Dr. Marc Lieberman, an ophthalmologist and self-proclaimed “Jewish Buddhist” who, when he was not treating glaucoma, organized a dialogue between Jewish scholars and the Dalai Lama and later restored the eyesight of thousands of cataract-stricken Tibetans, died in his home on August 2nd in San Francisco. He was 72.
His son Michael said the cause was prostate cancer.
Dr. Lieberman, who called himself “JuBu”, retained his Jewish faith, but considered aspects of Buddhist teachings and practices. He was kosher and kept the Sabbath, but he also meditated several times a day. He studied the Torah, but also directed efforts to build a Buddhist monastery in Northern California.
If to some it seemed like a contradiction, he agreed, as he saw in both religions a complementary pursuit of truth and a way away from worldly suffering.
“I am a healthy mosaic of Judaism and Buddhism,” said Dr. Lieberman in a 2006 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Is that fair to both religions? Fair flattery! This is me.”
In the 1980s he became a leader of the Bay Area Buddhist lay community, holding weekly meetings in his living room and receiving monks visiting 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 was curious to learn more about Judaism. A friend in the office of Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, asked if Dr. Lieberman would enable dialogue between the holy man and American Jewish leaders.
Dr. Lieberman stepped into action and hired 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, if only too briefly, because it was difficult to put thousands of years of religious tradition into a single afternoon talk. But the Dalai Lama was impressed and Dr. Lieberman decided to get bigger.
The next year he accompanied eight of the original group to Dharmsala, the city in northern India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. For four days, Jewish and Buddhist thinkers discussed the common experiences of suffering of the two faiths, their different ideas about God and the role that mysticism plays in them.
The book sold well, spurring thousands of Americans, Jews, and non-Jews to explore Buddhism – while at the same time leading others to see the potential for a different, more mystical Judaism.
“Marc really deserves recognition for this dialogue, for opening up the Jews to their own meditative and esoteric traditions,” said Mr. Kamenetz in an interview.
Dr. Lieberman wasn’t finished yet. During his conversations with the Dalai Lama and his entourage, he learned that 15 percent of Tibetans over 40 – and 50 percent of those over 70 – have cataracts thanks to the harsh ultraviolet light that covers the 15,000-foot Tibetan plateau.
In 1995 he founded the Tibet Vision Project, a big name for the largely solo performances: twice a year he traveled, sometimes with a colleague, to Tibet, where he supervised cataract operations and trained Tibetan doctors to carry them out. Over the next 20 years, thanks to Dr. Lieberman around 5,000 people regained their full eyesight.
It was, he could have said, the ultimate mitzvah for a people and a leader who had given them so much.
“I remember him saying to the Dalai Lama, ‘When you return to Tibet, I want the Tibetan people to see you,'” recalls Mr. Kamenetz.
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 Planned Parenthood area chapter.
Although his uncle Morris Lieberman was a rabbi at one of the leading reform synagogues in Baltimore, Marc grew up more on the intellectual and activist sides of Judaism than on the faith itself.
He studied religion at Reed College, Oregon, and took medical courses at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem upon graduation. In Israel he met Alicia Friedman, who became his first wife. He also became more religious, keeping kosher and keeping the Sabbath.
He attended the medical school at Johns Hopkins University and completed his residency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He then settled in San Francisco, where he opened a private practice specializing in glaucoma treatment that later expanded to three offices in the Bay Area.
Despite his professional success, Dr. Lieberman – who was also a successful textbook author and clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco – disaffected with medicine.
“It was a high price for me to undergo the tough training,” he said in Visioning Tibet, a 2006 documentary about his work. “There have been so few role models of people who deal with patients than others People connected, and the exact reasons that motivated me to go into medicine got further and further removed the further I got in the field. “
In 1982 he met Nancy Garfield at a yoga class who introduced him to the Bay Area Buddhist community. After the two took part in a retreat at a monastery near Santa Cruz, Dr. Lieberman that he had found the answer to his frustrations and despair, or at least found a way to address them.
In 1986, he and Mrs. Garfield married in a Buddhist ceremony. That marriage, like his first, ended in divorce. In addition to his son, Dr. Lieberman his brothers Elias and Victor.
Shortly after his second marriage, Dr. Lieberman made his first trip to northern India at the invitation of a group of Indian doctors. He found the experience transforming.
“The big discovery for me in India was seeing how spiritual the practice of medicine is,” he said in the documentary. “The medical centers in India that I was lucky enough to visit are temples and temples of love and service.”
He started visiting India regularly, working with local doctors, and bringing Buddhist books, devotional items, and esoteric items that filled his house.
“At the table,” wrote Mr Kamenetz, a visitor found “Shabbat candles; incense in the living room; a mezuzah on the door; a five-foot tall Buddha in the meditation room. If he had taken a look at the bookshelf, he would have seen Dharma and Kabbalah compete for space, and Pali would be just as likely to be found 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 one of his predecessors – but he became one of the most famous.
He struggled to focus on interfaith dialogue and leave politics aside. But his many trips to Tibet made him bitter towards the Chinese government, which annexed the region in 1959 and expelled its religious leaders and then tried to overwhelm Tibetan culture with their 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; he was often harassed at the border and had to wait for weeks for a visa in Kathmandu, Nepal. Starting in 2008, the Chinese government gradually banned all foreign non-governmental organizations from Tibet, whereby Dr. Lieberman’s efforts came to an end.
Just before Dr. Lieberman died, Mr. Kamenetz visited him in San Francisco. One day he accompanied his friend to an appointment for chemotherapy.
“We really enjoyed the trees in bloom in San Francisco, simply absorbed every flower, every tree,” recalls Mr. Kamenetz. “Of course we talked about impermanence. And he said the nicest thing: that impermanence not only means that everything passes, but that something new always comes into focus.
“He said, ‘Whatever comes up is the indispensable beautiful event that comes up.'”