Sunday, September 5, 2010

Buddhist Magazine Wars Revisited

Last December, there was a lot of heated commentary about the ways in which Buddhism are portrayed in the prominent magazines Tricycle, Shambala Sun, and Buddhadharma. I wrote a few posts, made a lot of comments, and even ended up getting an offer to write an article about blogging for Tricycle. It was a heady time, full of considerations about a wide range of questions. How do these magazines represent Asian-American and Asian-Canadian practitioners? Are they covering online Buddhism in it's many forms or are they dismissive? Do they provide a wealth of teachings for practitioners and interested folks, or are they offering mostly a watered down, commericalized view of Buddhism in North America? Those are just a few of the many questions people raised during that time?

Given some distance from those conversations, I can see that much of this has to do with two interconnected questions:

1. What does dharma practice really look like in North America?

2. How will dharma practice be represented to the general public?

In a post I wrote mostly about an issue of Shambala Sun, I offered this:

I agree that there has been a lot of commentary on Buddhist magazines lately. Some of it has been driven by angst and other misguided frustrations, but there have also been many important critiques of the publications that, for better or worse, often represent us in, at the very least, North America. Obviously, much of this has been focused on Tricycle magazine, but there have been questions, for example, about the lack of representation of Asian-American Buddhists, and the forms of Buddhism that are predominantly Asian-American in membership, which go beyond the current focus on Tricycle.

Marcus highlighted some of the wonderful articles in the current issue of Shambala Sun. I have been a subscriber of this magazine for about three years now and, before that, read it in bookstores and occasionally even purchased it. In other words, I think it's a quality magazine in many respects. However, the point I made in yesterday's post about sugary spirituality can even be applied to Shambala Sun. As I said before, it's not that the magazine has no substance - it has a lot - it's that the editors seem, for some reason, to be compelled to publish some "soft" stuff to either soothe the readers, sell more copies, or both.

Much of what I wrote then I'd still say today, although after another year of Shambala Sun, I have dropped my subscription because the "soft" feels more prevalent than in the past.

But let's look at the representation issue a little deeper. Back in December, some people argued that it's ridiculous to expect magazines to be fully representative of Buddhism, and that, as magazines, they have to do what's necessary to make enough money to survive. Having sat on this for several months now, I think these are fair comments when looking at the magazines in and of themselves. However, I have come to believe that the burst of conflict that arose over the "Big Three" magazines last winter really wasn't about magazines - it was about the transmission of the dharma to the next generation. This group is not just younger practitioners, but also middle aged and older ones who haven't already discovered Buddhism.

One of the interesting things about those magazine wars is the underlying assumptions that such publications are a main entry gate for newcomers, and also a main source of information about practice to outsiders. I have to say that both of these views seem faulty. Reading about Buddhism as a entry point is perhaps commonplace amongst the middle/upper class, college educated, predominantly white convert practitioners. However, even amongst this group, which includes myself, I have heard of many other entry points that have nothing to do with books or magazines. And when I hear people say they "read their way into Buddhism," what they read is almost always books by another "Big Three": Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Pema Chodron.

Let's look at the second assumption: representation to the general public. Last winter and spring, the downfall of golfer Tiger Woods thrust Buddhism into the media spotlight. Beginning with these comments by Fox News commentator Brit Hume, there was a cycling of news articles, TV interviews, and commentaries about Buddhism in America. And if you look at where the writers of these articles got their info about Buddhism, it's all over the place: everywhere from the Pali Canon to evangelical Christian websites. Certainly, the "big three" magazines were probably consulted by some of these media folks, but my guess is that their impact on how these people viewed Buddhism in America was rather minimal. In other words, with the fairly easy availability of the internet, as well as the spread of a diverse array of Buddhist institutions across the continent, print magazines aren't the powerful influence they once may have been.

So, I think the debate about these magazines, and other Buddhist media, is primarily an inside job, even if some outsider views are impacted in the process.

I would love to see other bloggers take up "Buddhist media" in general (online and in print), and perhaps magazines in particular because even with the comments I have just made, I do think there are important issues that need to be considered. Collectively, online and in print media will have a strong impact, for better or worse, on how Buddhism is transmitted to the next generation.

* Image - Donald Rumsfeld reveals to the world that poor eyesight prevents him from both reading Tricycle Review and seeing warfare clearly.


spldbch said...

I think that the magazines you mentioned cater to certain audiences, namely those that the publishers know will purchase and/or subscribe to their magazines. While certainly they are a means of transmitting information about Buddhism they are also business enterprises and as such have to worry about making money.

What ever happened to that article you were writing about blogging? Did it get published in the magazine?

Nathan said...

The article has been rejected twice now. There are actually three versions of it, as I had a lot of material. I'm still looking for a home for at least one of the three articles.

Mumon said...

I am pretty much at peace w/ " the Western Buddhist media." They do not write what I write and that is to be expected. I also expect as much in the Buddhist blogosphere. Buddhism can handle us all.

T_Y said...

hmmm, I agree, there has tended to be some sugary watering down going on for a long time now. I think I can only see it as part of the overall degeneration of the Dharma. But like you say, there are so many others ways for people to gain information and be connected.

kevin said...

I agree with Mumon. I never really got into the magazines because I found them too fluffy and a little culturally alien.

I don't know if my familiarity with Japanese culture made embracing zen easier than other forms, but the magazines do seem to cater to readers of the big three authors as you put it.

I did get my start reading Pema Chodron, but only because the titles of her books fit where I was in my life at the time. While I used to be interested in reading works by the other two, the Dalai Lama in particular, I don't have any interest now.

Until they go out of business for lack or readership, the magazines definitely have a place in the world, but to me they really seem to be preaching to the choir. Which is kind of funny since my girlfriend always asks me "if zen is all about just sitting, why do you keep reading all those books?"

But like Mumon said, I think its a fight that doesn't need to be fought. Buddhism is what it is to me and I will seek it in like places.

(I'm also still curious to see that article some time)


Shiva said...

Yes, Hi, I have watched my spiritual school allow unethical people to run the school because they were wealthy.

Shiva said...

We ran into a problem, not with magazines so much, but that people of great wealth took over our school, and it is hard when to run a spiritual place, when you need money. You are right, though, the magazines have these same problems.

roseanne said...

hello there ~ i just discovered your blog while trotting around the buddhist blog community (unfamiliar territory for me, as i am a yoga blogger and i tend to hang out in that world).

i find this post very interesting because there have been similar conversations happening within the yoga community lately. it's been focused on the use of nudity in yoga product advertising featured in major yoga publications, but at the root are similar concerns: how are the teachings of yoga being transmitted?

as with buddhist media, there is some confusion about whom yoga publications serve: committed practioners, or those who are just curious.

i've been keeping my eye on the buddhist "big three" for a few years, and while i agree that some of it is quite fluffy, in general i see more in-depth writing and thought-provoking articles in buddhist media that yoga media. i also see a more ethical presentation of the practice, with much more integrity and intelligence.

thanks for this thoughtful post, and it's helped me put my own community into perspective..

Nathan said...

Hi Roseanne,

I'm both a zen student and yoga practitioner, and have written a bit about those yoga magazine discussions myself. I think you're right that putting yoga mags side by side with the big three Buddhist mags, there's more of depth in the Buddhist mags at this point.

Thanks for stopping by.