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.
Daube was also directed to Kopan Monastery. With no meditation experience, he found himself in a two-week retreat led by Geshe Lama Konchog. “I was in awe of this cave lama,” Daube recalls. “He embodied things I was interested in learning about.” At the monastery shop, Daube bought his first two Buddhist books: Stephen Batchelor’s translation of
A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life and Jeffrey Hopkins’s Meditation on Emptiness. (“I’ve never gotten past page 8,” he confesses.)
From there, Daube flew to Calcutta and went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage, offering to help. “You aren’t a doctor, a nurse, a medical psychologist; how can I let you work with the children?” Mother Teresa said. She sent him to Kalighat, the dying and destitute ward.
For the next six weeks, Daube fed and bathed the sick and dying: “They’d tell me their stories.” It was an invaluable lesson in selfless service. “You have this compassionate impulse to help, to come outside yourself and have a dialogue with the world’s suffering, but there’s no one to pat you on the back. It cleared up any misconceptions I had. I saw it was benefiting me as much as others.”
Eventually Daube reached Puri and found the palace he’d read about in the newspaper article, now decaying and abandoned. “For seven or eight months I lived there alone with the emptiness book.”
His last stop was Dharamsala, where he met the Dalai Lama. As Daube was leaving, some monks asked him to take a package back to New York. They handed him a piece of paper with an address: Richard Gere, Tibet House. “This person can help you,” the monks said. It was another fortuitous encounter: Gere’s foundation later gave Citta money.
Back home, Daube was setting up his studio in an abandoned warehouse in Jersey City when he came upon the Hockney. He told a friend, artist Dusty Boynton, about his intention to sell the drawing and do something worthwhile with the proceeds. “I want to help you,” she said, and gave him $3,000. “In a way, that enabled me to continue,” Daube says. “Just the
idea of doing something brought this gravity, where it started to play out. And I hadn’t even sold the Hockney yet.”
With $3,000 in hand—and the promise of more when the drawing sold—Daube retraced his steps. In Kathmandu he consulted Geshe Lama Konchog about his plan. “Only do it if you have the capacity to do it,” the lama said. “In other words,” laughs Daube, “don’t do it half-assed. That quote has stuck with me, because I’m always asking myself, ‘Do I have what it takes? Where am I going with this?’ And what did he mean by ‘the capacity to do it’? Do you have to have the money in hand, or the ambition, or just the understanding of how to move things along?”
Next he revisited Mother Teresa, who told him to “focus on the children.” He thought of starting a school, but when he reached Orissa, it was clear the need was basic healthcare.
As Daube laid out plans for a hospital, things fell into place. A former gangster who breakfasted in the same restaurant as Daube confided that he wanted to dedicate himself to helping others—”like Mother Teresa”—but didn’t have the means. “So we teamed up, and we’ve been like brothers ever since,” Daube says. Now the man directs Citta’s Orissa operations.
It took another three years before the hospital was finished, in 1996. To raise funds, Daube returned periodically to New York and did odd jobs for musician David Byrne and his wife, artist Adelle Lutz. They encouraged him to open a clinic in Chiapas, Mexico; Byrne gave a concert to raise money. To manage the two facilities, Daube set up Citta. It has attracted support from such artists as Adam Fuss, Vic Muniz, Helen Marden, and Nan Goldin, as well as director Jonathan Demme and writer Jon Krakauer. Today, Citta’s annual operating budget of $130,000 is financed largely by donations.
Often, a Citta project is the lone program of its sort in a community. After the hospital, Daube started a public school in Orissa—the only one open to the poor. He built a boarding school for girls in Rajasthan, where literacy rates for women are among India’s lowest. Citta’s women’s center in Kathmandu provides employment for local women—many rescued from prostitution or slavery—who make handicrafts commissioned by upscale American stores like Barneys and the designers Donna Karan and Kate Spade. Before Daube brought a school to Chiapas, its schoolhouse had stood empty for years.
Though his work is a clear expression of Buddhist compassion in action, Daube laughs when asked about his practice: “I’m one of those horrible people who do a little of everything—Dzogchen, Zen, Tibetan.” He has studied Dzogchen with Namkhai Norbu, and Zen with the late Maezumi Roshi and Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. “To me, Tibetan Buddhism is like my grandmother, and Zen is like my grandfather. I think it’s a nice balance.”
Daube has also received empowerments from the brothers and Nyingma masters Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal and Khenpo Palden Sherab, and because of them, he opened a hospital in Humla, a remote village in Nepal. The khenpos were starting a monastery in Sarnath and asked Daube to take care of medicines for the monks. A young doctor who was bringing students to the monastery from Humla asked Daube to do something for his village. “You can’t imagine this place,” Daube says. “No roads, no cars, no bicycles, it’s all by foot. Very poor.” One mother was so poor she couldn’t feed her child and placed him in a snowbank to die. (She later retrieved him and took him to the monastery.) “That kind of amazing story made me want to do something about it,” Daube says.
He worries that he sometimes takes on too much. In reading Alexander the Great’s diaries, he “saw a personality disorder that we shared—a fervor to experience and grow and move on. One of the disasters of Alexander’s life was not administrating or looking back and saying more solidly, ‘How am I affecting these people?'”
Administration may not be Daube’s forte, but his commitment has attracted colleagues who help ground his vision and ensure the sustainability of Citta’s programs. Daube is still Citta’s driving force, but this year he started setting aside more time for his artwork. He’s been experimenting with computer-generated images of sound waves. “One of the pieces I do is Prajnaparamita [perfection of wisdom]. I wondered, with the thought of it and saying the word and the vibration coming from my body, what it would look like. It’s very complicated.”
He sees parallels between art and Buddhist practice: “Art was a way of managing my mind before I knew about Buddhism,” he says. “I don’t really think of myself as an artist, or a rural developer, or a philanthropist. They’re all aspects of each other.” Still, moving between worlds has its moments of cognitive dissonance: “Sometimes you’re dealing with leprosy issues and things like that, and the next email you open, you’re dealing with spring colors at Donna Karan.”
What sustains him through it all is trust. “I remember Robert Thurman once saying that when the Buddha reached enlightenment he touched the earth in recognition of the event and smiled. ‘The good news,’ Thurman said, ‘is that whatever he was in touch with, it wasn’t bad. It didn’t scare him.’ In a way, I have this kind of trust that things are meant for the good. Somehow there is a Net of Indra; there is some connection, some unity of all things that has a language we can’t quite comprehend.” Whether it’s finding a newspaper article about Orissa, or going to a monastery in Nepal, it’s about trusting the feeling, Daube says. “Sometimes I just go on a whim, trusting it will get me closer to understanding what I don’t understand.”
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.