Marc Lieberman, Who Brought Jews and Buddhists Together, Dies at 72
Dr. Marc Lieberman, an ophthalmologist and self-proclaimed “Jewish Buddhist” who, when he wasn’t treating glaucoma, organized a dialogue between …
Dr. Marc Lieberman, an ophthalmologist and self-proclaimed “Jewish Buddhist” who, when he wasn’t treating glaucoma, organized a dialogue between Jewish scholars and the Dalai Lama, and who later brought sight back to thousands of Tibetans stricken by cataracts, died on Aug. 2 at his home in San Francisco. He was 72.
His son, Michael, said the cause was prostate cancer.
Dr. Lieberman, who called himself a “JuBu,” retained his Jewish faith but incorporated aspects of Buddhist teachings and practices. He kept kosher and observed the sabbath, but he also meditated several times a day. He studied the Torah, but he also led efforts to build a Buddhist monastery in Northern California.
If it seemed like a contradiction to some, he was OK with that, seeing in both religions a complementary pursuit of truth and path away from worldly suffering.
“I’m a healthy mosaic of Judaism and Buddhism,” Dr. Lieberman said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “Is that fair to either religion? Fair schmair! It’s what I am.”
In the 1980s, he became a leader in the lay Buddhist community in the Bay Area, holding weekly meetings in his living room and hosting monks who visited from around the world.
As such, he was an obvious point of contact when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, announced that he was planning a visit to the United States in 1989, and that he was curious to learn more about Judaism. A friend in the office of Representative Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, asked if Dr. Lieberman would facilitate a dialogue between the holy man and American Jewish leaders.
Dr. Lieberman jumped into action, assembling what he called a “dream team” of rabbis and Jewish scholars for a one-day meeting with the Dalai Lama at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in New Jersey.
It was a success, though an all-too-brief one, it being difficult to pack thousands of years of religious tradition into a single afternoon chat. But the Dalai Lama came away impressed, and Dr. Lieberman decided to go bigger.
The next year he accompanied eight of the original group to Dharmsala, the town in northern India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. Over four days, Jewish and Buddhist thinkers discussed the two faiths’ shared experiences with suffering, their differing concepts of God and the role that mysticism plays in each.
Along to observe was Rodger Kamenetz, a poet who had been a friend of Dr. Lieberman’s since childhood. At a moment of crisis in his own life, Mr. Kamenetz found the trip moving, and he documented the experience in a book, “The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India” (1994).
The book sold well and drove thousands of Americans, Jews and non-Jews, to explore Buddhism — while at the same time driving others to see the potential for a different, more mystical Judaism.
“Marc really deserves credit for that dialogue, for opening Jews to their own meditative and esoteric traditions,” Mr. Kamenetz said in an interview.
Dr. Lieberman wasn’t done. During his conversations with the Dalai Lama and his entourage, he learned that thanks to the harsh ultraviolet light that blankets the 15,000-foot Tibetan Plateau, 15 percent of Tibetans over 40 — and 50 percent of those over 70 — have cataracts.
In 1995 he founded the Tibet Vision Project, a grand name for what was largely a solo act: Twice a year, sometimes with a colleague, he traveled to Tibet, where he oversaw cataract surgeries and trained Tibetan doctors to perform them. Over the next 20 years, some 5,000 people regained their full sight thanks to Dr. Lieberman.
It was, he might have said, the ultimate mitzvah for a people, and a leader, who had given him so much.
“I remember him saying to the Dalai Lama, ‘When you come back to Tibet I want the Tibetan people to see you,’” Mr. Kamenetz recalled.
Marc Frank Lieberman was born on July 7, 1949, in Baltimore, the son of Alfred and Annette (Filzer) Lieberman. His father was a surgeon; his mother worked for a local private school and, later, for the area chapter of Planned Parenthood.
Though his uncle Morris Lieberman was the rabbi at one of Baltimore’s leading Reform synagogues, Marc grew up more interested in the intellectual and activist sides of Judaism than in the faith itself.
He studied religion at Reed College in Oregon and, after graduating, took pre-med courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While in Israel he met Alicia Friedman, who became his first wife. He also became more religious, keeping kosher and observing the sabbath.
He attended medical school at Johns Hopkins University and completed his residency in Ann Arbor, Mich. He then settled in San Francisco, where he opened a private practice specializing in glaucoma treatment, which later expanded to three offices around the Bay Area.
Despite his professional success, Dr. Lieberman — who was also a successful textbook author and a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco — grew disenchanted with medicine.
“It was a high price for me to pay to undergo the rigors of training,” he said in “Visioning Tibet,” a 2006 documentary about his work. “There were so few role models of people who were connecting with patients as other humans, and the very reasons that motivated me to go into medicine became more and more distant the further I got in the field.”
At a yoga class in 1982 he met Nancy Garfield, who introduced him to the Bay Area’s Buddhist community. After the two attended a retreat at a monastery near Santa Cruz, Dr. Lieberman realized that he had found the answer to his frustrations and despair, or at least an avenue to address them.
In 1986 he and Ms. Garfield married in a Buddhist ceremony. That marriage, like his first, ended in divorce. In addition to his son, Dr. Lieberman is survived by his brothers, Elias and Victor.
Soon after his second marriage, Dr. Lieberman took his first trip to northern India, at the invitation of a group of Indian doctors. He found the experience transformative.
“The great discovery for me in India was to see how spiritual the practice of medicine was,” he said in the documentary. “The medical centers in India, the ones I was fortunate enough to visit, are temples, and temples of love and service.”
He began to make regular visits to India, working with local doctors and bringing back Buddhist books, devotional items and esoterica, which filled his house.
“At the table,” Mr. Kamenetz wrote, a visitor would find “Shabbat candles; in the living room, incense; at the doorway, a mezuzah; in the meditation room, a five-foot-high Buddha. If he glanced at the bookshelf, he would have seen dharma and kabbalah competing for space, and one was as likely to find Pali as Hebrew.”
Dr. Lieberman did not coin the term “JuBu,” and he was not the first proponent of integrating aspects of Buddhism into the Jewish faith — the poet Allen Ginsberg was among those who preceded him — but he became one of the most prominent.
He struggled to keep his focus on interreligious dialogue and leave politics aside. But his many trips to Tibet left him embittered toward the Chinese government, which had annexed the region in 1959 and driven out its religious leaders, then sought to overwhelm Tibetan culture with its own.
“It’s like visiting an Indian reservation run by General Custer’s family,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2006.
Beijing didn’t think much of Dr. Lieberman either; he was often harassed at the border and forced to wait weeks in Kathmandu, Nepal, for a visa. Starting in 2008, the Chinese government gradually barred all foreign nongovernmental organizations from Tibet, bringing Dr. Lieberman’s efforts to an end.
Not long before Dr. Lieberman died, Mr. Kamenetz visited him in San Francisco. One day he accompanied his friend to a chemotherapy appointment.
“We were really enjoying the flowering trees in San Francisco, just taking in each flower, each tree,” Mr. Kamenetz recalled. “Naturally we were talking about impermanence. And he said the most beautiful thing: that impermanence doesn’t just mean that everything goes away, but also that there’s always something new coming into focus.
“He said, ‘Whatever arises is the indispensable beautiful event that is arising.’”