David Nichtern

David Nichtern photo by Riley Smoller

Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck

In Buddhism everything has a place—a tidy system of labeling each element of the human experience (and beyond). That includes thoughts, senses, emotions, and stages of life (and death). It’s no surprise that the very first speech the Buddha gave included instruction on how to relate to work. That part of the Eightfold Path is called “Right Livelihood” and David Nichtern is here to remind us about it. In his new book, Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck – Senior Tibetan Buddhist teacher, 50-year practitioner, one of the original Western students of Chöygam Trungpa Rinpoche, four-time Emmy winner, two-time Grammy nominee, successful entrepreneur (and all around mensch), David Nichtern dispenses learning accrued over a lifetime.

David’s mother Claire was a pioneering Broadway producer who brought a Tony Award home to prove it. At 16, David graduated from Stuyvesant High and enrolled in the pre-med program at Columbia College, reckoning, “My sense of what career meant was you try to do something reasonable. My dad was a doctor, so I’ll just be a doctor.” He graduated with a literature degree and then landed his first job playing guitar and banjo on the Dustin Hoffman play Jimmy Shine. The late-teen saved enough to attend Berklee College of Music “on my own dime.”

Meeting Chöygam Trungpa Rinpoche

In the winter of 1970, David was practicing yoga at the East-West Center in Boston. Studio owner, Patricia Harvey, was instrumental in attaining the U.S. visa for a visiting Tibetan Buddhist Teacher. The yogis welcomed Chöygam Trungpa Rinpoche (CTR), and in turn he offered each of them personal meditation instruction. CTR lectured on “Work, Sex and Money.” David was one of the students who received the transmissions on these timelessly potent topics. He said, “By the end of the weekend I was in.”

The following summer was idyllic. The 20-something guitar player traded out a few folks sets a week for a sweet house on a Cape Cod beach. Two weeks into the ideal arrangement, David had a dream about CTR, walked into the kitchen and told his girlfriend, “I think I have to leave. I just gotta go’.” He reflects, “It was the kinda times in which people said, ‘Yea I get it.’ They somehow understood.” He hitchhiked to Tail of the Tiger Center (now Karmê Chöling) in Vermont. There CTR taught the highest Buddhist teachings in the simplest and most direct style, an approach for which he became widely known. During this time, CTR gave some of his most regaled talks including such iconic topics as “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”, “Idiot Compassion”, “Orderly Chaos”, “Crazy Wisdom”, “First Thought Best Thought”, “Basic Goodness,” and more.

David Nichtern and the Search for Right Livelihood

David recounts, “This principle of integration that I’m teaching now of livelihood, everyday life, and spiritual practice; was a core principle that Trungpa Rinpoche was teaching. The sacred world being this world, as opposed to some other place that you figure out how to get to….that was the thrust of it. Therefore, I always went back into the world. I was always sort of going back and forth between that learning environment and then trying to see how does this work in everyday life.”

In the 70s, New York City’s folk scene was ripe with revolution. Simon and Garfunkel, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan had risen to fame, and soon David would too. He paints a picture, “My girlfriend lived uptown and had a waterbed. One night, after a wonderful and adventurous gambit on this floating oasis of blissful encounters, we had some hummus, grape leaves, feta, and pita for a little snack. I reached over and grabbed her Martin 000-28 guitar and in real time created the basic content and structure for ‘Midnight at the Oasis’.” Nichtern presented the song to then-head of A & R for Warner Brothers Records, Lenny Waronker, who hung his head in his hands, and said, “Alright, let’s try it.”

From Midnight at the Oasis to the Meditation Center

Maria Maldaur recorded “Midnight at the Oasis.” It became a massive radio hit, earning Nichtern three million dollars or so in royalties over 40+ years. “Tell that to your parents the next time they insist you go back to law or medical school so you can earn a living,” Nichtern jokes.

The newly bankrolled (aptly nicknamed) “Nudgie,” made his way into playing in Northern California bluegrass bands that included legends like Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Taj Mahal. He rambled down the road to where the Southern California Stars shine, and rented a big house on Mulholland Drive. He bought a car with cash, composed for television, wrote film scores, sat in as a session musician, and was asked by CTR to co-direct the Dharmadhatu Meditation Center, which had been opened by a small group of students several years earlier.

Nichtern was a principal teacher and community elder at the ripe old age of 28. Having a foot in both worlds, according to Nichtern, “became my orientation as a teacher. I said that’s obviously my place, because other people got very deep into the teachings, translating them, ya know, in a very pure way, even monasticism, but would that be the person to ask to balance your checkbook, I don’t know….[he laughs]. I always saw it as a shame that those two worlds over thousands of years have migrated away from each other, so that you have a split personality as a human being; that you have an inner world and an outer world, that are not integrated properly.”

David Nichtern meditating in LA

David Nichtern photo by Riley Smoller

Living the Dharma in the World

David got married, and just before the baby was born, CTR asked him to run Karmê Chöling Meditation Center back in Vermont. “I took my little family and we moved from Mulholland Drive into two little rooms in the dharma center that were smaller than the closets in our LA house.” After two years of intense Buddhist study and practice David knew it was time to accept a “straight job.” He worked as worldwide director of sales for New England Digital. Its Synclavier Digital Audio System transformed music production, audio recording and post-production, and the system was sold to industry icons like Quincy Jones, Frank Zappa, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Lucasfilm. Under Nichtern’s tenure, the company’s annual sales grew from $200,000 to $25 million.

Answering the Call to Creativity

The Synclavier (and Nichtern’s role) was a prodigious success – yet he was also feeling the call of his creativity. For the following decades, David would compose music for the TV Shows: One Life to Live and As the World Turns. He attracted and nurtured talent, building a team to take care of the consistent need for soap opera scores. Nichtern was often approached by aspiring artists for advice and instruction. He founded two record labels to mentor musicians. Dharma Moon focused on the emerging New Age category and 5 Points Records had a more mainstream-meets-world-music discography. Nichtern produced more than 25 albums, including the #1 rated Billboard Album, “Kirtan Wallah” by Krishna Das (who he also still frequently accompanies on guitar), and in 2010, launched pop artist Lana Del Rey’s debut.

Teaching around the World

David has been the Director of Buddhist Practice and Study at New York City’s Om Yoga Studio, and taught at a seemingly infinite number of retreat centers, yoga studios, and corporate strongholds including Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, Omega Institute, Tibet House, Menla Retreat Center, Samarasa Center, True Nature in Japan, Goldman Sachs, Journey Meditation, and many more.

Books with Wisdom Publishing

Nichtern recently partnered with Wisdom Publishing which is committed to translating and distributing ancient wisdom from Buddhism and similar contemplative traditions. In 2016, they released David’s first book, Awakening From The Daydream; Reimagining The Buddhist Wheel of Life. In October, 2019, they adventure together into Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck.

Being Spiritual and Reasonable

From a childhood living with role models in the arts and “reasonable” careers, Nichtern has spent decades figuring out his own version of how to combine creativity, spirituality, and making a buck. Right Livelihood isn’t just a nice teaching, Right Livelihood is THE livelihood. Whether it is with a guitar in hand, offering instruction to practitioners on the cushion, composing catchy tunes, running a business, raising a family, or mentoring musicians, Nichtern is living the dharma. And like his own teacher Chöygam Trungpa Rinpoche, he is willing to take on the potent and practical topics. For anyone hunting down that how-to manual for making it in the modern world—with integrity intact—Nichtern is willing to deliver seekers to the teachings given generation after generation, beginning with the Buddha himself and his categorial instructions on living the spiritual and reasonable life you were born to live.

As Nichtern says, “Best wishes for this challenging time to be alive on this earth, it’s going to take fortitude, that’s why I took on a warrior lineage. It’s going to take an extra boost of confidence and power so make sure you can find people who can transmit that to you. And don’t buy any wooden nickels along the way.”


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