Lawrence Levy is a student of Segyu Rinpoche and a former CFO and board member at Pixar Animation Studios. He left his role as an executive at Pixar in 2000 to pursue a study of religion and philosophy, which led him to Buddhism.
In this episode, Lawrence speaks with host Rohan Gunatillake about working at Pixar, the lessons he learned at the company, and how he has applied those lessons to building the Buddhist organization the Juniper Foundation.
Rohan: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Rohan Gunatillake hosting today and I’m delighted to have joining us Lawrence Levy, co-founder of Juniper foundation. Lawrence, great to have you.
Lawrence: Thanks Rohan. It’s great to be here.
Rohan: And just a bit of a context about Lawrence and Juniper. Juniper is an organization based out of Redwood City in the Bay Area around San Francisco. And it’s a Buddhist organization based around the teaching of Segyu Rinpoche, who is a Brazilian-born teacher in the Tibetan tradition. And for the Tibetan Buddhist Geeks out there, he’s head of the Segyu lineage which is part of the Gelug School. Now Lawrence we’re looking forward to talking a lot more about Juniper’s work and its future. I heard that it’s just 10 years old just recently this last week.
Lawrence: That’s right. It was 10 years ago last Monday that we officially started what became Juniper.
Rohan: Brilliant. So we look forward to getting into that. But as well as your work with Juniper you’ve had an extraordinary career in business. I see that, like myself, you were born in London but moved to the US as a teenager and started a career in law.
Lawrence: That’s right.
Rohan: Is that right? And my understanding is that you started to practice more with technology companies and became more involved in the Silicon Valley scene during the 80s.
Lawrence: That’s right. In 1985, I moved out to Silicon Valley with my wife and our baby and I got started at one of the prominent technology law firms out here doing technology transactions for all kinds of startup companies. So it was a really good time to be practicing law out here actually.
Rohan: I guess from a historical perspective, the company that you became involved with which in a way has touched; I guess I was thinking about this earlier today, that you ended up working for Pixar, which is a company that’s probably touched the lives of every Buddhist Geeks listener in its time. So is it true that you were personally head hunted by Steve Jobs to join Pixar?
Lawrence: Yes, it is true actually. I was [inaudible] of Pixar. I had left my career as a lawyer and had gone to work actually for one of my clients, which was Electronics for Imaging which was a startup that is still around actually. But in the late 80s it was a startup company and that’s where I kind of cut my teeth in actually doing startups. And I had been there for several years and was thinking about what I might consider doing next. And around that time frame, my phone rang and I picked up the phone and it was Steve Jobs at the other end of the line. And he said that he’d seen my picture in the magazine one time and he’d heard about me and he thought that one day we would work together. And he was calling me to talk about this little company that he had that was called Pixar.
Rohan: So when you eventually joined, the Pixar you joined at that time was quite different to the one that we know now obviously.
Lawrence: Absolutely it was. In fact, it’s very interesting. At that time, the world actually didn’t conceive of Pixar as an entertainment company. It was known as a really cool graphics technology company that made this rendering software that did this really neat animation, but didn’t have a reputation at all as an entertainment or even a production company. And so when I went there in 1994, which was before the original Toy Story came out, my task was to figure out what it would take to turn Pixar into a viable growing company. And that’s what I spent my first year doing.
It came as, I wouldn’t say a surprise, but when it turned out that the strategic path for Pixar was going to involve entertainment, it was a little bit sort of a wake up call because none of us at the time that were running Pixar, we didn’t know the entertainment business. Steve and myself had kind of grown up in Silicon Valley. We knew software and hardware and semi-conductors and that whole world. So we literally had to learn that business and so we spent a lot of time doing that.
Rohan: Great. So you left Pixar in 2000. Was that after Toy Story 2? I’m trying to remember when those came out.
Lawrence: It was later than that. I think several of the first films had come out. And so I left at a time, yeah, Pixar was well on its way by the time I left. And I stayed on the board. So I actually was with the company all the way until the sale to Disney, but I did give up my day to day responsibilities there in 2000.
Rohan: Can I ask a little bit your short of spiritual interest at that time–how did you end co-founding a Buddhist organization? Was Buddhism something that was part of your life during your working time or did it come after you left the operation work at Pixar?
Lawrence: I would say that formally it came afterward. But I suddenly had a deep pulse that was very interested in that subject area. I had sort of studied all manner of religion and philosophy just privately on my own for some time. And I felt that there was something deep and important to explore there and something that would take me beyond the life that I had had. And I just had this strong momentum to go and see what that was. And a window of opportunity opened up around the year 2000, more because Pixar was in a really stable place.
And the plan that we had put in place several years ago was being executed upon and the right people in place were to do it, so I felt that I could leave, the company would be in great standing, and then I could go and explore this thing that I was interested in. So that’s what I did. I literally took off and I spent the first year, I thought it maybe a sabbatical for a couple of years or something like that. And I would say after that though I sort of quickly gravitated toward Buddhist philosophy and thinking.
Rohan: Were you looking at lots of other school or just reading widely and exploring?
Lawrence: I read widely in terms of religion and philosophy both eastern and western. But I would say I had this kind of natural drawing if you will to perhaps the eastern mystical traditions or the eastern philosophical traditions and then that gravitated quickly toward Buddhism. So it didn’t take me long to sort of find that as a path that I wanted to go deeply into. And I knew and I felt at the time that, one, it was okay to explore widely and learn a lot and I gained a lot from that. That the benefits that I understood would be available from engaging a path like this required sort of taking a deep dive into one area rather than just staying on the surface. So I knew eventually I would do that.
Rohan: Was it around that time that you met Segyu Rinpoche?
Lawrence: It was actually. I had been working with a really well-known yoga scholar who was a great writer on Indian philosophy and yoga philosophy. And he had been studying with Segyu Rinpoche and he introduced us and introduced both my wife Hillary and myself actually to Segyu Rinpoche at the same time. And at that time Rinpoche was in Sebastopol, California and he has this wonderful sort of Tibetan Buddhist temple there for lack of a better word. And so we started to go up there pretty quickly and pretty regularly to study and learn with him.
Rohan: What was it that attracted you to him? Was it the introduction and just wanting to get deeper into one particular path and just the circumstances came at the right time?
Lawrence: Yeah. That’s a good question. You know, I think it wasn’t as though you know we met him sort of light bulbs went off or anything like that. But there was something about him that–he’s very warm. He’s very engaging. He kind of has a way of relating with every person no matter who you are. And so there was something about being with him that was both easy and comfortable. And we had a sense that this was the real thing. Even though he was practicing in a fairly traditional Tibetan way, he, himself, sort of was almost beyond that. He was teaching in a way that was really reaching people. And so it was just natural almost. It was easy.
Rohan: If that was 12 years ago that you started practicing with him, and only 10 years ago that you founded the organization, it was obviously quite quickly you decided you wanted to get involved in a new structure around his teaching or working with him–and so what was that initial process like not only being a student and learning very quickly I’m sure, but also the sort of more administrative organization side of things? Because that’s quite a different thing.
Lawrence: That’s true. Well I mean that’s something that we began to understand that he, on the one hand, had this really strong momentum and interest to help westerners, you know, people of modern sensibility understand this sort of esoteric body of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. So he had a strong drive to do that.
And we on outside, and I speak for myself and the other co-founders of Juniper as well, felt that the Tibetan dimension of it could be frustrating because it was so culturally difficult and foreign for us. So it felt too far away, in a way, and so we had a momentum to kind of–how do we bring this closer to us? How do we make this more accessible to us? So it turned out that Rinpoche and his students had the same drive, same interest. How to take the core of this, the heart of this, and make it more accessible for western people?
I mean Rinpoche’s experience at that time was extraordinary. I mean he had started for the better part of 20 or 25 years with some of Tibetan Buddhism’s finest masters. And they have recognized him as a reincarnate lama, this really high Vajrayana lineage. The [inaudible] was about as prestigious as it could possibly be in Tibetan Buddhist circles, and he had been named the reincarnation of that lineage. So because of that he had unbelievable access to teachers and teaching.
And he took it upon himself, I think he saw his mission for the better of I’m going to say for 25 years, as gathering all of those teachings in authentic way. I mean you should see his library. It’s incredible! He really has probably one of greatest collections of their text and teachings and study with a teacher. So he had a tremendous amount to offer. The question is how are we going to bridge that gap that he had gained and what we wanted to do.
Rohan: So I guess in a way given how you co-founded the organization fairly early into your training with him, in a way you were designing your training with the teacher. I’m just interpreting. I’m trying to imagine myself in that situation where you’re very much focused on making the teachings more accessible. But also that’s very much accessible for you as well as for others. Am I right?
Lawrence: You’re right. Had I only known at that time however. My experience in Silicon Valley you know, what I learned in Silicon Valley is that going into startups requires a certain amount of naivety. If you really truly understood all the risks going in then Silicon Valley would still be cherry trees and apricot orchards because very few startups I think would get going. And for me this was kind of like that. Although, I would say it wasn’t like that for Segyu Rinpoche.
I think Segyu Rinpoche always understood precisely what it was he was getting into and what needed to be done. But for the rest of us it was definitely part how can we make these teachings accessible. The part that perhaps we didn’t get as strongly is that at least half of that process was going to be our own training in it. And that over time unfolded as Juniper got going.
But Juniper actually got going by five of us getting together and talking to Segyu Rinpoche and saying look if we want to take on a problem like this, we have to sit down and sort of analyze it. What is it that needs to be done? And so in the classic Silicon Valley style, we set up a room here in Palo Alto, California. We filled the room with white boards, and on January 14, 2003, we met there and we met for one month. And we went through in that month every single day, it was like a working…
Rohan: Continuously for a month?
Lawrence: Continuously. I mean we met continuously for a month. And we just filled white board after white board after white board examining the problem that we were looking at. Examining questions like what were the challenges of dharma centers in the west? What are the cultural differences between east and west? If you were to try to make a spiritual tradition like a Buddhist path, if you were to give that roots in modern culture, how would you know you had succeeded? What would be the measures you would look at in 20 years, 50 years or 100 years to know?
So we mapped all this out and then we wrote it down or we filled out these white boards. We took pictures of all the white boards, printed it up, bound it in a little binder and then one day came at the end of that month and I said to Rinpoche looking at the scope of the task that we had mapped out. I said this is going to take 500 years. It really looked daunting. And he said no. It will just take 100 years. So put one foot in front of the other and keep going.
And essentially that’s what happened. We spent the next six years doing the development work that we had mapped out in that first month, and then launched Juniper in 2009 with the results of that work. And it was collected in a body of work that we published on our website and essentially that process just keeps going.
Rohan: So lead under the writing that’s online and you’re doing all that through the six year process really?
Lawrence: That’s right. That’s right. I mean if you look for example, if you look online, we have a work that’s called Awakening the Mind. It’s pretty short. It’s maybe 20-25 pages long. And it’s our vision for what this part is and can be and should be in modern culture. You could say it took six years to write those 20 pages. But Awakening the Mind is kind of a blue print for this entire path. It’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg. And underneath that paper we have all manner of work and methods and meditations that bring to life the content that’s in there. And so it’s our task to gradually teach that to people so that they can practice it. But you could read that Awakening of the Mind and know what this is all about.
Rohan: I must say that I really appreciate the writing and just the very straightforwardness in which the content was presented. A, I find it unusual to find a Buddhist website where I like the font.
Rohan: I was like whoever designed this understands topography. That never happens.
Lawrence: I will tell you something. Although, we had a wonderful designer in San Francisco that actually did the design work. But the person that actually came up with the idea for the design was Steve Jobs.
Rohan: Really. How did that happen?
Lawrence: Well he and I remained closed friends even after I left Pixar and throughout his illness and the like. He was following the work that I was doing. And I was showing him these ideas that we were having for the look that we want, the look, the sensitivity, the aesthetic that we wanted to put around it. And Steve as you can imagine is very dismissive and very opinionated on this. But of course he had some of the best opinions that were on the world on it.
He basically said look all you really need for this is a beautiful, comfortable color palette and some beautiful topography. You don’t need to clutter this with imagery and the like. And there was something that we didn’t want to do anyways. So we actually resonated very strongly with that. So, that was the gremlin of the idea that we then took to our designer who designed what you see as Juniper. So it’s actually all quite deliberate.
Rohan: How has your background with big business, and obviously notably through Pixar, influenced or been relevant in the Juniper startup as I might call it now? Cause they’re radically different scales of organization. So has there been stuff you’ve learned has translated of course or has it been learning again for you?
Lawrence: Both. Definitely both. I think that I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do this work had I not had the start up experience in Silicon Valley where I learned that–you know, we hear a lot about overnight successes and it does sometimes happen. But most startups, most great companies, great organizations, are the products of long periods of gestation. You know I learned that certainly through my experience at Pixar, which had just stated for a very long time, you know going back to the early 1980s and Toy Story comes out in 1995. There’s a long period of gestation. It’s not the only company that required that kind of time to really discover and learn to become what it was. So understanding that really helped me with this.
You know I think that at the end of the day, Juniper wants to bring effectiveness to these methods in our life, in modern life. And so the understanding of what that life is from having lived it before has been very helpful to me. On the other hand, this is a spiritual path and in that sense, in that dimension, it is different. It is not corporate. It is definitely is to take us beyond that to almost, to sort of find a different way of being, a different way of living. And on that dimension, you know, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a tremendous amount. And I’ve changed myself and challenged myself through studying with Segyu Rinpoche and doing Juniper’s work in many ways.
Rohan: Can I ask a slightly tangential question? I think Segyu Rinpoche’s background is that he’s Brazilian by birth, which for me is I’ve not heard of many people heavily involved in Buddhist teaching from South America. Normally when we talked about American Buddhism it’s from Florida upwards.
Rohan: And I see from your site that you’ve done some work in South America. Into that having known nothing about it, what’s the appetite and interest for Buddhism in South America like based on your experience of that.
Lawrence: Before I answer that let me just make one comment. We actually don’t refer to what we do as American Buddhism.
Rohan: No, I wouldn’t say.
Lawrence: And this is very deliberate. If you look at our website it says “Juniper: Buddhist Training for Modern Life”. Nowhere do we say this is western Buddhism or American Buddhism or contemporary Buddhism. Because our take on this is that it’s pure Buddhism. Now there are many versions of that of course in different cultures and different times. But whenever it takes its form in a new culture it’s Buddhism. Anyway that’s an aside.
I think that there’s a lot of interest in Rinpoche’s work in South America and Argentina actually. So he goes there teaching quite regularly. So my own view has become that there’s a lot of interest in this everywhere because of what it offers. And I think almost wherever he goes wherever we go, we find great interest. There’s kind of a yearning if you will for understanding what this is. So that maybe a little broad but I think there’s a lot of interest. He’s certainly become pretty popular down there.
Rohan: If you were to do another month long session in an office somewhere with white boards this year, what kind of things would be coming up that would be coming up that are different where Juniper wants to go in the future?
Lawrence: If we were to do a month long session it would now be focused on what it will take to bring this to more people. And so the first session was about in a sense the content, the development, what movie are we making here. And this session would be okay we’ve made this movie, now how do we show it to more people. Because when people find it, they generally will say hey they like the movie or at least they’re interested in it. And so the next phase would be how do we get this in more movie theaters. So that’s a different class of problem in a way.
Rohan: So could you say a little bit more about, we’ve heard a bit how Juniper was set up, but a little bit more about Juniper’s approach to Buddhism or what’s distinctive about its teaching?
Lawrence: Yes, absolutely. So I would say that looking back when we started 10 years ago if I look at what we set out to do, we looked at what is it going to take to do this. There were essentially three parts to that. One is that the first part of that is that we need a path in order to grow inwardly. We need something. And what we find in the west is there’s this tendency to be on sort of one of two ends.
One I would call sort of classic religion, traditional religion. Although of course traditional religion is still huge, it is under some siege in the west. And just last week I was hearing national public radio doing a series on young people losing their religion. And they were interviewing young people, and for all the sort of obvious reasons they were saying that they have abandoned their sort of childhood faith and this and that. But certainly religion there is an option but it has its issues.
Another side of that is to have nothing at all. So we swing from religion, a totally theistic view of the world, to the other extreme atheism, we will abandon any notions of religion or even spiritually at all.
And I think what we felt was that though there was something in the middle here that’s really important, you don’t have to be in one of those two places to have, you know, there’s a place in the middle where you can have this profound inner transformation in life. But we need a path to do that. And that’s where all the work went to bring these Buddhist methods and then we put it into the Awakening the Mind which has kind of these four building blocks of this path that we called meditation, balancing emotions, cultivating compassion, developing wisdom and some other aspects as well. So that was part of what it would take was to create that kind of path.
The second part is what I would call context or connection, which means that to us it’s very important to be part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s important to be part of a school, a lineage, a tradition, something that we can say that we are bolted into a source of wisdom and insight. So that I can even sit here with you and it’s not just me sort of sharing my own particular opinions about what’s spiritual or what’s good or what’s wrong. It’s mainly in the context of a tradition or a lineage that I have trained in for a long time. And the authenticity that comes with that is really important to us and we spend a lot of time honing and cultivating that.
Rohan: I think that’s really interesting cause lineage is often something that’s not spoke about so much nowadays. And so it’s refreshing to hear some, a relatively new organization, really making that front and center.
Lawrence: We do and I’ll tell you a funny story that illustrates what we mean by it. I was actually teaching a meditation a few weeks ago and a little boy came in with his family. So he must have been seven years old but a little boy was there and I was talking about this subject. And I was thinking gosh how am I going to make this relevant to a 7-year-old. So then I said well have you seen Finding Nemo, you know, the Pixar film Finding Nemo.
And of course he had. So I said okay. So remember when the two little fish they need to get from one side of the ocean over to the other side of the ocean really quickly and is way too far for them to swim. So what they end up doing is they go into this wormhole in the ocean where the turtles are swimming. This is one of, maybe the most, famous scenes in the whole movie.
Rohan: Sure, yeah, I remember.
Lawrence: It’s the turtle scene where the two little fish grab on to the turtles and boy did they move fast. Well that kind of worm hole in the ocean that’s lineage. Because that’s a force that you can connect into that will propel you really far, further than you can do if you we were swimming by yourself. So all we have to do is like get into that path, grab hold of the turtle, and hold on and take that ride. So anyway that was my metaphor for lineage. So that was the second part. We need a path. We need this connection or context that we call school or lineage or whatever we want to call it.
And the third part is the accessibility. And the accessibility to these teachings and methods require a balancing act. On the one hand for example, we have this great allure in the west, the kind of like eastern mysticism and this kind of thing. And the challenge can be is that when it’s too exotic, if it’s too far away from us, it stays on the plane of just being an allure. Something that we admire from a far but we don’t really know how to make it part of us. So we can’t be too exotic. And on the other hand, we need a language and a structure and a teaching that’s consistent with our own knowledge and profile.
So we need sort of spiritual teachings, a spiritual way of life that is not an affront to what we’re learning in science and other things that can work hand in hand with it. That is not an affront to our social norms like equality and equal rights for women, equal rights same sex marriage and all of that. It has to blend and fit with who we are, because this is a path to make us the very best that we can be in our world right here where we’re sitting.
So our feeling has been if we can bring those three things together: a path, a connection and a context through a school or a lineage, and the right level of accessibility, then individuals will be able to grab hold of this and take it and grow. So those are the sort of the big picture of how we look at what it is we do.