“Are some Buddhist magazines behind the times?”

Are some Buddhist magazines behind the times? That’s the question, posed by James of The Buddhist Blog. Rod Meade Sperry answers him.

Rod Meade Sperry
8 December 2009

James has plenty to say, but I’d like to address just a bit of it for now. He writes:

Lately there has been a lot of tension between Buddhist magazines and the online Buddhist community. These magazines sadly are missing the point behind the rise of the Buddhoblogosphere. It being a representation of how popular Buddhism is becoming in America but more importantly with how it’s becoming popular with others besides the traditional American Buddhist core – rich, white academics on the two coasts.

There’s no need to speak for the “other” Buddhist magazines here; they too are staffed with people who work very hard to publish for the dharma-world for the sake of the dharma-world. When that’s your mission, you’d better not be in it for the money, because it won’t ever be about that. And we know that our peers most certainly are in it for the love of it. I can only talk about what we do here at the Lion’s Roar Foundation. Whether we’re behind the times or not will remain up to you.

And that’s precisely the point.

Most magazines, newspapers, and their websites are, in fact, “behind the times.” The predicted “death of print” that media pundits write about is all but a forgone conclusion, and in this financial climate, everyone’s scrambling to figure out how not to be left behind permanently.

Now, I’m a magazine freak. I love magazines – the design, the touch and feel, the tangibility – and it almost hurts to see so many of them dropping out of the game. But you can’t deny the web, which is so vital, so downright thrilling, because of the back-and-forth it engenders. Only via the web can a writer like James of The Buddhist Blog publish a commentary like the one quoted above, start a discussion, and only via the web can we, with a click, point you to that commentary so that we might all further the original discussion. Yes, there’s mudslinging on the web. But there’s mudslinging to be found just about anywhere offline, too. Our job – yours, and ours – is to get beyond that, have real healthy discussion, and to mindfully and compassionately get together to make everything – our magazines, our community, the web, the world – better.

Once the mud’s been wiped away, one thing can be seen clearly: everything that the Shambhala Sun (or any Buddhist magazine or entity) does can only be made better by – if you’ll excuse the motivational poster-speak – embracing diversity. Without dialogue and different points of view, there is no progress. For example, James made another point on The Buddhist Blog:

[…] many (not all) in the American Buddhist establishment do NOT […] like to be questioned, debated or challenged.

He is, of course, right. Many people everywhere would rather not be questioned, preferring instead to just believe that their intuition about how to do what they do will automatically garner positive results. But the path of least resistance doesn’t always lead to where we know we should be heading.

As James goes on to say:

[…] many of these magazines aren’t getting the average man’s point of view on Buddhist practice. I’m not saying one way of learning is better than another but I just wish that the elitists didn’t look down their nose at those of us who respond well to online interactions.

It’s sad to me that James (and others) would be moved to make such statements, for three reasons.

First: because I don’t want to hear of anyone feeling that way. I grew up an “outsider” type of kid – all for the underdog, and suspicious of authority. In this way (among others), I haven’t grown up a bit. So when folks like James wonder aloud if their voices and priorities aren’t being heard, up go my shackles, bringing with them both sympathy and empathy. Especially if they’re part of this community that I so love, as James most certainly is.

Second: because I can’t think of one of our colleagues or peers who personally holds such an attitude. Though I’ve only been the Shambhala Sun Foundation’s editor of Web Publications for just shy of a year, I previously worked at a Buddhist publisher and dealt with all kinds of magazine staffers. There was a palpable camaraderie in most of my dealings with them, and certainly with those of the Buddhist magazines. Which is just to say that any of us might go wrong here and there, but, from all I’ve seen, Right Intention and Right Motivation are always largely at play.

Third: because the Buddhist blogosphere RULES. In a Buddhadharma forum on Next-Generation Buddhism, published before I was on the Shambhala Sun Foundation staff, I said the following: “[The web is] an incredible gift of skillful means. It allows people to contribute in the way that they can contribute. We see so many new blogs and websites that are not run by teachers. They’re run by practitioners; they’re run by young people who want to talk about dharma, to be part of it.” I meant it then, and I mean it just as much now. (Though there are certainly Buddhist bloggers of all ages, and that’s a great thing, too.) When I first launched TheWorstHorse.com, I did it because I saw an absence of online dialogue that spoke to the realities of non-“establishment” Buddhists. There is in fact so much diversity in the Buddhist blogosphere now that it’s hard to keep up with everyone! That’s a nice problem to have.

The Buddhist blogosphere reminds me of another aspect of my younger years, that of the “zine revolution.” Zines – self-published, often hand-assembled “magazines” made in very limited quantities — were the predecessors of the web, allowing people to find a niche of like-minded people, no matter how small, and to publish to and with them. The result was more than a feeling of community; it was community itself. Cruising through the Buddhist blogs, seeing all the empowered practitioners who pour their hearts and minds onto our monitors, I get that same feeling, and it’s beautiful.

And that makes a post like James’s a bit bittersweet: Such a commentary may not be what exactly what we at the Buddhist magazines would most like to hear, but to be ungrateful for it would be missing the point entirely. We’re here not just to teach you, but to learn from you, to reflect your concerns. The community we share with you depends on it.

Are some of us behind the times? Maybe. But we won’t know unless you speak up. So keep those blogs coming, folks.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.