Courtesy of Michael Daube
Courtesy of Michael Daube
Michael Daube, 43, founder of the nonprofit Citta

IT’S THE STUFF of urban legend: While combing through the trash in search of materials for his artwork, a young artist finds a drawing with the initials D.H. in the corner. Could it be…? His hunch pays off: The drawing is a David Hockney, and he sells it for $18,000. Then—because this is real life and not a legend—he uses his windfall to build a hospital in India.

Seriously. That’s what happened after Michael Daube, now 43, made his spectacular discovery in 1991. And the hospital he built—in one of India’s poorest states, Orissa—was only the beginning. Daube went on to start a school and a women’s center in Orissa; a girl’s school in Rajasthan; an orphanage, a clinic, a women’s center, and a hospital in Nepal; a clinic and a school in Mexico. And he isn’t finished yet. There are projects in Africa and South America to consider, and a handbook on rural development to write. Plus, Citta, the nonprofit he launched to oversee the projects, is constantly in search of funds. Daube is not only executive director of Citta but also “cultural translator” between the local staff of its programs and its fund-raising boards in Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and America.

Daube chose the name “Citta”—Sanskrit for “heart-mind”—because of its association with
bodhicitta, the Buddhist concept of awakened mind and compassionate heart. There could be no better exemplar of Citta’s motto—”Making a difference against indifference”—than its founder. In a film clip posted on YouTube—part of an upcoming film on Daube’s work—a Peace Corps volunteer asks what keeps him going. “You’re not going to stop the suffering,” Dube tells him. “You’re not going to stop the separation between the haves and have-nots. You’re not going to answer these things, but it almost becomes a way of life.”

The seeds of Daube’s multicultural lifestyle were planted early on. The only child of high school dropouts, he retreated from family violence into the world beyond his small town in upstate New York. He developed a passion for ancient Egypt, taught himself to play classical piano, and found a kindred spirit in Leonardo da Vinci. “Some people act out with drugs or friends; I gravitated to art and art history,” he explains. Later, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, he studied art and, on holidays, traveled. One day, while cleaning silk screens with newspaper, Daube noticed a headline: “Puri, Orissa: Playground of the Maharajas.” Inspired, he took off for India with $800 to last the year. “I’ve always been interested in anthropology, in seeing how others live,” he says. Landing in Delhi, he boarded a bus to Puri. Then, destiny—or karma—interceded. If the bus hadn’t been hijacked by smugglers and diverted to Nepal, he might never have discovered Buddhist practice or his philanthropic calling.

The bus stopped in Kathmandu, where Daube had his first taste of Buddhist culture. He’d once seen a documentary of Buddhist pilgrims doing prostrations, but this was something else. “I was completely charmed by people circumabulating Bodhnath Stupa, reciting
Om Mani Padme Hum,” he says. A chance meeting led him to Shechen Monastery—and a memorable encounter with the Nyingma and Dzogchen master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. “Something profound happened in that moment,” he recalls.

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