Thursday, December 3, 2009

Buddhist Magazine Bashing: A Take on The Latest Shambala Sun

Well, thanks to Marcusagain for posing some questions that allowed me to dig a little more into what I was writing about. I've kind of come to think of Marcus as the persistent uncle who cares enough about what you're talking about to question it.

So here's one of Marcus's responses I'd like to address:
"I'm not entirely sure what you are asking for from these magazines? There has been a lot of Buddhist magazine-bashing on the blogs recently and most of it is, in my opinion, misdirected."

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.

Marcus highlights the following from the current issue of Shambala Sun:

I've just clicked over to the Shambala Sun website...

... and the lead article is by Susan Piver and is about heartbreak.

A little lower down the page there are links to articles on the Dharma in prisons and Zen teacher John Tarrant and others on guidelines for taking advantage of life's crises and surprises.

Steve Flowers, drawing from his experiences bullied as a child, talks about overcoming chronic shyness and anxiety, and there are articles on divorce, the personal experiences of younger Buddhists, and so on and so on.

All excellent articles, and I'm in the middle of the article about the 17th Karmapa, which is completely fascinating. What's so refreshing about this current issue is how many younger practitioners are represented, something rarely seen in most Buddhist publications "in the West." I hope this trend continues.

However, one of the articles by a younger practitioner, Lily Koppel, comes off as the kind of soft, somewhat fluffy stuff I was talking about yesterday. She writes about a reunion she had with four childhood friends. One of her friends is Buddhist. Another is Jewish. But the other two friends profiled barely mention spiritual paths, and neither does Koppel, who I'm pretty sure has an interest in Buddhism. The article's subtitle suggests it is an exploration of "the spiritual quest of a generation," but frankly it feels more like an opportunity for Koppel to profile her friends lives in a major magazine. Sure, her friends are interesting people, but it fails to really hold up as an exploration of "the spiritual quest."

Just before Koppel's piece, in much less print, are profiles of six young, absolutely fascinating Buddhist practitioners who are engaging the dharma in dynamic ways. They each get about two thirds of a page; Koppel's article gets five. The other way around would have been much more valuable in my opinion.

The decision to give her "reunion" piece so much more attention than the biographies of the six young practitioners is curious to me. Maybe I'm missing something when it comes to the Koppel article, but it seems to me that in-depth interviews with 20 and 30 something Buddhists, who are engaged in everything from being a Buddhist priest to environmental activism, would be much more valuable than a loosely linked collection of friends sketches. I cannot help but think that Koppel got this opportunity because she is the author of a current best selling memoir that has a Buddhist thread to it.

My point in all of this isn't to sit and bash Buddhist magazines; that's entirely too easy and not very helpful. What I'm trying to get at is the influence of profits and "feel-good" spirituality, and how it's important for all of us serious about living "the spiritual life," in whatever form that may take, to develop a radar for the garbage that masquerades as deep teaching.


Theresa said...

This sounds like a good letter to write to the Shambhala Sun editor.

I subscribe to SS as well (for the past 2 years or so) and find it to be informative for someone like me who is new to Buddhist ideas. I tend to consider magazines of any sort to be a starting point or stepping stone into a topic, giving me ideas about what to pursue on my own in a deeper way. For me, Shambhala Sun serves this purpose very well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

Wow. I certainly didn't expect - and am very glad to have got - such a full and fascinating reply to my comment! Thank you!

I love your conclusion...

"it's important for all of us serious about living "the spiritual life," in whatever form that may take, to develop a radar for the garbage that masquerades as deep teaching"

... and agree with it completely. In that sense, along with the example you use to support it, in fact, you've entirely convinced me that your original post (the one I responded to yesterday) and this one is spot-on and you're totally right to raise these issues.

And I do hope that magazines like Shambala Sun will be able to respond to people like yourself who want less fluff and more serious articles.

However, I suspect that for many people the lighter articles, the sugary stuff, the feel-good stuff, is exactly what's needed. It's also, I imagine, what gets most readers picking the magazine up from the shop. So there will always - rightly - be a place for the sugar in these publications.

But you are right, perhaps what's needed is simply a more balanced diet - and you are right (I see) to point that out.

Thank you Nathan for responding to my comment with a real example, and in such a way that has clarified the issues for me.

With palms together,


Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

Thanks Nathan, for a thought provoking post. Personally, I prefer to go straight to original teachings, or interpretations of teachings from well known contemporary teachers. I also read blogs from other Buddhist practitioners whom I respect.

Magazines such as Tricycle and Shambala cater to a larger audience, including people new to Buddhism, or who may have a vague interest, but have not yet tasted the Dharma brew. I can see why those magazines would want to include 'soft' articles such as one you described, that may play an important role in bringing in some folks on the fringe still.

I can remember when I was at the periphery of Buddhism, and still sampling around. You never know which seed will take. It may not be tales from hard core young Buddhists . . . Which is why a wide range of stories, from soft to hard core Buddhism, can be of great value to larger audience.

Deep bow,


Algernon said...

In the past I've subscribed to Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. Currently, I do not, but it's mainly because my budget is tight and I can only read so many magazines. For Buddhist instruction, I have access to teachers, sangha, and easily obtainable books (the latter, often, at no cost, thanks to Zen Center libraries).

The magazines have little choice but to function as business entities in order to survive, and so they are playing a balancing act -- commodifying in order to generate subscriptions, purchases, and advertising revenue, without selling out the non-commercial message.

The additional danger is to flatter our opinions about the dharma and feed our self-satisfaction, rather than inspire and challenge us to ease up on our opinions.

It comes down to, what helps people practice? Different people surely respond to different messages and material. What does not help is "vicarious practice" through magazine articles -- a potential pitfall of almost any decent Buddhist publication.

DB said...

I totally agree on the Tricycle = sugary comment. It actually makes my teeth hurt some months.

Nathan said...

Hi Everyone,

Thanks for the excellent comments. I definitely agree that there's a place for "softer" material in these publications, and that maybe that kind of stuff will be the entry point for some people. I think Shambala Sun does a pretty good job overall of doing the balancing act. They seem receptive, as does Buddhadharma, to suggestions and even critiques from their readers. To me, that's the most important thing, that the leaders of a publication are respectful of their readers and the communities they claim to represent.