”

They had no money. A friend of Piburn’s sold his tractor to raise funds, and Piburn borrowed money from any friend who was willing to help. Snow Lion published its first books in 1981, reprinting existing books from a British publisher. By 1984, the compilation and editing of the talks from the Dalai Lama’s tour was complete, and Kindness, Clarity, and Insight became Snow Lion’s first signature title.

The Dalai Lama’s act of generosity and courage in “offering a book that any publisher would have loved to have, to a small company with no resources whatsoever” inspired Jeff Cox to leave his job as a software salesman, take a large pay cut, and join Snow Lion. The Aiellos had since left the company, and Snow Lion had only a skeleton crew. “We published two to three books a year,” recalls Cox, “but we functioned not only as a publishing company, but as a nexus for a community of Buddhists and people interested in Buddhism. People still come to us to look not only for books to read, but for centers to go to and teachers to study with. A lot of people use our website as a learning tool and to get access to Buddhist resources.”

In 1986, Snow Lion put out its first newsletter and catalog. They were looking for a way to reach people inexpensively and to offer them not only a catalog but also “a news service about Tibetan Buddhism in the West.” The first issue was eight pages long and reached 1,500 people. Snow Lion’s latest catalog and newsletter runs to 100 pages and will be sent to 35,000 people. In 2006, Snow Lion will publish 23 books, and the skeleton crew has expanded to 17 employees.

Cox emphasizes that Snow Lion has never been driven by the profit motive. “We’ve always seen ourselves as serving the community of Buddhist practitioners,” he says. “Serious practitioners need to engage in systematic study just as in the traditional monastic system. While many in the West are not monastic, they still engage in systematic study, and our publishing program supports that by supplying what are often essentially textbooks. We are creating a library of Tibetan Buddhism and culture.”

Snow Lion’s mission puts them in the business of publishing some esoteric tomes that would be considered uneconomical from a standard publishing perspective. They are committed, for example, to publishing all ten volumes of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great’s encyclopedic work, Treasury of Knowledge, as well as many texts on specific tantric practices of use only to a specialized audience, and a four-volume, 1,000-page textbook for learning Tibetan.

Snow Lion also publishes many popular titles for the general reader, all still from within the Tibetan tradition, and these higher-selling titles help to support the publication of systematic, in-depth materials for committed practitioners and scholars. Piburn makes clear, though, that Snow Lion regards titles for the general reader to be more than something to pay the bills. They are an important part of the mandate given them by the Dalai Lama.

In fact, given that Buddhism has been thriving in the West for more than a generation, Piburn would like to publish more books by “Westerners who have studied for a number of years in the tradition, but who are now stepping out in such a way that they can present the material in their own voice.” As an example, he cites The Wisdom of Imperfection, a book by former monk Bob Priest about how the Buddhist tradition relates to the importance of individuation in the Western tradition. “I would like to stick to what we’ve done from the beginning, but also to branch out and offer material inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist literature and tradition that is presented in a Western form.”