From Yoga Journal, December 2003 - Karma Yoga Awards
Blending Insight with Action: James Winkler / Amicus Foundation

James Winkler’s day job affords him abundant opportunities to serve others, but he doesn’t feel that they are enough. “Although I help people at the clinic all day, I can still have a lousy day if I’m overly focused on myself,” says Winkler, a 48-year-old PA who owns and runs Hale Lea Medicine, a family-practice clinic on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. So Winkler does seva (service)—which, in his case, means directing the Amicus Foundation, a six-year-old nonprofit he founded.

Amicus, which has no paid staff and which Winkler and a few others have funded so far, sponsors a series of projects in several countries. Some of these projects help preserve the cultural traditions of the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan; the group also works to improve the educational prospects of some of the country’s disadvantaged youth. Its projects include building schools, community centers, and libraries and providing scholarships to young students who are “too poor to afford an education,” Winkler says.

The foundation also sponsors the Bhutan Women’s Project, which is rebuilding a former retreat center for a group of women who have devoted themselves to selfless service in the form of conflict resolution, grief counseling, hospice work, and even tilling the fields for pregnant women who are unable to work them. Rebuilding the retreat center, Winkler says, not only will re-create a long-lost sanctuary but will encourage hundreds of other Bhutanese women to take up this work and practice. Another Amicus project is the Simtokha School and Orphanage, where students wear robes but are not ordained monks. “Simtokha combines traditional spiritual education with the three Rs,” Winkler explains. “When the children graduate, they bring the riches of both elements into their communities.”

Winkler didn’t start out looking to distant lands—or even to the needs of others—for inspiration. A New York native, he lived in Los Angeles in his 20s and made his living as a pianist in the combos of some well-known jazz artists. To many, that would seem to be a dream career, but Winkler felt that something was missing. “In retrospect,” he says, “I see that the life I was living was all about myself.” Seeking new horizons, he obtained degrees in clinical nutrition and Chinese medicine before enrolling at the University of Southern California medical school. After completing his training, he had a private practice in the L.A. area for a few years before moving to Hawaii 14 years ago.

At the same time as he was studying these wellness disciplines, he was becoming an avid dharma practitioner. In Los Angeles, he encountered a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher who introduced him to Buddha dharma. Winkler later met his “root teacher,” the high Tibetan Buddhist lama Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche, whom he describes as “one of the last of the authentic Dzogchen masters fully trained in Tibet.” Rinpoche was living in Bhutan, where Winkler visited him many times. The teacher eventually gave the student the name Ugyen Thinley Dorje. “He never told me to start a foundation,” Winkler says, “but in bestowing the name, he simply said, ‘There’s a lot of activity to do.’” (Thinley means “enlightened activity.”) In 1986, Winkler founded the Cloudless Sky Vajrayana Foundation in honor of his teacher. It operated quietly, supporting a few monks and nuns, until about six years ago, when it spawned the Amicus Foundation to work more proactively. “Spiritual practice requires the blending of one’s insight with action,” Winkler says.

For Winkler, service is an essential aspect of life: “Genuine service is really who we are. It’s part of our human DNA. No matter how self-involved or bizarre someone can appear on the outside, if they stop for a moment and help someone, they transform.”

For more information, contact the Amicus Foundation, 4217 Waipua St., Kilauea, HI 96754; (808) 828-2828;

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